Young Adults: Accompanying pilgrims
Young Adults: Accompanying pilgrims

Young adult pilgrims

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.

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.

I think we can capture something of David Kinnaman’s “nomads and exiles” insights in You Lost Me, and something of the special developmental situation of young adulthood regardless of one’s orientation to the church, if we imagine young adults, all of them, as pilgrims.

Though it is true that all of life, and especially the life of faith, is a journey, I think 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 many 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 and chat with friends after church and take a break from all the pressing questions of what I was going to do with my life. I’ve attended some groups of 20- and 30-somethings that felt the same.

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 in an intentional way.

I’ve had the chance to talk to quite a few young adult ministers about how to help create this space for meaning-making, how to mark that—as a group—we are growing in faith, how to reach out for guidance and support from others, and how to invite Christ into our hearts as we travel by the Spirit. “Pilgrims in Christ” happens to be the name of the intensive, year-long catechumenate program at a parish I served in Washington, and that connection has guided my listening and my contributions in these conversations.

I don’t think a traditional, formal, weekly catechumenate program like Pilgrims can fly in any standalone young adult community, though I have been shocked by the numbers of young DC 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, the idea 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 tried to jot the big items down:

  • basic knowledge of the Bible and ways of 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, and that we come together as community to share our joys and sorrows, to mark the major passages in life.

Your community’s list might be different depending on your tradition, your gifts, your theological commitments. But whatever is on it, it’s your responsibility—probably informally but with a sense of direction and accountability as well—to 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.

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: “The Tale of Life / El Cuento de la Vida” by Víctor Nuño via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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