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Apr12FriFive young Salvationists reveal how they are keeping the faith as emerging adults. April 12, 2019 by Kristin Ostensen
Move over, millennials. Gen Z—loosely defined as people born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s—are now entering adulthood. It’s a demographic shift the church needs to pay attention to—especially as Gen Z is reportedly the most secular generation yet.
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Studies by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) have found that major life transitions—for example, graduating from high school—are times when youth are most likely to leave the church. The EFC’s latest report, Renegotiating Faith, shows how the church can encourage them to stay (see "Renegotiating Faith" for details).
So how does The Salvation Army stack up? Five young Salvationists—Kailey Gillis, Jonah Bulgin, Megan Diamond, Paul Morgan and Julia Thorne—share candidly about what keeps them connected and offer insights into how the Army could strengthen its ministry to emerging adults.
KAILEY GILLISYorkminster Citadel, Toronto
Over the course of her life, Kailey Gillis has been involved in just about every Salvation Army activity you can think of. But as she makes the transition from teenager to young adult, 20-year-old Gillis emphasizes that when it comes to keeping the faith, programs, on their own, are far less important than having a supportive church community.
“There are times when life is stressful, and it’s not always the easiest thing to look to God,” she says. “Being part of a good church family has kept me grounded and reminded me that even when I can’t pray, someone else is praying for me. That’s so powerful.”
Raised in Toronto’s Yorkminster Citadel, Gillis is now in her third year at Booth University College in Winnipeg. She has not yet decided on a career path, but is studying religion. “I came to Booth knowing that I wanted to have a role in improving people’s lives,” she says. “When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I had no idea, but I knew that I wanted to help people.”
Yet she may not have ended up at Booth had it not been for her mentors, Steve and Erika White, who were divisional youth secretaries for the Ontario Central-East Division while she was a teen.
“Steve looked at me one day and said, ‘You like helping people. You should go to Booth,’ ” Gillis recalls. “I was in Grade 10, I had no plans to go to Booth. But that was what sparked my first interest—because he had taken an interest in me and knew what I was about.”
A suggestion such as Steve’s can have a profound influence on a young person’s future. But Gillis says that all the small “nudges” from mentors along the way are just as crucial for spiritual development and discipleship.
“It’s having people constantly reminding you of why we do what we do,” she says. “It’s someone asking you, ‘Do you know why we’re standing on this kettle?’ You need someone to be intentional with you, making sure that your spiritual growth is a priority.”
While some young people struggle to stay connected with a church community after moving away from home, for Gillis, that was not a problem.
“When I moved from Ontario to Manitoba to go to school, I was automatically connected with a church because of The Salvation Army,” she says. “Even though I didn’t know any of the people at my new corps, there was already a bond because of the Army.”
JONAH BULGINBarrhaven Church, Ottawa
Jonah Bulgin has never been afraid to take on leadership roles. At 14, he and his brother spearheaded a beginners’ band at Barrhaven Church in Ottawa, simply because there was a need. “We didn’t have a beginners’ band and we wanted to start one up, so we did,” he explains.
Even then, Bulgin was motivated by a deep desire to make a difference, however he could. “I wanted to not just be attending my corps but to be more involved and be a decision-maker in the corps,” he says. “I wanted to actually have an impact on the corps and on people’s lives.”
Over the past four years in particular, 20-year-old Bulgin has had many opportunities to make an impact through his leadership at Jackson’s Point Camp, Ont. He spent two years as cabin leader and one as head cabin leader, before taking the role of program co-ordinator last summer.
“Camp has been the biggest part of my spiritual journey,” says Bulgin, who has been participating in the Army’s camping ministries since 2006. “Attending and then working at camp has been huge for my spiritual development because I’m starting to critically think about my faith and not just going through the motions of going to church every Sunday.”
Working at camp now, Bulgin can pass his faith on to the next generation. “Camp is one of my favourite forms of ministry because no matter what background the kids are from, we have the opportunity to pour God’s love into them and show them who God is through our actions,” he says.
He believes camp is one of the Army’s greatest strengths. “The leadership development programs—such as Timothy 1 at Jackson’s Point—give you leadership training and work experience, but more than that, they offer discipleship and Bible study,” Bulgin says. “Camp is a great opportunity to be involved in fellowship with like-minded Christians who can help you develop your faith.”
Recognizing how essential these kinds of opportunities are for helping youth grow spiritually and make a successful transition from teen to young adult, Bulgin encourages the Army to take a more inclusive approach to leadership.
“If young people want to be involved, get them involved, at any capacity,” he says. “It’s not an issue in my corps, but in a lot of corps, you have to be a senior soldier if you want to be a part of the music ministry, like band and songsters. It can be a hindrance for people who want to get involved in The Salvation Army. It’s important to give everyone equal opportunity, whether they’re a senior soldier or not.”
The Power of Camp
Last year, 5,110 young people attended a Salvation Army camp, while nearly 1,600 people—many of them youth—served as counsellors and staff.
Of the young adults surveyed for Renegotiating Faith:
- 52% of evangelicals attended a Christian camp as a teen
- 31% of evangelicals worked on staff at a Christian camp
Attending a Christian camp as a teen is strongly correlated with attending church as a young adult:
- 24% of teen campers attend at least weekly, and 35% attend 1-3 times a month
- Only 16% of non-campers attend church at least weekly; 30% attend 1-3 times a month
- 56% of evangelical teen campers connected with a different local church after moving out of their parents’ home
Working at a Christian camp has an even stronger impact on young adult church attendance:
- 46% of camp staff attend church at least weekly, compared to 17% of non-staff
- 37% of camp staff attend church 1-3 times a month, compared to 31% of non-staff
- 72% of evangelical camp staff connected with a different local church after moving out of their parents’ home
MEGAN DIAMONDSt. John’s Temple, N.L.
"For me, my whole life is music,” Megan Diamond smiles. “I really feel God’s presence through music, so when I got to join the band and the songsters at my corps, it made my relationship with God deeper. It was an entirely different level of church for me.”
Diamond is a member of the band and songsters at St. John’s Temple, N.L., and has attended music camp for 10 years. Last summer, she made the transition from camper to counsellor, taking on her first leadership role in The Salvation Army.
“That was the best summer of my life,” Diamond reflects. “I wanted to get into leadership because my counsellors were a huge part of getting me through moving from Edmonton to St. John’s in 2015, helping me through some of the hardest points in my life. I appreciate everything they’ve done for me, and I want to be that way for other people.”
Now 17, Diamond says camp and music have been the most important factors in keeping her connected to the church and the Army as she moves toward adulthood. “When I was going through a time when I was forgetting about church and my faith, the people at camp kept me coming back, along with my family,” she says. “They weren’t pushy about it; they were always supporting me.”
After she graduates from high school this spring, Diamond plans to take a gap year and move to Hanover, Germany, where her best friend lives.
“I like learning languages and studying history, so Germany is a good place for that,” she says.
As she was researching her gap year in Germany, Diamond was happy to learn that there is a Salvation Army corps in Hanover.
“It turns out that there is a Salvation Army officer from Newfoundland serving near Hanover,” she says.
“When I heard that, it solidified for me that this is God’s work,” she continues with a smile. “I think it’s going to be fun, and a good way to see another part of the world, and I plan on being very involved in the church.”
PAUL MORGANHeritage Park Temple, Winnipeg
As an officers’ kid, Paul Morgan has called more than a few cities home. But of all the places where his parents have been appointed, Hungary stands out. “I was born in Hungary, lived there for two years and then moved back for Grades 4 to 9,” he explains.
“Those were the most influential years of my life because, around the time we moved back to Hungary, there was a big flood, so I got to see how The Salvation Army responded to that,” Morgan continues. “It was different to see people wearing the Army crest, not in a church setting, but doing community outreach. That was when I understood that the Army was more than just a place on Sundays, or somewhere that my parents worked.”
Now living in Winnipeg, 18-year-old Morgan has found a spiritual home at Heritage Park Temple. “When I first moved here, I started going to their college and careers group, and I felt intimidated, being a lot younger than most of the people in the group,” he says. “But Majors Sandra and Owen Budden, who were corps officers at the time, really helped me out. They encouraged me to speak freely and express my ideas. I have more confidence to say how I feel because of them.”
Since he started attending Heritage Park, Morgan has taken on a number of leadership roles in the Army, from leading Bible studies to working at Jackson’s Point Camp.
“The Army doesn’t squish the voice of the young people, and I think that’s important,” he says. “I’ve gone to a number of youth retreats in this division, and I’ve seen people’s lives changed at those events. I’ve had times when I’ve been challenged and strengthened through those retreats, and I appreciate that people are trying hard to make them happen.”
And while he is a committed senior soldier, Morgan does wish the Army was more relaxed about its dress code. “Personally, I don’t like to wear a uniform,” he says. “I think that people who are coming to The Salvation Army for the first time might be intimidated by not meeting the social norm of wearing the uniform—especially in churches where everyone is. It can be a little scary.”
Morgan wears his uniform most Sundays, “but on Sundays when I’m involved in the youth worship team, I don’t,” he says. “Not out of defiance, but to express myself as a young person who chooses to go to The Salvation Army.”
JULIA THORNEHalifax Citadel Community Church
Seeing Julia Thorne in her role as program director of the Army’s Scotian Glen Camp in Thorburn, N.S., you’d never think she was once a shy kid. “To be a leader and get up in front of a bunch of people and preach—that was a scary thought for me,” she says.
So when Thorne was about to graduate from high school three years ago, full-time ministry seemed out of the question. “I thought maybe I’d be an art teacher or go to school for nursing,” she remembers. “It was like, ‘What can I do that isn’t officership?’ But every time I tried to dodge it, something would come up and put me back on this path.”
Now 20 years old, Thorne is working toward that vocation as she studies social work at Booth University College. “Coming to Booth has kept me rooted in The Salvation Army,” she reflects. “A lot of my friends here are also Salvationists, have worked at Army camps, and now attend church with me, so that has been a big support as I’ve transitioned into adulthood and made my own choice to stay with the church.”
Along with that encouragement from other young Salvationists, Thorne is grateful for the mentorship of the divisional youth secretaries in the Maritime Division, where Thorne is a member of Halifax Citadel Community Church. “I keep in close touch with Majors Carson and Teresa Decker—we chat often,” she says. “They have taught me huge lessons—about life, their spiritual walk, how they’ve made it this far, and what it’s like to be officers.”
As a candidate, Thorne has appreciated the support she’s received from the territory—especially a book study for candidates that was done last winter—but raises a note of caution. “If you’re called to officership, there’s lots of resources, but if you’re not, there’s not as much about what our calling means in a different way,” she says. “It’s important to instill in youth that there are many ways that you can use your talents for God.”
Having experienced The Salvation Army’s youth ministry across the territory through working at different camps, Thorne commends the Army for the work it is doing.
“When I was part of a camp-at-home team in the Prairie Division, we visited a corps that only had one youth member and she was so active in the corps,” Thorne says. “She told me, ‘We have so many amazing people at this corps that support me.’ And I thought, if they didn’t put all that effort into that girl, she wouldn’t be at that church.
“So I’d encourage corps—even if you only have a couple of people, you can still have a youth group. You can have a junior band with three people in it,” Thorne says. “The future of the corps is the young people, and if we don’t invest in them, they will leave.”
Keeping Connected After High School
Renegotiating Faith found that among evangelical young adults who moved out of their parents’ homes:
- 42% connected with a new church
- 42% did not connect with a new church
- 16% continued to attend the same church
Timing matters—Of the young adults who connected with a new church after moving out of their parents’ homes:
- 42% did so within the first two weeks
- 36% did so within the first month
- 11% did so within the first four months
Among the young adults who did not connect with a new church or young adult group after high school, the top three reasons were: not interested (49%); not enough time (25%); and did not know anyone there (24%). Ten per cent said they “did not feel my religious views would be welcome.”