Frustrated church leaders have so often told me that college-age young adults are "impossible" to reach for anything but ski trips and night life that I was shocked to find a congregation with a thriving program packed with young adults. This African-American church is embedded in a large metropolitan sprawl and worships in an older building that embraces a few hundred members, nothing out of the ordinary--except that it has the energy and commitment of their young adults.
The pastor responsible for this program is not the stereotypical pied piper whose charisma attracts young people into the program. Rather, she is quiet, reflective and self-possessed. Through focused study of the social sciences, interpreted within her faith tradition, she gained a solid understanding of the crosscurrents that buffet this age group. So prepared, this bright and articulate assistant pastor could have explained to young adults the causes of the challenges that beset them, and she could have planned an excellent program for them. But she had the patience and wisdom to let them plan it instead.
The pastor first met with a few young adults and together they wrote and distributed a questionnaire probing the concerns of their peers. The response of the church's young adults was swift and strong. Its appearance alone told the young adults that the church cared about their concerns, and the process of tabulating responses gave them further opportunity to express their views. When the group gathered to fuss with the "survey results," they found that views differed between male and female, between older and younger, but not between college and noncollege--they were all struggling with similar problems.
The young adults formed a group to discuss their common concerns. They looked for insights from various sources--their own experiences, classes, books, rap music, current movies and teachers (and even parents!). They talked about stress in college and their jobs, dating and being alone, sexual orientation, drug use, their families, their friends, the things that bothered them and the hopes they held.
In this search they rediscovered the Bible--not as a rule book with simple answers, but as a resource that records the experiences of people like themselves who struggled with God in the stories of their lives. The pastor presented herself not as a final authority, but as a friend and sometimes a guide. She asked questions, suggested resources, shared her own experiences, was present with them, and sometimes leave them alone.
The young adults confidently accepted certain church responsibilities. For example, in the calendar of church events they organize the Kwanzaa observances, a festival of black culture. Through it they reclaim symbols of their diverse heritage from Africa, the Caribbean and the American South. As part of Kwanzaa they presented a fashion show and multicultural dinner, celebrating positive aspects of their community. They related stories of oppression and prejudice that served as reminders of painful challenges. Even in its most uncomfortable moments, Kwanzaa gave the young adults recognition in the congregation and created a basis for intergenerational dialogue that continued far beyond the festival itself.
In their own meetings and in churchwide events, the young adults have found their voice in congregational life. In light of their discussions several young adults have written brief articles for the church newsletter--on their unorthodox views of sex in the Bible, and the possibility that some women should not be mothers--articles that shocked some members and delighted others. More recently they have begun an "unofficial" newsletter among themselves, partly for news, but more to keep those who miss meetings informed of their conversations. The editors claim that the newsletter is toned down in its "translation" of their discussions, but it still rattles the tranquility of some old timers.
This church seems to have found some keys to developing strong young Christian leaders. First, it has strengthened the bonds between young adults who are in college and those who are not by helping them work together on their shared problems. Further, the church has given the young adults a place and a voice of their own, with the pastor as resource and rock against the naysayers in the congregation.
Perhaps most important, the church has helped the young adults to claim the Bible and the Christian faith--not as sheer authorities they must obey, but as living resources that sustain them in life's inevitable conflicts. This church challenges all of us, since these simple elements are available in almost every congregation.