Authentic Faith: Among the Fledgling(s)

Beth Keith has published a report Authentic Faith: Fresh Expressions of Church Among Young Adults. The overall picture is not good in the church for this age group – the church is failing to reach and keep young adults. Beth identifies 5 types of young adult church. These are really worth considering. The research is qualitative rather than quantitative. As ever with Beth’s work it is insightful and unearths a few gems – one I loved was that ‘food is the new Sunday service’. But seeing as I am most definitely not a young adult I asked a few people on the CMS pioneer course who are to offer a response. The first one to come back to me was Hannah Davis, aged 24 who gives a really good review/reflection. here it is:

I’d like to begin by looking at the three key ‘Realities shared in common’ that were revealed.

The first was community.

It was encouraging to see that the report had taken note of the fact that ‘whilst many young adults do move for university or work, many others remain in their home cities, towns and in rural areas. Young adults remaining at or near home often come from more deprived areas. Any research of mission among young adults would need to take account of this.’ 

This is certainly true of the young people I live and work with, and so exploring how our church, Barton Community Church, fits into or around one of Beth’s 5 listed church ‘types’ will be useful as we see these young people transition into young adulthood. We need to think about how we help [them] create spaces and opportunities that will support them, whilst also empowering them to grow into flourishing leaders themselves.

Students in the 2012 intake of the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course.
I realise I’m talking about young adults in the third person, despite being one myself. In the community and church I’m a part of, we work with many young people – more around the ages of 13-19. And so it was good to read that the report had discounted churches that focused either on students or on young families. Students are often known as ‘transients’ by police and community workers in their area and known to ‘hop’ between churches, so don’t always give a clear representation of what’s going on with young adults and what happens all-year round.

‘Food, socials, hospitality were all key components of church life rather than additional activities. The term family was used frequently, particularly in reference to church as family, both for those from broken family backgrounds, or a family away from home for those having recently moved away from their parents’ home for university or jobs.’ 

Even those who haven’t moved away from home to attend university still might experience disjointed family[life], if not more so. Many who live on the estate I live on have had to move out of their house – even if just round the corner – due to disagreements within their families, and some struggle to find their own space within their house with so many siblings and/or not enough bedrooms, and never seem to have enough food to share round. Some struggle to find honest and loyal friends and to stay out of trouble. Having ‘extended family’ who will support and listen is highly valued amongst all young adults I would say.

Now that Barton Community Church is becoming more like a ‘Context shaped church’ [from what I imagine started looking more like a ‘Church on the Margins’] we are trying to be more intentional in spending time together as a community and family. Some people meet up one-to-one, go for walks (as I often do), meet up in McDonald’s or go for a cycle, etc. We always have food together as a church at the end of our Sunday meetings and at the start of our twice-monthly bible studies that we have in various houses. Recognising that this is an integral and beautiful part of our time together (without it I think most of us would forget to just stop and chat at the end of the service and miss out on lots of precious conversation and time together), the team recently decided to double the budget for the meal each week. Some of the young people – aged 17-19 in this case – call some of us ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. I think they find it a helpful term to use. I joked with one of them that I found it funny when I was referred to as ‘Sister Hannah’ as it sounded nun-like, but it really is very endearing and helps somewhat in the confusion of how to view my neighbours/friends/young people I’m aiming to support. It keeps it feeling equal and that we’re they’re to support and love each other. Branches on the same tree.

The second was Authenticity.

This definitely resonated with me in my personal journey of faith, especially with my time at Canvas, a student ministry based smack-bang in the student community of Selly Oak, Birmingham.

‘Honesty, integrity, and ‘realness’ were emphasised over ‘rightness’.

This is echoed in Canvas’ motto: ‘Canvas is about creating community for students, figuring out life and faith and bringing a bit more love to Birmingham.’ Young adults are less concerned with finding people who have the answers, than finding those who are prepared to be honest, transparent and real with them. Who will journey with them. There were many students who came to Canvas who would call themselves atheists, but they saw something ‘authentic’ and honest about the people on the Canvas team, and knew that they could have honest ‘no-strings-attached’ conversation and questioning with these people. They didn’t mind or tease you for being a Christian [indeed, I was always a minority as a Christian in this community], but what they couldn’t stand is people who weren’t upfront and open. Everything was up for debate. Especially at 2am. Tuesday meetings at the Canvas House always started with a free meal together, a few secular songs played by a live band, and a talk that was often a life story told by one of the team, fused with a story from the bible. They didn’t hide what they believed, but they didn’t push it too much either. In Keith’s report: ‘church was described as journeying together, working out faith, together, in the messy realities of life, rather than the teaching of truths. Leadership was defined by honesty and in connecting with others in their struggles, rather than being detached or idealist about faith.’

At the moment at Barton Community Church we are doing a series of talks on ‘Slaying the Dragons’, which looks at how we might tackle everyday struggles such as anxiety, fear and addiction with the added dimension of having God in our lives. A quote from p21 of the research [not sure who by] in the article says this really nicely: ‘It’s not about fixing a smile on your face, it’s about being authentic and real about the struggles whilst acknowledging that God is good.’ As we look at these things with new Christians and unsure/de-/unchurched, we see these things with new light, review things of our faith and our living-it-out alongside our new friends in the community. Again this is reflected in the research: ‘Discipleship was described as working out how to do life well, rather than how to believe the right thing’; we don’t just teach things on Sunday and send them away to not be anxious all week. We are also there to listen during the week when they are struggling or in need of some practical assistance. We recognise, for example, that difficult feelings are real and that our lives aren’t perfect. We are a family there all week, not just on Sundays.

The third was Doubt.

This is definitely something that’s more and more prevalent in the young community. Even amongst my friends, and people who have been brought up Christians, we are getting to find that we are keen, desperate even, to really question and make clear what it is we actually believe in, have done till now, why, and what for. ‘Across most of the churches value was placed on an openness to express doubt, to question, to deconstruct. This was often understood as a valuable formational phase in the church’s life, enabling members to develop and own its vision and ethos.’  This was definitely a key value to the Canvas community, where intelligent and searching students from all kinds of backgrounds would come and be able to question and listen in a safe and caring environment. Some were atheists, others of other faiths, and some had grown up going to church but didn’t think much of it in later years, but were able to requestion what ‘church’ and Christianity, community and God could look like as they questioned it and experienced it in this environment. I also found Canvas a really helpful place to see how ‘evangelism’ and outreach could be done in a way that was welcoming, not ‘one-off’ and where I was journeying on the same path as my non-believing friends – I didn’t have a headstart. I wasn’t of on the fast lane. I was right there next to them. I could see that it wasn’t dangerous for me to be in a room heaving with “non-Christians”. I could learn so much from everyone there too, and it made me be more intentional about my own faith. It helped it from getting stale, from being complacent [we all know stale, soft biscuits are the worst.] I agree with the comment that ‘those attending deconstructed, marginalised or context shaped churches may struggle to make the jump to more traditional forms of church. This suggests the determining factor is not their age or life stage, and that these new forms of church will grow and develop with their people.’ And so it must be recognised that people who have started to deconstruct and uproot their faith and spirituality cannot be pushed into a box they have taken themselves out of or have never fitted into or tried out. They need to be supported in creating and developing new spaces that they can continue their journey in.

The fledgling

Reading Keith’s report, I picked up on the phrase ‘fledgling communities/church’ a lot. So I wondered what that was referring to in this context. A quick google definition search tells me that a fledgling is both noun and adjective and is

a) any new participant in some activity

b) a young bird that has just fledged or become capable of flying (noun and adjective)

and also a fledgling, as adjective, is someone young and inexperienced.

I feel this is quite poignant.

Do we see young adults as young and inexperienced, or do we almost invisibly allow them the space to grow, standing by them to offer advice, a listening ear, and resources when needed?

Do we empower them to lead, even if they wobble along the way, allow them to try flying?

A fledgling is a young bird that has just grown the feathers needed to fly and is capable of surviving outside the nest. In this sense, the bird [the young adult] doesn’t need the church, but perhaps isn’t yet confident on its own or would still like some family around them to make a transition easier, help root new roots and buds where newness is needed. As it flies to new and unknown destinations. I live in Barton and volunteer with Thrive Team: Barton [http://thriveteam.wordpress.com/about/], started up by charity Innovista. Partnering with local Headington Baptist Church, they planted a community church in 2010. As the blog states, Thrive teams are committed to long-term service and whole community impact, with the aim of inspiring and equipping young people to transform their communities. I think words like inspiring and equipping [and empowering] are key here. We know of the potential that young people have, and we’re here to remind them of that. Affirm it. Uncover it. Witness transformation. Watch them fly. Their wings are ready.

To summarise:

Beth Keith’s report was a really interesting read, and it will be a really useful resource in providing a kind of prototype to compare and refer back to when church and community forms transition, grow and evolve; we can trace the changes. The 3 common values really speak for this generation and how it just wants to pierce through any falsity and pretence. It wants the real stuff. I would now love to see a study done on the current ‘young people’/the millenials, the so-called ME ME ME generation.

Hannah

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