Text of my Article for the Episcopal Voice

Oh, to be Young and Episcopalian…

My wife Angel and I moved to Seattle in 2005, and for the most part the Pacific Northwest has been a great place to spend our 25th, 26th, and 27th years of life. The weather is better than back home in Ohio, and the scenery is pretty darn great. As twenty-something Episcopalians though, I have to say that our church life has been a bit of a mixed bag. Things aren’t all bad for people like us in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Washington, but as young adults it has certainly been difficult to find our appropriate place within the Church community. As pop-statisticians tell us, the Pacific Northwest is the least churched place in the US, and those that are religious generally aren’t young Episcopalians. In our services, there are lots of kind folks who are happy that we’re there, but there aren’t many who would be interested in going to the same movies or shopping at the same clothing stores as us. As such, Angel and I have felt a bit like outsiders since we arrived.

On the face of things, I actually find it a little bit puzzling that the Episcopal Church isn’t doing better among youth adults these days, because in some ways we’re actually perfectly poised to address some of my generation’s most pressing concerns. Generation’s X and Y, after all, are deeply postmodern folks, and we tend to take things like moral and intellectual uncertainty for granted, so we put a high price on religious tolerance. To me, it seems that the Episcopal Church is really the poster-child for tolerant and open Christian faith: we’ve been in that business since the 16th century (if not always effectively), and media coverage of the homosexuality controversies of the last few years has highlighted that aspect of Anglicanism for the general public.

Traditional Anglican theological openness is actually what brought me to the Episcopal Church as a young adult. Having grown up in a conservative Evangelical environment, by the time I was done with college, I was also ready to be done with dogmatic religion, and the Anglican Communion offered the clearest opportunity to stay Christian but move beyond legalism. I’m not the only one to have made this jump, and you may be aware that there has in fact been a small but significant wave of youth who have come over to the Episcopal Church from the more dogmatic forms of Christianity. I would be surprised if that group doesn’t make up the largest portion of Episcopal “converts” during the next 10-15 years.

Currently, however, we aren’t entirely well-poised to integrate any wave of young converts, because many parishes don’t immediately offer the sorts of relationships that young people are looking for. Church is where we go for worship, but for those who stick around it’s also generally where we find community—it’s where we go before lunch with friends on Sundays or movies on the weekend, it’s where we meet people when we’re new in town, and it’s where we pick up compatible dates when we’re single. My experience is that in many parishes, if not most, it is difficult to imagine that a young adult has much potential to build those sorts of relationships, and thus our churches tend to seem unappealing, especially on a first visit.

However, I am hopeful about the future because this diocese is taking important steps to maximize its appeal to young adults. We’ve recognized the correlation between young priests and young congregants—according to statistics from the diocesan office, 1/3 of our aspiring priests are under the age of 40— and there is already a strong concentration of new, young leadership in our diocese. Karen Ward at Church of the Apostles in Fremont rightly gets a lot of attention for the work she is doing, and the youth ministry community is functioning as a proving ground for both present and future church leadership. Even our new Bishop is barely outside of the “young adult” category, by some definitions! With commitment it is possible that in 10 years, our demographics will be significantly different, and the teenagers who are currently populating our youth groups will be able to find other Episcopalians to go to lunch with on an average Sunday afternoon.