Embedded Faith and the Young Adult

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 4.22.48 PMIf I mention these two things a response will follow: grouping young adults into “generations” that can be generalized as descriptions of an entire swath of people, and (second) claiming young adults have ceased attending churches. The third one comes shortly after the two: What can we do to keep young adults in the church?

First a few observations: generational research is at best — at best — broad generalizations and far too easily misused into assumed categories about every person in Gen X, Gen Y, etc. Surely we can’t generalize the inner city poor, suburban wealthy, flatland farmers, West coast, East coast, PacNW, Texans, Floridians, and Minnesotans (pronounced properly) into one group of Gen Y and assume they are alike. Yes, there are some broad themes of some use, but when it comes to individuals it all goes out the window. Second, young adults are not leaving the church any more than they have before (and maybe not as much) and they are not any more spiritually interested as any other generation, and all that — all supported by Christian Smith’s exceptional studies over the last decade or so. As well as Brad Wright, and others. So, what to do about keeping the young adults in church is not the crisis that we once thought (and I did too) was the case.

For faith to stick or for young adults to sustain the faith they learned, a church can help by being more what a church is supposed to be (alongside a family passing on the faith well). Church-ness, in other words, is one of the most significant elements in leading the next generation into the faith.

Studies by Kara Powell (Sticky Faith) and Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian) have already pointed to the importance of families when it comes to influencing young adults for the faith. But now a New Zealander, Carlton Johnstone, working with the Presbyterians in Wellington, NZ, has published a book called Embedded Faith.

It’s an academic book with plenty of good citations and proper readings; the study is clear and cogent; it is cautious and careful. In other words, every serious student of young adult faith must read this book. I cannot summarize each point but here are some of Carlton’s major conclusions:

1. He knows the problems with generational studies and their lack of accuracy and tendency to generalizations that don’t work — and can be downright silly — so he opts for studying a “generational unit,” a more focused group. He has examined some largely similar young adults who share a particular kind of faith, one that is owned and embedded in a community of faith.

2. Knowing how “tribes” are understood, Johnstone examines faith that is embedded in a community of faith (a church). This kind of faith actually challenges the often exaggerated claim of individualism in modern Christianity. Faith is about a chain of memory, an interpretive community, et al, and he studies how some young adults stick in this community because of its community nature. In other words, and here I’m raising my own point, the mobility of young adults breaks a young adult from their social network of faith and cracks that tie to the faith and that network will need to be re-established, that’s not easy, and so we need to see again how central community is to faith development. What can a local church do to help? Sustain a relationship with those who break the social network.

3. To be sure, for faith to be sustained a young person (or not so young) encounters a crossroad that leads to a Yes or a No on the faith. It is interesting to compare Carlton’s results with those of Kara Powell and Kenda Creasy Dean. In some ways, Embedded Faith articulates at a sociological and in-depth level the conclusions of Powell on the importance of family and church, though Carlton’s details are more intense and his method more intense (it is, after all, a PhD). On the other hand, Carlton’s work focuses on a different “tribe” or “generational unit” than in Dean’s work: namely, she focuses on mainliners who are stuck in moralistic therapeutic deism while Carlton’s group is a theologically articulate and informed group.

4. Rituals matter, and Carlton focuses on baptism and eucharist, and also for the church network to be vital worship and preaching rise to the surface as most important. I was particularly struck how important both worship and preaching were to his generational unit. They were looking for worship that engaged them and preaching that challenged them spiritually and intellectually.

5. There is an increasing number of young adults who are “two-timing” churches: they participate in more than one church. This is a fascinating conclusion of his and it is studied from a number of angles.

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