i have just been at a gathering organised by trinity wall street considering young adults spirituality and religious practice. by way of preparation people attending were invited to read robert wuthnow's book after the baby boomers: how twenty and thirty-somethings are shaping the future of american religion.
one of the points that i found interesting in the book was that young adults have an extended period before getting married and having children (if they do). this means that there can often be a 10 year period of extended young adulthood. church attendance in this age group has been in decline, but the most interesting part about that is that the young adults who are attending church tend to be married with kids - church somehow is appealing to and catering for families better than single people. so this extension of young adulthood compounds the decline.
the second point and this doesn't come as a surprise is that the way young adults make meaning is by tinkering (or bricolage if you want the cultural studies term). i was invited to give a presentation on this theme... here's a couple of quotes i pulled out...
The single word that best describes young adults approach to religion and spirituality - indeed life - is tinkering. A tinkerer puts together a life from whatever skills, ideas and resources that are readily at hand... Tinkerers are the most resourceful people in any era. If specialized skills are required they have them. When they need help from experts they seek it. But they do not rely on one way of doing things. Their approach to life is practical. They get things done and usually this happens by improvising by piecing together an idea from here, a skill from there and a contact from somewhere else.
Like the farmer rummaging through the junk pile for makeshift parts the spiritual tinkerer is able to sift through a veritable scrap heap of ideas and practices from childhood, from religious organisations, classes, conversations with friends, books, magzines, television programmes and web sites. The tinkerer is free to engage in this kind of rummaging...
i'm sure most of us recognise this sort of approach to lots of areas of life. i explored this theme a bit when i was doing my MA drawing inspiration from de certeau's ideas of making do and developing a set of tactics to negotiate the practice of everyday life. wuthnow adds that life's uncertainty these days makes tinkering a necessity as we constantly face scenarios that require creative improvising. further, the electric information environment has meant we can access and draw on the resources from diverse sources, traditions, networks and institutions without relying on experts and freed from institutional constraints.
so the 48 hour gathering was a reflection on this and what it implies or what questions it raises, in this case, for episcopalians.
a few of the questions i raised were:
can we view religion as a cultural resource? (david lyon raises this question in his book jesus in disneyland) i.e. are we prepared to take the risk of putting the insights, treasures, liturgies, theologies etc out there for people to weave into their lives as they tinker? and how might we go about this?
what skills do people need to be able to tinker? and related to this do people need some spiritual capital or theological capital to tinker? this is a challenging area. i think the answer is yes but often people don't have a lot - they think google is enough! a parallel could be drawn here with improvisation in music which will be much richer and more creative if the person knows the traditions and has done the work in terms of learning their craft - that will free them up. the same is true for spirituality - those that know the tradition, the scriptures, the theological takes, spiritual practices, liturgies, other improvisations that have been made etc will have much more to draw on. the problem for churches is that their tradiitions often feel like they are heavily policed, something to be protected rather than something to be creatively opened up, made open source and tinkered with.
if there is this extended period of young adulthood where there are little support structures in place (young adults see friends as key in terms of navigating life's choices ) could mentoring or being a soul friend help? is this an area where the church could make a creative contribution?
and lastly how can we encourage communities of tinkerers? i have found being a part of a community like grace amazing in terms of friendship, support, faith development and creative spirituality. it's located in the church but with space to explore and tinker (not that we have ever used that term!).
i talked about tinkering with worship, sharing stories from alternative worship;
tinkering with church - emerging church, fresh expressions and all that and the way that a set of permissions has been created in the church of england so that can happen within the life of the church;
and tinkering in mission - stories of mission in the emerging culture
it was a good time, as ever at these things the best conversations happen in the gaps. i hope the guys there will be enabled to do the imaginative work and negotiate space for creative ways to explore this further. it was at trinity's retreat centre which is in conneticut in an amazing setting, with the most incredible food. i now have 24 hours in new york before my flight...