Princeton Seminary | Desolation and Grace in Young Adult Spirituality

Desolation and Grace in Young Adult Spirituality

It was a journey that took Princeton Theological Seminary students to one of Western Europe’s oldest sacred sites and had them reading the 16th-century treatise “Dark Night of the Soul.” But the focus of the Seminary’s recent January Term travel course to the U.K.— “Desolation and Grace in Young Adult Spirituality”—was on the here and now of the 21st century.

Ten students led by Professor Kenda Creasy Dean set out to better understand the spiritual needs and mental health struggles of youth and young adults—a mission that had them asking difficult questions about the relevance of church to Gen Z and seeking insight from both ancient and contemporary theological sources.

“The class focus on desolation and grace was complex; we looked at large life struggles, specifically mental health struggles that can have a direct impact on spiritual life,” says Cecelia Carrillo, a second-year student in the Master of Divinity program. “Our conversations looked at how we assess desolation as ministers, and how we care for people going through these struggles, letting them know it’s okay to have these struggles.”

After preparing with readings and discussions, the group flew to England in early January, attending a conference on youth ministry in Manchester and then boarding a 16-seat bus for a pilgrimage through the mystical “thin places” of Scotland during a season marked by 18-hour stretches of darkness. This spiritual road trip, against the backdrop of darkness, helped foster a spirit of introspection in which the theme of “desolation and grace” sparked free-flowing and frank conversations.

“The interesting thing that we as a class wrestled with was this underlying premise that there’s a need (in the church) to do things differently,” said Maggie Akinleye, a third-year student in the Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Education and Formation dual degree program. “If the old ways aren’t working, then what are these new expressions of faith? And how do we see where God is moving in young people that might not be in a traditional church context?”

Dean, the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture, said the course emerged from her research that explores how ministries can connect to younger people at a time when they are more likely to reject traditional religious affiliation. “We have enough data to know that young people are quickly leaving religion as we know it, but that may or may not mean they are leaving religion altogether,” Dean said. “There is some evidence to suggest that they are literally redefining what it means to be religious.”

Congregations, she said, need to be open to new models, and competent and compassionate in dealing with people experiencing anxiety and depression – which studies also show is rampant among Gen Z. “That is a fact that ministries have to be aware of and have at least a small tool kit for,” she said. Such issues were front and center as the class moved from place to place, experiencing very different surroundings, from the busy biannual meeting of the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry in Manchester to the reflective calm of Iona Abbey, located on an island off the West Coast of Scotland.

Desolation and Grace in Young Adult Spirituality
Ghighi, Akinleye, Carrillo

“With only about six hours of sunlight in the day, the class felt that the physical darkness of the outside world mapped on well to what spiritual darkness of desolation feels like,” Carrillo said. At the same time, she and her classmates found joy and insight getting to know one another through candid and reflective conversations aboard the bus, over dinner, in pubs and hotel lobbies.

“People didn’t feel like they had to perform in this intellectual way,” Akinleye said. “It was more open space to be real and honest about what we were learning and share our perspectives without fear of judgement." Lauren Ghighi, a third-year Master of Divinity student, said the conversations took on some of the most fundamental questions that she and others will face as ministers: Do young people need to be brought in? Why does the church need to be a part of their lives? What does it look like to meet them where they are? “We each had different emphases on what church is for,” she said. “Although we continued to wrestle with these questions without resolution, the different perspectives and theological insights from each student made for incredible discussions.”

The centerpiece of the trip was a three-day sojourn to the Iona Abbey, where the class took part in contemplative spiritual practices, devoting one full day to silence. “We all turned off our phones and wandered the island, not talking to anyone and processing what we have been reading, experiencing and talking about,” Carillo said. “That was a really beautiful day.”

“I spent some time on the beach and just looking at the waves a bit and really felt the Lord meet me in those kinds of spaces of just meditation and silence,” Akinleye says.

“I felt it was an opportunity to reflect on times in our own lives that were desolate, and to really think about where God was in the silence,” Ghighi said.

As they returned to campus for spring semester, students were still absorbing what they had learned. “Academically,” Carillo said, “we hit a lot of practical ministry concerns through a deep theological lens. ”But there was also deep personal and spiritual growth, she added. “I went on a trip with a bunch of people I didn’t know, to a place that is very cold and very dark, which are things I do not love, being from southern California,” she said. “I got to grow in seeing God provide for me throughout the trip.”

Akinleye agreed, citing both the learning and the social experience. “This journey reinforced for me how our role as ministers is to help people in their journey of faith, and to give them resources in the midst of desolation and difficulty,” she said. “And at the same time, I learned that you can make friends in the most unexpected of places.”

Indeed, one of the most poignant parts, Ghighi adds, was realizing that through all the discussions about authenticity and connection in the church, the group had fostered a fellowship of its own, one that continues to flourish into the semester, with the students meeting regularly. “The ability for us to have this experience, then to continue to reflect on it together as it seeps in, as we continue to discern our life at Seminary, and also what comes after Seminary—that is transforming,” she said.

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