As a dedicated faith formation resource person with a specialization in digital media, I have observed that young adult ministers are asking very different questions from other age-based or lifelong faith formation professionals and volunteers who seek out our center’s guidance. They want to know:
- How can we find new ways of funding our outreach to young adults?
- What is the relationship of campus ministry to young adult ministry?
- What kind of church are we becoming?
The difference is that young adult and campus ministers are always working at the margins of the church, especially in the “oldline” churches (Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics considered together). When you live at the margins, you need to ask questions about how you relate to the center.
Young adult ministry operates on the margins in three distinct ways: demographic, cultural and developmental. At the demographic margins, Millennials are the largest generational cohort in American history. Young adults are everywhere, except, of course, in church. Pew Research reports that only 18 percent of Millennials say they attend religious services “nearly every week” or more as of the late ‘00s.
Religion may well become more important to the Millennials as they age, but slight upward trends do not change the experience of church for the young adults who are currently attending, where the young adult experience can be one of isolation and alienation. It is often difficult to form a “critical mass” for young adult fellowship or programs.
At the cultural margins, there is a disconnect between young adults and the rest of the church: Churches led primarily by Baby Boomers are not responding well to the needs and values of the younger generations, and at the same time, it’s sometimes unclear precisely what young adults are looking for. Although such strategies as ordaining more young adult clergy or placing more young adult leaders on church governance bodies are helpful, they will not by themselves make churches more attractive or responsive to young people.
We need a broad and inclusive conversation about the values each generation brings to what it means to be Christ’s church in the world. Young adult ministries will flourish if the values Millennials bring with them to church find a place to take root.
At the developmental margins, the in-betweenness of young adults is a huge part of why congregations are so flummoxed about them. Churches have long served children, youth, parents, empty-nesters, and elders. But emerging adults are a special kind of moving target, no longer youth but not quite adults.
How can churches meet twenty-somethings where they are developmentally, supporting them in their transitions without condescension? How can the self-focused still contribute in a mutual way in intergenerational relationships? Those who are finding creative answers with specific approaches provide some helpful ways forward in young adult ministry.
Finding Critical Mass: A Move toward the Regional and the Post-Denominational
A common way to create a critical mass is for faith groups to band together for young adult fellowship and ministry. Just as judicatories and larger regions have long employed youth coordinators to resource congregations, so now many are hiring young adult ministers.
A related trend is happening in college ministry. Once, campus “chaplaincies” functioned like university student organizations for particular denominations. Today multiple denominations sponsor unified ecumenical ministries; campus missioners bring students from multiple colleges together for regional student fellowship; and distinctions are dissolving between young adult and campus ministry.
Examples of this first trend are only as far away as your nearest college campus. Emblematic of the second and third trends is a network coordinated in part by the Episcopal campus chaplain at New York University. Some of that chaplain’s best practices include focusing on relationships—a lesson that churches everywhere are (re) learning with help from community organizers after years in the program-based wilderness—and letting go of competitive worries.
Commonplace is a yearly young adult gathering for prayer, fellowship, and leadership development that started in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington but has grown to a regional event. Our denomination is looking to sponsor similar events in other regions.
What no denomination can afford to continue is the habit of trading on denominational loyalty alone. In the Episcopal Church, campus ministries flounder when they say “We’ll be a home for all the Episcopalians on campus.” Many Episcopalians aren’t looking for such a home, and many more don’t particularly care if the Episcopal shield is on the sign out front.
A post-denominational approach acknowledges that the broader Christian tradition is much more important than the way denominations slice and dice that tradition. Denominational identities can help us form distinctive, authentic Christian communities that don’t assume a membership model of the past (“every Methodist will join our group”), nor require a degree in the history of the Reformation in order to keep up with community worship and prayer practices.
This is good news for faith formation leaders. We’ve long known that the message of the gospel, the power of personal relationships, and the freedom to explore the rich diversity of the Christian way are more important factors than denominational brand identity in the forming of a mature and lively faith.
Changing Church Culture: An Emphasis on Service in Community
Following the popularity of secular programs like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and AmeriCorps, almost every Christian denomination has created some program for service in the U.S. or abroad, many of which predate their secular counterparts. These programs are a terrific response to the realities of emerging adulthood, providing food, housing, and employment at a time when many cannot find work; bringing young adults seeking to make a difference to areas of great need; incorporating vocational discernment about the future; and connecting them to faith communities when they are least likely to seek such connections.
These programs are changing Christian culture because they provide a positive model for how being the church is about more than Sunday worship. They serve as catalysts for outreach in their host communities. Participants become living signs of being a Christian in the world. The director of one program speaks of these ministries as fundamentally diaconal: Interns bring the needs of the world to the caring attention of the church. In so doing, they are changing church culture.
Many secular and faith-based organizations find that an emphasis on service addresses the issues springing from Millennials’ waning religiosity and distrust of institutions. The 2013 Millennial Impact Report found that 73 percent had volunteered in 2012 through some nonprofit organization (22), compared to 18 percent who regularly attended religious services.
Service connects with young adults in a way that worship or church activities may not. It may not be easy for most Millennials to invite a friend to church. But inviting them to serve? That is a way to plant the seed of faith.
Changing Church Culture: The Lens of Authenticity
In his book Varieties of Personal Theology: Charting the Beliefs and Values of American Young Adults, David Gortner found that social capital and education levels are far more significant factors than religious background in shaping the theological beliefs of young adults. An upbringing in a faith community, says Gortner, hasn’t mattered much for most of today’s young adults when it comes to their beliefs about God and the world. Yikes.
Nevertheless, Gortner found that “many young adults engage in [the] work of theological re-evaluation and reinvention—regardless of their affiliation or involvement with actual religious institutions” (328). Robert Wuthnow believes young adults’ often-individualistic approach to faith is the natural result of the lack of support religious institutions have offered them in their developmental transitions compared to that offered to youth (12).
We can both change church culture and further respond to young adults’ developmental needs by becoming a place where they feel safe to be themselves: anxious about their economic prospects, conflicted (or not) about their sex lives, doubtful about historical doctrines of the church, etc. We have to be not just tolerant of tinkering, but pro-tinkering co-tinkerers.
They need to be encouraged to own their faith, to make it real and concrete in their lives. The motto of the catechumenate program at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis: “Your questions are not in the way—your questions are the way” (emphasis added). This is the appropriate backdrop for understanding the overwhelming emphasis, in communities successfully reaching young adults, on authenticity.
This theme has been particularly important at the Commonplace gatherings mentioned earlier. At the first event, participants were invited to share personal faith stories and to make sense of the idea of “resonance.” But the storytelling wasn’t the only way participants exercised their individual expressiveness. Musical and visual arts, including traditional hymns in non-traditional arrangements on some instruments rarely used in worship, were incorporated into our worship and prayer.
Prayer stations allowed us to share our intercessions and thanksgivings with God through drawing, writing, and sitting with images. A designated live note-taker drew together the evening’s themes by painting an entire canvas in the span of our time together. It was a holy thing to see the fruit of our creativity laid before God as an offering.
At the expanded Commonplace event the following year, my colleague Jason Evans of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington made a helpful distinction in a workshop about making space for young adults in congregations. He proposed that congregations ask their young adults, “What can we build together?” rather than “What do you need?” because it encourages authentic contributions to the wider church from a contingent who loves to tinker, to hack together, to build with and on what they already have. By contrast, “What do you need?” smacks of consumerism and the notion that the church has the answers.
The lens of authenticity is helping many young adult ministers find success by gathering around food and drink. Pub Theology brings the church to an authentic young-adult gathering place and usually destabilizes the expert-novice distinction often present in parish-based theological formation. Presbyterian pastor Adam Walker Cleveland has written blog posts about his experience (start with “Theology Pub (2.0) in Ashland, Oregon”), and RENEW International offers resources for the licensed Roman Catholic version, Theology on Tap. If music and praise trumps reflection and study in your community, Beer and Hymns is a more recent development. Lutheran author and pastor Keith Anderson has a helpful “How to Host Your Own Beer and Hymns Night” post.
The Dinner Church model helps demystify the Lord’s Supper by putting it back into its original context: table fellowship. A founding model is St. Lydia’s, now in Brooklyn. The mini-documentary produced by StoryKeep introduces the St. Lydia’s approach.
It’s wrong to think of these approaches as merely luring in young adults with promises of food and booze. It’s about meeting them where they already are, trusting in Christ’s presence among any gathering of the faithful and the seeking, easing barriers to invitation, and acknowledging that the kinds of faith questions you’d ask in a pub or at a dinner table are just as legitimate as the ones you ask in the pastor’s office or parish hall.
I would not be much of a digital missioner (my official job title) if I did not finally mention the intersection of digital media with young adult ministry. Online spaces are a primary outlet for all kinds of authentic expression, including religious expression. We shouldn’t assume that young adults demand or even desire that all our faith formation practices have an online component, but strategic efforts can lead to additional “faith touches” amid busy young-adult lives, reach new young adults (see Naughton and Wilson, 43), and help the church embrace the cultural fullness of American life in the 21st century.
A ministry to watch is The Slate Project in Baltimore. This Lutheran-funded, ecumenically shepherded church plant appeals to young adults’
longing for authenticity by promising “Christianity Without the Crap.” Four times per week, Pastor Jason Chesnut and company create savvy faith content intended both for in-person and online followers.
A recent Throwback Thursday post just before Reformation Day included an inspirational quote from Luther about everyday Christian vocation. A Jesus Coffee Monday post by co-pastor Sara Shisler Goff asked: “Just ‘Cause It Is in the Bible, Do We Have to Agree With It?” Intercutting dramatic performance of the text, video clips from popular culture, and evocative images overlaid with text, Chesnut’s YouTube videos represent a giant leap forward in biblical storytelling. The Slate Project is modeling for us all a new kind of proclamation in the native media of young adults: not slick, but real. Not preachy, but faithful. Not gimmicky, but grounded in the culture that surrounds us. If that’s not authentic gospel witness, I don’t know what is.
Supporting Spiritual Development: Young Adults as Pilgrims
In his 2011 book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith, Barna Group president David Kinnaman describes three categories of church “dropouts”—nomads, prodigals, and exiles.
Nomads are “[w]andering from church” and “wrestling with faith,” Prodigals are “rejecting” Christianity or leaving for another faith, and Exiles have concluded that the church is the last thing their relationship with Jesus needs, that they can be more faithful by exiling themselves from “cultural Christianity” to seek a deeper, authentic faith in Christ (69, 69, 83).
Faith formation is for all kinds of young adults: ones who have stayed in church, ones who have left, ones who have found other churches and communities in their time of exile, and ones who might be open to such communities. We can capture something of Kinnaman’s nomads and exiles, and something of the special developmental situation of young adulthood regardless of one’s orientation to the church, if we imagine young adults as pilgrims.
Though all of life, and especially the life of faith, is a journey, young adulthood is a journey of meaning and adventure in a particularly intensive way. Leaving home, launching a career, starting a family—these are foreign lands indeed. Remembering this may guide us as we minister to these pilgrim travelers. “What are you seeking, pilgrim? What is your quest?”
If young adulthood is to be a time of dynamic faith formation, these are the questions we need to ask over and over again. The participants in many campus ministries and young adult fellowships do not seem to be on pilgrimage together. At its worst, the campus ministry I participated in during college was where I went to escape the pilgrimage, to grab a home-cooked meal with friends after church and avoid all the pressing questions of my future.
But a pilgrimage is just a trip if there is not both a journey and a meaning connected to the journey. There is some risk that young adults are not asking big life questions during this time in life. There is a much greater risk that they are asking them without any consideration that church or even God might have anything to do with them. I have stressed the need to focus on relationships (people before programs). As those relationships deepen, we gain the trust to share the road together. How do we help create this space for meaning-making? How do we mark that—as a group—we are growing in faith? How do we reach out for guidance and support from others? How do we invite Christ into our hearts as we travel by the Spirit? Pilgrims in Christ is the name of the intensive, year-long catechumenate program at a parish in Washington, D.C., that has guided my listening and my contributions in these conversations.
A traditional, formal, weekly catechumenate program such as Pilgrims isn’t likely to fly in any stand-alone young adult community, though I have been shocked by the number of young D.C. professionals who make the journey as a small but significant minority in this adults-of-all-ages experience.
I do think that the idea of the catechumenate—that there is a body of Christian knowledge and a distinctively Christ-like way of living—resonates with young adults. How should we describe it, this spiritual curriculum? At Commonplace 2014, my colleague Melanie Mullen and I jotted down the big items:
- Basic knowledge of the Bible and reading it for spiritual fulfillment;
- Basic knowledge of church traditions and worship and a commitment to letting them shape us over time;
- Basic knowledge of theology and an ability to use it to reflect on everyday life;
- Basic knowledge about prayer and spiritual practices and a willingness to explore them in a committed way;
- A passion for justice and mercy and a commitment to serving others and the common good;
- A sense that we are “in this together” as a people, sharing our joys and sorrows, marking the major passages in life.
Your community’s list might be different depending on your tradition, your gifts, your theological commitments. But you can help the people you serve make their meandering way through that territory over time.
Programs may be out. Formal curriculum may be deadly. Service may be the starting point, or fellowship over beers or a good meal. But a pilgrimage requires a sense of direction, progress, and thorough exploration. If we’re serious about forming faith that will continue to sustain young adults as they age, we have to trust that the Christian spiritual tradition has much to offer. We need to give it a chance to do its work, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The first article appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2016, Vol. 28, No. 2, Special Issue: Adult Formation, page 7-11