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Young adults DO connect with church — but often far beyond the church walls

In a nation where increasing numbers of people are declaring them to be affiliated with no religious tradition, what does it take to involve young adults in church? That’s a question congregations all over the country ask — sometimes trying for a quick fix by adding contemporary music or putting up a sign out front saying “Please Join Us!” 

In other cases, however, those who work with young adults are shifting their focus from how to get them to come to worship at 11 a.m. Sunday to paying attention to what young adults say they want and need. Some may be lukewarm or skeptical about organized religion, or even alienated by it. They may care a lot, however, about serving others and caring for the Earth and working for justice, about living meaningful and intentional lives.

Some ministries are trying to step outside the walls of traditional church life and practices to connect with young adults — to meet them where they are, not necessarily where others think they should be.

Diversity. Walt Tennyson is the chaplain at Rhodes College, a Presbyterian-related school in Memphis, Tenn. There, he works with students in a variety of contexts, including with the Kinney Program, through which more than eight in 10 Rhodes students participate in local public service, and through the Bonner Scholars program, which combines scholarship and community service.

Tennyson, a Presbyterian minister, describes the religious culture at Rhodes as “hugely dynamic,” from students who remain closely tied to the religious tradition in which they grew up, to those who keep a deliberate distance from organized religion. A common denominator among many of the students, however, is a desire to connect with the broader world — people of other countries, religions and experiences.

He’s seen, for example, real enthusiasm among college students for interfaith experiences. “Our students really enjoy experiencing other peoples’ religious beliefs and traditions and services,”  Tennyson said. “Probably the most dynamic religious role I have is leading our interfaith group on campus.”

Service. Many look for opportunities for community service. Students who may not be churchgoers volunteer with Streets, an evangelical ministry that serves children in one of the poorest ZIP codes in the country.

Rhodes students teach pottery, painting and other artistic skills in the “More than Art” program at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, which provides creative opportunities to disadvantaged people. Former Rhodes student Justin Deere helped to expand the Idlewild program to create “Unsheltered: Unseen,” a project through which homeless people were given disposable cameras and asked to make photographs of the way they see Memphis — photographs later displayed in an art gallery. Some Rhodes students also participate in “More than a Meal,” a program at Idlewild Presbyterian to build relationships between the church community and people from the nearby neighborhood for whom affordable shelter can pose a challenge.

I really do think conversation is the most important ministry that can be provided,” Tennyson said. “People need places to tell their stories, and they need to connect to others. The hard part of that is that congregational outreach has always been set up to add members. It’s so counterintuitive, especially for congregations that feel stressed numbers-wise, not to have an agenda” of recruiting more members.

Relationship. McKenna Lewellen, 20, is a Rhodes student from Scottsdale, Ariz. She grew up a Methodist, and came into the Bonner program wanting to work with low-income communities. In Memphis, she has worked with a new church development helping people in recovery in an inner-city neighborhood called Highland Heights, and now works with a nonprofit group in the Binghamton neighborhood called the Center for Transforming Communities. Lewellen, who is considering a career in ministry, says the work she’s done has left a permanent mark on her life and on her theology.

In the short time I have been in Memphis, I have been challenged and humbled,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “I typically spend 10 hours per week at my placement in meetings or behind my desk, but in the last year, I’ve been spending more time walking around the neighborhood, getting to know people, allowing myself to be curious, asking about stories and sharing pieces of my own. I have learned that authenticity is valued more than forced commonality or, as the church might put it, relevance. The neighbors don’t need me to be like them, because though we can find shared experiences in our stories, I am not a 20-year-old African-American woman living in the ’hood. I am a 20-year-old white female attending a competitive liberal arts school. As I walk through neighborhoods and through stories, the most important thing I can do is honor fully who I am: my story, my worldview, my passions, my faith and my dreams.” 

She also wrote she had learned that “while charity is sweet for a moment, and service is fulfilling for a time, there is no substitute for real relationship. Serving a man a bowl of soup will warm his stomach and perhaps warm my heart. But receiving counsel and support from a recently recovered drug addict and ex-convict is something that will always pierce my stubborn assumptions and expose my deepest prejudice. I haven’t just felt God’s metaphorical embrace —  I’ve been picked up and held in His arms as near-strangers hug me after a hard week. I haven’t just seen evidence of His Word —  I’ve heard it spoken to me from the mouth of someone society calls unclean and unlovable. I’ve learned that Jesus wasn’t joking around when He said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of least who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Empower. Among young adults, Emily Corzine was one of the exceptions. As a graduate student in Bloomington, Ind., “I felt like there was something deep inside that needed to be nurtured,”  so she would get up on Sunday mornings while other students slept and go to worship. When she moved to Columbus, Ohio, after graduation, she looked up Presbyterian churches in the phone book, determined to work her way through the alphabet until she found one she liked.

Corzine made it to the Bs — to Broad Street Presbyterian Church, where she connected, in time felt a call to seminary, and now serves as the interim director of mission and young adult ministry.

The young adults at Broad Street “are very intentional about how they live out their faith lives, not only on a Sunday but throughout the week,” Corzine said. “They’re hungry for a place where they can put their faith into action.”

And Broad Street has been equally intentional about calling on the gifts of young adults in leadership — inviting young adults to serve as elders on session and in decisive roles in outreach ministries such as the food pantry, the farmers’ market and after-school tutoring. “That is an intentional move on the part of the congregation to say, ‘We value you,’ ” Corzine said.

Broad Street also tries to make space for relationships to grow — to follow, for example, a morning spent serving breakfast at a nearby mission with a time of theological reflection about the experience. There are intergenerational mission trips and opportunities to connect faith with advocacy and justice.

Young adults have a wealth of knowledge,” Corzine said. “They always bring something to the table.”