Post-Denominational Young Adults
Nishioka Points Denomination Toward Needs of Post-Denominational Young Adults
By Leslie Scanlon, Presbyterian Outlook national reporter
Think about this. Church historians agree, according to Rodger Nishioka of Columbia Theological Seminary, that “we’re on the cusp of … a Reformation-type age,” one that will stand as significant with the passing of time.
Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education at Columbia, has recently completed a research project involving young adults in their 20s and 30s. He says signs are all around us that a post-denominational age has arrived.
“Pay attention to trends,” Nishioka advised the Presbyterian Communicators Network, meeting in Louisville in early August. “Fads are what toss us to and fro,” often as a way of marketing new products. “But trends are worthy of your attention.”
His research, for example, has investigated why so few young adults stay with the Presbyterian Church (USA), even if they have been baptized and confirmed in the denomination and, in many cases, were involved in their high school youth groups.
“They’re saying they’re post-denominational,” Nishioka told the Presbyterian communicators. “That denominations really and truly do not matter.”
In many ways, the religious distance among Protestant denominations is collapsing, he said. Fifty years ago, a Presbyterian marrying a Methodist “was a big deal. Now we’re just glad they’re getting married.”
So for many young adults, the issue of denominational affiliation is insignificant. Instead, as they consider whether to become involved in a church, the question is, “Is the Holy Spirit active in this place?”
Nishioka also described what he termed eight trends for a post-denominational age. He described these not as dualisms—one way or another—but as “healthy tensions” and a question of where the PC(USA)’s weight is shifting. They are:
From tribal education to immigrant education. In short, we’ve too often assumed that those in the pews are part of the tribe; they already know the language and the rules.
“Peace be with you,” Nishioka greeted the crowd.
“And also with you,” they responded immediately.
In other words, this church crowd knew exactly what to say.
But congregations would do better to consider new folks as immigrants —people unfamiliar with the landscape—than as people already familiar with the tribal ways, Nishioka contends. The PC(USA)’s Research Services office reports that about 60 percent of those who attend Presbyterian churches were not raised Presbyterian. And 15 percent of that group did not grow up attending church at all.
So if someone stands up and says, “Let’s open the Bible to this familiar story” or “Let’s sing this familiar song,” that can come across as saying, “You don’t belong. The gospel’s not for you. This is just for the tribe,” Nishioka explained. The good news is just for “people who think like us, who are at our income levels, our educational attainment levels, all of that.”
But that leaves out so many.
From mission out there to mission right here. Nishioka said that in his research, “it is so clear that there is a weariness and a wariness among these young adults that mission is always somewhere far away, out there. … They’re wondering … ‘Do we have any impact right here where we live?’ ”
One woman Nishioka met in a focus group told him that “our church could disappear tomorrow and people across the street would open up their mini-blinds … and they would just think, ‘Oh cool, more parking.’”
She told him: “We have no impact on the neighborhood in which we are located.”
Nishioka said he sees a “huge attraction” among young adults to the idea of local mission.
At heart, he said, “It’s a question of authenticity. Is this really authentic? Is this really real? … Are we going to actually do something” about problems close to home?
From reasoned spirituality to mystery-filled spirituality. Many young people today are drawn to a sense of mystery, awe and wonder —to an approach to spirituality that’s based on more than reason, which can make some rationally-leaning Presbyterians nervous.
This generation of 20- and 30-year-olds is “supporting the whole candle industry. It’s amazing,” Nishioka quipped.
But “what makes me nervous is we Presbyterians tend to do reason really well,” he said. “We have done mind really well. We’re trying to reason our way to faith.”
Yet many young people are drawn to a less rational path to faith. As an example, Nishioka described what he called a “hiccup” of young Protestant evangelicals turning to Orthodox churches—in part in appreciation of the rituals of that tradition. He said of the lingering scent of incense, “When you walk out, you know that whole day, you’ve been to church.”
At Columbia seminary, all seniors are required to preach a sermon to the faculty. Nishioka told of one young woman who preached about Mary and the Magnificat, from the Gospel of Luke, in which, having been told by the archangel Gabriel that she will bear a child, Mary proclaims the greatness of God. Nishioka said the student ended with a series of “I wonder” statements—such as, “I wonder what Mary was feeling.”
And then she sat down, without doing the traditional, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them and tell them what you’ve told them” approach.
One Old Testament scholar leaned over, and Nishioka heard the professor whisper loudly: “I wonder what that sermon was about.”
But “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, that sermon was brilliant, it was beautiful, she just opened the text up,’” Nishioka said. “There is tension among us. We like reason … It’s going to be tough” to appreciate other approaches.
From official leadership to gifted leadership. An example, Nishioka said, is the use of commissioned lay pastors in the PC(USA), a program that bubbled up from the grassroots. At first, some involved with the national levels of the church were skeptical.
But Nishioka thought as the proposal flew through the General Assembly: “Good grief, is it possible that the Holy Spirit is at work in this place?”
What he sees there—and what Nishioka says he sees young adults expecting—is a shift from leadership in the church based on credentials alone to leadership based on gifts among all who are willing to serve.
From long-term planning to short-term planning. In a world in which change comes so rapidly, an important question is how agile the PC(USA) can be, Nishioka said. For example, he recounted how his father, a retired pastor, once served on a presbytery planning committee that took seven years to draft a 10-year plan.
In a fluid world, will the PC(USA) respond to changes quickly? Or, Nishioka asked, “are we going to be this plodding dinosaur that just, gosh, can’t possibly turn?”
From mass evangelism to one-on-one evangelism. Nishioka told of a friend who had worked for the Billy Graham Association. She was laid off—but then rehired, with her responsibilities shifting from planning big stadium events to training congregations. Those congregations wanted to become more comfortable talking about Jesus Christ one-on-one with people they already know—with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors.
Those congregations want to learn “how to talk to people about Jesus Christ in a way that isn’t coercive or manipulative, that isn’t oppressive, but that engages them,” Nishioka said. His friend told him: “We are besieged by these requests” for such training.
Often, evangelism has not been a Presbyterian forte.
What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with Presbyterian, Nishioka asked. “Someone who knocks on the door but doesn’t have anything to say.”
But young adults, fluent in social networking, understand the importance of relationships. “And with some help, we can figure out what to say,” Nishioka contends.
From “traditioning” to experience. Author Leonard Sweet, a Drew University professor of evangelism who writes about post-modern experience, has spoken of young adults today being experiential, participatory, image-driven, and communal.
“This is the most image-conscious and image-driven generation in history,” Nishioka said. “If they don’t see it, they don’t know it.”
And the author Sharon Daloz Parks, in the book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, says “we owe young adults when they come to worship three images,” Nishioka said. “In worship, young adults should see an image of hope. They should see the image of what cannot be allowed. And they should see an image of life in Jesus Christ.”
And stories can be a kind of verbal images, Nishioka said.
“Telling the story is so, so compelling,” he said. “The story in post-modernity has picked up great power, the narrative has. So be less didactic, less point one, point two, point three, and just tell the story … Tell the story of the gospel.”
And congregations should consider how to offer participatory and experiential worship—not always easy for traditional Presbyterian churches. “We do on our best days ‘Turn to page 23, please, and face the backs of people’s heads,’ ” he said. “Young adults are saying, ‘I don’t get God that way.’”
From duty and responsibility to “What’s in it For Me?” There’s no question: this is a consumer age. “The influence of consumer culture means we’re looking for what meets our needs,” Nishioka said.
And that poses questions for religious institutions—from seminaries trying to decide what are necessary amenities to include as they build new residence halls, to congregations setting priorities for what to do next.
From the September 3, 2007, issue of Presbyterian Outlook. Published with permission from the Presbyterian Outlook, www.pres-outlook.org.