The Church and young adults: out of sight, out of mind

By Amy McCreath

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?

People: We will.

Raise your hand if you heard these words at an Easter service recently. OK, that’s over half of you, I bet. These words are taken, of course, from the rite for Holy Baptism, and in many congregations, baptisms are celebrated in the midst of Easter Vigils, in accord with ancient custom.

Raise your hand if you meant what you said when you answered “We will.”

Great. Good for you. But what did you mean? How will you support these persons in their life in Christ, and for how long? Does your obligation mean volunteering to teach Church School regularly? Does it mean contributing financially to the diocesan summer camp they attend? What about after they are confirmed – Will you continue to do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ then? How about when they are off at college or graduate school?

For the past eight years, I’ve been blessed to work with college students, many of whom grew up in Episcopal or Lutheran congregations around the US and Canada. The good news is that, in general, they are hungry for deeper faith, chasing after God with undefended hearts, and thrilled for whatever opportunities the church offers them to learn and to lead. The other news is that the congregations in which they were baptized generally have done nothing to “support them in their life in Christ” since they were confirmed (often at the tender age of twelve or thirteen) and very rarely do anything to help them connect with a faith community when they leave home. I think this is a big problem. I want to tell you why and start a conversation about how to address it.

The folks who study developmental psychology and spiritual development have been telling us for years that late adolescence and early adulthood are critical times for establishing personal identity, probing faith commitments, and developing what Sharon Daloz Parks calls “worthy dreams.” They also tell us that having a “mentoring community” makes all the difference for how successfully one navigates the challenges of this inner work. A mentoring community is a group that helps a person sort through his or her questions and experiences, providing a healthy balance of challenge and support as they work towards a more mature, authentic personal faith. It can be a college chaplaincy, a parish, a Bible study group, a service corps, a summer camp staff, or any number of things; the key thing is that it happens and they can find it.

Now here’s something really interesting: Recent research shows that this work of finding faith and developing worthy dreams now extends well into a person’s twenties. The average age at which people marry and start families has risen in recent decades. Getting through college and graduate school takes longer than it used to. Hardly anyone get a job with a major corporation at the age of 21 and stays put forever anymore. Most people in their twenties haven’t made the transitions historically associated with “adulthood.” (If you want to know more about this phenomenon, read Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s excellent book, Emerging Adulthood.) My observation as a chaplain is that this leaves a lot of graduate students wandering about, unsure where to find community, who to turn to for the mentoring and development of life skills they yearn for, and afraid to walk into churches where, they assume, people have “figured things out.”

When late adolescents and young adults do connect with communities of faith, they milk them for all they are worth: they get involved, ask questions, volunteer, and make lots of (usually excellent) suggestions about how the church can get address injustices in the world. When they don’t connect with communities of faith, they put aside their questions and yearnings and focus on other things, usually their academic and social lives. As Tim Clydesdale explains in a great on-line article, they will “stow their (often vague) religious and spiritual identities in an identity lockbox,” stick the lockbox on a metal shelf, and only return to it after college or graduate school.

We too often assume that if a young adult is not participating in a faith community, it is on purpose. We assume they have made a conscious decision not to connect. Or they have been “turned off” by something. That does happen, of course, but a lot of times, our assumptions are unfounded. Often they simply did not see us. There’s a man who attends the same church I do on Sundays who is an MIT graduate. He asked me one day how long there has been an Episcopal ministry at MIT. I told him it went back to the mid 1950s. “You mean it was there when I was a student there?” he said with astonishment. Turns out, he lived in the dormitory located directly across the street from the Chapel. But he never noticed the sign outside the Chapel listing our services, never saw the posters for our services, and was never personally invited to an event. “I would have loved to have been involved! How I needed it then!” he said with regret.

The students who do find chaplaincies or parishes while they are at college often were referred to them by their priest back home. Here I want to give a shout out to the bishops of the Diocese of Connecticut, who actively assist the parishes in their diocese in getting young people connected to faith communities when they go to college. And they let chaplains and parish priests know to look for the young people who are coming, too. If every diocese followed their lead, I am sure that every year hundreds more young Episcopalians would find faith communities when they leave home.

Parish leaders can also help young adults by simply staying in touch with them. Get their email addresses and send them a note periodically. Take them out for coffee when they are home for Thanksgiving and ask them not just about their classes but about their souls. Don’t be afraid to ask about their suffering, their relationships, their questions. Share stories about your own struggles, too. Let them know that faith is a journey with bumps and challenges and don’t try to convince them out of their uncertainty. Listen well. Let them know you’re praying for them.

Youth group leaders, Journey to Adulthood leaders, diocesan camp directors, Happening leaders, and diocesan youth ministry coordinators have a vital role to play, too. Take time to talk with seniors about what to expect in college. Encourage them to seek out a community of faith and help them figure out how to do that. Bring back alums who are in college now to talk about what college is like spiritually. If lots of your teens go on to a local college or university that has an Episcopal chaplaincy, bring the chaplain or a student leader from the chaplaincy in to talk about what’s happening.

These are some of my thoughts about what it means to “support these persons in their life in Christ.” I look forward to hearing yours.

The Rev. Amy McCreath is the Episcopal chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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