The Calling of Christian Imagination

Javier A. Viera

It took a guest preacher at our church to point out something that we needed to understand better. Over dinner on a beautiful summer Sunday, he posed a question he had asked himself earlier in the day: Why are there so many younger adults in a liturgically rooted, architecturally byzantine, chorally classical Methodist church in the middle of New York City?

I didn’t have a ready answer for my friend. The overwhelming literature and supposed best practices assume that a ministry with this under-35 age cohort can succeed only with hip music, coffeehouse ambiance, and high-energy programming.

But I suggested our experience was likely related to the relative youthfulness of New York. I also hoped it was a reflection of the authenticity of our worship experience, which was free of pandering or overt attempts to cater to a specific group – and no effort whatsoever at being hip.

Yet his question stayed with me. The truth was that as a staff we didn’t understand why this was our congregational dynamic. This aspect of our life as a church was worth exploring more deeply. We should be able to explain it as more than mere coincidence.

Why They Come Back

A few months later that same guest preacher invited us to make a presentation at a conference. We were asked to describe what worked with people in their 20s and 30s. This was the catalyst for us to produce an in-depth questionnaire for this demographic – members of our church, mostly New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s – as a way to better understand their spiritual lives and practices.

The questions we put to them – about 120 respondents in all – ranged from their own religious backgrounds to their experience at Christ Church. There were questions about self-identification, devotional habits, political persuasions, and theological outlook. A final section allowed for responses about their personal aspirations and spiritual challenges.

In some ways the results were not surprising. Most said they came looking for community, or they were on a spiritual quest, sought comfort and sanctuary from the frenetic city pace, or needed a sense of moral grounding. When they described what kept them at Christ Church, they revealed something slightly different. What compelled them to stay was an experience of theological spaciousness and openness, intellectual vigor, the combination of liturgy, music, and architecture, and the community diversity they had formed.

I found these initial results heartening. Only later, however, when I gathered a group of the respondents to help me interpret the data more fully, did the true challenge to our work become clear to me.

First Loyalties

I began by focusing on their responses regarding self-identification. Without exception everyone agreed their work is what gave them identity above all else. Their church attendance, their Christian identity, was a “secret” they guarded closely and shared only on a need-to-know basis. As the discussion continued, other themes emerged:

• Their self-identification with work was simply the result of spending the vast majority of their time and energy toward that goal. Since childhood, most reported, they had been encouraged to aspire to the best job possible. Their work was their raison d’être, the value that mattered most to parents and family. Often even church involvement served that end. Their Christian faith was understood to be an element in the life of a well-rounded person. And a well-rounded person was more likely to secure well-paid employment. Their professional development was a lifelong pursuit.

• When pressed about their work priorities, most identified fear as a motivator. They feared not fulfilling family expectations. They feared not advancing professionally and economically. And they feared the potential social dislocation if their work and all its benefits did not remain their primary focus. Significantly, there was a shared sense that financial gain was not all it was made out to be – but they feared relaxing their pursuit of it because it is the most concrete measure of their own success and self-worth.

• Their spiritual interests would absolutely take a back seat to professional endeavors if necessary. This didn’t imply they would compromise themselves ethically. Rather, work matters above all else.

The Prevailing Order

This admission shifted the conversation to the role of church in their lives. They affirmed the survey findings that church provides inspiration and moral grounding. But there is little doubt about first loyalties. As one participant put it, “Work gives me clear, tangible results that I can see and measure in my life. I don’t get that same sense from the things we talk about or do at church, which can seem intangible, elusive, and at times overwhelming.”

The conversation made it clear: We have not yet made a compelling case for an alternative way of being in the world, a way in which Christian identity and vocation are paramount. For these younger adults, joining the world of the prevailing economic order, its rhythms and aspirations, seemed like the only real and rational way of living. Yes, there was much to question and change in this world, but they felt powerless to do something about it.

The sense of resignation was breathtaking. Challenging the prevailing economic or political order did not at any point enter the conversation. Reconciling that reality with the spirit of the gospel is a pastoral conundrum. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” wrote St. Paul. This sense of freedom to choose a different path, to be guided by an alternative ethic, to be part of a larger movement for transformation, was lacking in our conversation. Yet this freedom is central to Christian proclamation, the essence of what it means to be the church.

I believe intentional spiritual practice can enhance an experience of life. It can offer a bracing challenge to the prevailing order. But I fear it has become at best a supplemental interest in 21st-century routine. We have not made a persuasive case for it. Our self-study of young parishioners made this painfully clear to me.

The Magnificent Task

In the high-achieving culture of Manhattan – and surely elsewhere in our urbanized contemporary world – a life-giving message goes undervalued: the message of Christ’s self-sacrificial love, solidarity with the marginalized, compassionate regard for the other, and the transformation of the world to reflect the coming kingdom of God. It is often drowned out, or we fail to deliver it in a compelling way. That’s the great task that is ever before us.

This is not to say that our community of 20- and 30-year-olds isn’t engaged in serving the city and the world. The opposite is actually true. They are impressive in their quiet and regular commitment to feed the hungry, tutor struggling students, visit the aged, and travel the globe to build homes and health centers in desperately poor communities.

And yet: If this group of remarkable interlocutors is at all representative, this work is usually described as an attempt to “give back” and “do good.” That is admirable indeed. Still, what seems lacking is a spiritual imagination to see that these efforts might lead to much more: They point to an alternative way, one that reorders commitments and values.

I walked away from this far-ranging conversation inspired by the possibility of awakening this spiritual imagination. It is, I would argue, among the most urgent tasks the church has before it. Spiritual imagination can help us reimagine how God might transform the world through us, and what a gift this would be to a world that desperately needs it.

The Rev. Javier Viera ’00 S.T.M. has recently been named Dean of The Theological School at Drew University. He is currently executive minister at Christ Church (United Methodist Church) in New York City. Originally from Puerto Rico, he has an M.Div. from Duke and an Ed.D. from Columbia.