Earlier this week members from our CCV team, Amanda Vetsch, Kristina Fruge, Jeremy Myers and Ellen Weber, gathered in Indianapolis for three days with colleagues from across the country as we are entering a new chapter of a grant we recently received from the Lilly Endowment.
You can read more about this particular grant here. These colleagues include folks from 11 other seminaries and universities who received a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2017 that was part of Lilly’s inaugural Young Adult Initiative. After experimenting and learning for the past five years together in contexts across the country, we gathered to launch another five-year commitment to steward the evolving work emerging from partnerships with congregations, young adults and neighborhoods. We explored together where we have been, where we are going, how we have been changed and how we can continue to build connections with each other in this work around vocation and what it means to be called by God to this work.
The Riverside Innovation Hub at Augsburg will be focusing on how we support the spiritual lives of young adults through a multi-layered initiative centering young adult voices. There are many parts that will be life giving that will emerge in the months and years to come, but a couple in particular are gaining our attention and excitement. Continue reading “Our Indianapolis Adventure: Beginning A New Chapter”→
The Riverside Innovation Hub trained 8 young adult Innovation Coaches during August 2018. Each coach was assigned to 2 partner congregations. These coaches spent 20 hours a week working with each of their 2 congregations from August 2018 – May 2019, walking with them through our Public Church Framework towards discerning the future of their ministry with young adults. We also supported 9 other congregations who were interested in this work but did not have a coach working directly with them.
The innovation teams at these congregations were taught the artforms of the Public Church Framework and spent the year putting these artforms into practice in their context. The artforms of the Public Church Framework are intended to help a faith community establish and deepen relationships with their neighbors in their context so they might see and hear how their neighbors are longing for good news. This is the work that leads to innovation. These innovation teams were also asked to invite young adults into this process and to allow these young adults to lead this process.
At the end of 10 months of accompaniment, interpretation, and discernment each congregation submitted a grant proposal outlining the ways in which they hope to experiment with being a public church with their young adults over the next two years. These congregations were awarded between $25,000 – $30,000 for this experimentation.
Here is a summary of what we learned about young adults, congregations, innovation, the Public Church Framework, and how to effectively support this work.
What We Have Learned . . .
The most important thing we learned about young adults is that they are not very excited about being “known about”. They would rather you take the time to know them than know about them. They are not a demographic or a target market, they are unique individuals who often resist categorization. They are busy and very committed to their careers and their friends and to holistic living. They are willing to put time into leadership and the local church if they are being asked to invest their time in things that matter and make a difference. Many are not able or willing to move into traditional volunteer roles in the local church (committee member, Sunday school teacher, etc.). So they are looking for new ways to be plugged in. Your local congregation might not get young adults to return to worship. That’s okay. The question and challenge is how will your local congregation find the ways the places where young adults are actively living out their faith and how will you partner with them in those places?
Congregations are eager to be in meaningful relationships with young adults. There are some congregations who expect young adults to simply change their ways and become committed to the traditional church and its traditional practices and simply take over the leadership from previous generations while maintaining those traditional practices. But those congregations are few and far between. Most really want to become meaningful communities for young adults and are willing to do the hard work to become that type of community. Those who had the most success were the one who trusted the process of the Public Church Framework and stepped out in faith into the practice of accompaniment – meeting and listening to the neighbor.
There are two necessary hurdles a congregation must overcome before being successful in this work. The first hurdle is their “why”. Why do they want to do this work? Why do they want to become a public church? Why do they want to engage their young adults in new ways? If your “why” is driven by anxiety about the church shrinking or dying, then the work will most likely not be successful. However, if the work is driven by compassion for your neighbor and for young adults, then your work will be fruitful because you will be more committed to developing relationships than simply numbers.
The second hurdle is your congregation’s threshold. Our partner congregations who have benefited the most through this project thus far are the ones who have moved beyond their church building and spent significant time meeting and listening to their neighbors – those who live and work in the neighborhood around the congregation. This work beyond the threshold often led to important relationships, insights, and partnerships that have truly shaped some innovative approaches to ministry. And it all started by walking out the door and being willing to meet the neighbor and hear their story.
We are learning that innovation is hard – of course it is! Innovation is especially hard when we think its outcome must be something new, or shiny, or “better” than what we had before. We are learning that innovation is best understood vocationally. This means that innovative ministry grows out of simultaneously deeply listening to the neighbors’ stories and to God’s promises. Those two things inform one another. God’s promises change the way we hear and respond to the neighbors’ stories. And our neighbors’ stories change the way we hear and understand God’s promises. Innovation comes out of a disruption, or what we call a disorienting dilemma. The neighbor is always a disorienting dilemma. God is always a disorienting dilemma. The gospel is always a disorienting dilemma. When we are sorting out the relationship between these things, we are discerning vocation. Our partner congregations who are listening deeply to their neighbors AND simultaneously pondering God’s promises are actively discerning their vocation. This listening and pondering and discerning is what leads to innovation.
Public Church Framework
We are learning that the artforms of the Public Church Framework and their relationship to one another make the most sense when put into practice. This does not mean it is easy to be put into practice. There are many things that impede this public work – tradition, fear, lack of time, not knowing where to start, etc. But what we have learned is that it begins to make complete sense once a community of people begin to put it into practice. Once you begin practicing accompaniment you begin to understand what accompaniment is all about and why it is important. Once you begin practicing interpretation you begin to realize how important those stories you heard in accompaniment are and you begin to learn how to put those stories into conversation with God’s promises. Once you’ve done this interpretive work you begin to find yourself naturally asking questions that lead you into the practice of discernment and out of that discernment work you will a hear a call to proclamation. We are still convinced the Public Church Framework is a viable method for helping congregations faithfully engage a discernment process in relationship with their context.
Supporting This Work
We are learning that we learn better together. No two faith communities are the same but they all desire to be vibrant and effective. The most transformative learning happens when we allow our partner congregations to learn from one another. The Riverside Innovation Hub is committed to facilitating mutual learning relationships rather than functioning as a consultant. The key to supporting our partners has been the establishment and maintenance of trusted relationships, patience, and curiosity. We are also learning to leverage other cross-disciplinary resources at Augsburg University that will serve our faith communities well as they seek to develop the skills needed to engage their neighbors. Honest conversations, curious questions, and deep listening have become our most important tools for supporting congregations in their innovative work.
We were blessed to be invited into the lives of 12 local faith communities currently doing exceptional ministry with young adults. This post summarizes our that research and the themes which are currently emerging at this point in our analysis. The analysis is not complete and will, therefore, reveal more as the research team continues to work through it. However, we have already identified many important themes. This project takes an assets-based approach, looking to learn from what faith communities are already doing well rather than focusing on critique. Our findings, and this summary, reflect that asset-based spirit.
These twelve local faith communities were nominated by their peers as communities currently doing effective work with young adults. They vary in denomination, size, context, staff structure, and in how they engage with young adults. No two faith communities are the same. They include:
The Riverside Innovation Hub’s research team consists of eight faculty members from across various disciplines including Religion, Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, Social Work, Education, Communication, and Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies. Our researchers visited the above faith communities in groups of three to conduct site visits, focus groups, and interviews with senior pastors and young adult leaders. These focus groups and interviews were recorded and then transcribed. The Riverside Innovation Hub staff identified key themes emerging from these site visits, focus groups, and interviews. The research team then coded these transcriptions using key themes (listed below).
We discovered some fascinating and helpful characteristics which we are excited to share. The following nineteen values were present in our study congregations in various levels, amounts, and combinations. We have organized them into four characteristics to help us imagine how these values shape the character of a faith community. If the local faith community’s call is to proclaim good news into people’s lives to displace their bad news, then what we see below are the various ways in which these faith communities are doing just that. They do it through unique and context-specific practices, but these context-specific practices share the following characteristics.
CHARACTERISTIC #1 — PLACESHARERS
These faith communities have found ways to effectively enter relationships with young adults by engaging in the real joys and struggles of people’s lives. They are not afraid of tough conversations or hard questions. They allow people to bring their real selves to the table.
Authenticity—There is no need to hide or fake who you really are. Individuals are able to be authentic because the leaders and the community are both authentic.
Vulnerability—Participants are welcome to share their deepest longings and their shortcomings because the leaders and the organization both model this vulnerability.
Complexity—There is eagerness to engage difficult issues and difficult conversations. Faith is both taught and practiced in complex ways.
Energy—There is a noticeable quality of connection. It might not always only be lively, it could also be reflective. It matches the place where the young adults find themselves.
CHARACTERISTIC #2 — ROOTED IN THEOLOGY
These faith communities are clear about their beliefs and practices. Their theological convictions shape their lives together. Their sense of mission is clear and compelling and is reflected in what they do.
Explicit— Faith community is explicit about its values, mission, and story. They know what they stand for and they are explicit about making it known.
Value Alignment — The faith community’s mission, leadership, and ministries align with the young adults’ values.
Wisdom — Participants are engaged in the integration of theology and real life. They value thinking theologically about the world and thinking worldly about their theology.
Sacred Objects & Rituals — Important symbols of relationships and transitions are present in important artifacts and actions. These help participants make meaning and help give shape and identity to the community by creating collective awareness, experience, emotion, & energy.
Good News/ Bad News — The articulation of how young adults are experiencing suffering or bondage in their lives (bad news) is present as well as ways the faith community is working to accompany them and/ or provide relief and freedom.
CHARACTERISTIC #3 — COMMUNITY
Faith communities are intentional about building community and bringing young adults into that community. There is a palpable sense of family and support and young adults are instrumental leaders.
Social Networks — Young adults find their way into these faith communities through their social networks.
Participatory —Young adults are resources, active in the life and leadership of the faith community. There is noticeable representation of young adults within the faith community.
Relationships —Meaningful relationships with peers, mentors, across generations, and across other differences are valued and nurtured with intentionality.
Leadership —These communities value their leaders for their vulnerability, accessibility, and relationality. They are seen as strong preachers, teachers, and caregivers.
Belonging —There is a sense of solidarity and “we-ness”.
CHARACTERISTIC #4 — PUBLIC
These faith communities empower their people, including young adults, to actively live out their faith in their public lives in a variety of ways. There is a high value placed upon the community gathered for worship, but always with an eye and ear towards those beyond their faith community.
Vocation —Tangible action for the good of the neighbor is valued and expected, but as an expression of freedom in Christ rather than legalistic acts to appease God.
Inward/ Outward —The needs of the individual and the gathered faith community are met while simultaneously being open to and engaged with those beyond the faith community.
Context —The location of the faith community is an important factor in the faith community’s identity and the young adults’ experience with the faith community.
Social Justice —The faith community and/ or the young adult lift up social justice as an important component of the life of faith.
There was no special program or approach that made these congregations successful. We believe their success with young adults is related to their clarity of conviction and intentionality about engaging their young adults in leadership roles so that they might lead the faith community into living public lives of faith that matter.
Our research team will seek a deeper understanding of how congregations and other faith communities are effectively engaging young adults. Our hope is to learn from those who have developed effective practices, systems, and communities in order to share what they have learned with other faith communities who are seeking to improve their ministry with young adults.
Before we begin to define effective engagement and describe our methodology, it is important to highlight our team’s commitment to interdisciplinary studies. The life of faith cannot only be studied theologically, nor can the dynamics of a faith community or congregation. Christianity confesses belief in an incarnational God. Jesus is God’s word become flesh. God’s word lives and moves among us, in this physical world. Lutheranism confesses a belief in the Deus Absconditus or the “hidden God”. This is the belief in a God whose revelation is not obvious but hidden. It is the belief that God reveals Godself to humanity in, with, and under the physical realities of life. This nature of God’s revelation demands that our inquiry be interdisciplinary. God is to be found in the stuff of this world – nature, human community, struggles, etc. – and therefore the other disciplines shed light on the substances and phenomena in which God is present. Second, because God is hidden in these phenomena and substances, our inquiry must be theological otherwise our interpretation of the thing will be incomplete, from a theological standpoint. Therefore, in order to fully understand how communities are effectively engaging young adults in a life of faith, our inquiry must be interdisciplinary – theological and scientific (for lack of a better term right now).
We have allowed our commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry influence not only our interpretation of the data we will gather, but also our definition of important variables on the front end. Some Christian faith communities might consider effectiveness to mean large numbers of participants, large numbers of conversions, or assimilation to a particular lifestyle condoned by the specific faith community. Our team’s understanding of effectiveness is shaped by the following commitments, which grow from our own discipline-specific theories as well as the teaching and learning culture at Augsburg University.
Our intent is not to eliminate faith communities who hold a different definition of effectiveness, but to offer other explanations for why what they are doing with young adults seems to be working and in what capacity is it (or is not) effective. A system will always behave the way the system is designed to behave, but that does not always mean the system’s effectiveness is optimal or healthy.
Therefore, effective ministry with young adults will . . .
Reflect an ethos, or spirit, of effectiveness indigenous to the community.
Take place at the intersections of faith and the arts, faith and political activism, faith and environmental stewardship, and interfaith engagement as well as other places where faith is wrapped up in active, public lives.
Listen deeply to their life stories in order to hear and understand the “bad news” in their lives so that “good news” might be proclaimed in word and deed. It will provide a promising alternative to a personal theory that is no longer working for them.
Weave together text and context in a way that results in deeper understanding of both the text and the context.
Learn from them, equip them, and empower them for active discipleship that is theologically aware and publicly engaged.
Be developmentally appropriate for those in this age category (i.e., relationships based on values, not activities; right and wrong is easier to determine at this age than in adolescence, questions and answers are more relativistic).
Have a strengths-based perspective that enhances the strengths that are already present in individuals and the community.
Produce grassroots interaction rituals, which results in “collective effervescence,” or an intensification of collective awareness, attention, experience, emotion, and energy.
Clearly communicate these rituals as well as the community’s stories and values along to the participants.
Will balance the desire to address the needs of the individual while simultaneously addressing the needs of the larger context and the world.
Will demonstrate a desire and ability to adapt to new members and maintain a cohesion between its inward identity and external identity.
We assume any congregation currently engaged in effective ministry with young adults has already incorporated many of these things, whether they know it or not. Effectiveness is very contextual and we try to leave room for that, but at the same time we hold some commitments which we believe should always be present. Our working definition of effective ministry will continue to grow and change throughout this study.