Young Adults: Cultivating a service culture
Young Adults: Cultivating a service culture

Young adults serving

This post by Kyle Oliver is part of a series inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and issue of Lifelong Faith Journal. You can read the whole issue here.

The critical mass issue is often compounded by a sort of double disengagement. We have seen that Millennials as a cohort are detached from institutions. But it is often the case that even those wishing to be involved are significantly, if mostly unintentionally, disenfranchised.

My job regularly brings me to young adult leadership conferences, and one question that always comes up is, basically, “How do we get the rest of the church to care about young adults?” Or maybe it’s better to say, “How do we get the rest of the church to care about what young adults care about?” At a recent gathering, a colleague in campus ministry tweeted the following:

There is a theory—probably more true than false—that churches led primarily by Baby Boomers are not responding well to the expressed needs and values of the younger generations, especially Millennials. At the same time, it’s sometimes unclear precisely what young adults are looking for.

I recently attended a churchwide meeting in my denomination on the subject of national leadership restructuring. Two young adult participants asked nearly the same question about young adult participation in the planning process, the second seemingly because he did not like the answer received by the first.

In fact, the committee was well-represented by young people, and the feedback process was open to all and had quite a high profile on social media. Some of us were not sure there was much more the committee could do.

One got the impression of two groups talking past each other, one asking “Why aren’t you listening to us?” and the other asking “How else can we reach out to you?” In fact, the most helpful comment on the subject came in response to a different but related question about reaching young adults. A member of the committee noted “It’s not generally the governance or the structure or the administration … There’s something that needs to change culturally.”

I believe this is correct, that the disconnect between young adults and the rest of the church is more cultural than structural. Although such efforts are helpful, strategies like simply ordaining more young adult clergy or placing more young adult leaders on church governance bodies will not by themselves make churches more attractive or responsive to young people.

What we need is 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, and churches more generally find young adult membership, if the values Millennials bring with them to church find a place to take root as part of a wider vision.

Emphasizing service

No accounting of young adult faith formation and spiritual development would be complete without mentioning faith-based service-year programs.

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 domestic or abroad. (Actually, many of these faith-based programs predate their secular counterparts. According to George Anderson, the Jesuit Volunteers were up and running in everything but name by the time even the Peace Corps came along in 1961.)

These programs are a terrific response to many of the developmental realities of emerging adulthood:

  • They provide food, housing, and employment at a time when economic realities leave many without work.
  • They bring young adults to areas of great need at the time in their lives when they are most optimistic about making a difference.
  • They often incorporate intensive vocational discernment in the broadest sense during a time of big choices about the future (read: “How is God calling me to be a disciple in whatever I do with my life” and not just “Is God calling me to ordained ministry?”).
  • They provide connections to faith communities at a time when young adults are least likely to seek out such connections.

But I want to discuss these programs under the rubric of changing Christian culture because I believe they are providing a positive model for how being the church is about more than worshipping together on Sunday mornings.

I have had the pleasure of spending significant time as a sort of embedded observer in several service corps communities, both Episcopal and not. At their best, they serve as catalysts for (rather than simply islands of) outreach in their host communities.

Participants become living signs of what it means to be a Christian in the world. Sometimes this presence is a much-needed reminder. The director of one such 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 of us admire the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ goal that participants be “ruined for life”: ruined for materialism and extravagant American lifestyles, ruined for living lives disconnected from other people, from the Spirit of God, and from God’s call to do justice and love mercy.

The love of Christ working such ruin among our young leaders is serving, if not as the wider church’s salvation, at least as a prophetic call to return to the core of Christian discipleship.

I believe it is working. This ethos is taking hold in other intergenerational and young-adult-oriented places. Thad’s is an experimental Christian community in Santa Monica committed to sharing Christ’s love “in positive, transformative and practical ways.”

I can think of few better ways to demonstrate that commitment than to hold an ordination at a laundromat. The Rev. Scott Claassen was ordained a deacon at “Laundry Love,” a Thad’s ministry that brings church members together with folks who need their laundry done for a night of fellowship and free quarters, detergent, and dryer sheets.

I remember the hubbub that arose in church social media circles shortly after this ordination happened. Sure, there was some anxious conversation about the appropriateness of the venue. But most of the conversation got it right: this was a powerful way for the church to align its proclamation with its actions.

Claassen’s ordination aside, Laundry Love also illustrates that the trends and approaches we’re discussing are not unrelated. Many secular and faith-based organizations are finding that an emphasis on service helps them overcome the critical mass issues springing from Millennials’ distrust of institutions and their waning religiosity.

The 2013 Millennial Impact Report found that 73% had volunteered in 2012 through some nonprofit organization (22). That’s a heck of a lot higher than the 18% who regularly attended religious services.

Are those two numbers apples and oranges? Of course. But the point is that service connects with young adults in a way that doesn’t always happen with worship or church activities. (For a longer discussion of this phenomenon see Chapter 11 in Fresh Expressions and The Kingdom Of God, written by my friend and colleague Mike Angell.)

Laundry Love springs from Thad’s mantra that “people are the new program.” And it is a perfect example of how prioritizing not just people but service can help church communities meet Millennials where they are—and meet more of them.

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.

This post by Kyle Oliver is part of a series inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and issue of Lifelong Faith Journal. You can read the whole issue here.

Image credit: Daniel DiMarco via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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