The Diaconate of Young Adulthood
Three years ago this Pentecost I found myself worshipping at an open-air church on the Garden Island of Hawaii: Kauai. I had flown down to interview for the position of youth and young adult minister at one of two Episcopal Churches on the island. I was 25. As it was a half-time position I spent much of my visit seeking out other part-time gigs: outreach coordinator for an HIV/AIDS service organization, Spanish teacher at a local private school, hula dancer… Meanwhile, I knew my brother was driving the streets of Houston, Texas dropping off small bundles of the first-ever issue of a photocopied ‘zine we were calling Episcorific. Inside the front cover it read:
“The big idea? Young adults are not big churchgoers generally. Our lives are hectic and often unstable. We are at the mercy of the education system, budding careers, frequent moves, and our own indecisiveness. We are justifiably self-involved as we try to make our place in this world, define the bounds of our lives. But for many of us the church is an important site for that self-creation, a place of expanding the me-box to let God in. So, this is just another attempt at bringing the few, the brave, the young adult Episcopalians of this diocese into closer communion.”
Self-effacing, folksy, and tongue-in-cheek, the ‘zine nonetheless was an honest call for community, if community “in transition.” Tired of waiting for our generation’s “faith manifesto,” we decided to build a forum from which it could be written, a space carved out within the church for us to speak: openly, honestly, creatively, together.
13 issues later, I’ve finally realized that the creation of the forum itself and not the words written there was in fact the manifesto, the manifest reality, for which we were looking: a space for young adults to authentically and fully engage the church even while they wrestled wholeheartedly with the questions of young adulthood: Who am I to be? Where am I to live? With whom? Where do my values lie? Who can I trust?
We, as a church, often see the double-commitment of young adulthood—fully immersed in the world and struggling to make sense of faith—as a weakness and a challenge. We all too quickly assume the attitude we developed fifty years ago. We’re afraid and overwhelmed, under-formed and content, and so we say, “Let them drift. They’ll come back.” But in reality, they won’t, and both they and we will be poorer for it.
The reality is that the socially acceptable options for authentic spiritual life today are infinite. If young adults prioritize spirituality at all, they will have the world’s religions to choose from, and in the end they’ll probably develop their own path, built from bits and pieces they’ve collected along the way, often with only episodic guidance, mentorship, and community. As a young adult, I know this is not satisfying. It is not enough.
As Episcopalians we struggle with the word “right.” We call it humility to deny an “exclusive” hold on truth, but all too often, in an attempt to be accommodating we underplay the tremendous gifts we have to offer, and we forget the transformational nature of sustained commitment to community and the spiritual processes that happen therein. We forget that through the structures of our tradition we actually do create space for the Spirit.
One such structure we’ve undervalued in the latest iteration of our tradition has been the diaconate, a station of incredible freedom and commitment. In Acts 6, the Seven were sent out to share the word of God. The diaconate is commissioned to lead the charge outward, to authentically and courageously forge the connections between the world and the church, to care for the widow and orphan on behalf of the church, and to challenge and expand the limits of the church’s embrace to include that same widow and orphan within the holy community. The diaconate is that liminal space where the world and the church overlap in a single process of integration, of blurring the boundaries, exchanging and translating information, practices, and values. In essence, it is the rightful place of the people of God, ever widening the embrace of Christ’s body on earth.
In some ways young adults cannot help but to occupy just such a process and a social location. Perched precariously on the border between an institutional culture trying to uproot itself from the 1960’s and find fertile ground in the 21st century and the popular and evolving cultures in which they have come to consciousness, theirs is necessarily a work of translation. Of both world and church, we would do well to affirm both identities. Now, embracing and making space for that reality is a scary thing for many in our communities, the earnestness and the immediacy of the struggle of young adulthood is fiery and often unsettling. We’d rather keep it at arms length until the flames die down, until the iron is forged, the metal cooled.
Our society is so outcome-driven that it can become difficult to sit with any process, especially one so unfinished. But that is precisely what it means to be sacramental people, to allow the mundane, immediate, and unfinished to become the holy and eternal.
Young Adulthood is a sacrament, and I’d venture, a sacramental diaconate. Young adulthood can and should represent for us an outward and visible sign of the grace that is continually tearing down our temple walls to build the kingdom broader and wider than we could ever have imagined. Young adults can be a living sacrament of the community’s vocation as a process; a reminder and a call to engage the world with passion and excitement, knowing full well that God’s kingdom lies just over the horizon.
Like the formal diaconate, the sacramental diaconate of young adulthood does not somehow absolve us of our responsibility to serve, sending “them” out to build houses and work in food pantries, while we finance and pray. Instead, as sacrament they remind us of the way in which we are called to engage the world: to proclaim the Gospel in our own voice, to call out from the back of the Church “Yay God! Now let’s go!”
Our call in working with, ministering to, and alongside young adults is to honor their vocation, to create forums for exercising that vocation, and to feed the depth of their curiosity with the richness of our traditions. This is done knowing full well the dangerous consequences - for both young adults and the church more broadly - that we might, just might, be carried into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.
Jason Sierra is the Officer for Young Adult Leadership and Vocations at the Episcopal Church Center. He is based in Seattle, Washington in the Diocese of Olympia and a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
The Seven: Sponsored by the Association of Episcopal Deacons, The Seven is a pre-discernment discernment program for young adults interested in exploring the diaconate. Over ten months, participants will meet regularly with a cohort and mentor, engage in theological exploration, and develop a project in their community.
Young Adult/Campus Ministries of The Episcopal Church.