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How young adults give

Today’s young adults will give their time and money if they can see it making a difference.

Technology — a way of life: Young adults use the Internet to research charitable organizations and make contributions. Photo by

What does stewardship look like for today’s young adults? In talking with two of them, key themes emerge.

Nicole, 30 years old and fresh out of law school, worked after college as a young adult mission volunteer tutoring at-risk young people in Oakland, Calif. She now lives in Minneapolis because she likes the “vibe” of the Twin Cities area. She hopes to be hired by a firm that sees part of its responsibility as providing legal counsel to underserved populations.

Kyle, 22, has a business degree and works for a national bank’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. In his second year of work, he has been through two cycles of layoffs and one corporate merger, and his plans have changed radically. When he was first hired, he expected to rise quickly in the company and figured on earning a six-figure salary within five years. Now he is just glad he still has a job, although he is not sure how long that will last.

Nicole and Kyle represent the two generations of young adults that follow the baby boom generation. Nicole is in the youngest group of “Generation X,” people who are currently in their late 20s through their mid-40s. Kyle is on the leading edge of the “Millennial” generation, people now in their mid-20s and younger.

Together, these two generations of young people are roughly 50 percent bigger than the baby boomers, and their disposable income already exceeds $300 billion annually. And while they consider themselves to be “spiritual” in near record numbers (most surveys report nearly 90 percent), remarkably few of them participate regularly in faith communities of any kind.

Immersed in technology

The Internet is a way of life for today’s young adults.

The importance of Personal Interaction: As technologically savvy as today’s young adults are, they still find there is no replacement for person-to-person relationships. Photo Courtesy of Communications and Funds Development, PC(USA)

“I keep connected to everyone through Facebook,” Nicole says. “When one of my friends went on a mission trip, she invited us to follow her journey and contribute prayers and money. I sent her a few dollars just to help her out. I ignore any group asking for money, but when a friend writes to me and asks me to help out, I do what I can.”

Kyle says he is less inclined to give money online, but he researches everything. “One of my co-workers, who attends this mega-church, talked about how the pastor asked them to support this ministry for homeless women and children,” he says. “I went online and looked at their mission statement and then looked at this site that rates charitable organizations and discovered that a huge percentage of donations goes to overhead. A lot of the money doesn’t even reach the women and kids themselves. It felt like a scam.”

Kyle says he forwarded the information to his co-worker “so she could see for herself.”

Seeking personal connections

As technologically savvy as these young adults are, they still find there is no substitute for person-to-person relationships. Person-to-person may not be the most efficient way to connect, but it leaves a lasting impression.

“I think it just means more today when a person takes the time to relate to you,” Kyle says. “I have this boss now who I never talk to face-­to-face. I mean, she’s in her office not 10 yards from me and she never comes to my cubicle to talk to me. She always sends email. My last boss always made it a point to check in with us in person. I didn’t realize it then, but it makes a difference.”

Emails, bulletins and “minute-for-mission” appeals are fine for a stewardship campaign in a congregational setting. But young adults may respond more positively to conversations with people they respect or to opportunities to experience the impact of their own giving. Young adults seem willing to give their time to rehab a home or tutor a child because they end up relating to another human being in a meaningful way.

Wanting to make a difference

Making Church more engaging: Young adults often say that they have been betrayed by institutions. The challenge for the church today is to be as ‘un-institutional’ as possible. Photo by

A consistent theme among young adults is their willingness to give time and money when they are sure it makes a difference. They often say they have been betrayed by institutions. The challenge for the church today is to be as “un-institutional” as possible.

“I’m not naive,” says Nicole. “I mean I totally get that institutions have to exist, but you can’t blame us for being skeptical. Institutions are really out for their own survival. If I am going to give my time and money and energy, I want to know I am making a difference somehow. It may sound sort of selfish, but that’s really the bottom line.”

Communication is the key to encouraging young adults to give. Whether the cause is local or global, the reasons for giving must be stated clearly and specifically. If young adults can be invited to participate in decisions about how the gived funds are used, all the better.

There are reasons to be hopeful about the future of stewardship. Young adults will continue to demand accountability and transparency so they can be sure that their giving will actually make a difference. But when they see that their giving is making a difference, they appear to be more than willing to give of their time, their money and their lives.

Rodger Nishioka is the Benton Family Associate Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary. He specializes in research among youth and young adults. This article is adapted from Giving: Growing Joyful Stewards in Your Congregation (2010) with permission from the Ecumenical Stewardship Center.

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  • Right on the money. I've often heard young adults allude to John 3:16 with some disdain: "I know God loves the world, but I want Him to love ME." Young adults really struggle with feeling anonymous, with feeling like an impersonal barcode, so they need to do things that reaffirm their indviduality. It may be that, instead of simply being more transparent about what their money is going toward, we might as a church consider adopting a different stewardship model. Just food for thought. by Brandon on 10/04/2011 at 9:19 a.m.

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