Ministry among millenials: The spirituality of young people

By Andrea Noel & Otis Gaddis III
Posted May 14, 2013

[Episcopal Diocese of Washington] This blog is part of a series on ministry with young adults that the Episcopal Diocese of Washington is featuring in May.

Note: While religious affiliation amongst young adults is down, it is intriguing to find that studies show significant numbers of unaffiliated young adults pray daily and meditate weekly. This article addresses this opportunity.

Many young adults are investigating themes in spirituality more willingly than formal religion. Across religious traditions absentee young adults are no longer an exception, instead they have become the norm. This drift could exist because young adults express disappointment regarding relationships with families and institutions. More than ever, young adults are alive to the inconsistencies that exist in what they are told to do and what they are shown to do by example. Furthermore, with millennials, dissociative behaviors are customary. This new way of being could have several influences: parenting styles, non-traditional familial structures, technology, social pressures, and/or mental health issues.

Additionally, post-modern, global situations have millennials searching for deeper meaning, beliefs, values, and relationships that can offer greater support for self-integration in this convoluted world. Young adults do not only want to cope with the realities of post modernity, but seek opportunities to thrive in it.

Contemplative spirituality enhances the spiritual lives of young adults. Practices in the contemplative tradition offer young adults a path toward prayer, depth, and awareness of the presence of God. When young adults regularly engage practices within the contemplative tradition they can:

  1. Discover and understand their distinct relationship with the divine.
  2. Draw out and build up their overlooked innate strengths and spiritual resources.
  3. Notice what encumbers and sustains their awareness and reaction to the divine.
  4. Cultivate their spiritual lives through practices, worship, and/or education.
  5. Interpret or simply be present to their lived experiences of the divine.
  6. Be a witness to the transformation of their perceptions, responsiveness, and overall ways of being in the world.

The theological concept of Koinonia, spiritual companionship, is a guiding principle that weaves throughout the contemplative tradition. Groups are an ideal vehicle for spiritual growth in the lives of young adults. Groups, large and small, are a significant part of spiritual formation, facilitation, and direction. When we are in communion, we are better able to engender hope, express universality, encourage altruism, and develop an ecology for the Spirit.

Since 2009, I (Andrea Noel) have engaged young adults with practices from the contemplative tradition. As a spiritual companion, I pray, listen, encourage, and respond to the presence of God in young adults’ lives. Some practices include: meditation, lectio divina, labyrinths, examen, journaling, chanting, collaging, body prayer, group and individual spiritual guidance, and others.

As the Chaplain at University of Maryland College Park, I (Rev. Gaddis) find myself at the intersection of religion, spirituality, and young adults. One of the ministries of the chaplaincy is a contemplative spiritual practices group. This group bears out many of the assertions above as the majority of students who come are spiritual, but not religious. Through my pastoral presence and facilitation, the community is one of non-religious people encountering the Episcopal Church and its theology. The group is an experience of spiritual direction where being Episcopal or Christian is not necessary. Yet, students are adopting in their own way an Episcopal identity.

As we close the second semester, I (Gaddis) regularly see 7-10 students attending, and an additional 10 students who are part of the community irregularly. Each week we see newcomers who have been expressly invited by other attendees. The students are beginning to have spiritual experiences that are opening them to a coherent, real-time relationship with God. Conversations about one’s relationship with God are happening with several students who simply would not have been willing to two months ago. The students have even asked me to continue the group during the summer. This desire is an unprecedented request.

This is the effect of creating environments where people can have and process spiritual experiences. For those who are spiritual but not religious, this is exactly what they are looking for: something real. Because these practices are drawn from our Christian contemplative tradition, what is happening here is a repeatable authentic expression of the Episcopal Church.

Our hope is that exposing young adults to these practices invites them to a deeper encounter of God. We want to empower them with the ability to see their intrinsic value, strength, and connection to God. Contemplative spirituality allows young adults to express their own lived experiences of the divine without judgment or qualification and with genuine freedom. These practices help to cultivate a regular prayer life, encourage self-discovery, and create a knowing self in relation to God.

Andrea Noel completed a Master of Divinity at Howard University, residency at Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats, and is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Spiritual and Pastoral Care at Loyola University Maryland. Her life’s work is to help young adults go inward, realizing the deepest purpose within them that the world desperately needs, and reconnecting to the one true source. 

Otis Gaddis III came to the University of Maryland as a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School (2012). He studied young adult ministry, progressive evangelism, and community organizing during his time there. At Maryland, he serves as the Episcopal/Anglican Chaplain.

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