The challenges to young Christians in urban communities were the focus of the first Diversity Lecture of the 2021-22 academic year at Newbold College, on Tuesday evening 14 September 2021. The featured speakers were Pastor Lorraine (Lolly) Fontaine, a pastor in central London and Thomas Mwadimé, Youth Ministries Digital Co-ordinator for the Adventist church in southern England. When the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, paid Adventist youth leaders were furloughed and the responsibility for youth leadership was taken up by Mwadimé and supported by Fontaine and others. They set up a series of 'no holds barred' online discussions. With young people, most of them living in urban contexts, they discussed the challenges to faith in all parts of their lives – especially during the pandemic. The need for more 'safe spaces' like this was a recurring theme of the evening.
The two speakers had requested that Newbold's ecclesiologist, Dr Tihomir (Tihi) Lazic join them to comment on their observations with biblical perspectives. He brought to his comments his own experience as chaplain to Adventist students at secular universities whom he had asked the question, 'What tensions are you experiencing between your student/professional life and your Christian faith?' The three speakers had all met young people whose faith was being 'challenged in robust ways not acceptable in church'. They agreed that young people are leaving the church but not faith. They are looking for an individual journey with Jesus.
Questions about the role of a pastor in the church since lockdown began the discussion. 'What is the space for the pastor now' asked Fontaine 'when so many online church meetings proceed with no pastor?' Many young people also had difficulties with trusting church leaders after accounts of sexual and financial exploitation and official over-protection of the institution at the expense of individuals. Young people feel the need for a pastor who is able to create safe spaces for them to wrestle with issues for themselves and think critically about their faith without the need for spiritual 'achievement'. They yearn for the space to experience Jesus wherever they are and to learn about deep transformation rather than superficial behavioural changes in their lives. They want to see a church where values are embodied by the members rather than imposed from the outside in. They want relational religion rather than proclamation. They want to find God in their entire lives – in social, ecological, political, racial, and gender issues. They want a focus on expressing faith in community and social justice.
Lazic suggested that the 'safe space' model of church which Mwadimé and his colleagues had offered was 'close to the communal' model that Jesus offered where there exists a continuously 'improvised balance between community and the person'. This is a model where there are clear values and where failure and brokenness can be accepted, where authentic differences can be expressed without being suppressed, where people can grow authentically without being expected to change overnight.
Mwadimé identified a misconception held by some church members. 'They think young people just want a hippy lifestyle,' he said. 'But one of the deep questions that was driving many of the conversations we were having is, What does the Bible say about these things?... A lot of young people were looking for a much more clarified understanding of what the Bible is actually saying. Many of them have a sense that our cultural lenses have blocked our understanding of a full perspective on what the Bible says about the role of women, race, sexuality and other difficult topics.'
'The question is,' said Mwadimé 'How can we have an honest interaction about these difficult topics without just trying to find one answer that we can give in a young people's meeting? What we pass off as Bible teaching is often a very thin outer crust which doesn't properly represent the richness and depth of what the scripture is actually teaching.' He described the richer experience of God which follows from 'liberation from the shackles of a particular kind of thinking'.
Fontaine identified tensions between theologians and old un-biblically based rhetoric from the local church pulpit, board meetings and camp meetings where calls to uniform action do not motivate an authentic change of mind. In the talk and the lively Q&A which followed, Fontaine and Mwadimé talked about the patience of God who 'allows us to grow in our own lane and own time' and the need for leaders and parents to develop that patience.
Lazic talked about the need to recognise the dangers of binary approaches to change. He described the frontier-mentality progressive who asks new questions and encourages adaptation to new environments but too harshly and quickly disregards the preservation of what is important in the past. At the other extreme is the traditionalist who maintains the need to return to past purity while fearing to embrace change.
The evening demonstrated that the Adventist search for God and for present truth is alive and well in the 21st century. As one older listener commented, 'Encouraging to hear these younger folk grappling with the real stuff – gives one hope for the church.'
A report like this can only give a glimpse of the riches of this evening's discussion. The full recording can be viewed here.