In a fast-paced world characterized by headphones, smartphones and text messaging, a small group of young adults are being called to Toledo, Ohio, to live and learn in a monastic-like setting so they might deeply understand their faith and ability to change the world—and help grow the church.
Called Abundant Life Together, or ALT, it will initially gather (and eventually house) 12 men and women ages 18 to 25 in St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Toledo for ninth months starting in September. The goal is to set up ALT communities in sites across the country.
Though no one is connecting the two, the ALT acronym may prove a prescient marketing effort since “alt” is also Internet slang for the “alternate” command on a computer keyboard, which has become young people’s shorthand for communal experiences.
Everything old is new again
The ELCA‘s ALT vision is as old as the tradition of giving oneself to spiritual rather than worldly pursuits, and as recent as the 150-year-old Scandinavian folk high school model of allowing students to learn for life by growing individually, socially and academically in small learning communities.
The community learning model calls on young people to participate in a “Great Books” philosophy of learning through conversation, and to delve into topics such as rhetoric, self-awareness, critical thinking and social justice. The young people will sign an oath of good behavior, including refraining from pursuing sexual relationships with each other.
ALT participants will also volunteer more than 30 hours each month to community service and outreach.
Josh Graber, a mission developer who is spearheading ALT, aims to bring back the kind of communal program that young people experienced when his grandparents and parents served at Holden Village, a retreat center high in the Cascade Mountains of north central Washington, accessible only by boat.
The village, based on the Scandinavian folk high school model known as Folkehogskoler, helped young people focus on seeing beyond the obvious in other people and the world. Holden Village became renowned as a place where people could grow and challenge each other theologically, and produce new ideals of mission and theology.
Graber’s grandfather, Carrol Hinderlie, was Holden’s first director. His father, John Graber, was a key educator; his grandmother and mother, Mary Hinderlie and Elise Graber, were co-leaders.
Other ministry models include the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tenn.; discipleship training schools and College of Nations run by Youth With A Mission; and the Tombotsoa School in Antsirabe, Madagascar.
Such courageous leadership is more important than ever now, said the younger (Josh) Graber, who is called by the New England Synod in partnership with the Northwestern Ohio Synod and ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission.
“The way we need to encourage courageous leadership in church and in society is to find ways to call young adults and empower them to lead us,” said Graber, 35, who has devoted the past three years to creating ALT.
“It’s about creating this opportunity for young adults to gather around topics that matter, and to really care about the world around them and to live into God’s new creation.”
The ELCA sees hopeful signs in its other young adult programs and believes that the time is right. For example, Young Adults in Global Mission, a one-year international mission program for ages 19 to 29, is set to increase its size to 100 participants in 2015 due to a growing applicant pool. This year, 66 young people are set to join the overseas mission program.
Further, studies indicate the recession and lack of youth employment have caused more young people to seek “gap year” experiences between high school graduation and enrolling in college.
What it will cost
In Toledo, one floor of St. Paul’s five-story building will be designed as a college dorm-style living space for the 12 ALT participants. Because the church needs to install sprinklers as part of the remodeling, housing for the first year will be nearby, possibly in an arts center located in an old convent.
The program’s operating budget of $60,000, including $42,000 in salary and benefits for a three-quarter-time leader, includes scholarship funds as well as the costs of recruitment, books and a fee to support the national church budget. Students pay $5,000 for room, board, learning materials and a living stipend.
The ELCA is contracting to start the “synodically authorized worshiping community” in Toledo with $12,000 through February 2014 — the first year of a three-year proposal.
It also has paid about one-third of Graber’s salary for the past two years, and intends to do so again when the Toledo program starts up, said Ruben Duran, ELCA director for new congregations.
St. Paul, with a Sunday attendance of 120, has pledged $10,000 a year, and eight nearby ELCA congregations are contributing people and money. Supporters are still raising money and seeking grants.
Lars Olson, St. Paul’s pastor, said the historic church — site of the former American Lutheran Church’s constitutional convention and home to 5,000 members in its heyday in the 1950s through 1970s — hopes to see ALT members gain the tools to reach out to other young adults in the neighborhood and beyond.
“They need a different model of ministry where they can connect with their faith and still interact with popular culture, movies, literature, music and the greater community,” Olson said.
Marc Miller, director for evangelical mission with the Northwestern Ohio Synod, said ALT is a way to provide “an incredible experience” to “those who have a great call to grow as disciples, those who could be great leaders of the future and those whose voices are already changing the church.
“In one sense, the young adults will form their own, tight-knit community, and they can invite other young adults to participate in their worship services.”
Duran said the ELCA‘s support shows its interest in exploring new ways of engaging young people.
“The first goal is to help young people, regardless of their vocations, live lives of abundance because of God’s presence,” he said.
The second goal is to create new worshiping communities as the young people connect with their neighborhoods, Duran added. Each synod’s bishop would be responsible for approving the worship group and ensuring there is a leader to preside at communion.
“This is about the ELCA‘s many efforts in being made new by stepping out of its comfort zone to engage people in their daily lives,” he said. “We are being enriched and engaged for good through the faith of our young adults.”