Young Adults: Understanding the lens of authenticity
Young Adults: Understanding the lens of authenticity

Self portrait by Jonathan Tommy

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.

In addition to cultivating a service-oriented culture, another commonly cited means of connecting with young adults involves the lens of authenticity. What does that mean exactly? Well, it’s complicated.

In 2013, psychologist David Gortner published Varieties of Personal Theology: Charting the Beliefs and Values of American Young Adults. Among its findings were that social capital and education levels were far more significant factors than religious background in shaping the theological beliefs of young adults.

In fact, “[r]eligion tends to reinforce dominant cultural patterns in personal theologies, but otherwise is minimally influential in producing meaningful variations from dominant cultural patterns,” says Gortner. In other words, an upbringing in a faith community doesn’t seem to have mattered much for most of today’s young adults when it comes to their beliefs about God and the world. Yikes.

On the other hand, this research 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.” This is basically what James Fowler told us thirty years ago when he observed young adults synthesizing tacitly beliefs (synthetic-conventional faith) and revising implicit beliefs in light of stepping out of their social system of origin (individuative-reflective faith).

Robert Wuthnow gives us still another way of speaking about the faith work of this time of life transition, one that immediately resonated with me when I first heard about it:

The single word that best describes young adults’ approach to religion and spirituality—indeed life—is tinkering. A tinkerer puts together a life from whatever skills, ideas, and resources that are readily at hand. In a culture like ours, where higher education and professional training are valued, tinkering may have negative connotations.

But it should not. Tinkerers are the most resourceful people in any era … They get things done, and usually this happens by improvising, by piecing together an idea from here, a skill from here, and a contact from somewhere else.

When Christian Smith and Patricia Snell notice lots of “religious tradition switching” and “syncretistic spiritual practices” among young adults, I believe they’re encountering characteristic behaviors of Wuthnow’s “Generation of Tinkerers.”

Moreover, Wuthnow believes their often-individualistic approach to faith is the natural result of the lack of support religious institutions have offered them in their developmental transitions, especially compared to the relative investment in youth support. Gortner too calls for a reconsideration of and reinvestment in the role of ministers in helping young adults “forg[e] lives of meaning and purpose.”

So a way that we can both change church culture and further respond to young adults’ developmental needs is to be 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.

As in every developmental stage, the people we serve need to be encouraged to own their faith, to make it real and concrete in their individual lives. In this respect, I am particularly fond of the motto of the catechumenate program at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis: “Your questions are not in the way—your questions are the way.”

Catechumenate from CCCIndy on Vimeo

I am convinced that this is the appropriate backdrop for understanding that overwhelming emphasis, in communities successfully reaching young adults, on authenticity.

This theme has been particularly important at the Commonplace gatherings I mentioned previously. At the first event, the major portion of the evening was given over to invited participants sharing personal faith stories. Each speaker was encouraged to make sense of the idea of “resonance.” They each decided for themselves what that meant.

I was struck in particular by those who offered reflections from the perspective of their work vocation: music, technology, teaching. The sum of these parts was the clear proclamation that God is present and active outside the church as well as within, in the everyday lives of people finding their way.

The storytelling wasn’t the only way participants were encouraged to exercise their individual expressiveness. Musical and visual arts were incorporated into our worship and prayer. The musicians who were gathered for the evening played traditional hymns in non-traditional arrangements on some instruments I had never seen used in worship (including the harp!). Prayer stations allowed us to share our intercessions and thanksgivings with God through drawing, writing, and sitting with images.

My favorite aspect of the evening was a designated live note-taker’s work drawing together the evening’s themes; he stood up front and painted an entire canvas in the span of our time together. I enjoyed taking in the result during the closing worship as a way of resonating, in a new way, with what had been shared. 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 very helpful distinction in a workshop about making space for young adults in congregations. Working from survey data about churches with proportional representation of young adults, he proposed the following discernment question for any congregation to ask their young adults: “What can we build together?”

He likes “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 if young adults will only allow it to dispense them.

The lens of authenticity is helping guide many young adult ministers and church planters in their search for resonant ministry models, and many of them are finding 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 that is so present in lots of parish-based theological formation. Presbyterian pastor Adam Walker Cleveland has written several blog posts about his experience with this approach (start with “Theology Pub (2.0) in Ashland, Oregon”), and RENEW International offers resources for the licensed Roman Catholic version, which is called Theology on Tap.

If music and praise trumps reflection and study in your community, Beer and Hymns is a more recent but related development. Lutheran author and pastor Keith Anderson has a helpful “How to Host Your Own Beer and Hymns Night” post.

The Dinner Church model puts the supper in the Lord’s Supper and helps demystify this sacrament by putting it back into its original context: table fellowship. Here a founding model seems to be St. Lydia’s, now in Brooklyn. Although it is a couple of years old, I recommend the mini-documentary produced by StoryKeep as a great introduction to the St. Lydia’s approach.

StoryKeep Organizational Video || St. Lydia’s from StoryKeep on Vimeo

Here’s an excerpt that should make any faith formation minister rejoice:

Earlier in my life, I had an idea that going to church meant making certain proclamations and adhering to certain theories. But being at St. Lydia’s and sitting down every week next to strangers, I found that, in that moment when I passed the bread and the bread is passed to me, that God is present and I feel connected to something bigger than myself.

It would be wrong to think of these approaches as merely luring in young adults with promises of food and booze. Again, it’s about meeting young adults 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 among young adults, including religious expression.

While I don’t think we should assume that young adults demand or even particularly desire that all our faith formation practices have an online component, I do think strategic efforts in this area can lead to additional “faith touches” amid busy young-adult lives, can reach new young adults where they are and can help the church continue to embrace the cultural fullness of American life in the twenty-first century.

A ministry to watch in this department is The Slate Project in Baltimore. This Lutheran-funded, ecumenically shepherded church plant promises “Christianity Without the Crap,” already a strong appeal to young adults’ longing for authenticity in faith. Four times per week, Pastor Chesnut and company create savvy faith content intended both for the in-person Slate Project community and for followers online. Here’s how he framed these efforts on The Slate Project’s website:

Meanwhile, over at Facebook and Tumblr:

Jesus Coffee Monday (#jesuscoffee) – kick-start every week with a relevant topic connected to the Jesus Movement

Throwback Thursday (#tbt) – ancient/amazing quotes from ancient/amazing sources

Slate Project Saturday (#tsp) – video updates from this new community

And, on Faith Interrupted:

Blog posts with more detailed (as in longer) musings about faith, service, and more. Read! Leave comments!

A 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 the question “Just ‘Cause It Is In the Bible, Do We Have to Agree With It?” And a Slate Project Saturday video by Chesnut told the story of Pentecost, following up on a previous video about the Tower of Babel.

If you haven’t seen one of Chesnut’s videos, I highly recommend you check him out on YouTube (church, personal). Intercutting dramatic performance of the text, video clips from popular culture, and evocative images overlaid with text, they represent a giant leap forward in biblical storytelling for the twenty-first century.

Upon my most recent viewing, I immediately thought of the Apostle Paul’s famous faith formation questions in Romans 10:14: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

The Slate Project crew are 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.

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: “Where Do You Start? [self portrait]” by Jonathan Tommy via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

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