Our church’s young adults

Are they subversive or substantial?
September 30, 2004

Lindsay Lunnum, a 20-something New Yorker enjoying a Saturday night out with old and new friends, lounged in a laid-back bar, listening to laughter and good music. The party was still going strong when she stood to say her goodbyes.

“The night’s still young,” said a girl who had just met her that evening. She asked Lunnum why she was leaving when everyone was having so much fun.

“I have church in the morning.”

Silence. At first bemused, then somewhat hostile but genuinely curious, the group stared up at her. “It truly feels countercultural to be a Christian at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night,” says Lunnum, a member of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church -- affectionately known as St. Bart’s -- in New York. “It’s both the hour that the party just seems to have warmed itself up and also the time that I need to go to bed if I’m going to make it to church in the morning.”

The Episcopal Church considers people like Lunnum and her friends a high priority. The 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis allocated $1 million for ministries with young people, and there is a strong sense that this is a generation the Episcopal Church must understand better and bring further into the life of the church.

Young adults are as diverse as the church itself. Lunnum, for example, joined the Episcopal Church as an adult and now ushers, serves as a lay Eucharistic minister and helped organize St. Bart’s 20s/30s group. Graduate student Uchenna Ukaegbu -- a cradle Episcopalian -- takes time away from her studies at the University of Michigan to serve on the board of trustees of Canterbury House and as a member of the Episcopal Church Foundation’s board of directors.

Reaching folks like Lunnum, Ukaegbu and their peers presents a challenge to every parish, diocese and Episcopal ministry. Luckily, there are young adults more than willing to share their experiences of the Episcopal Church and what the church does -- and could -- offer them.

Easy to fall through the cracks

For young people, Ukaegbu says, the church can sometimes be “... a holy, hole-y structure, where one can hang on and pull oneself in, but where it might just be easier to let go and fall through.”

She finds herself most attracted to parishes and ministries that address “the specific challenges of a young person: How do I figure out what I’m supposed to do with my life? How do I keep from feeling lonely ... after living with my parents and before starting a family of my own? How do I recognize and honor the holy in myself?”

The folks in St. Bart’s 20s/30s Group have been asking themselves similar questions. Their e-bulletins of activities and messages reach more than 350 people every week, and the group is an active, visible part of St. Bart’s life. The turning point came last January when Lunnum, as chair, asked: What should be the group’s purpose?

“Overwhelmingly, the responses were: relationships, fellowship, and friendship. For most of us, our primary groups of friends don’t come to church,” Lunnum says. “We sit alone in the pews until we find each other.”

The group’s focus has evolved more toward building community and a cohesive group, and the results are evident, she said. “On Sundays, we know we have a group of people who are happy to see us.”

Steve Walton, who writes a monthly column about life, spirituality and the Episcopal Church from a Generation X point of view for The Advocate, the Diocese of Lexington’s newspaper, echoes the importance of community and its role in his church life. Walton grew up in the Episcopal Church and has worked as a youth leader.

“I think a community is what we’re really wanting,” he says. “I don’t want to go in and have a religious experience by myself. If I wanted to do that, I could stay home.”

The Rev. Douglas Fenton, staff officer for young adult ministry in the Episcopal Church which serves those aged 19 to 30, speaks about the importance of inviting “young adults to be with us in a relationship. It doesn’t matter what else we do. ... All of the church is about relationships and how we interact with one another.”

Brian Pahed, a member of St. John’s/Holy Child in Los Angeles, serves as a convener of youth and young adults for the Episcopal Asian American Ministry. In his experience, “the first and most difficult step in reaching out to young people is the creation of an atmosphere that allows them to feel welcome.

“Once there is a group of young adults that converse and socialize with each other,” he says, “then we move into the steps of incorporating faith and spirit into things.”

Finding that sense of community, particularly when a parish may have few other young adults, can be challenging. One such couple, Katie and Matt Harbison, direct a thriving youth program at St. Peter’s Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., which is their way of being a vital part of parish life. They say they are more likely to see other 20-something Episcopalians at local and regional gatherings than in their church each Sunday.

“If there are people our age [in church], they’re probably going to be youth directors,” says Katie Harbison.

Authenticity is crucial

Some churches add contemporary worship to their Sunday schedules, thinking such services appeal more to young adults. But for many younger newcomers, it’s the church’s liturgical traditions that draw them in. Matt Harbison, who grew up Baptist, became an Episcopalian a few years ago.

“The liturgy is a new discovery,” he says. “Every Sunday ... it becomes a little more meaningful to me ... and I’m really starting to enjoy the seasons in the liturgical year.”
At St. Bart’s, most young adults attend the 11 a.m. choral Eucharist on Sunday rather than the 7 p.m. contemporary service. St. Bart’s experience isn’t unusual, Lunnum says. “I think the typical reaction the church has to young people is [to offer] alternative forms of worship. But I think what people in their 20s and 30s are seeking is ... the mystery, sanctuary. We want to enter into ancient traditions.”

The Episcopal Church’s diversity and respect for difference play an important role in Cornelia Eaton’s life in the church. She attends St. Michael’s Church in Upper Fruitland, N.M., and is a member of the Navajoland Area Mission Council. The recognition of and respect for her people’s traditional beliefs is a major factor in her faith.

“My mother ... shared with me that back in the days of my great-great-grandmother and grandfather ... there was no word for Christian, but they knew there was a higher power -- Creator -- who created all things great and small and that we were already Christian -- believers,” Eaton says. “I knew then that it was okay to be Navajo and Christian.”
In his work with churches and dioceses, Fenton has found no one type of worship or music style suits all young adults, any more than one type fits other groups in the church. Authenticity is what matters most.

“They’re really looking for people to be authentic in community,” he says. “When they come across that and are invited into it, that’s when they participate.”

A thirst and a hunger

During Lunnum’s experience with her friends on that late Saturday night, the conversation was about to end with an uncomfortable silence. “I’m spiritual, but I don’t think organized religion is for me,” a young man said, and then grinned at Lunnum, adding, “But you tell Jesus I said ‘hi,’ okay?”

The girl who first asked Lunnum why she was leaving was puzzled. “So, why do you go?” she asked.

Lunnum thought for a moment and said, “Well, it gives me a framework through which I can grow spiritually.” The girl didn’t look any less doubtful, so Lunnum tried again, “Look, my church doesn’t put me in a box, it gives me a structure. My questions are welcome, and everybody has them; that’s what keeps us coming back week after week.”
Lunnum’s new friend was cautious, but reluctantly intrigued. “Do you think I could meet you there sometime? You know, come check it out?” she asked.

“Sure,” Lunnum replied. “Come tomorrow, and we can sit in the pew and be tired together!”

Lunnum’s experience isn’t unusual. Walton’s friends and acquaintances know he always is open to conversation. “We’ll be playing pool somewhere and ... having a discussion about ... what is this Ash Wednesday about or what are those crazy Episcopalians doing now -- and just have a nice, open, frank dialogue. I think there is a thirst and a hunger for it.”

The young people Fenton meets, including those who don’t identify themselves with a certain faith or denomination, take their spiritual lives seriously. And they’re not afraid to discuss it.

“They’re interested in those conversations,” he says. “They’re seekers, they’re all interested in this spiritual life ... Young adults are looking to be engaged.”

Engaging people and being engaged by them is not always easy or comfortable, but active young Episcopalians often find themselves drawn into those conversations. After years of talking with peers about her faith, Ukaegbu has developed strategies. “When I am caught in these conversations, I try, if possible, to share my experiences in a very me-based fashion -- what my experience has been, not what I know the truth to be. I find that when I openly recognize the fact that our individual perceptions of truth are different, it ... creates a space more conducive for dialogue.”

Pahed, convenor for the youth and young adult Asiamerica ministry in Los Angeles, often talks with other Filipinos his age, many of whom are Roman Catholic. “As we talk about our religions, we notice how there are so many similarities to them. I feel that my life in the Episcopal Church has allowed me to be open to all their different beliefs, rather than feel that I need to contest [them].”

Eaton has experienced much the same thing in her own context. She recently spoke with someone who was confused about Native ceremonies and Christian worship in the church. “I mentioned that there are different people, different cultures, traditions, prayers, but One God. And his response was ‘Wow that makes sense!’ I hope I made a difference in his life.”

Reasons to hope

Lunnum, Walton and others say they believe the Episcopal Church is catching the interest of their peers and that they hope the church has the wisdom to ride that momentum.
“We are serious about the business of love,” says Walton. “It’s not just a big organized religion that does its thing, but we’re actively going out there and loving people. I think that will be a helpful evangelism tool to young people.”

“My friends are intrigued, curious ... that I buy into something so big and so seemingly mainstream, given the stereotypical tendency of young people to rebel against adults and authority,” says Ukaegbu. “Once you really come to understand and own your faith, it becomes something you can’t do without because it’s part of you, not just a fashion accessory to discard at will. It becomes the foundation for thinking what you think, for working where you work, for living how you live.”

Lunnum thinks young Episcopalians must take responsibility for correcting misapprehensions their friends may have about the church -- misapprehensions that may make them reluctant to step inside a church door for the first time.

“I’m not required to sign an oath that I believe everything in the Nicene Creed before I can belong,” she says, pointing to fears of rejection and rigidity that some of her peers have mentioned to her. “I think it’s the reverse -- you belong, and the community believes for you until you’re ready to believe.”

Much in the Episcopal Church gives Lunnum great hope for welcoming new young people in her parishes. “Maybe they’re not ready to come [to church] yet,” she says, “but if we continue to be responsible ... and faithful, ... if we recognize where God is moving in our culture, people will notice.”

To respond to this story, write to Episcopal Life (address, page 2) or e-mail letters@episcopal-life.org.

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