by Bill Droel
Young adults do not so much need a meaning in life as an experience of living. Despite or because of our cosmopolitan culture and global economy, too many young adults get caught up in a small circle of co-workers and friends while communicating mostly about small comings and goings.
Meanwhile, many young adults are disaffected from churches. Could it be perhaps because, at least in part, churches don’t offer an experience of living? Some churches deliver moral standards and dogmas in a compassionate, pastoral fashion. Other churches, more or less, serve up entertainment in the form of snappy hymns and stylized self-help preaching. Upbeat hymns, good preaching and fellowship over robust coffee are well and good. But a rousing prayer service or a church’s sensitive staff cannot alone contribute to a young adult’s experience of living.
Some young adults are open to an alternative to our vacuous culture. Many young adults are uneasy about the future. But those young adults will not connect to a well-meaning church that assumes young adults are detached bystanders.
We can all benefit from an appreciation that our place in the created world comes from acting in the world—acting critically, a tad out-of-step, and in the public company with others.
Ed Chambers (1930-2015) was longtime director of the Industrial Areas Foundation and an influential political thinker. His 50 years of intense involvement with community organizations led him to conclude that “the body trumps the brain.” We have “two social partners,” he said. “Other people and the world itself… And to understand them we have to experience them.”
Chambers was critical of overly academic education and our culture of passivity—TV, celebrities, shallow texting and the like. It is really possible to “go through life without acting much,” he wrote. Boredom, the antithesis of action, sets in. We tend to give up. We don’t truly engage our social partners because we “lack a compelling vision of what could be.”
Chambers invoked Catholic philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to champion the priority of experience. Heidegger’s phrase being-in-the-world implies a curiosity about one’s surroundings and an intentional presence to others. That type of being does not usually occur in academia, Chambers concludes. It is “based on action.”
To be clear, an emphasis on action does not mean that an individual’s own situation can substitute for received collective wisdom. Further, one’s lifestyle or gender or ethnic/racial identity devoid of effective action is not a mark of credibility. Nor is activity the same as reflective action. Undigested activity is not a body of sustained experience.
Some young adults get involved in church-sponsored service projects—sometimes over a weekend, other times during Spring Break and even year-long commitments to voluntary communities. These are a start. For the activity to have any lasting benefit, however, the volunteer project, just as with a young adult’s job must be put into a tradition of social doctrine and democracy. Follow-up is also crucial because habitual action plus quality reflection adds up to a virtuous life of power.
The road, if you will, goes in the other direction from that taken by those in academia and in many churches. Along the opposite direction experience precedes abstractions. On the experience of life road, young adults are church (at least church in process) within their normal work and family settings, regardless of the potentially attractive resources inside a church building.
Chambers wrote three booklets on the theme of experience: The Body Trumps the Brain, Being Triggers Action and The Power of Relational Action. They are available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $4.50 each, pre-paid). Droel serves on NCL’s board of directors.