I recently tagged along on a phone conversation between a seminary instructor and spiritual director and the publisher she had worked with to produce some curriculum for young adults. Over the course of the conversation, I think we were each aware of a feeling of being “stumped” about how curriculum fits into the young adult faith formation picture. In the intervening days, I’ve put this question to some smart leaders and teachers and pondered it a bit myself.
One limitation of most curricula is that they assume a membership model of church that is increasingly unsuccessful and particularly problematic for working with young adults. Although millennials are more trusting of institutions than previous generations were, they are skeptical “about the value of religious institutions.” Indeed, I recently heard a Christian camp director tell a group of church leaders that the hundred or so young adults she works with each summer consider the camp—and not a congregation—to be their primary place of religious belonging.
A five-session weeknight series that assumes young adults will show up for classes about a topic the church has deemed important will be a tough sell for Christians like those camp counselors. The onus is on the church to demonstrate the value of a particular topic and offering to them. A young adult missioner I spoke with recently put it something like this: Successful programs build a formation experience around things young adults care about. We don’t need another curriculum; we need to teach young adult ministers to create their own, as faith formation opportunities present themselves in context.
The research on young adults suggests some ways to proceed. Since today’s young adults are active volunteers, service-oriented formation programming is one strong possibility. Programs like Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and Episcopal Service Corps are attracting and forming the faith of young adults who might not otherwise be in church, and service opportunities in congregations are often a major draw for young people.
Emerging adulthood is also a time of self-discovery and meaning-making, so programs that bring the life of faith to bear on the exploration young adults are already up to have a head start in gaining some traction. For instance, there has been a growing interest in programs that focus on vocational discernment, often linked to some kind of service (see, again, efforts by Jesuits, Lutherans,Episcopalians, and more).
Our challenge, it seems to me, is to conceive of curriculum very broadly and train young adult ministers in new ways of constructing it. In my next post, I’ll share some ideas about what that training might look like.
Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.