Doom and gloom or bright young stars? 

There is a lot of polarity in the media and other conversations when it comes to reporting on the 20+ age group in our society. At one end, “doom and gloom” where we read about the so-called slackers, mostly male, who inhabit the dens of their family homes, self-absorbed and amusing themselves to death with online gaming. At the other end are the lists of “30 under 30” that highlight bright young “emerging leaders.”

While I don’t want to downplay the harsh reality of our relatively well-educated young adults, many of whom are, and may continue to be under-employed, I remain hopeful for their and our future. While I am aware of the bleak statistics that highlight the exodus of young adults from traditional congregational settings and statistics, I do not despair. Although I rejoice in reading about young adults who are already making a significant mark on the world and who are already strong leaders, I don’t celebrate too much over their accomplishments. There remains a long path ahead and early success is not always an indicator of life-long impact.

Between these poles of slackers and stars are young adults who give me hope for the future of both the Church and our local communities. In this middle ground I find young adults struggling to make sense of their world and faith, and to live and work in ways that are open and sustainable. They occupy a cultural space that is much more diverse and open than the one I grew up in. Categories are more fluid and right action appears to take precedence over, or perhaps acts as a precursor to, right thinking. What is described as a lack of loyalty should be seen more as an openness and acceptance of the other, and a valuing of difference. Young adults, in my experience, are forming groups less around culture, tradition and structure, and more around passion and active involvement in the issues facing us.

This tendency toward the pragmatic means they have less patience with, or interest in, structures and processes that are designed to make sure things are done properly and in good order. They want to get something done, and in this way they are connected with previous generations of young adults who have also wanted to change their world.

Leading us to change
When their passions for making a difference collide with the harsh realities of reduced opportunities and being a generation that is on track to be less well off than their parents, new communities are being formed. The statistics tell us that marriage is being delayed, as well as parenthood in some segments. Young adults are renting or buying homes together, continuing to live together as friends well beyond their post-secondary education years. Being single, at last, is being seen not as a stage in life, but a viable and healthy option. Small, loosely affiliated groups are re-invigorating community life through house concerts, neighbourhood associations and by meeting community needs through shared lives instead of programs.

All of this, the normal lives of those in their 20s, does give me great hope, both for the Church and for the community I live in. Through my own daughter, I know firsthand the benefits of the efforts young adults are bringing to our community. Yet I don’t see her or her friends in church on Sunday morning as they explore new ways of being a worshipping community. Dare I say that this also gives me great hope, that they could be leading us to change? The statistics of our declining denomination are not due only to an exodus of young adults. The decline is marked by our failure to effectively be engaged in and with our communities. We spend too much time inside our own walled community instead of joining in God’s mission of bringing shalom to the world.

Meanwhile, our young adults are seeking out and helping create new structures, new expressions of church that do connect with the communities they are in. This is what causes me not to despair over those who have chosen to withdraw, or to put too much hope and pressure on those bright young stars. Instead it is the faithful openness and life of the average young adult that suggests they are following God into mission, even when it is difficult for us to recognize it as such.

In short, it does seem that young adults are better at joining in the work that God is doing, while those of us in older generations focus more on preserving what God has done. But that too is an oversimplification and creates another polarity. Clearly our young adults have much to offer, and God is using them to lead the Church to new places and forms. At the same time these young adults need the resources of older generations – time, money, experience and wisdom. What gives me the most hope, then, is not the young adults on their own, but these young adults in multi-generational communities as both leaders and learners so that together we might join in God’s mission.
 

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