By Robin T. Jennings
I was a rector for about five years and looked pretty good on the outside. On the inside I was hollow. I needed help. Spiritual help. It was the 1980s, and the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation led by Tilden Edwards in Washington, D.C., caught my attention. I made a proposal to the vestry and began the study of a three-year correspondence program in spiritual direction.
What made this program so special for me was that I became intentional in the parish, setting boundaries, an appointed time each day for silence, prayer and reading the Bible with the aid of the Lectio Divina and I found support from a small group of directors in Louisville and the nearby Abbey of Gethsemene. I kept a journal for the first time and experienced a deeper sense of calling in the ministry. This was not a designated time for preparation of a sermon or getting ready to teach a class. It was not work. It was time with the Lord Jesus who was training me to follow Him and it was literally on the job training.
Parishioners soon became aware of what I was doing, and over the years, several sought spiritual mentoring. I carried this early training into working with a multidisciplinary staff, building campaigns, and small groups. Prior to retirement, I launched a marriage mentoring program that advanced our family ministry.
Below are three common viewpoints young people hold about church, along with ways spiritual mentors can help engage these questions and reframe and deepen the conversation. Yes, “the harvest is rich.” Of the 30 million young adults between 18 to 24 of age in the United States, many simply do not have the Church on their radar. Yet laborers sit in the pews: parents, grandparents, mature adults, all who can help expand the mission of the church as spiritual mentors — if equipped.
“Faith Is a Crutch”: Incarnation
Incarnation is at the core of our Christian faith, and it puts both flesh and a face in front of a demographic that has never known life without a computer or a cell phone.
When I hear the viewpoint of many young adults, that “faith is a crutch,” I am quick to agree. After a pause, I add, “Of course, the air I breathe is a crutch. The food I eat is a crutch. The water I drink is a crutch.” Usually, they get it. A crutch is necessary. A crutch is real and essential just as my faith is real and grounded.
And faith must be incarnated. A mentor brings a face, a body, and the presence of Jesus into the discussion. The silence of God now has a human voice and words that are both helpful and hopeful. The Word becomes flesh when encouraging an incarnational theology that is attentive to God’s movements and activity. As mentors, we acknowledge the importance of referring to God’s presence and becoming aware of the movements and actions of God in our own lives and in the lives of the young adults whom we are mentoring. Faith, like trust, is at the heart of our relationship with God. Such faith and trust are then poured into the relationship between the mentor and the mentee through experiencing the sacraments. This real presence of Christ comes alive, week in and week out, so that we can live a life that is sacred and sacrificial through a faith that is incarnational. As the Prayer of Humble Access puts it, “we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (BCP, p. 317). Through corporate worship, the Church celebrates and brings us further in touch with this reality of faith.
As young people emerge from the pandemic, they’re finding a spirit of a “new normal,” but as we know there are plenty of spirits out there. Some are good. Some are not. A spiritual mentor helps discern the framework for not only spiritual growth but spiritual stability and renewal.
“Spiritual But Not Religious”: Transformation
A second viewpoint often expressed by young adults is “I’m spiritual but not religious.” In other words, to be spiritually aware and open is good, but religion is unnecessary and the Church is a lost cause. Like a mantra repeated again and again, this begins to sound like the truth. One way of reframing the statement is by replying, “That’s interesting; but I am both spiritual and religious.” Rather than divide, a spiritual mentor bridges binary thinking and opens the door for a personal conversation where the value of the spiritual and religious can be discussed. It begins the conversation of spiritual transformation that is rooted in religion.
Young people want to get personal and hear how Jesus makes a difference in our lives. This satisfies their need for authenticity, integrity, and transparency — cardinal values for young people as they test our character. The idea of transformation is something worth bringing up — both from your own transformation and the hopes and possibilities of transformation for those you mentor — especially with young adults who thirst for words like hope, joy, peace, and love. A mentor can help by offering grace and courage to think again about Christian religion that literally binds together the spiritual with the physical. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are related one to another and ultimately united to the will of God. This brings us to the place of community, the ecclesia, where the church offers something other than isolation, loneliness, and alienation. As the Body of Christ, we are incorporated into life “that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19).
“What Does the Church Have?”: Community
The third viewpoint you will hear from young adults is, “What does the church have that I cannot get anywhere else?” Granted, it is hard competing with Amazon and Roku these days. But again, coming out of the pandemic, it becomes apparent the Church has more to offer than shopping, consuming, or being entertained. While social distancing, churches learned how to work social media, Zoom, and other virtual ways to connect and relate. But over time, we discovered something was missing. The physicality of others and the sense of community were diminished, if not lost.
So, what does the Church have? Community. And it has never been more important. Belonging and having a sacred place are gifts — not commodities — as the body of Christ, which brings a spirit of hospitality and care for each person who enters. Beginning with our baptism in Christ, we are meant to experience this community throughout life, having the identity of a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) together with the rest of the body. Church tradition down through the ages provides us with wisdom, meaning, purpose, and direction for this life and the life to come. This eternal value is far beyond the reach of what you can buy with Venmo or a plastic credit card.
Spiritual mentors are being called to hear the cry of the next generation. Such adults have a front row seat in bringing young people into an understanding of the Incarnation, the dynamic of spiritual transformation, and the promise of a community that will cast a vison for their lives and for the life to come. Pray for mentors.
The Rev. Robin T. Jennings is the retired rector of St. Francis in the Fields, Harrods Creek (Louisville) Kentucky and author of, A Letter to the Church and the Next Generation: Spiritual Growth Through the Witness of James. You may find him at: www.robintjennings.com.