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Questions and wise elders

11.17. 2009

Young adults and the church in Australia

Picture this: a bunch of college students crammed into a dorm room after a Mennonite history class. The topic of conversation: calling and the purpose or direction of our lives. Our class that evening had looked at stories of past elders and leaders in the church. Some of these leaders had told young people what to do with their lives. At least one advisor at our Mennonite college went beyond telling people what classes to take and gave them directives on their major, their career path, where they should serve and even whom they should marry.

Mission Network worker Moriah Hurst chats with Radical Journey participants Ashley Milburn and Rebecca Epp in Canberra, Australia. Photo provided

Mission Network worker Moriah Hurst chats with Radical Journey participants Ashley Milburn and Rebecca Epp in Canberra, Australia. Photo provided

From where we sat in our dorm room, my friends and I were glad that we no longer had such controlling leaders. But as the conversation went on, we named something more—we mourned the fact that no one gave us strong advice on what to do with our lives. We liked not being forced into a path and being able to chose for ourselves what we would do, but we knew that we needed help making those decisions.

The pendulum has swung the other way, and elders are scared to speak into the lives of young people.

There we were, a bunch of 20-somethings with the world open to us, and we had no idea which passions we should follow or how to sort it all out. We looked at each other and realized we were willing to give our lives, we just didn’t know what to give them to.

My friend John summed it up well: “If someone walked in here today and said, ‘I see these gifts and skills in you and I think you should go and use them in this place and in this way,’ then I would go.”

With relief and longing, we all agreed with John. If someone could help us name our gifts and guide us in a certain direction, we would be willing to drop everything and follow that call, even to the other side of the world.

Longing for direction: In my work today as a minister at Canberra (Australia) Baptist Church through Mennonite Mission Network, I meet young adults every day who have this kind of longing for direction often embedded in a sense of dislocation.

Take my friend Tamara, for example. Tamara worked for a couple of years in the health system of an Aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory. As we talked over coffee one day, Tamara named how she longed for the kind of belonging and roots that she saw in places there. Tamara wanted to fit in, to have her place within a long line of people and belong to something with meaning far beyond herself.

Tamara, like many young adults I meet, is amazed that I will work within a religious institution and still ask questions of it. Many of her friends are seeking a spiritual connection, she said, but experimenting with other faiths has left them confused and not willing to commit to anything. I have seen that trend within my friendship groups—young adults leave religious groups or churches to try to be authentic to what they believe, which they don’t see the church holding to or living out. Tamara and her husband want to be connected to something spiritual but can’t really agree to the doctrine of a church, so they have made their way to the grounded silence of the Quakers.

Many of the parents of our generation grew up learning absolute truths. Whether they embraced those truths or rejected them, many of these parents have not taught or passed them on to their children—my generation. In an attempt to give their children freedom of choice, they have removed a foundation of spiritual or moral understanding. Many young adults, even from churched families, are largely biblically illiterate and are suffering disconnection, not by their own choices alone but from the religious reaction or rejection of their parents. This only adds to the myriad of other choices piled upon us today.

We have the freedom to choose in more ways than we can imagine. All these choices become paralyzing. As we parted, Tamara asked me if my church had a mentoring program that helped young adults sort through all these questions and the barrage of choices. I sadly confessed that we don’t.

As I watched Tamara ride away, my mind flashed back to a conversation I’d had over coffee with my friend Gareth just a few weeks earlier. Gareth grew up as a Christian and went to a seminary for a year after college yet has many questions about faith and how we live it out. For now, he is also meeting with Quakers for worship.

Over our steaming cups we grappled with faith and our Western context. We both have many questions, and the church doesn’t seem ready or willing to hear them.

How do we find worship that is indigenous instead of just a transplant? How is the church a place of welcome instead of being a hollow ritual? How do we empower people toward countercultural faith instead of moralistic norms? Who is this God we are called to introduce people to? Our conversation went round and round.

Gareth ended up with the Quakers because they share his values of good food, good conversation and active lives of social justice, and when they gather for worship, “they expect that God, in the Spirit, will show up,” he said. How often do churches hold these things together: the doing or acting out of faith in daily lives and entering worship ready to be profoundly touched by a movement of the Spirit?

Wisdom in mentoring: In Australia’s post-Christendom context, it is thoroughly uncool that I work for the church. Yet I have learned to love the conversations that start as people hear that I work for the church yet believe that God is big enough for our questions. I love opening a space for them to ask the whats and whys of my faith tradition. I don’t push, but I do pray, and we keep talking.

Inevitably I get, “How can you work for a church when you still have questions?”

Mission Network worker Moriah Hurst chats with Radical Journey team member Shae Miller

Mission Network worker Moriah Hurst chats with Radical Journey team member Shae Miller

I explain: I come from a tradition that works though community discernment. I prayed with others, heard a clear call to the work I am doing, and discerned that calling with a community of people willing to name my strengths and challenge me on my weaknesses. I know I am called to work with Canberra Baptist Church, to start Irene’s Place—a house where young adults from Canberra and around the world can explore discipleship and peace—and to host four young women in Australia through Mennonite Mission Network’s Radical Journey program, because my community helped me listen. I live with these young women so we can work together at integrating spiritual practices into our daily lives. We are held within a larger faith community, but by living together we have daily accountability in our faith. We will spend these 10 months together looking at how the faith of our parents becomes our own.

My work comes from my longing to help other young adults find a place to discern their faith and their calling.

At a recent conference of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand, my table group of young adults expressed gratitude to meet members of an older generation living out their faith.

One person said, “We need wise elders,” to hear the stories of those who have gone before. We need to know what it was like, to seek the wisdom of our elders and for these elders to grapple with us over how to live out faith now.

Young adults want accountability. They want community and to be connected to something spiritual and real. They want to belong and to hear the story that goes before them and that will be there after them. Young adults are asking hard questions, and while they will rarely take easy answers, they acknowledge that there is mystery in life and in God.

There are communities that are working well intergenerationally and are mentoring young adults in faith. I know this because I am the product of such a community. But, sadly, they are few and far between. The more young adults are burned by lack of community, by missing accountability and mentoring, by not seeing spiritual life and the actions of faith lived out together, by floundering around without wise elders to help them call out gifts and move them to action, the more they will shy away from religious institutions.

They are longing for what church could be but don’t see it as what church is.

Picture this: More than half the people in that dorm room I mentioned earlier followed the prompting of an older member of their church to go into service. Several of the people yearning for direction have ended up in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams, even when it meant putting school and other relationships on hold. I ended up going halfway around the world for work I had told people I flat-out could not do.

Yet my friends and I were listening when our wise elders said: “I see these gifts in you. Go there.”

And we went.

Moriah Hurst specializes in youth and young adult ministry for Canberra Baptist Church and as the community coordinator for Irene’s Place, a house of discipleship, service and peace. She is supported by Mennonite Mission Network and congregations in Central District, Indiana-Michigan, Lancaster and Mountain States Mennonite conferences. A young adult herself, Hurst confesses that these are only a few out of a range of pressing issues when it comes to understanding young adults and their relationship to the church. As the youngest child of mission workers Mark and Mary Hurst, she grew up in Australia.

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