“Theology is autobiography.”
This short phrase, which I heard from a young divinity school student at Duke University, drifted through the classroom and forever cemented itself in my memory and understanding of my calling as a pastor theologian. He echoed the words of Frederick Buechner who said that “theology, no matter how abstruse, no matter how metaphysical and subtle, is an outgrowth of the theologian’s experience of the world.”
As a campus minister, I work closely with young men and women during the uniquely formative period of emerging adulthood. They are beginning to sense that they hold the responsibility for forming their beliefs. They are exploring the character and activity of God in the world and their own identity in that story through newly enriched experiential lenses. This idea, “theology is biography,” comes to mind during almost every conversation.
This season is both an exhilarating and anxiety-filled revelation. They are empowered to think, explore, question and decide own their own (though they are never really alone) as they step out of the formational structures of their youth and into the wide open world of adulthood. In this new world, they discover an ever increasing diversity of opinions on faith, ethics, responsibility and destiny, and for many this can be a shock to their senses and faith sensibilities.
The key to helping these young adults grow in their discipleship during this time?
What to say instead of your opinion
I recently spent a week away- retreating with a group of thirteen college aged young adults who have been identified as high potential leaders. The purpose of the retreat was to help discern their places of leadership in the midst of God’s work in the world. A significant portion of our teaching and group discussion centered around strategic visioning, participating in the church’s missional movements in the community, and understanding Christian identity in the cultural arena as the church engages with the secular world. The whole group was tuned in and receptive – actively participating all week with great insights and applicable takeaways.
As is the case with most retreats, the most pointed questions came during the unstructured free time and free spaces of the week. In casual conversation over dinner, one participant who is exploring seminary asked my opinion on the inerrancy of scripture. In another late afternoon conversation, while relaxing on the couch, one participant asked my views on the sovereignty of God. In the car ride home, a participant asked me what Church tradition I belonged to and why there were so many. These young minds, enthusiastically looking for answers to form their blossoming faith, were ready to receive.
These were direct questions which have no direct answers. Instead of offering my opinion, I responded by sharing moments from my story. This is the story of how God has led me by God’s Spirit through a diversity of experiences, education opportunities, spiritual practices, and communities of faith to form my particular theological and interpretive perspectives today.
My story is about how the person I was is not who I am today. No one book, teacher, revelation, experience, or community has formed me. My story reveals how I have been formed by the lifelong journey of experiencing God’s grace and God’s Spirit showing up over time. The story provides a context for my convictions.
If we seek to build the community of Jesus among millennials, we have to remember that sharing our stories is more important than sharing our opinions.
What storytelling does that statements do not
Our stories remind us of the twists and turns we have taken as we have traveled along the Way with Jesus. Our stories help reveal that faith is not a firm and fixed set of answers to life’s complicated questions. Our stories demonstrate how faith is the dynamic dance between our own rich, but limited, understanding of who God is and God’s gracious, but limited, revelation of himself in time. Our stories show that things change. We grow, learn, experience, and question our faith, which inevitably results in movement and change. Our stories demonstrate that movement and change are OK.
Many young disciples want desperately to “figure it out.” They are hungry for certain answers in the midst of their uncertain circumstances. Our stories help to show that even in the times of uncertainty God is faithful and God is near.
Consider these four questions as you share your story and as you listen to the stories of the emerging adults whom you are serving alongside.
Can you tell your own faith story in a way that recognizes movement and change?
Being able to share how our beliefs have evolved creates transparency and authenticity and begins to build a foundation of trust. Our stories are less about teaching and more about showing. Telling stories allows you to move from a position of power, that is teacher over learner, to equal disciples- two people journeying together on the Way.
Can they see movement and change in their story at critical points where belief and experience intersect?
As we share our stories and have young believers share their stories with us, they will begin to see more clearly the ways God has always been actively moving in their lives. Rather than seeking to “arrive”, the young disciple will embrace the movement and discover God’s active presence in their everyday experiences. Believing and seeing that God is daily present with us is a far more significant development in the life of faith than forming airtight arguments for the inerrancy of scripture, the sovereignty of God, or any other theological position we have systematically sorted out.
Can they appreciate the importance of intermediary moments of movement and change?
This is perhaps the most difficult challenge to the “theology is autobiographical” position. Not every conviction or conclusion is meant to last a lifetime. In some cases God brings us to a new place of clarity and perspective in order to move us incrementally to further places of greater clarity and perspective. This requires a great deal of patience and humility for everyone involved. Some of the most heated debates in which I find myself are with people who hold views that I myself held 10-15 years ago.
Our commitment to serve young adults means we will often turn back the clock and engage in dialogue with our former selves. Movement, change, and growth don’t happen overnight. By sharing our stories we will be reminded of just how long it may take for God to get through to us. It can take years to see something we are missing and how important it was to journey through convictions and conclusions with which we now disagree, but at the time were necessary for our own faith development.
Do they have a sense of the future – a question, opportunity, unresolved conflict in their faith,etc. – that will likely lead to a future moment of movement and change?
Perspective is always the most challenging hurdle for the emerging adult’s faith journey. With fewer years and a more limited selection of experiences to draw from, it is more difficult for them to identify significant moments of movement and change. However, discerning growth and gaining theological clarity is more about looking forward than it is about looking back. By helping young adults think futuristically about anticipated growth areas, they will begin to see God working and moving in real-time, not just in the rear-view mirror.
What tools have you found helpful in discipling young adults?
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