This is one of four articles reflecting on my early experiences and discoveries of the US church when it comes to reaching and discipling young adults. I have no assumption that all of these learnings are true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. However, I do hope you find this perspective a helpful challenge. So here’s a bit of insight from an “outsider” from Europe, who’s now living and serving churches and college students here in the US.
It might not be true everywhere, but here in Florida as young adults begin university, many also gradually begin questioning the influence of Christianity on their lives. Whether that be through the gift of hindsight on the way they were raised by church-going parents, or the teaching they heard from a youth pastor that doesn’t seem to be what everyone was taught now they’re making new friends, questions start to bubble up. It could be they notice the difference now they aren’t in the culture they had to conform to at a Christian private school, or as they are exposed to more people and ideas from different places in the world, they start to wonder about the water they’ve been swimming in here in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the southern American states. The life transition to college seems to be the first real opportunity these students have to deconstruct their faith more openly, to make eye contact with some of the nagging doubts they’ve had since middle school. It’s a time to choose whether to take their faith forwards for themselves or not, as they establish who they are on campus.
Having come from the UK with over a decade of experience working with young adults and local churches in Europe, wading into the waters of cultural Christianity in America has been quite the learning curve. I remember bits of deconstruction with friends growing up, as the last dregs of post-Christian influence drained away in my late high school years, but not much. My last ten years of working amongst university students and local churches have felt like introducing people to Jesus and his church for the first time, not reframing the experiences, assumptions and often negative views they’ve already got, and trying to reconstruct a better, truer picture. In the UK the good news often feels both good and news to young adults. We really are working with people who have never heard or experienced Jesus, his way, his family, his power. It’s an extraordinary opportunity and one I hope encourages you that moving to a post-Christian and then even pre-Christian culture has its advantages.
Here in Florida, everyone has some connection, experience, and opinion on Jesus, Christianity, and the church. To enter into meaningful friendship and conversation about faith with the emerging generation of college students, is to enter into a construction site. Or more accurately, a deconstruction site. There’s lots going on, which presents a real opportunity for our involvement. There are things being torn down, other new rooms being built up, structures being analyzed, dust and rubble everywhere in one corner of the house, another whole room left totally unnoticed and untouched from the bulldozers. This place may look messy but it’s very much being lived in.
The way young adults form friendships, approach their studies, decide if they’ll be part of a local church or not, and whether that is just a Sunday attendance thing or more personal engagement with the community mid-week, are open to interpretation. Whether they will drink openly, secretly, wait until they’re 21 or never touch a drop, and whether Jesus has as much of an opinion on it as their grandparents do… it’s all being wrestled with. Theology around human sexuality, in fact sexual expression in general, is now being spoken about more openly (it was already a normal conversation at school, just maybe not in church). Occasionally even words like ‘traumatizing’ or ‘abusive’ are thrown around regarding heavy handedness experienced in home church teaching, leadership styles, or the treatment they experienced if they strayed away from the community’s expectations. For some, it’s hell that is freaking them out even though they are wondering if and why they believe in it anyway. Double Instagram accounts allow the parents and campus ministries to see one life, and their new college friends to see the other. Still others have managed to pack their schedules so full of Christian meetings and groups on campus, they haven’t had time to sit alone with themselves and Jesus and actually figure out how they’re really doing. It is a painful, personal, scary and necessary thing for college students to start to go to work on their faith as they enter young adulthood, but it looks like a scrambled mess a lot of the time. A deconstruction site.
This picture isn’t painted to discourage us. But I do want to highlight the reality that not everyone leaves home for university in a place of thriving faith and secure identity. My encouragement to any of us reading this in the American church, those who are wanting to get involved in the lives and discipleship journeys of young adults, is simply: don’t put on your protective clothing. When we come across signs notifying us that we are about to enter a construction site and that hard hats must be worn, that may be safe and wise for physical building projects but it is the opposite of what young people need in their deconstruction sites.
Students need friends who are older in faith and life, to walk alongside them as they knock down walls and resize rooms and ask big questions about the foundations of the whole structure they’ve grown up in. Friends who are not guarded, not on the defense, not looking to jump in and correct, armed with a hammer of “biblical truth” and a dust sheet that protects them from getting any of the young adult vulnerability mess on themselves, and their clean and neat faith clothing.
Let us put down our hard hats and prepare to get dusty. Keep an open and alert mind to what is happening for the students as they voice their doubts and questions. Listen out for the Holy Spirit’s prompting around good things to ask and where the pain of past experiences might need to be prayed through and healed gradually, as they face their own stories. Let’s drop our hammers and get off our machinery. We do not need to drive through the holes in their arguments or help them smash down walls faster, just so we can get on with building up the truth for them. Disarm ourselves and stay present to them. Keep listening more than we talk. Keep praying. Keep being real and vulnerable with our own faith journey too, and don’t apologize for offering prayer, encouragement in Scripture and words of faith to them, even if they seem far off. Just be real and humble. Keep offering the hand of friendship and keep remembering, Jesus is not defensive and insecure about himself, his power, his love, his saving grace. He’s not afraid of mess and dust and deconstruction. He is actually the God who came all the way to the building site of humanity and got his hands dirty, with no protective gear to shield him from the pain of it all. And somehow in the mess, true life was made possible.
So church of the US, let us not be afraid of deconstruction but expect and invite it. Let us pray that as our young adults go to work on their faith and life, they might in fact be like those spoken of in Isaiah 61, rebuilders of a renewed future that looks and tastes way more like the Kingdom of God than anything the culture served them up before.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
Miriam Swanson has worked for Fusion in the UK and Europe for the best part of a decade. She recently moved to Florida, married an American and is now seeking to help local churches reach college students in the US. To get in touch with Miriam about this, check her links below and don't forget to browse the Fusion website for more blogs, resources and stories of God at work through his church in the universities.
[Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash]
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