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Cutting Edges: God Is At Work Among Young Adults!

Cutting Edges

By Dr. Reginald Blount, Assistant Professor of Formation, Youth, and Culture and Director, Garrett-Evangelical Young Adult Initiative Innovation Hub

Where is God at work in the lives of young adults? This is a prevalent question as growing research speaks of the rising decline of church membership among Millennials (those young adults born between 1984-2000). While some Millennials are still striving to find nourishment in traditional congregational settings, many others are seeking, finding, or creating alternative communities to nourish their spiritual life. 

In light of this new reality, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, along with 11 other institutions, was invited by the Lilly Endowment Inc. to serve as a young adult innovation hub to assist congregations in better understanding the generational culture of Millennials, wrestle with what role the congregation should play in the lives of young adults, and design faithforming and life-flourishing ministries with young adults. 

We are excited to have completed Phase One of our work! In the first phase, we identified 10 congregations to serve as Mentor Congregations. These are congregations we believe are already reaching young adults well. A young adult was selected from each mentoring congregation to serve as a congregational fellow. With the help of Dr. Dori Baker (G-ETS 2000), our research director, and our consultant, Dr. Tobin Belzer, the fellows were trained in an ethnographic approach we call “Holy Listening.” All congregational fellows conducted three-hour interviews with young adults from their congregations regarding their lives as young adults both inside and outside the church.

The team of fellows later came together to analyze and synthesize their interviews. Bethany Stolle, of Stolle Creative, led our fellows and hub team in a style of empathic analysis that brought the interviewees to life before our eyes. Here are some things that we learned from the interviews: 

  • Young adults see the church like a family—always there for them, even if they only rarely show up. One young adult put it this way, “The church is always there—even if I’m not.”
  • Young adults are passionate about the causes that they care about. They sincerely want to make the world a better, more equal place. This sometimes shows up in church or religious commitments, but not always. Some young adults are employed in careers that are centered around justice work and are looking for church to be a place that nurtures and supports them. Others perform activism or justice work within the context of their church commitment
  • Young adults do not want the church to be a place that is always judging and correcting them. They are looking for nurture, acceptance, and help—whether it is with spiritual matters or more practical matters.
  • Many of the interviewees were thoughtful and eloquent about their faith or lack thereof. It is something they take seriously, even if what they take seriously is their atheism or agnosticism.
  • Institutions continue to be less important and relevant to young adults.

We culminated Phase One with a two-day consultation that engaged the voices of denominational leaders, academics, practitioners, and representatives from our congregational fellows. Together we explored the questions, “Where are you seeing God at work in the lives of young adults?” and “What do congregations need to know about young adults to better engage or come alongside young adults?” The two-day consultation was a productive time of intense conversation, gratitude, and hope.

Phase Two has already begun with the recruitment of 12 Launching Congregations (congregations that have a strong desire to be in effective ministry with young adults but are not currently). Together with Mentoring Congregations, each congregation will identify a team of persons who will attend a “Religious and Spiritual Lives of Young Adults” spring weekend course at Garrett-Evangelical. The course includes teaching on the generational culture of Millennials as well as design thinking approaches to assist congregations who will design and implement an innovative ministry project with young adults.

I am grateful for our Innovation Hub Team and for the amazing work done to complete Phase One and the launching of Phase Two. I encourage you to visit our webpage, Garrett.edu/YoungAdultMinistry, often for continued updates from the Innovation Hub Team.