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Ministries in Christian Education is an UmbrellaReport on "Come to the Feast 3" -- May 24-27, 2002


Come to the Feast 3, the event for young adult ministry, opened Friday evening, May 24, with worship in a Latin tradition. Over 225 conference-goers sang praise in Spanish and English and listened to the first of three presentations by keynoter Rodger Nishioka, professor of youth and young adult formation at Columbia Presbyterian Seminary in Atlanta.

Earlier, some fifty participants who arrived on Thursday evening and stayed with local families, spent Friday in Mexico on a service project refurbishing a neighborhood community center that serves young people. Another group of young adult clergy participated in a workshop exploring the issues they face as clergy who are also young adults in a seminar led by Christ Clarion Fellowship, an organization of clergy age 35 and under.

Professor Nishioka introduced the conference to eight icons or portraits of young adults based on his own and others' research. Young adults are:
-a postponing generation who typically put off major life decisions, "keeping their options open."
-a paradox generation who are comfortable holding to absolute Truth while affirming at the same time the claims of other truths.
-a pragmatic generation more interested in what works than in ideological consistency.
-a performance-driven generation that finds itself constantly measured by the workplace, the learning place, and even their peers.
-a consumer culture pursued relentlessly by commercial interests.
-a standard tech generation, not only comfortable with the latest computerized gadget but technologically and visually sophisticated.
-a generation with a new sexual ethic that has narrowly defined what "having sex" means.
- a generation for whom experience is paramount and outweighs theories, rules, received wisdom.

In subsequent presentations, Rodger identified the present state of participation of young adults in church life based on his research with young adults who grew up in the Presbyterian Church and outlined steps congregations must take to be in ministry with young adults. His statistics reveal that nine out of ten young people leave the church after high school; that 65% end up in no church community and thus are the most unchurched generation in recent history. This is the generation that says it is "spiritual" but not "religious." Rodger outlined a number of reasons young adults give for not participating in congregations and then pressed behind the list for to what he sees as an underlying cause: a huge hermeneutical shift has occurred from a "duty and responsibility" orientation to a "what's in it for me?" orientation. Congregations and denominational systems are dominated by "duty and reponsibility people." For older adults, one goes to church because it is your duty and part of your responsibility as a contributing adult. Younger people, witnessing how the loyalty and commitment of their parents has been betrayed by the institutions of society (corporations, churches, educational systems, etc.), are more wary and willing to commit only when they see evidence that their commitment will be reciprocated.

According to Nishioka, young adults are seeking congregations that offer quality authentic relationshps; theological and ethical vitality and integrity; a connection to the transcendent; a connection to the realities of life in the society; a faith that embodies energy, passion, honesty, costliness; and a cosmic and universal claim to Truth while being open to other truth claims.

In his final presentation, Professor Nishioka offered a range of suggestions to the conferees for developing and enhancing young adult ministry in the congregation. He cautioned his hearers not to "rush back and do stuff. Sit. Be. Simmer." He listed seven characteristics of congregations doing significant young adult ministry:
1. The church invites responsibility, gives it and shares power with young adults.
2. The congregation focuses on a faith that delivers relevance over and over, Sunday after Sunday. It makes central the question, "What does this text have to do with me?"
3. The congregation creates meaningful opportunities for belonging through specific groups for just young adults, labeled for the age group.
4. The church is linked to the larger community in tangible ways.
5. The congregation is sensitive to outsiders and avoids coded language and interprets its codes when used, not assuming newcomers know the meaning of liturgical terms, for example.
6. The congregation provides imagery (visual portrayals) for practicing faith and ways to live, images of a positive self, of "what cannot be allowed" (what harms people and creation) and images that evoke wonder, mystery and awe.
7. The church worships with passion and excitement and delivers a compellling, even costly message of Jesus Christ.

These seven respond to the characteristics of young adults who value experience more than knowledge, who are visually and multi-sensorily sophisticated. In this important "cusp time" for the church, the importance of mentors for young adults who are "bi-cultural and multicultural intergenerationally" is critical.

Woship and Bible study were central to the conference. Worship was experienced daily in several styles: A United Church of Christ congregation from Tuscon, Arizona, shared its cool jazz and dialogue preaching style accompanied by stunning visuals of classic religious art and contemporary scenes of nature and of human need and trauma. A Taize service prayer, chanting and singing ended Saturday evening while Sunday evening, the ending of the conference, was capped with a celebratory African American jazz and pentecostal preaching service.

Small groups met daily for Bible study, led by peers who worked from a specially prepared curriculum. Texts included the story of Cain and Abel and focused on family of origin issues; Jesus' rhetorical question, "who is my family?" in Matthew and a focus on families of choice; and in Ephesians with a focus on where do I belong--who is my community? Saturday lunch offered a chance for conferees to talk about "hot topics" culled from issues they identified on cards distributed at registration and Sunday offered a time for denominational gatherings.

Workshops in several categories were well attended and received. One set dealt with building young adult ministries; another with social justice issues; a third with ecumenical and interfaith learning and a fourth on spirituality and self care. Two highlights were a workshop offered by a delegation from the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch on Orthodox churches, history and spirituality, and a dialogue with a San Diego member of the Council on American Islamic Relations, Omaran Abdeen, M. D.

Dr. Abdeen described the essentials of Islamic history, practice and belief as well as answered questions about the Islamic view of Jesus, the role of women, and of course the meaning of "jihad" or struggle. Dr. Abdeen's presence was arranged by Jay Rock, staff to the Commission on Interfaith Relations of the NCC.

As a result of the presentation and presence of the delegation from the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Ecumenical Young Adult Ministry Team is looking forward to the participation of Father Abjar Bahkou in its meetings, adding a most welcome Orthodox voice to its work.

The San Diego gathering was the third national conference offered by the Ecumenical Young Adult Ministry Team and it marked a turning point in young adult ministry. Professor Nishioka, former co-moderator of the team, was able to share the fruit of several years research and the application of generational theory to young adult ministry. This means taking advantage of the deeper understandings of younger generations that have emerged in the last several years and connecting them to concrete practices of ministry in the churches.

Further, the emergence of Christ Clarion Fellowship and its connection to the event and the Young Adult Ministry Team means that peer clergy leadership is now "on the scene" in a network that will facilitate the application of understandings of young adults to the work and ministries of the churches. A new opportunity in the mainline churches to develop relevant, gimmick-free, and spiritually deep ministries with young adults is clearly at hand.

Report by Joe Leonard, NCC Ministries in Christian Education


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