A November 2009 issue of The Week featured a story, “Losing our Religion,” that focused on the rapidly growing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States, the so called Nones, and asked if organized religion is fading. Younger than the general population, many Nones believe in God yet are skeptical about organized religion. The article quotes recent statistics suggesting that if this trend continues, cohorts of nonreligious young people will replace older religious people and account for one-quarter of the American population. Another recent article in USA Today concluded that young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s, approximately 72 million people, want to make an impact and are socially-conscious yet do not relate to traditional institutional structures. A decreasing number of these young adults view churches as places to make a difference or to develop their leadership skills.
The fact that nearly every major denomination is aging and losing members has been a concern for the last thirty years, yet institutional efforts to reverse these trends and to capture the religious imagination of young adults have been limited. Mainline denominations, historically and culturally self-conscious about evangelism, are further challenged to proclaim the good news in today’s religiously pluralistic nation and world. What then is the role of evangelism with young adults today? What are some of the ways that the Christian church can better respond to the spiritual questions of young adults in a religiously pluralistic age? How might congregations better respond to the gifts and skills young adults have to offer?
“One of the reasons many churches don’t do evangelism well is that their motivation is self-serving,” says Tom Brackett, church planting specialist for the Episcopal Church. Brackett believes that a focus on evangelism primarily as a church growth strategy is counterproductive, especially with young adults, and at a time when the world is longing for evidence that God is with us. A more positive approach to evangelism for many, he suggests, lies “in pointing out the ways that God is already active, transforming lives, and connecting us to each other.”
One judicatory that is intentionally reaching out to young adults is the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. In 2008, the diocese initiated the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project, a ministry designed to find out what young adults ages 18 to 30 value deeply, how they experience their faith journeys, and their perspectives on faith, spirituality, and the church. The project defines relational evangelism as “a life-long spiritual practice that is the ministry of all to recognize the power of God in Christ to transform our lives and communities, and then being willing to share those stories of God’s grace in others.” The project came about as a result of multiple gatherings around the Boston area of young adult clergy and others who were already engaged in young adult ministry. Arrington Chambliss, the director of the project, comes to it with a long history of engagement with young people through faith-based and community organizations. Interested in young adult ministry that “truly listens first,” Chambliss says that the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project is about engagement, not conversion. “It is God who does the converting,” she says, “relational evangelism is about us having a deep enough relationship that others want to join with us.”
The Relational Evangelism Pilot Project is based in the virtues of Christian spirituality, simple living, and forming community. The project is also based in the belief that young adults generally relate more freely to individuals than to institutions and focuses on three interrelated groups: young adults who have no relationship to the institutional church, those who have a peripheral relationship with the church, and those already involved but who are seeking more support regarding their leadership role in the church. The project places young adult “evangelists” at sites around the diocese, including congregations and university chaplaincies. Their task is to build relationships with other young adults and to find out more about their academic, career, social, and spiritual needs. From there, the evangelists will build a leadership team of five young adults who will facilitate small group-based ministry and faith-based action projects. Sustainability of the project is based on the premise that a core group of young adult leaders will remain at each site after the original evangelist’s term of service is complete.
Chambliss hopes that the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project will provide young adults with the spiritual direction they need at crucial points in their lives. She also hopes that the project will not only enhance young adult ministry in congregations and chaplaincies but will serve as a model for other judicatories and congregations interested in engaging a new generation. “Not only does evangelism mean sharing the good news of the gospel, but it also means sharing the good news of people’s lives and what we can do together in the world to demonstrate the power of our faith,” says Chambliss. “We are viewing evangelism as a spiritual practice emanating from our deep gratitude for God’s presence in our lives. It is my hope that the young adults involved in this ministry will see the good news in each other, find the community they are searching for, and embark on a spiritual path that will engage them more deeply with God, each other, and the world.”
Nancy Davidge, a marketing communications consultant based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, with a specialty in helping religious organizations and other nonprofits use social media, suggests that the good news has always been spread by the social media of the time. Today, many congregations have at their disposal a variety of accessible and inexpensive communications tools to help them build community through relational evangelism. Yet Davidge notes that while many congregations use tools such as email, websites, Facebook, blogs, and Twitter, they may still be missing an opportunity to build a long-term relationship with people. “It is important that churches think strategically about how to engage new members who join the community, to identify their interests, and to build relationship by sharing the congregation’s mission and offering ways for a newcomer to become involved,” says Davidge. “While the media may have changed, the importance of telling your story in ways that engage and invite remains the same.”
Relational evangelism is crucial in an age of religious pluralism. Rather than deny religious difference, relational evangelism equips young adults to be secure enough in talking about their own faith to engage actively and authentically in interreligious dialogue and community action for the common good. In fact, the spirit of mutuality and intentional listening characteristic of relational evangelism opens up the follower of Jesus to God’s love in a way that seeks deeper relationship with all of creation and responds to the suffering of the world. In a religiously pluralistic world, relational evangelism contributes to the creation of healthy environments in which young adults listen to God at work in their lives and discern ways their gifts can contribute to the reign of God for all humankind.
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< font size="2" face="Verdana"> Adapted from “Resurrected Lives” by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook in Congregations Spring 2010 (Vol 36 No. 2), copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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