Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Young Adults

Disclaimer: I'm a Baby Boomer. Most members of my generation haven't yet figured out that we're NOT young adults anymore. But that's another blog post.

I'm at the regular spring meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops. The focus of today's sessions was on the church's ministry to and with young adults. "Young adult" seems to be defined as between 18 and 35, so it's actually been a quarter century or so since I've been one, as young and hip as I may feel.

God knows, the Episcopal Church (all churches, for that matter) needs to be concerning itself with this topic, as this demographic is hugely conspicuous by its absence from our worship and communal life. It has ever been this, for a host of understandable life-cycle reasons, but the gap is much more pronounced now than it was when I was ... well ... a young adult (and I was always part of the church community when I was that age).

One of our presenters is a 40-something seminary professor with a background (and a PhD) in the social sciences. The other two (one ordained, one lay) live and work in the Diocese of Massachusetts, and are involved in a pilot project aimed at finding new ways to "do church" that connect more organically with their chronological (and, it probably needs to be said, cultural) peers.

Here's what I like about what they're doing: They are ambitious about forming intentional community--people who covenant to spend significant amounts of time with one another, sharing several meals a week, even sharing living quarters when feasible. They are serious about disciplined spiritual formation, and doing so be drilling down into their own Christian tradition, rather than indulging in an eclectic smorgasbord of spiritual practice. And they're not shy about saying that it's a relationship with Jesus that is at the root of what they do, that such a relationship has changed their lives and calling others into such a relationship is a critical part of their mission.

Here are my concerns about what I heard: Their articulation of the gospel seems not to be clearly connected to the Paschal Mystery. There was even a PowerPoint slide labeled "The Good News", and its content was simply "Community, Compassion, Co-creation." No Jesus. No dying and rising. No mystical participation in the eschaton. In all fairness, I would wager this was an oversight, and that they would be horrified to have it pointed out that Jesus was absent from their definition of the gospel. At least I hope so.

And then there is what for me is that bugaboo that just doesn't want to ever go away. Previous generations would have called it the Social Gospel. Nowadays the language is something about "God's mission" or "God's dream." Either way, the task before the Christian community is to participate in the implementation of this mission and the realization of this dream. And the metric for determining faithfulness to this task is the diminution of the total amount of human suffering. This is considered an end in itself, and it it is accomplished without people coming into an explicit relationship with Jesus in the communion of the church, then that's really no big deal; the end is still accomplished.

This isn't that occasion for a treatise on that subject. Suffice it to say that I find it an impoverished account of the Christian narrative, and I am saddened when the notion is purveyed and accepted as self-evident.

These young people are inspiring. I wish them well. They are doing many things that I would hope to adapt and implement in my ministry. But we need to keep the main thing the main thing.


Jody Howard said...

Bishop Dan,

As an oddity both in the Church (as a young adult & a priest to boot) and among many of my contemporaries (because I'm in a church, let alone a priest), I'm glad that this issue is being discussed. If you haven't yet read it, I'd suggest Christian Smith's "Souls in Transition." When Smith spoke on this topic at the C3 Conference in Nashville recently he said two things in particular that should stand out. The first is that talking to an "emerging adult" (the term he prefers to young adult) about faith is like talking to a 17 year old about life insurance. They aren't antagonistic, and they may see the importance of it--at some point--it's just not for them right now.

The second thing he said, which is a major challenge to Episcopalians, is that a person has a greater chance of being religiously committed as a young adult if they were raised in a non-religious household than if they were raised as a mainline protestant.

So.. there's that.

I've been trying to distill some of my experience and thinking on this topic and in doing so, I've come up with several things that I think keep emerging adults away from churches more than anything:

*No sense of needing anything the church provides (spirituality is individual)

*Lack of understanding of what churches do (worship) & a lack of interest in things churches do that are understandable (other activities seen as generally boring, meaningless and a time suck)

*few opportunities for investment, and little interest in investing as the existing community would like them to invest (In other words, young adults don't feel like they have a say about the way things are done, and it doesn't really bother them since they don't want to invest the time, but they also don't want to be dictated to and told to 'get in the nursery because we've all done our time')

*Churches often feel needy and while some people may thrive on that, most emerging adults are going to walk out the door when they sense that. Ditto with conflict.

At any rate... you're probably getting a lot better information at the HOB, but I thought I'd throw my 2 cents in.

I think you're right on in seeing the red flag in the discussion of action/service as the Good News without reference to Jesus (in fairness, if you asked them, maybe they would say that was assumed--but we can't assume it). People of all ages, when they seek the Church or Christians out expect us to *be* Christian, and while they may not know a lot, they know that means Jesus. In that sense, the un-churched have a better grasp of the essentials than some of us in Church.

Enjoy your time at Kanuga, and if you have the chance to swing through Asheville, I can recommend some great local restaurants.

Undergroundpewster said...

Good observation +Dan. I wonder if people find it easier to share the Social Gospel than the witness of a personal relationship with Chrtist. Hints of this discomfort often come through as a feeling that something is missing from the message. As I reflect back on my rebellious stage, I think I would have spotted that right away.

Staying connected with those 18-30 year olds during the time in their lives when they are most likely to to consumed by earthly distractions is one key to helping them accept Jesus when the time comes.

Chris Ashley said...

Hi Bp Dan,

As a member of that community for four years (2006-10) before moving out of town, I can speak to its Jesus credentials. From the start of our public ministry we were, at heart, a eucharistic and therefore a Christocentric community. That's what makes us church, rather than something else.

Folks who were there before the founding tell me other options were on the table at various points during the first rounds of organizing. Some voices, powerful ones, were activists looking for a non-specific spiritual support. Others were most excited about what non-traditional practices they could incorporate into a church format. But God's plans for us turned out to be centered on, as you say, the paschal mystery, as played out in the sacraments, and we've been as faithful as we know how to that vocation.

If your standard for that faithfulness is mentions of the name of Jesus, our PowerPoints will fail, especially when we're speaking to already-churched audiences. You'll hear more Jesus in worship on a Thursday. (On those rare occasions when I've seen groups of bishops meeting, I've heard less Jesus there than I do on Sundays-- so this is perhaps a matter of rhetorical genre rather than content of faith.) If your standard is winning souls for Christ, well that's rather infamously hard to measure, but we do a lot of confirmations, none of them cheap. In my day, we did rather fewer baptisms-- and if you actually want to make my old priest sweat, maybe you should ask her if she's baptizing anyone this Easter. (An old standby for making clergy sweat no doubt, but a good one. If she's already left Kanuga, I'll ask her myself.)

I appreciate your kind words about our common life. It's especially good to hear that the intentional community plans are proceeding. If my reply is defensive, that draws from your use of the word "but", which often suggests (and your commenters seem to have picked up on this) that what follows is more important than whatever preceded it. If we inspire you, glory be to God and let's get to work. If you suspect our gospel is false, or even impoverished-- well, that would merit a "but", and in fact I thought it merited a response.

Peace love & cardboard hats,


Tregonsee said...

Bishop Martin,

As a 1948 Boomer, in age if not in spirit, a good start would be to begin using the last names of clergy again. I guess it is an effort to be hip and friendly, but we used to reserve the first name in titles for popes and royalty. I am one of the oldest members in my parish, a good sign, and so far as I can tell the only one who refers to the clergy by their last names. They probably regard it as a quaint seniorism, but I consider it a sign of appropriate respect.


Daniel Martins said...

To Chris Ashley--
I'm very grateful for your comments. I had suspected that there was a closer connection to the Paschal Mystery in the project than was made evident in yesterday's presentation, and I'm heartened to hear you confirm that. On the whole, I am quite positive about what you/they are doing/have done in Boston.

To Tregg--
I was brought up the way you were, and empathize on many levels. Societal evolution swings like a pendulum. I suspect more formal ways will eventually return. In the meantime, I choose to not sweat it.

Anonymous said...

What I have seen during my years, and having been the object of various well-intended age-specific programs during my first 25 years of life, is that the best of the "Christocentric" intentional communities have been those created with "already Christians", themselves looking for a deeper life of discipleship.
That is to say, if we want to develop powerful profound 20-something communities, the Church will need to focus its efforts not on the 20-somethings, but on and with those who are teens.
I haven't seen a reprint or update for awhile, but I believe the statistic is that the great majority of adults currently actively involved in a Christian congregation, of any sort or denomination, also claim to have come to a deeply meaningful encounter with the risen Jesus Christ before the age of 19.

The dismal history of TECUSA efforts in college ministry after the 1960's, and attempts at melding in or expanding out (depends on how you saw it) the post-graduate crowd with similar results, should tell us how fickle such ministry can be.

Look at Blessed Sacrament in Los Angeles, and their attraction as a Eucharistic-centered, high-church denominational parish to many students from nearby Biola. They come to Biola mostly as already converted Christians teens, mainly from evangelical or non-denominational congregations. They go to Blessed Sacrament looking for the depth and richness of the Christian tradition drawing from the entirety of our history, and especially the Apostolic Fathers. (and why weren't they invited to present their community results at HOB?)

We cannot afford to neglect any one generation. But as far as one particular for the sake of focus and Church-wide endeavor, should it not be teens? And I say that publicly with a great deal of trepidation, hoping and praying the Good News of Jesus Christ gets to them first before some one or some thing else (and that goes for "voices" from within TECUSA itself).

And lest it be over-looked, or perhaps neglected, Bishops - almost by default, making their regular pastoral visits, and their personal involvement in diocesan youth programs and events and retreats, usually make a tremendous impact on the faith development of teens.

JimB said...

Rt. Rev. Sir,

( I have been awaiting a chance to use that greeting here!)

I think you have a point. I have no problem with doing the "social gospel" or "servant ministry" or whatever we are calling it now. In fact I consider it vital. To steal a line from James, Faith without works is dead. But the converse is true too, works without faith is dear.

Still, we do need to think about new ways to do the things we should be doing.


Anonymous said...

On Souls in Tradition, I have also read it. It's important and, if you can stomach the social scientist's math and graphs, it is definitely worth the read. One caveat, the data on which it is based are now nearly ten years old. Gen X's who couldn't live without their e-mails are now cell phone carriers and intensely engaged on social networking sites. The assumption of the authors of Souls is that religious socialization would take place in congregations, and it is very true, that for those who attend, their parents and adult role models in these congregations are very important, but, for those that do not, how will we reach them. Unlike GenXers, the Millennials are not opposed to organized religion, but they are simply disinterested. It would be good for the church to re-think its approach to them and ask the question: Can this new platform for communication be used for good, and, if so, how? I am afraid that this boat will have sailed long before we, as church, have given it much thought.