Young adults, that group of Americans under the age of forty, have become an increasingly difficult target for churches to reach. The cultural, social, and generational differences of this cohort are striking when compared with the cohorts that have come before them. Christian and Amy Piatt write from within this generational matrix about issues of faith and culture, offering words of warning and of hope.
Christian is a writer and consultant, while his wife, Amy, is founding pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Pueblo, Colorado. They bring to this book years of working with youth and young adults, and their own experiences inhabiting this generation. They make use of statistics and stories to bring to life the spiritual realities of those adults under forty. Unlike the book, UnChristian, Christian and Amy are sympathetic to the life choices and concerns of this generation. They’re realistic but not judgmental – indeed, even as the authors of UnChristian recognize, this generation is turned off by judgmental and hypocritical religion. They also affirm the spiritual quest of a generation that is truly “spiritual but not religious.”
The book’s title is key to the book’s message. Social networking sites, like MySpace and Facebook, are front and center in the life stories of this generation. This is a digital world, even virtual world. Communication is instantaneous, and yet community is often difficult to create. This is a generation that is reachable, but it’s unlikely to come to the church – to reach them the church must go looking for them. But, in inviting them into the community, older generations must understand that the physical plant, rituals and history are of less importance. Sacred space can be created wherever this generation gathers. All of this makes communication between generations difficult. The authors write:
Today’s twenty-year old generally has less in common with someone twice his or her age than ever before. Further, people resist traditional definitions and labels, creating a fuzzier notion of what exactly we’re talking about with regard to young adults (p. 5).
In spite of these differences and difficulties, it’s possible to reach out to those aged 18-40. But, to do so requires listening before talking.
In a series of chapters, the Piatts take us into the lives and needs of this cohort. They help us understand their longings and concerns. As other studies have told us, this is a group that eschews absolutes and is comfortable with differences. For mainline churches to reach them, space must be made for diversity. Churches that put less focus on creeds – churches such as the Disciples – will benefit, as will churches that allow them to tell their stories. As for God, Young Adults often see a disconnect between their view of God and Christianity as a whole. They believe in God, but not in the church and its definitions. Utilizing the Baylor University matrix of God -types, they suggest that the most likely views of God in this generation are either the Authoritarian God or the Distant God, but they’re interested in connecting relationally with God – they’re just not sure how this can happen, and they don’t think the church can help them.
In seeking to reach them, we must be aware that prepackaged ideas don’t often work. And just because they like Starbucks doesn’t mean they’ll come to Christian coffeehouses. To connect churches must provide community, support, welcome, and an encouragement of the imagination. Ironically, while traditional church might not connect well, ritual has its place – but only if it allows for the release of the imagination. More than anything, there is a seeming need for connection with the generations that came before. In many ways this is a generation that has not developed strong personal habits –especially in regard to sexuality and money — and they long for mentors who will help them wrestle with important issues in their lives. Indeed, churches that will address such issues with openness and grace can find important entrees into their lives.
In a chapter on addiction, the Piatts point out the real problems that young adults are having with addiction – whether it is issues of drugs, alcohol, gambling, and eating disorders. They ask the important question: Where is the church? That is, why isn’t the church taking proactive steps to reach out to and support those facing addiction.
Why must we wait for the judicial system to say that these young people need help? Do they have to be arrested in order to receive treatment? Is this the message we send? In a haplessly reactive culure, the church must be a proactive source of hope and healing for these young people, empowering them with the tools they require for self-care before they face these high-risk factors. We must also be there for their families, both before and after a crisis is recognized. We should be on the front lines, helping teachers, parents, and other caretakers collectively identify risky and self-destructive behavior before it eve becomes an issue relegated to the court system (p. 105-106).
Here is a way of connecting, but only if it’s authentic care.
Of course in a book speaking to connecting with young adults, it’s appropriate to talk about music. Music is and always will be a primary expression of spiritual energy and ideals. That churches have been fighting for years over what is appropriate is almost a truism. We recognize it to be true, but find it difficult to have a conversation. In addressing this issue, Christian Piatt writes as one who is a musician and who has spent time working in the music business. He has a strong sense of the role music plays in our lives, and reminds us that much of what passes as Christian music is deficient in quality and content. The issue addressed here is an important one, because the church faces the question of the degree to which music must be distinctly sacred in order for it to be appropriate for church. He suggests four different views, ranging from purist to separatist, while he finds himself somewhere in the middle, in positions he refers to as spiritual reflective and incidentalist.
There is a chapter that wrestles with the question of who is called to serve. Not only is there a looming crisis in ministry – an aging clergy isn’t being replaced by younger clergy – but the definition of who might serve is changing. That is, the ordination of both women and gays is in play, and for the most part the views of young adults are open and expansive. Finally, in a chapter entitled “Church of the Prodigal Child,” the Piatts discuss their research methodology, tell some stories of young adults who are open to the church, but who also tend to be disassfected. In essence they return to the premise that this is a generation that is more spiritual than it is religious. It is a generation open to alternative spiritualities, but also wants to pray, study, engage in community and social justice. Looking at American history, they discern five themes that define America’s religious instincts, instincts that are very present in this generation: 1) “Personal autonomy”; 2) “Sensibility over creeds”; 3) “Impatience with organized religion”; 4) “Present applicability”; 5) “Fascination with the metaphysical” (p. 156).
We often talk about young adults as the church of the future, but in reality they are the church of the present. If the church doesn’t engage them – which involves listening with respect – there won’t be a church in the future. The Piatts offer us an excellent primer on the faith and desires of this broadly defined cohort. They write with energy and commitment. This is a book full of compassion and grace. They call a spade a spade, but do so without judgmentalism. Anyone wanting to connect with younger adults will want to read this excellent book. That the Piatts are Disciples, like me, only makes it better!