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Bridging the gap: Engaging young adults in faith and social justice

The Young Adult Advocacy Conference, hosted in Charlotte this fall, aims to show young people the connection between faith and justice work, both historically and today.

Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Mission Agency.

As the participation of young adults in organized Christianity declines, participation in advocacy and justice work seems to be on the rise. Some Presbyterian leaders are working to bridge that gap.

“There’s a big disconnect,” said Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. “Young people are emotionally engaged in justice issues. Many movements around the country are not only participated in by young adults but led by them, such as March for Our Lives. But young adults don’t see that churches are engaged in justice and advocacy.”

Ryan Burge of the Springtide Research Institute has found that most teens and young adults still consider themselves religious and/or spiritual, but trust in organized religion has declined sharply in younger generations. In “The State of Religion & Young People 2023: Exploring the Sacred,” a survey of more than 4,000 young people ages 13 to 25, Springtide noted that, “in reference to organized religion, young people are three times more likely to say that they “do not trust at all” than they are to say that they “trust completely.” 

Through the Young Adult Advocacy Conference, Hawkins and his team seek to bridge social justice advocacy and faith to reach young people who haven’t seen their churches or communities live out that connection before. The conference, which is free to attend, also introduces young people to other opportunities to work for justice alongside Presbyterian leaders, organizations and partners.

2023 YAAC participants and leaders. Photo courtesy of Jimmie Hawkins.

The first iteration of the conference took place in Louisville in fall of 2023 and gathered 45 participants along with 20 staff from various PC(USA) offices. For three days, the group worshiped, attended workshops on a range of social justice topics, and participated in an action together — marching to a local bank where a mass shooting took place in April 2023. 

The second iteration of the conference will take place this fall in Charlotte, North Carolina, and follow a similar format. The hope, Hawkins noted, is to emphasize gathering local participants and highlight local causes, organizers and advocacy opportunities.

Evan Baker, a junior at Iowa State University, chose to participate in last year’s conference because he hasn’t had many opportunities to ask hard questions about the relationship between Christianity and social issues that concerned him, like the environment and racial equity. Baker said the conference expanded his understanding of how the PC(USA) is involved in advocacy and helped him build new connections. The march, in particular, made an impact.

“It was a really empowering moment. We met each other the day before and here we are marching, making a difference, and making our voices heard,” he said.

As he returned to Iowa State, he was inspired to organize a new group within his campus ministry focused on community organizing for social justice. In response to the charge that advocacy requires action, the group lobbied state legislators at the Iowa capitol with regard to a few pressing bills. Baker plans to stay involved with the advocacy opportunities available through the denomination.

“I’m hoping to continue building connections with people and branch out on the resources that I know of and have available,” he said, adding that he is interested in various internship and fellowship opportunities available through the Office of Public Witness. 

Baker’s experience aligns with Hawkins’ hope that the conference will expose young people to the church’s historical and present justice and advocacy movements. He hopes young adults who participate in the conference might go on to consider other denominational offerings from his office and others, such as supervised field education opportunities, the summer justice fellows program, and the potential to advocate alongside other Presbyterians in Congress or at the United Nations.

Ivy Lopedito, a mission associate for the Office of Public Witness, manages the Young Adult Advocacy Conference, among other events. She said stories like Baker’s, where “justice advocacy and faith collide for young people,” are what motivate the conference. From the planning stages through the event’s execution, Office of Public Witness staff emphasize young adult leadership and engagement. 

“Our leadership team is majority young people. It’s fantastic to have intergenerational community, and it’s amazing for young people to hear from other young people who are doing the work,” Lopedito said. “We have young people leading workshops, on panels, and giving sermons. In the past, we’ve seen a model of young people listening to an older generation. We want it to be more integrated with young people talking to one another about doing the work.”

2023 YAAC Leadership: Christina Cosby, Maggie Collins, Ivy Lopedito, me, Hayley Scheir, Lauren Rogers. Photo courtesy of Jimmie Hawkins.

For the second event, scheduled for October 18-20 in Charlotte, the office is partnering with Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte, and working with campus ministers, activists and congregations throughout the Charlotte area to recruit participants and workshop leaders, and to organize the local action. They hope to replicate this in other locations across the U.S. over the next few years to make leadership development and deeper connections with the larger church available to as many young people as possible.

“We want it to be a local and regional event, and we want to hold it in different regions so more young adults have access to it,” Hawkins said. The event will evolve to meet the needs of participants and communities.

The regional focus, along with the inclusion of the arts as part of advocacy and the leadership of Presbyterian ministers and denominational staff from across the country, help make the event special both for participants and a meaningful opportunity for the denomination, Lopedito said.

“Ultimately we are seeking a more prosperous planet for God’s people by helping justice advocacy and faith collide for young people,” she said.

Learn more about the conference and register here.