The Riverside Innovation Hub is convinced of two things. First, we are fairly certain young adults do not want to be targeted by efforts to win them back to church. They would much rather be participants and leaders in efforts to target pressing issues impacting their neighborhoods and the globe. Second, we are fairly certain innovation, theologically understood, is not the creation of new, shiny programs. Rather, it is best understood as vocation. It is that thing that happens at the intersection where we are simultaneously aware of our neighbors’ deep desires, our deep desires, and God’s deep desires. Innovation happens when we are responsive to God’s call to be in life-giving relationships with and for our neighbor.
(“Ezekiel and the Public Church: Everything Will Live Where the River Goes,” Jeremy Myers)
Jeremy Myers is faculty lead for Riverside Innovation Hub (RIH), a 5-year project designed to help Minneapolis/St. Paul-area congregations “innovate new connections with young adults at the intersections of their faith and their public lives.” Sponsored by Augsburg University’s Bernhard Christensen Center for Vocation and supported by Lilly Endowment, Inc., RIH is one of 12 innovation hubs in the United States that are helping congregations connect with young adults.
“The gap between young adults and Christian congregations is widening,” acknowledges the RIH website. Statistics on religious disaffiliation among young adults bear this out. But that does not mean young adults are without religious values and beliefs, say those involved with RIH.
“We do know many are living out their faith in vibrant ways at innovative intersections such as: faith and political activism, faith and the arts, faith and environmental stewardship, and interfaith engagement. The Riverside Innovation Hub will help congregations become engaged with young adults at these intersections and at others we may discover along the way.” (RIH)
Congregations are participating in RIH in one of two tracks.
Year 1: The congregation learns from an RIH-trained young adult innovation coach, who accompanies and facilitates the congregation in reimagining its ministry with young adults. The year culminates with the congregation submitting a sub-grant proposal to receive $25,000–$30,000 for an innovative approach to ministry appropriate to its particular neighborhood context.
Years 2–3: The congregation implements its plan for engaging young adults.
Year 4: The congregation, together with RIH, evaluates what worked/what didn’t and shares those findings through written projects and seminars.
Throughout the four years, representatives of the sixteen participating congregations selected for Track 1 attend regular meetings and trainings offered by RIH.
Congregational affiliations for churches participating in RIH include Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Baptist.
In a recent interview with Catholic Research, Myers, a religion professor at Augsburg, RIH program director Kristina Fruge, and innovation coach Lindsay Boehmer talked about RIH.
The guiding method for discerning what living the gospel “must mean here and now” for a congregation in its relationship with a neighborhood is what Myers calls the Public Church Framework. Four movements comprise the framework:
Fruge describes the relationship between congregation and neighborhood as “mutually transformative. Neighbors change. Congregations change. It may mean more is asked of [a congregation] than a hot meal or a clothing drive. God shows up in pretty powerful ways, because we encounter a neighbor’s story in ways that change us.”
For Boehmer, a key challenge is preparing congregations and their young adults to assume responsibility for young adult engagement and leadership after her year is up. “It’s most exciting to see young adults get to lead their congregation, to be a part of the listening that they’re doing. The biggest challenge is stretching people to try something new,” she said, as she invites congregations: “‘Let’s try going to the neighbors around here, let’s try going to listen to them without forming hypotheses about what will happen first.’”
RIH encourages congregations to be communities where young adults will feel at home, those interviewed said.
“Faith is not black and white, either you have it or you don’t,” said Myers. “No questions means no faith. We’d have fewer people leaving churches if we talked about Christian community as having spaces for ambiguity.”
Said Boehmer: “That’s what’s needed—that space for those not all engaged and fired up about God.”
“This generation is not growing up with pressure you ought to be at church—that ship has sailed,” said Fruge, adding, “Young adults won’t go from guilt.” Consequently, “This means their voice is very powerful—they are a fantastic conversation partner if we let them.”
“Congregations in relationship with their neighbors and what God is up to in their corner of the world are the kinds of communities young adults would find interesting to participate in,” said Fruge.
No “special program or approach” makes congregations successful with young adults, states RIH: “We believe their success with young adults is related to their clarity of conviction and intentionality about engaging their young adults in leadership roles so that they might lead the faith community into living public lives of faith that matter.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research