April 12, 2017

Twelve Area Churches Selected For Young Adult Initiative Project

INSPIRING FAITH IN YOUNG ADULTS: Princeton Theological Seminary’s Zoe Project is geared toward helping 12 congregations better understand the needs of those in their 20s. Shown here are participants in the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, a recent program of the Seminary. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary).

When it comes to millennials, religious faith isn’t necessarily a priority. But young adults have ideas, interests, and perceptions that are inherently spiritual, according to proponents of a program designed to encourage twentysomethings to examine and embrace their faith.

The Zoe Project, a three-year initiative launched by Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), is granting $20,000 to 12 churches within a 100-mile radius of Princeton. The aim is to help these religious institutions better understand the priorities of young people while simultaneously gaining insight from their perspectives.

“ ‘Zoe’ means ‘new life’ in Greek,” said Kenda Creasy Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at PTS. “The idea here was to help these congregations learn from young adults in ways that would be life-giving for them [the congregations]. We’re hoping we can kind of flip the model a bit, so that instead of assuming young adults will come to them, the congregations will go to where they are, see what they can learn from them, and serve as champions in their communities.”

PTS is one of 12 seminaries that were invited by The Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic foundation, to serve as “innovation hubs” for the project. “We have a long track record of doing work with youth and the young adult ministry,” Ms. Dean said. “We were one of the first seminaries to focus part of our curriculum on young adults. They invited us to imagine what would work best for where we sit geographically and in the general conversation, and to design our own thing.”

Among the 12 congregations chosen for the $20,000 awards are Graceway Presbyterian Church in Skillman, Union Baptist Church in Trenton, Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and The Mark Montclair – St. Marks United Methodist Church in Montclair. Each of the congregations is asked to name five leaders, or “Zoe Fellows,” at least half of whom are young people. A coach is provided, along with a camera crew to document the project. An Online Storytelling Festival is planned to celebrate and share each group’s experiences.

A total of 111 congregations applied for the 12 grants. “We were looking for a mix of different kinds of churches,” Ms. Dean said. “We didn’t want all suburban white churches like you might find around Princeton. We tried to get representatives from different areas, with different sizes and constituencies. So we’ve got some from inner cities like Philadelphia and Trenton.”

The applicants needed to demonstrate a serious interest in working with young adults, “so it wasn’t just a flash in the pan,” Ms. Dean said. “It also helped if they had reached out to us in other ways, to suggest that they had enough infrastructure to handle the grant. It was heartbreaking that we had to say no to so many.”

Each congregation will be asked to make a map identifying the places where young adults in their area gather. “If you look around Princeton, for example, you don’t have to look very far,” Ms. Dean said. “A lot of young adults are interested in sustainable agriculture, the arts, media, and various forms of the sharing economy. Churches tend not to be so active in those kinds of areas. Maybe we should get with the program and learn what’s going on in those parts of our community, and understand why those places are meaningful for young people.”

Churches have to be convinced to cultivate young adults, rather than the other way around, those behind the project believe. “Figure out what they are doing that’s meaningful and what we can offer to help them,” Ms. Dean said. “We should say, ‘You’ve got gifts. The gifts that you have help us see God more clearly. So how is it we can help you to leverage those gifts for the good of our community?’ ”