How Unitarian Universalist Faith Forms Part 1/2
Bonds Between People of Faith
Blue Boat brings you this article by Rev. Dr. Kate R. Walker, Minister, Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church Alexandria, VA in two parts. Part one focuses on Dr. Walker’s reflection on how faith formation in Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults is differs from other faiths . Part two includes Dr. Walker’s research findings and observations. – ed
By Rev. Dr. Kate R. Walker
This is a summary on the research conducted during my Doctor of Ministry degree with a thesis on The Faith Formation of Unitarian Universalist Youth and Young Adults.
May and June bring graduations and the mark of transitions for youth and young adults. At Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches across the country, Bridging ceremonies are being held to celebrate 8th graders moving into high school youth groups, and 12th graders graduating from high school and being welcomed into Young Adult Groups.
The youth face markers of maturity such as getting a job and driver’s license, increasingly important exams and sporting events, proms and the dreaded question of what’s next, college or job? Young adults may face separation from family, home, friends, and church. As they mature further into their 20s they may face more moves, another job, another school, debt, paying taxes, getting married, mortgage, and having children, all often before they are 35 years old.
There is nothing new about all these changes. Generations have always been negotiating and navigating these challenges and marks of maturity for hundreds of years. Yet, as the sciences have grown more refined, we have become increasingly aware of complex developmental needs that occur during this 20-year span. In an increasingly pluralistic, fast-paced and technological focused culture and society, liberal religious churches such as ours must pay attention to the needs of our youth and young adults or risk losing them forever.
We need to look at how does a liberal religious church offer support and care, as well as appropriate challenges for deep reflection about faith and values? Have the youth and emerging young adults spent time and energy on their religious identity? Are they committed Unitarian Universalists? Do they identify as UU? Do they have a spiritual need to connect with a religious community?
At the heart of these questions is do our youth and young adults feel their UU church is there for them? And, equally important, do they feel ready and prepared to help their church and larger community by providing service to others?
In the larger context, can they articulate their beliefs in a pluralistic world that is rife with religious emotionalism and heightened judgments? How do they manage in a world of competing interests and massive emotional change, first as adolescents, then as young adults, and then, should they choose, as parents?
All of these questions relate to faith formation and religious identity. Religious identity is made of many enduring questions and perspectives, but at the core according the Rev. Dr. David Gortner, is how we view the world, our beliefs, our sense of life purpose and our values. The challenge, with which all humans must wrestle, is raising awareness of how we view the world, our beliefs, our sense of life purpose and our values. We need to learn how to explicitly incorporate them into our personal theology so it becomes part of our religious identity. This process of raising our awareness and learning to explicitly articulate our beliefs is called faith formation. We may change our minds with new life experiences, but usually not very much once our religious identity has matured and formed. Because of their still developing brains, it is crucial to support the faith formation of our UU youth and young adults. I believe UU youth and young adults fall outside the religious norm of U.S. general population.
Unitarian Universalists rely on personal experience as the final authority on all things spiritual and religious. Our children are taught this from a very young age in our religious education programs. By the time they bridge into adolescence they are finding their own confident voice, yet are still comfortable with questions. Young adults who are from another faith, or unchurched, may find the idea of personal authority radically refreshing.
However, our UU youth and young adults still need to withstand the intellectual rigor required of co-existing in a pluralistic society. Their theology has to have integrity as they engage in ideas about God, evil, suffering, heaven, hell and salvation. Our youth and young adults need to be able to make difficult moral decisions that may have significant impact on their own lives and those of others.
As UUs we provide a primary resource for theological concepts and moral decisions in the Seven Principles and the Six Resources. Our children begin to learn these from an early age.
Yet, when I conducted interviews as part of my Doctor of Ministry research with the youth and young adults at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church, only one of them identified the UU Principles and Resources as important to them in an open question about making life choices. I believe this is because, as research shows, personal contact is more important than static text in making important life decisions. Personal relationship allows dialogue, and deep reflection, encourages community building and strengthens religious identity, according to current research. On a hopeful note, I believe the Principles are likely buried within their subconscious.