What young adults need

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By Otis Gaddis III

In previous postings, I have argued that forward movement on LGBT issues is essential for creating the environment in which we can effectively engage young adults. As the final passage of D025 by the House of Deputies indicates, The Episcopal Church is making progress in doing the hard work of revealing ourselves as accurate reflectors of the message of Christ. But it is important to understand that making the Church a safe place for LGBT people is only the beginning. That movement simply opens the door for young adults by signally that the Church is a safe place for the authentic development of one’s personhood. In order to get people to actually move through the door, we must seriously begin to develop the competency of not only being safe but of actively fostering that authentic personal development.

In the post-modern world, which is the only world young adults have ever known, the central question is the search for an authentic self. Post-modernism as a philosophy teaches that everything is influences by everything else and thus nothing is of itself, nothing is truly autonomous. In a culture that values the authentic individual, the result of this understanding of reality is that one many not have a true self to find. One is left adrift in a swirl of commercial, ideological, and institutional forces, none of which can be trusted and none of which can be “authentically” resisted.

In this emerging narrative of the self as utterly socially constructed and produced by outside sources, LGBT people provide a useful counterpoint. LGBT people point to the possibility of an authentic self that cannot be suppressed by therapy, law, or even religion. That authentic self is revealed by the persistence of desire. And it is authentic desire, passion, and longing that young adults really want to find. In asking the question “who am I?” young adults increasingly believe that can found by asking “what do I really want?” It is for this reason that LGBT persons are (welcome) social metaphors of authenticity. They represent the possibility of an authentic self “discovered,” revealed in the light of one’s persistent passions, passions that come from within.

Thus, in a post-modern worldview, the existence of LGBT people speaks to the possibility of an authentic self underneath all of the layers of social construction and linguistic mediation, and thus reconstitutes the possibility of something given, something from God. If one’s passions for erotic partnership are responsive to a particular gender and that is a given in one’s self then what other kinds of desires are a given? What about life vocation and purpose? What about one’s values? What about the kind of spiritual practices best suit one? In other words the possibility of an authentic sexual orientation, gender identity or range of gender expressions begs the question what other parts of our self we can also discover through our desires, what else can we authentically be. And those are the kinds of questions most young adults are swimming in right now. Do we have a safe harbor for them? I think we do.

As Christians we can boldly say that the internal passions that lead to an articulation of LGBT identity point to the reality that human beings are made in the image of God and that image has a core that cannot be fully suppressed. Indeed, that core divine spark, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our being breathed into us at the Creation, is revealed in our deepest desires just as someone’s sexuality is revealed inductively by one’s erotic desires. Thus, as Christians, we would contend that the core of our humanity that the existence of LGBT people are bearing witness to is none other than the reflection of Christ, refracted through our unique personalities formed in our social contexts. Just as the Church should be a safe place for LGBT people to come out, so also it must be a safe place for people to come out as authentic persons, that is, as reflections of Christ and live into that authentic identity.

When we place the Gospel in the language of authentic personal development, we understand that bringing people to Christ to be the process of helping people express the special and unique way they are a reflection of Christ. This process, Christian Formation, is about creating the environment and providing the tools for people to mature “into the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). As the Church, our theory is that one’s authentic self is found in Christ and that one’s attributes and identity markers are a means of expressing that Christ nature in ways that can help other people express theirs. To paraphrase Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, our identities are not for ourselves but for others. As Christians we are to draw out Christ in each other’s personalities through our unique way of being like Christ, to reveal in each other that we are what we eat: The Body of Christ, the Gifts of God for the People of God.

When we delve deeper into the metaphysics of what we are talking about here, we can see that taking seriously the existence of LGBT people the context of a post-modern worldview requires having a different conception of evangelism. If there is an authentic self and that authentic self is a given (in spite of what post-modernism asserts) and finally that authentic self is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the human being longing to grow that person into the full stature of Christ, then our way of doing evangelism and Christian Formation changes. Instead of a Calvinist project that assumes that people are “totally depraved” have nothing in them that longs for God, and thus we (who have God) must supply God to them, we have an Anglican project which assumes God is already present, in the authentic self of the person, and our job is to evoke that authentic self to the surface and help it “come out” in a world that is hostile to living an authentic life: a life lived for others, a life lived with God, a life lived liked Christ’s.

If evoking the passions of the Divine Spark in someone is now the goal of evangelism, then listening becomes the most important skill in doing evangelism. We now are listening to the core passions of others and then try to create spaces in our Church for people to live out those passions in a way that helps reveal themselves to themselves.

A practical example of this kind of evangelism is The Diocese of Massachusetts’ Relational Evangelism Project administered by Rev. Arrington Chambliss. This program offers a year long young adult service project (part of the Episcopal Service Corp) that trains young adults in community organizing skills (one-on-ones, discerning community needs through active listening, leadership development etc.) and then attaches them to congregations and chaplaincies. They then create spaces inside those church structures that match the passions of those outside of them.

For example, are there people who have a passion to express in song and poetry they dreams for their neighborhood and that nation? Through community organizing offer the local Episcopal Church as a gathering place for such artists and work along side them to create the space that they want. As they offer their hospitality, creating space, for the expression of their artistic passions these relational evangelists are able to reveal in normal conversation their own core passions and how through them they found in Christ an authentic archetype of themselves, someone to whom they closer they get the more of their authentic selves they discover.

And the great thing is that the Relational Evangelism Project is working. Last year was its pilot year. This year they are doubling the number of young adult relational evangelists. The young adults and their work sites are prayerfully assigned and they live in intentional Christian community during the year. Of course, when you look deeper you can see that for the young adult relational evangelists, this project is itself a space that allows them to live out their passions to serve in the name of Christ, a place to actualize a passion for Christ that has developed into a desire to be a public embodied witness. They are discovering that by living into their passion to be witnesses of Christ they are becoming more aware of their own authentic person.

Now, this kind of evangelism works by eventually inviting people into a process of Christian Formation, a space where people can interact with the received wisdom of the Christian Tradition in perceiving and discerning their own passions, thereby making Christianity a helpful path to self knowledge and an authentic way of being.

If who people truly are can be accessed by looking to what people truly desire, then spiritual discernment becomes the gateway to Christian Formation. This is especially true for young adults who are seeking to discover our authentic selves so that we may begin to live into ourselves in earnest. And when one really starts to listen to young adults it become apparent that there are themes that keep coming up where spiritual discernment is necessary: personal values discernment, vocation discernment, partnership discernment. Furthermore, we need to be able to grow in theses various discernments in the context of authentic Christian fellowship of both peers and mentors. These three themes are probably preoccupations for young adults no matter where they are in the country. Thus, it behooves the Church to at least create spaces within the church that address these needs for spiritual discernment.

Of course, young adults will be suspicious that institutions that offer to assist us in discovering ourselves are simply trying to conform us to their own agenda. One of the greatest examples of this kind of experience has been that of LGBT people in anti-LGBT religious environments. In those environments, the answers to the question “who am I and what do I want” was answered for people in a way that prevented them from actually being authentic people.

Fortunately, our work on supporting LGBT in being authentic people signals to others that we can do that work with them as well. But we must follow through. We must offer the spiritual wealth of the Church in a manner not unlike how a one would offer a pallet of oil colors to a painter so that she can express herself on the canvass. We can offer to show how to use the brush (our ways of accessing God) while encouraging young adults to be free to paint what comes to them (that is to express what they perceive to be the authenticity of their lives). What we find when people experience spirituality as a path to freedom and accurate self-understanding people begin to come alive. And as Saint Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

An instance of offering spiritual discernment as a lens to access Christian Tradition is a class on spiritual discernment for young adults that has been happening at my parish of Saint Mark’s Capitol Hill during on Wednesdays this month. Led by Prof. Katherine Staudt, the class began with the help people articulate when they are the most passionate both in what they do an in what they want for the world. From there, she offers a series of Christian spiritual disciplines gleaned from the core of the Christian monastic and contemplative traditions to help people discern God’s authentic call to them in their passions. The class has maintained a good balance of peer conversation and instructive lecture allowing young adults to find their own voice. In the class, you could feel how excited people were as they explored who they were in Christian community. For us, our spirituality, our Christianity, was working for us on a very practical level. And that is what young adults really want.

As we start clearing away the barriers that have been keeping people out of our Church we must also do the work of making the Church a place where people are not only safe spiritually but grow spiritually. When that happens, people are transformed and they will get excited and they will want to be witnesses to that they have experienced. Creating that environment for growth is deeply connected to the work we have been doing on LGBT issues. It is through that work that the church as an institution is starting to intentionally respond to the post-modern world that now surrounds us. The fact that we are one of the first denominations to “get it” on LGBT stuff means that we are much, much closer to getting what young adults really want and how to offer them the gospel in their social context. Right now we are focusing on how we include LGBT people in the life of the Church, but as I have suggested in this article, as we theologically and philosophically contemplate what it means that we desire to fully including LGBT people, we will also begin to access new ways of seeing the world that will give us a leg up for evangelism and Christian Formation in our emerging social context. And that is exciting.

Otis Gaddis III is a lawyer and young adult minister at Saint Mark’s Capital Hill in Washington D.C. A postulant from the Diocese of Washington, he will be attending Yale Divinity School this Fall.

Click Read more for a footnote


I know some hard core post-modernists will resist this by saying that for example all desire is constructed because it is itself mediated through language. Thus, for example “gay desire” is constructed in the sense it is only possible when we have a social category of “gay.” Although I understand that critique, the underlying desire of homoeroticism is there regardless of the name a person put to it. There has always been a share of the population that have had a propensity to have erotic attraction primarily to their own gender. How that has been expressed has been different in different social contexts (and yes thus socially constructed) but the desire itself is a given.

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6 Responses to "What young adults need"
  1. Otis - thanks for the good review - and for all of this. Of course you're "singing my song" when you say that what we need is a fresh emphasis on listening, spiritual discernment, helping people hear their true desires. I was "formed" intellectually in the heyday of postmodernism (in Comp Lit at Yale in the 1970's) and the word we were forbidden to use was "essence" or "essential" -- I was always aware that this created a profound disconnect between my Christian faith and the philosphical frame of postmodernism (despite the usefulness of some insights). I think that is another way in which the church is called to be countercultural: we are saying there IS such a thing as an "authentic self" - it is expressed in desire of all sorts (a long standing insight in the spiritual tradition - time to reclaim it) -- and found as we create safe places for people to explore the essence of who they are, how God has made them, what they most deeply want.

    When I read you, and think about this, I also realize that many of the people who have invited me to that kind of deep claiming of self have been LGBT folks who have claimed that authenticity for themselves, and so have become a gift to others, gay, straight and otherwise, who are on the spiritual path -- you've helped me to see why, and I'm offering a prayer of thanks today for their guidance and friendship to me.

    If you're out there reading this, you know who you are!

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  2. Otis, I think you make a lot of good points here. There's a missing piece, however, which is how the worship experience itself transforms to meet the hunger for mission and personal authenticity. Those of us under 40 are often left to choose between the benefits of a historical/liturgical tradition worship service, and an more 'emergent' service that can meet us where we are personally, not as a blank space between high school ministries and those for children and families.

    For many people born since the '80s and '90s, LGBT acceptance is yet another signal of an attempt toward connection, but it does not always follow that the church provides any structures (in community and in worship itself) to affirm other commonalities.

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  3. I don't get what it would mean to get it on LGBT issues, as if there were some simple truth waiting to be revealed. The claim that the Episcopal Church is one of the first denominations to "get it" on LGBT issues is weak. After thirty years of talking about LGBTs, the denomimination has just affirmed a commitment to equality in sacraments and orders but that is far from the practice in most dioceses. Bishops will continue to floud nondiscrimination canons. Likewise, affirming a move toward blessing same-sex relationships does not catch up with the marriage equality movement. A blessing is still separate and unequal. The United Church of Christ, if there were a first on these questions, would be a better candidate because it offers full equality in all orders of ministry and in marriage.

    I don't see why one has to bash postmodernism in order to do LGBT-affirming work within this denomination, as if postmodernism were a thing which could be defined once and for all, as if it could be present like an object and eventually disappear. Postmodernism does not say that people make their identities in any simple way. Resistance and ambivalence are more nuanced approaches to identity.

    The rumors of the demise of postmodernism are grossly exaggerated. It is a mistake to reject contemporary philosophy.

    How can one be sure one has "got" it, whatever "it" is?

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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  4. I'm really glad to see this article about combining progressive attitudes and "generous orthodoxy" being the key to attracting young adults to the church. So many denominations, faced with an aging membership and low birth rate, debate how to attract younger generations. Unfortunately, their "solutions" usually involve repackaging the same old ideas in new music, new liturgy, and the whole "seeker-service" shebang.

    My wife and I are probably one of the ideal target demos for churches today: raised in some denomination or other, which we vehemently rejected in favor of an agnostic/atheist worldview, which turned out to be equally unsatisfactory. We'd studied other religions at one time or another, and agreed we wanted to return to Christianity, but with so many options... we knew we couldn't be fundamentalists, and 'Christian Rock' tends to make loving Christ a little to eerily sexual, so contemporary evangelical services were out. We're not Calvinist, so out went the Presbyterians, Congregationalists were never too big in Maryland... We went to one Unitarian service but couldn't tell what, if anything, they believed in. It came down to Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist. I wanted her to check out the Catholic church with me, but she was dead set against it, and I can't blame her.

    We wanted a church we wouldn't have to apologize to any of our friends for, and I remembered the news coverage of the controversy over Bishop Gene Robinson's consecration. So I read about each denomination. Methodists were too evangelical for me, and Lutherans seemed a little... Lake Wobegon? But, the Episcopal Church... here was a church that affirmed the historic faith of the undivided church, the creeds, had beautiful, historic ritual and liturgy, upheld the sacraments and apostolic succession, but didn't have a problem with evolution, LGBT people, thought issues like abortion and sexuality weren't simple with easy answers, were quicker to forgive than to condemn...

    This was the church for us.

    Trying to 'repackage' your church with liturgical innovations and 'contemporary' music isn't going to fool people for long, and as each generation are increasingly savvy consumers of culture, these moves won't even be worthwhile in the first place.

    What those of us who were born in the postmodern era lack is any sort of point of reference; the free play of meaning in a deconstructed world can be dizzying, and the and the deconstructed metanarratives of the past were deconstructed for good reason; they were oppressive or marginalizing to someone we are, or someone we care about. But a church that can provide an inclusive message of faith, hope, charity; a message of God's love for all humanity expressed through Christ's atoning work on the cross; a message expressed in music and liturgy that we hold in common with ages past, that has stood almost unchanged across the centuries; basically, a generous orthodoxy that unites in a community without margins, with Christ as its only center.

    This is what we children of deconstruction are seeking; this is why we're drawn to the Episcopal Church, and often to Rite I services (it seems like Rite II and EOW liturgies are for middle-aged liberals, not for youth who are looking for timeless Christian worship; something to bear in mind). We want liturgy, sacraments, hymnody, ritual, and 'generously' orthodox theology; we just don't want ignorance, bigotry, exclusion, or petty prejudices of the past. I think the fact that the Church consecrated Gene Robinson, but not Kevin Thew Forrester shows that this is the path the Episcopal Church is on; in my opinion, the right path.

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  5. Jason, deconstruction questions simple genealogies such as who comes first and who comes second. Derrida's Post Card is an example. A post card is a copy with no original. On the card in Derrida's text there is an image of Plato looking over Socrates's shoulder and gesturing at Socrates, who is writing. It is as if Plato, who is supposed to come second, goes before Socrates in the sense that it is Plato who fictioned the figure of Socrates for Western philosophy. Socrates takes dictation.

    Socrates only comes to be because of the history of Western philosopy. There is no timelessness, contra Platonism.

    There can be no children of deconstruction because deconstruction is no origin but rather likes to get entangled in framing, as in the Plato postcard.

    I, too, love traditional liturgy, especially the Easter liturgy, which is nice postmodern garage-sex mix of things that don't go together.

    But I find the notion of "generous orthodoxy" as oxymoronic at best.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

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  6. Gary, no children of deconstruction? I disagree.

    Hegel, perhaps, should have ended childless, as proclaiming the End of History suggests a final sterility of Spirit, although against all odds Hegel fathered that bastard Marx, and the illegitimate schools of dialectical materialism.

    Deconstruction's dissemination of meaning endlessly spills its seed on the fertile ground of a text with no outside, spawning endless possible parallel (mis)readings; incredulity to metanarratives means we can never complete the task of composing little stories to fill the space opened by deconstruction. If one can conceive of a deconstructive imperative, a postmodern great commission, it is this:

    "Be fruitful, and multiply meanings."

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