One of our daughters is getting quite involved with The Oaktree Foundation, a social change movement run by young people, with almost no paid staff. Accordsing to their website,
"The Oaktree Foundation is Australia’s first and largest youth-run development agency. We’re another garage-startup. We began in 2003 with 30 people, working in living rooms and public halls. Now we’ve grown to become an established NGO, comprising of 300 volunteer staff and seven fully operational state offices."
Our daughter has been on the "Make Poverty History" national road trip to Canberra, attended by 1000 young people, is volunteering one day a week in the SA office (she had to apply and be interviewed for this), was making a promo video for them last night, and is about to go to Cambodia with them for 3 1/3 weeks to check out their development projects.
I'm intrigued by how empowered these young adults both feel and are. No-one in the organisation is over 26 years of age. For a long time I've felt that young adults will eventually leave any organisation that they are not running. I know so many Christian young adults who are more interested in changing the world than in joining the church. Church is not a 'cause' in and of itself, and most church youth or young adult groups have social transformation as a minor aspect of what they do, if at all.
Here's "The Oaktree Way":
We are young people working together to end global poverty.
1. Think big. Be unafraid.
2. Embrace change & make it your own.
3. Be relentless
4. Build a passionate & unusual community with a spirit of fun.
5. Be humble.
6. Be inquisitive and hungry for knowledge.
It's a great manifesto. I wonder what the church could learn from them. I wonder if we'd be prepared to let young adults from beyond the church train our young adults in leadership, rather than relying so much on adults from within the church. I wonder how we support young adults to be engaged in social transformation without requiring that they sign up to prop up unnecessary institutional agendas.
In some ways I wish that our daughter had signed up for a similar Christian initiative, but there isn't one that I know about. I know that when she and her sister were helping with a youth support agency in the inner city, they received a whole lot of skills training that they would never have received in the church. So in many ways I'm delighted that their spirit of enthusiasm for justice and peace has taken them beyond the limited social arena of the church. They have a breadth of skills, contacts and interests that they would never have received through church youth programs. They've taken the initiative to start a social/spiritual group for young adults who would be unlikely to be accepted in many churches because of their gender orientation and inquisitive/questioning natures. And still they retain a lively faith.
I wish that the church was different.That's not to say that there aren't some incredibly lively faith communities of young adults, and parts of the church where young adults exercise significant leadership. And we're thankful to have been part of a congregation that supports and celebrates young adults' involvement in social justice. But I wonder if we could be more of a faith-based movement that sponsored social change than a 'fellowship' where action was an option.
These days schools have quite strong community service programs, so we can expect that young people, apart from being as narcissistic as they are often portrayed in the press, are open to meaningful social engagement. (The "Spirit of Gen Y" research supports this, and there's plenty of other research in education settings.) It's not the same as joining a church working bee. It seems to me that a key dimension here is leadership by young people themselves (and not by official invitation - it's NOT about adults asking young people to do things and then being disappointed when they don't support our idea...)
There are some vibrant, young adult Christian communities with a justice edge to them - Activate in Adelaide which is linked to the "Welcome to Australia" initative through its founder, Brad Chilcott. CitySoul, also in Adelaide, has sponsored or supported social action by young adults. Age Greenwood's MorePraxis project in Melbourne does excellent work networking young adults (who may or may not necessarily be connected to a formal faith community) in relation to social justice and radical discipleship. Urban Seed in Melbourne has also connected young adults with spirituality and justice. From what I know, Cafe Church Glebe has also connected faith and justice in a non-traditional setting.
So what are some ways forward here - engaging young people with a passion for social justice so that it's them leading, and not necessarily asking them to "join the church" beforehand? building spiritual awareness and disciplines into social concern and social action? finding ways for young adult social movements (of which there are quite a few) to speak into the church?
One of the strengths of the Catholic orders (eg. St Vincent de Paul) was that they were as much social movements as they were church. So I wonder why the 'front door' to the church is a local church building rather than multiple movements of social transformation that happen to involve Christians.. There are a few roles that adults can play here - hosts, sponsors, mentors, connectors (hubs or nodes), encouragers...
Certainly, some of the young adults who are my daughters' friends wouldn't go near a church because of their conservative values (perceived or real), male leadership and stifling conversations about faith and life.
I'm tryint to turn what was a bit of a lament into a question about what people are learning and how we might sow mustard seeds of transformation.
I had hoped to include some of this in my PhD research but I felt that 'an example' would not do justice to the ferment that is out there among young adults. Some churches, though, were excellent examples of this kind of young adult engagement.
So that's another project that I'm itching to tackle when I can - a phenomenological study of young adults expressing faith in social action at the fringes of the church, whatever that means... Is anyone studying this is any formal way? ie. ethnographic or otherwise? Or have you a story to tell?