Young adults and the church (2)

To understand the relationship of young adults and the church, the following is some extra information about GenZ (also known as iGen) and millennials that is helpful for understanding those generations (to supplement the previous post).

The following are some of the most significant shifts in our culture and experience in the last twenty years:

  1. Technology, especially the internet and smart phones.
  2. We’ve become more secular: it has become more normal for people not to believe in God or be associated with church. Even more so, people are not so much for or against God as much as they’re even sure why faith and God are relevant to their lives.
  3. The world is not safe: 9/11 happened and terrorism, financial collapses, and we’re more aware of racism, climate change, school shootings.
  4. The pandemic, the implications of this on society and individuals still to be determined.

These things are affecting all of us, but I believe younger generations are especially negatively affected because they haven’t had the blessing of more perspective of having lived through different cultural emphases and shifts.

To give more specifics, in terms of safety, IGen is the first generation where we’ve seen a significant decrease in drinking, sex, going out to parties, and even driving. They are making decisions based on what is safe for them emotionally, physically, and even in terms of their reputation. They also have great relationships with their parents, although sometimes parents can do too much for their children, organizing everything in their lives from classes, homework, and even getting them out of bed (and this is even in college). Millennials have been told all their lives that they’re great and so there is some disillusionment about their talents and abilities. At the same time, they long for responsibility (which is often kept by older generations) or they get bored.

So what does this mean for faith?

For the millennials, it means finding ways to share responsibility for the church with this generation – even if they’ll make mistakes. Give young adults/ young people the keys to the church is how Kara Powell talks about this in Growing Young. For Igen, it’s important to realize how faith can be one more thing that parents organize for their children and something that they don’t own – or leave behind when they finally differentiate from their parents.

More importantly, one needs to be honest about how God and faith are not safe. The purpose of Christianity isn’t simply to make you happy, well-adjusted, or safe. That’s moralistic therapeutic deism, not true faith. The more we can all be honest with each other about faith – about how God doesn’t save us from hardships but instead walks with us through our sufferings, the more hope we can give to those who long for adventure (like millennials) and/or (like Igen) for safety (but are coming to recognize that it’s ultimately impossible).

In terms of technology, young adults tend to be distracted and don’t know how to interact with each other. We’re also curating our images and lives. We’re deeply lonely and disillusioned. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic affects this tendency. For millennials, technology has hindered an ability to have work/life balance. Millennials will often define themselves by how productive they are. So they’re often overwhelmed.

So what does this mean for faith?

While younger generations crave responsibility and ought to be given more, this not true when they’re overwhelmed. Sometimes we all – young and old(er) – desperately need to be able simply to show up without worrying about how we might fail or do it imperfectly. 

The church offers community; but this means also that we need to be willing to be honest about how our lives are not as perfect as we might like to pretend they are – because how else will others around us know that it’s okay for them to speak about how messy their own lives are?

When it comes to secularity, (as noted in the previous post), the bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.

I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.

Young adults and the church (1)

The following was mostly written before the pandemic. The pandemic has only increased the questions and uncertainty about how connected young people are (and will be) to church.

Recent Pew Survey results tell us that less people are identifying as Christian, especially among millennials. This has raised a lot of questions about (young) people leaving the church.

The good news is that other studies have shown that the number of committed Christians, both young and old, has not decreased by much. Many of the young people growing up in Christian families and actively participating in the church continue to be committed to church. On top of this, there are a number of great resources available to help us with that (see below for a list of resources).

The bad news is that millennials are no longer coming back to church when they ‘settle down’ and raise a family, which is when we as a church have expected people to come back (since this is what used to happen). Something has shifted in our culture that has made people less interested in church: part of it might be the rise of secularity (for more on this, see books by Andrew Root); part of it might be a misunderstanding of the purpose of church:

“If I can be a good person by going to a city council meeting, or by reading the features in The New Republic, or by volunteering at a charity, why do I need Jesus? Why do I need Christianity at all? The answer would be, you don’t. You might credit Jesus as a model citizen, acknowledge his death as unfortunate for him, but it takes a sense of sin, and grace, to really feel a particular allegiance to the man and his mission.”

CJ Green

At the same time, though, the Washington Post article written by Christine Emba, a millennial, argues that even though millennials are not coming back to church they are still looking for transcendence and fellowship with others. The longing for community has only increased with the pandemic, especially with the loss of social trust.

The (other) bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.

Further resources connected to the above and on young adults and the church:

I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.

The Spirit uses my being uncomfortable?

As we were reading 1 Peter 2 and 3 this past week at study, a student noted that the text made her uncomfortable. As the text was talking about slavery, women, and submission, it was easy for me to understand why she felt uncomfortable. As we noted in our study on Colossians a number of years ago, too often those of us who’ve grown up in the church have seen how submission has been used to validate abuse, or, at the least, make women second-class citizens.

It would be easy thus to dismiss this text as no longer being culturally relevant to today. Yet, to do so would be to lose an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work to challenge what assumptions we might bring to the text, whether that be errors in our own perception or unhealthy assumptions that we have learned from church/Christian culture and/or society at large.

For instance, the dominant voices of our society invite and encourage us to put me first and not let anyone hold us back from unleashing our inner potential. Might our discomfort with the word submission be because such a narrative of me first leaves little space or validation for submission of any sort? What picture of God’s love might we show when we actively choose to let go of some of our own personal wants and desires for the good of others?

Yet, might our discomfort with the word submission be a misunderstanding of the word submission? Might our submission be less of a diminishing of self and more of a living more fully into who God has called us to be, including through challenging systems of oppression, as Walsh and Keesmaat propose in their book, Colossians Remixed?

While dismissing the text might be the easiest way to get rid of the discomfort brought by the text, it is worthwhile to sit awhile with the text and acknowledge that discomfort. Through consulting wise teachers and allowing the Spirit to work (sometimes also through our peers), God can use our discomfort to help us grow in wisdom about the biblical text and ourselves.

Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”

Pandemic Grief

Jessica Wrobelski speaks graciously regarding the grief connected to this pandemic in her article, “Jesus Wept: Pandemic Grief and the Fifth Sunday of Lent.” She notes that, while we in the United States are likely facing more suffering here on account of illness and death from COVID-19,

“we are nevertheless collectively experiencing a kind of grief right now due to the practice of social distancing and other early impacts of the pandemic on our lives. The loss of daily interaction with friends and coworkers, the cancellation of travel plans and events that we have looked forward to, the economic losses, and our inability to gather as communities of faith—these losses are real, and so is our grief.”

Wrobelski highlights that the gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of Lazarus’s death, presents Jesus’ own grief in light of loss. She highlights that Jesus does not “‘skip over’ the experience of human grief.” Recognizing this “should free us to acknowledge our own grief—to experience all the emotions of sadness and anger and disappointment and frustration that come with real losses—even if we ultimately have faith and hope in God’s promise to bring life from death.”

She concludes by encouraging as “to allow ourselves time and space to grieve, to name our sorrows and losses and even to bring our accusations before God. Faith in these times does not mean stoically denying our human emotions, but trusting that God is present in and through all of it.”

Science vs. Faith?

While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).

The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.

The following are some of the challenges that we face:

  • Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
  • Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
  • Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
  • One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
  • It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
  • There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).

The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:

  • It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
  • Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
  • Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
  • Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
  • It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
  • The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.

Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).

Pub Theology as an opportunity to explore

At Campus Edge we’ve been hosting Pub Theology for several years now. It’s an opportunity for people to talk about how faith and spirituality interact with current events and topics of interest (e.g., sexuality, racism, politics, technology, etc.). Pub theology is a place to learn how to listen to each other and make space for people who see the world differently from me. Its intent is not to convince people of the Christian position but instead to facilitate people learning from each other, being both encouraged and challenged that there is more than one way that Christians (and others) have approached difficult topics. 

Pub theology has also been a place where people who are exploring Christianity can join us, and we’ve been delighted by how God has brought different people from different backgrounds to our conversations. People are free both to lament negative encounters with Christians and to ask pointed questions about what believing in God looks like. It is meant also to be a safe place to have one’s own views about Christianity and the Bible be refined.

Bryan Berghoef, who originally started pub theology, wrote an article about how pub theology might seem like a waste of time. After all, what real good does sitting in pub talking to other people really do? But Berghoef suggests that:

“One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice [of pub theology] in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking. . .

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up.”

Bryan Berghoef, “Pub Theology is a Waste of Time.” (January 2014)

Fall Chapel Service: Hope of All Creation

This October we partnered with three other campus ministries – MSU Wesley, One Community Lutheran Campus Ministry and The Peoples Church – to host a weekly communion service in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at MSU. During this service we reflected on Jesus as the hope of all creation and supported each other in our mutual ministry with MSU students.

In our liturgy we lamented through prophetic texts the ways in which the earth is being destroyed: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have … broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:5). This ancient witness should stir us to think about how our institutions have contributed to the destruction of the earth. In keeping with the CEF spirit of intellectual inquiry, we also reflected on some unusual scripture passages including God as a mother in labor (Isa 42) and a “springtime rhapsody” in the Song of Songs 2.

Chapel services offer an opportunity for worship in the midst of busy academic life. The Alumni Memorial Chapel is not usually used for religious services and our continued relationship with the sexton Steve Aikin has allowed us to produce quality worship experiences in an ecumenical Christian tradition and witness to God’s presence on campus.

In our service and our gathering we shared hope together—hope that through Christ all of creation will be liberated from decay (Rom 8:21). Still we wait for the reign of God to come to its fullness. when new leaves will grow and they will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern