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.

Pandemic reflections

This has been a strange summer. The global pandemic has forced faith communities around the world to find new ways to “be the church.” I believe that this time can transform and grow us as followers of Jesus if we accept the invitation.

When the pandemic gained momentum in the United States I became curious about theological lenses  for viewing this unique time. I attended a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Veritas Forum called Coronavirus & Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking?  I was inspired by the idea that the Judeo-Christian narrative makes meaning out of suffering by attaching it to “a narrative of redemption.” They discussed this idea in the context of the theological journey of Israel in exile and Jesus’s own plea, “let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). One speaker suggested that “lament is the seedbed of creativity.” In other words, how can the limitations and pain of social distancing spark creative ideas for connection?

During the pandemic we feel distant and disconnected. We find joy from phone calls, socially distant gatherings and perhaps more time with loved ones. But relying on fleeting bits of connection is not God’s intention for humanity. We are meant to live in community: to be with and beside people, to perform acts of kindness and generosity. We long for the ability to connect with people again, in more fulfilling ways. During the pandemic I have wondered how our angst during the social distancing might be parallel to the eschatological hope that God will make all things new. We see only fragments of God’s rule and reign a care for humanity and creation. We long for God to make all things new through the resurrection of Jesus, until that day when we relationships  between God, humanity and creation are fully restored, sustained by the river of life and the tree of life, whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

A closely related lens for the pandemic is that of apocalypse. As in every generation, Christians identify current catastrophes with images in Revelation or even claiming it as God’s judgement. But the word apocalypse does not mean “the end of the world”. This is a modern misunderstanding, particularly in American Christianity. Scholars Tim Mackie explains that the Greek word for “apocalypse” means “uncover or reveal—to make something visible”.  Thinking about an apocalypse as an unveiling of things that were previously hidden forces us to acknowledge buried realities that have come to light (Luke 8:17). In the United States, the reality of systemic racism has become more apparent by the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on communities of color and rampant police brutality, both of which have stamped out Ruach Elohim, the breath of God.  According to John the visionary the blood of all who are unjustly murdered will be accounted for (Rev 18:24). In this way, we see apocalypses as opportunities to “pull back the veil” and more fully understanding of underlying realities and pursue justice.

I have come to see that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus is inherently political. The word “politics” means “the affairs of the city” and deals in the welfare of its people. The Old Testament prophets had harsh words for those perpetuating systemic injustice: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees” (Isa 10:1). Jesus spoke about God’s government – the kingdom of heaven – more than any other topic: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)  I believe Jesus’s jubilee mission to free the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) presents a marching order for white Christians to pursue racial reconciliation.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

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.).

Loving the grad student in your life

Christian Courier recently published an article by Meghan Kort on how to love the grad student in your life. She begins by explaining a bit about the mental health challenges of grad school and then provides wisdom about “how churches, families, and friends can show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives. The following are some helpful (and unhelpful) questions that she provides that can help you reach out to, encourage, and love the grad students that you encounter.

  1. Asking what they’re going to do when they graduate is unhelpful because “life rarely moves as planned.” They know that there’s probably not a huge niche for their expertise “but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.”
  2. Helpful: “Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” You probably have little connection to their specific topic but you might just have connections with the how and why they came to study that topic.
  3. and 4. Not so helpful: “How is your thesis going?” or “When will you be finished?” A variation of these questions are found in PhD comic’s second most popular comic on what accounts for bad manners in grad school.
  4. Better questions might be “How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing?”

We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.

We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.

the new American dream?

In talking with young adults about the American dream, it became obvious that the faults in the American dream are more obvious to a generation that isn’t looking to pursue that same dream. The traditional American dream seems to value getting more things (prosperity) and having a better position in life (success and upward social mobility) without taking into account how society does not reward everyone’s hard work equally.

The millennial generation has come to recognize that they will probably not have a better life than their parents: they will probably not be better off, a reality that seems to be reinforced by high student debt and underemployment. The American dream, except for one subsidized by one’s parents, no longer seems possible for many.

Perhaps partly because the dream no longer seems realistic, millennials seem less focused on obtaining more things or trying to obtain upward social mobility. Instead, they seem to reject pursuing stability, recognizing that it is illusive anyways, and choose instead for something else, like experiences. Commitment and stability – key aspects of the American dream – look different now than in previous generations. There is high commitment to ideals and people, but there is limited commitment to institutions (e..g, churches), places, and even a specific jobs.

While most churches do not argue for the prosperity gospel, which one could argue is a Christianized version of the American dream, most churches still thrive on commitment and stability. This new version of the American dream is not something churches have easily adapted to: there is an opportunity for people to have new experiences through high quality worship and service projects, but it’s hard to fulfill the ideals when people’s lives are less stable. Authentic community generally takes time and commitment, and active pursuit of knowledge, while possible to convey through quality sermons, takes conversations in which trust has been built, something which requires a certain level of time and willingness to be vulnerable with each other. In the area of ideals and desires, church and society seems to be clashing, and so it is not surprising that many young adults struggle with finding churches where they belong.

Young Adults in the Church

This past summer I participated in a panel discussion on young adults in the church. I argued that young adults very much want to belong to Christian community. In order to feel like they belong, though, they need to be given space for honesty and difficult questions, along with having potentially different life situations, like being single or needing to commit so much time to their discipline/profession.

The following provides further details of what we talked about, as reported by Chris Meehan.

“A Love-Hate Relationship with the Church: Ministering to Young Adults Today” was hosted by Matt Ackerman and panelists Tyler Helfers, Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink, and Jamie VanderBerg — all of whom are campus chaplains.

They started by giving some U.S. and Canadian statistics about young adults.

In the U.S., Tyler Helfers said, people who identify as “nones” — or having no religious affiliation — are growing. This group was only 7 percent of the population in 1990, but grew to 23 percent of the population by 2014. Of those who identify as “nones,” 33 percent are in the millennial, or young-adult, age group.

In Canada, Jamie VanderBerg pointed out, there are statistical differences in comparison to the situation in the U.S. Church attendance, for example, is even less than in the U.S. across the board, with only 23 percent attending church in Canada on a monthly basis. . .

Despite this decline in formal church attendance, many young people still consider themselves “spiritual,” a term that may be hard to define and yet also seems to imply young people are seeking an experience of God.

“Churches need to create a space to ask questions and have conversations,” said VanderBerg. He also pointed out that many young people are very missional and want to get actively involved in service to others at home or beyond.”

Evangelicals vs. Academics

I don’t think I can ever say enough about the challenges that Christian academics face, both in allowing their Christianity to affect their academic work as well as bringing their academic selves into the church.

Alan Jacobs points out the tendency of evangelicals and academics to see each other as the enemy (i.e., the repugnant cultural other (RCO)):

Many academics would be surprised, I think, to discover how many evangelical Christians are political moderates or simply apolitical and how much they do to help the poor and needy in their communities with no spiritual strings attached. Similarly, many evangelicals would be surprised to learn how hard many academics work, whatever their political views (and many of them are apolitical also), to be fair to all their students, regardless of the students’ beliefs, and how much they worry about not being as fair as they should be. For many academics, evangelical Christians are the RCO; for many evangelical Christians, academics play that role. And having an RCO is one of the best ways to form and maintain group identity. Recent research by the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood indicate that, in terms of social belonging, “outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.” That is, it’s more important to hate the RCO than to affirm and support the people who agree with you. How do I know you’re One of Us? Because you hate the right people.

Quoted from Paul Vanderklay.