Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My time in Chicago for Shared Space

At the end of June I had the privilege to attend the first annual Shared Space conference in Chicago. Now, before I go and start on a boring, stodgy summary of what an honor it was to be included, let me honestly say that I was taken by surprise at what I found at the conference. It was an invitation. An invitation to dialogue, an invitation to be included, an invitation to the edge of Christianity… an invitation to take and pass along to others.

I had no idea what I would find in Chicago when I hopped on the plane at MSP. I had been nominated to attend this conference, but I hadn’t been told about the nomination until after I had been selected to attend. Best I could tell was that representatives from five denominations would be gathering to discuss campus ministry and that my official capacity was to attend as a “student leader” representative for Province VI. No pressure.

Upon my arrival, I walked in (late, due to flight delays) to a room full of people that I had never met and who had been ministering on college campuses for 10, 20, or 30 years. The record length was 45 years. All my feelings of accomplishment after surviving my rookie year of teaching suddenly seemed to amount to squat.

But I was taken in. My voice and recent experience as a college student was honored and genuinely listened to, and held on equal par with the 45-year veteran of this ministry. Through conversations on lifelong faith formation, encouraging and cultivating allies in ministry, and using Facebook, I was constantly and genuinely invited to discuss and listen and absorb the ideas circulating at the conference.

Now, in order to express why I found this so extraordinary, I need to share some of the practical scope of the conference:
  • The Shared Space conference was the first installment of what is hoped to be an annual event.
  • The topic was campus ministry and representatives working in and concerned with that field attended from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, as well as the Episcopal Church of America. We were all given time to converse and share our experiences with one another.
  •  Diana Butler Bass gave the keynote talk, which we also were given time to discuss ecumenically. Her keynote was in regard to her newest book, Christianity After Religion, and her research on the growing disconnect between young adults and organized religion.
  • Each Christian denomination took time to meet on their own, for their own discussions. As a part of the Episcopal conference, I attended the following workshops:
    • Ruth Ann Collins, “Campus Ministry in the Arc of Lifelong Christian Formation.” Ruth Ann led a very conversational workshop regarding lifelong faith formation and the partnerships that could be cultivated in that journey, whether it be in a parish context or on a campus. She questioned and gave her responses on how faith can be formed long after someone’s formal catechism is done.
    • The Rev. Tim Hallett and the Rev. Amity Carrubba, “Equipping Your Supporters: Education and Mentorship.” In this skills training workshop, I heard questions of ‘what is community’ when you have a parish that sponsors campus ministry.
    • Randall Curtis and the Rev. Kyle Oliver, “The Internet is for Evangelism and Formation.” These two guys are so immersed in online social media and well-versed in promoting a church presence in those media that they just simply kept giving example after example of strategies and ideas. As they shared their knowledge, I saw many ways to invite students and young professionals into spiritual relationship.

So, in short, I heard many people making observations on what kinds of invitations they have made and the relationships they have built with college students. I also heard them asking questions about where we may be able to make more invitations to relationship through campus ministry. I began to observe that a large part of college ministry is a ministry of presence, so that when students begin to question and explore, there is a repository of knowledge and guidance ready to help them. But this ministry of presence needs a physical, incarnational side along with the theological, intellectual one. In other words, young adults need food, nourishment and care just as much as they need to be allowed to seek their truth.

However, I wonder even more about the demographic that these ideas pertain to. Not all individuals in the 18 to 30 year old age bracket are college graduate or undergrad students. Some are working, young professionals, having already completed their bachelor’s degrees. Some have vocational or trade school training that helped them enter the work force, though “Campus Ministry” seldom concerns anything other than universities. Some began working as soon as they left high school. What are the needs of these people and where can the Church meet those needs?

In her keynote address, Diana Butler Bass noted that the church membership of young adults has been going down steadily. Her most recent book is entitled Christianity After Religion, which I hope is named more sensationally than she meant. At the core of her book and presentation, Bass questioned the exclusive way that Christian denominations have treated each other, and now that is very much at the expense of interacting with younger generations. She showed many graphs and statistics that showed that, in contrast to older generations, young people are less and less likely to pick and identify with a single Christian denomination, or even pick and identify exclusively with a single religious tradition.

Now my reflection is not “How can we evangelize and get these younger demographics back to church” but “How can we find it within ourselves, as church people, to offer a genuine invitation to relationship with college students, young professionals and all young adults?” Since I left the conference, I have been going online to explore some of the options. I feel that that, for me, this is an essential part of my call to the diaconate, that is, I have a particular interest in the bridge-ministry between the world and the Church that is tied up with and becoming a growing focus for the diaconate in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. It is a growing edge that I have been pursuing and it is a conversation that I invite you to join me in.