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.
In my last article about young adults feeling homeless from the local church, I touched upon one of the core reasons for this being around social justice. Basically, young people are caring more and more about the welfare of humanity, the climate crisis that is spiraling out of control, and issues of justice both locally and globally. Helpfully, the Biblical narrative bolsters up this commitment to justice and freedom for the oppressed, and so to be a Christian and an advocate for justice is both natural and highly likely given the character of God, “the one that brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” as he so often calls himself. And yet, we find that here lies a very crucial tension for young people in finding their place in the local church or the Christianity they are presented with here in the US.
As always, all my usual caveats for these reflections remain in place. There are countless examples of churches and Jesus followers all over the States serving those most in need, working to end systemic injustice, and genuinely doing the work Jesus declared he came to fulfill when he quoted Isaiah 61 at the start of his public ministry. A few weeks ago I myself was part of a food distribution effort by my local church as we fed families who had lost income or reserves during the pandemic and were now going hungry. And of course, well over half the workforce who showed up to serve were from the twenties and thirties age bracket. (A highlight from this day was seeing students handing out watermelons assisted by a four and a six year old… whatever we are calling the next generation after Gen Z, they are on the justice train too!)
However, as you can probably predict from the drama of 2020, young adults have been keenly watching and listening to see what their pastors and Christian role models would say and do when incidents of injustice once again broke the internet and went viral. And if the church remained silent, carried on like nothing was happening outside its walls, or even started to pull focus in a different (potentially self-focused) direction? Well for some, this year has been the final straw when it comes to trusting that authentic Christianity can be found much anywhere. I had friends start showing up to peaceful protests to demand justice for the oppressed, and stop showing up to church. These two things do not need to be held in conflict, but it seems somehow they often have been, in these days. In the end, some students have felt more able to follow Jesus and serve those most in need outside of the formalised Christian community, than staying with it, hoping things will change and turn towards a more social justice-oriented embodiment of faith.
Whether it makes us uncomfortable or encouraged, the focus on doing “good things'', trying to “change the world” for the better, and really giving of ourselves to meaningful work and causes, is highly attractive and important to young people and young adults inside and outside Christianity. Of course we know that faith in Jesus is not a head-knowledge decision but a whole life recalibration towards living with and through the presence of a loving God. We know Jesus affects every aspect of our lives, our communities, and the world. We know he longs to bring about his good news in every way and that this can be lived now, not just “it’ll be alright when I die” type of one-time-fits-all insurance policy. We do know this don’t we? So of course students want to know how Jesus is good news for the poor, the immigrant, the orphan, the LGBTQ+ community, the Buddhist, the sceptic, the most popular and the most overlooked. Don’t we all want to discover what the Kingdom of God coming looks like for every tribe, every tongue, every nation and every situation? They don’t expect one church to manage to save the world in every way in which it needs help. But to have glaring holes in the gospel where putting Jesus’ words into practice, especially in humble service for those most in need should be… well students are starting to drive their bulldozers through these holes as they deconstruct what on earth their faith really means to them (see article one on the ‘deconstruction site’).
My husband is a college student worker here in Florida and a firm believer in students forming community by participating in adventures and acts of service together. He’s not a big fan of events for the sake of giving the Christians fun programs to belong to. He is way more interested in fixing a roof for Habitat for Humanity in the blazing sun alongside ten of his students and seeing friendships form through hard work, service, and getting their hands dirty. If they throw a party, it better be so students can invite people who feel on the margins or are in need of community and friendship. He’s had to unpick cliques and in-crowds more than a few times over the years in this relentless pursuit of helping anyone feeling on the fringe to know they too can belong. Justice and advocacy aren’t organic in this Christian culture right now. Or rather, they’re only organic if we have the level of attention and investment that true organic farming takes. We need to think about what young adults are being fed, the climate they are growing in, where threats can chew up the good fruit being formed and how to nip infection in the bud. Having a community that takes seriously who Jesus is and his consistent attention to those the world gives a rough ride to, takes effort. But true discipleship to Jesus really does cause us to serve one another in love, prefer the other, love our neighbors even (especially) if we see them as enemies, and to be good news for the sake of the world, not just ourselves or our church.
Are you getting a taste of how compelling following Jesus like this could be? How I long for students to be utterly captivated by all the possibility of being a disciple and finding meaning in their lives and the world through his invitation to die to self and serve. What a stunning way to embody and authenticate the realness of a loving God, by living a life in community, that cannot help but outwork its faith in acts of loving service and justice in the world. And to know this isn’t straying away from our faithfulness to the gospel and the teachings of Scripture, it is returning home to the story God invites us into across all humanity. As Dr Martin Luther King said:
“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
For this generation to see the real, powerful, irresistible presence of Jesus, alive and working in the world, they need to see that he cares like the accounts of him in Scripture lead us to believe. He cares about making things right and siding with the victims of injustice. This is good news for the world, and if we keep living this story, it’ll be good news for the young people we so desperately want to find faith and life in Christ too.
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, you can drop her a line using the 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 Heather Mount on Unsplash