Many young adults are spiritually thirsty and looking for a multigenerational church community, one that provides not just same-age friends but mentors and opportunities to hone leadership skills.
That was among the revelations of a Young Adult Summit hosted October 10-12 by Bishop Neil Alexander of the Diocese of Atlanta at Mikell Camp and Conference Center in North Georgia. Joining him were 25 young adults from three dioceses (Alabama, Atlanta and Georgia) and a small staff of workshop leaders.
"The church doesn't know how to serve young adults, and young adults don't know how to serve the church," remarked Julie Zorn, a marketer with Cypress Communications, during a workshop.
Working to change that are Zorn and other members of the steering committee for Diocese of Atlanta Young Adults (DAYA), which began forming more than two years ago.
Most of the young men and women in the core group were at the same challenging point in their lives -- just starting careers and on their own for the first time. But if they did venture out to new churches, they did not always find them the friendly places they remembered from childhood.
"It was hard to go (to church) by myself," said Sarah Blizzard, a fund-raiser for CARE. "I enjoyed the (worship) service, but when I went looking for a young-adults box to check on the pew card, it wasn't there."
Finding a way to connect with a church is one of the biggest challenges for young adults. Many clergy, who may be eager to welcome them, often incorrectly assume they would make good youth leaders. "That's something many of us feel unprepared for or simply aren't interested in," said Lauren Woody, DAYA's president and the Atlanta diocese's new young adult ministry coordinator.
"Over the last two years, we've come to realize that we're responsible for taking the initiative and for getting things done on our own," Woody added. "We planned this summit to provide resources and a chance to come together to talk about what our ministries can be."
In addition to an opening-night talk by Alexander, who described his own spiritual journey, the summit included worship and workshops focusing on spiritual growth, leadership and service. Recreation (a hike and some intense games of four-square) was built in, too.
How to serve
During an evening panel discussion, the bishop and DAYA leaders addressed topics that are central to young adults and the church: how to form community and how to be of service in a parish and beyond.
Dana King, a community planner at Georgia Tech, moved to Atlanta six years ago knowing only one other person -- her brother. In examining her new life, she realized she had been happiest when she was part of "a strong community in a religious context."
At the Cathedral of St. Philip, King found clergy willing to listen and who saw young- adult ministry as vital. But she noted she also found "a leadership void" when it came to planning anything. She seized this as an opportunity.
King started by scheduling a social hour for young adults at a local pub. She was at first anxious that no one would show up, but there are now about 30 regulars at happy hour and twice that in the "20s & 30s" group that gathers several times a year, she said. "I don't care how big or how small the turnout," King said.
Sharon Hiers, director of youth and young adult formation for St. Bartholomew's, Atlanta, said her parish offers a weekly Sunday dinner and Compline for anyone between 18 and 35. To help the parish become more aware of the group, she has persuaded vestry members take turns preparing the meals.
Weekend service projects are something the young adults have taken on eagerly. When a new coat of paint or a yard clean-up has been needed at one of their parishes, a group from DAYA volunteered.
Young adults also are looking for mentors, said Sean Holder, a graduate student at Auburn University in Alabama. "Being a young adult is often like being in a nomadic tribal community," he said, and having mentors in a parish can be helpful and grounding.
Woody cautioned about lumping together young adults with youth ministries in a parish.
"The church," said Alexander, "has a habit of grouping its youth starting with the cradle roll. We have to stop and ask ourselves: At what point do we become fully part of the church? You are the parish."
The Rev. Paul McCabe, curate at St. Edward's, Lawrenceville, and spiritual advisor to DAYA, said, "The power is yours to do something for the church. Don't ask permission to start a group in your parish; just get started."
Said Woody, "It's important to remember that we develop our leadership skills by trial and error ... Don't forget that Jesus was creating the church at our age!"
While young adults are working on finding their places in various parishes in the Diocese of Atlanta, DAYA provides the support network with activities that bring them together: "Sunday's Cool," a monthly brunch at a centrally located eatery; Movie Night; and weekend Frisbee matches at Atlanta's Piedmont Park. A small-group Bible study is in the works.
Woody summed up the church and its young adults this way: "As children, everything at church was handed to you. When you leave for college, unless part of a vital campus ministry, you get dropped out and have to find a way back into the church. If we're lucky, we might get you back when you're around 30. With DAYA, we're building a bridge."
Afterwards, Alexander said he found the Young Adult Summit "a great affirmation that these faithful folks aren't the church of tomorrow but the church of right now. Their love for the church and its mission in the name of Jesus is a wonderful and inspiring gift to us."