Discipling Millennials: A Conversation with Dr. Kelly Madden of the Boston Fellows Program
Recently Amy Sherman interviewed Dr. Kelly Madden on discipling millennials. Rev. Dr. Kelly Madden is director of the Boston Fellows program, a multi-church initiative focused on whole-life discipleship of young adults. It is a ministry of the Anglican Diocese in New England.
ALS (Amy Sherman): Let’s start by having you tell me about the mission of the Boston Fellows program.
KM (Kelly Madden): Our mission is to equip emerging lay leaders to serve God and neighbor in the working world. We want to help young workers lay down tracks to run on throughout their working lives. Essentially, this is a program of spiritual formation. The focus is the workplace and serving God and neighbor there. But the heart of the program is the Fellows’ walk with God. They cannot serve God at work if they don’t learn how to listen to God and his word every day, and pray his will into being in their work and life.
ALS: How is the program structured?
KM: We target young adults under age 35; most of the participants are actually under 30. A few but not many are fresh out of college. They live and work in Boston. They join the program through their local church. We have three churches now engaged in the program but we’re hoping to expand. It’s a 9-month program. Participants meet weekly with their own church “cohort”—which is facilitated by leaders from that church—and then we gather all the cohorts once a month for a Teaching Saturday by subject-matter experts. We also take the participants on three spiritual formation weekends: one at the beginning, middle, and end of the program.
ALS: What would you say are the most common questions that Millennials are asking about faith and work?
KM: The big questions relate to purpose and meaning in work. Specifically, they want to know, What is God’s calling for my work? What job should I have? How can I use my gifts, passions, and training and still make a good living? And for many, they want a better sense of what those gifts and passions are. Some are seeking greater self-understanding, including the question, What do I really want to do? These are good questions, and questions we try to help them answer. But they are not the most important questions.
ALS: What do you think are the most important questions they should be asking?
KM: Jesus almost always answered a question with a question. He reframes the question in order to say: “Here’s what you should be asking. Here’s the real issue. This is what truly matters.” I think the more basic questions for this sort of initiative are: How does God view work? What is work for? How does work relate to his kingdom, to eternity? How do I serve God now in the crappy job I already have? Who am I, beyond what I do for work? How do I discern and follow God’s will for every aspect of life?
ALS: What would you say are the main “aha” moments you’ve seen happen in the lives of the Millennials in the program? What lands on them as new or fresh or surprising?
KM: I’d say our teaching on the theology of creation (which includes a theology of work). Also the theology of the body and of the incarnation.
ALS: Say more about what you mean about “a theology of the body.”
KM: We are only truly human in the body. These young adults understand that physical needs are important; that Jesus healed people and fed people. But they don’t really know how to justify the importance of the body, the biblical case for God’s interest in our corporeal well-being.
ALS: So is that related to an impoverished understanding of the doctrine of resurrection; that we will be bodily raised from the dead and live in renewed bodies in the New Heavens and New Earth?
KM: Yes. Many don’t have a really robust theology of the resurrection.
ALS: What else have you learned about this age group?
KM: Many don’t really have a full understanding of how important work is. This is related to their need for a theology of creation. I like to tell them, as a clergyman, I’m not living the ‘normal’ Christian life. The normal Christian life is lived in the marketplace—out there, outside of the church.
ALS: Do you experience push-back from the participants, places where they resist the teaching or have skepticism?
KM: Not really. There’s not really much intellectual resistance; they come wanting to learn. Where there is some struggle is that they come longing to know God’s plan for their life and career. They’re wanting God to give them vocational guidance now for the rest of their lives! But we tell them: “Don’t expect God to tell you now what career you should follow for the rest of your life. His calling will probably lead you on a winding path, with lots of good and bad experiences.” So we encourage them to trust in God’s sovereignty and dismiss the lies of the world, the flesh, and Satan about life’s hardships. God can turn those trials into gold. We tell them: “Thank him by faith in all things and for all things, and live in hope.”
ALS: What things do you think pastors especially need to know about this age group, vis-a-vis their need for vocational guidance?
KM: This age group, more than any in history, is almost paralyzed by the choices they have. This proliferation of choice is a function of the modern condition—technology, free markets, mass communication, urbanization. It will continue to accelerate, unless we have a global collapse of some kind. Of course, older workers are facing the same challenges. But at least older workers have more life experiences and networks to help them. But it’s so unknown to young workers, and their every decision seems irreversible. They desperately need pastoral help and community. But what they experience at church is often irrelevant to these challenges and to how they spend most of the rest of their lives.
Pastors need to equip young adults to serve Christ through their work—paid and unpaid work—rather than just in the margins of the week, in programs that serve the church. If the church invests in helping every member work as to the Lord in their job description, the church will see returns that keep the church vibrant. It’s a matter of sowing and reaping.
ALS: What does your discipleship with this age group look like? What’s worked well?
KM: We try to shock the Fellows—lovingly!—with teaching and experiences designed to reform their thinking and their doing. For example, although our program is focused on work, the very first thing we do with them is take them on a weekend retreat where our focus is on the Sabbath.
ALS: That’s wonderfully counter-intuitive!
KM: Yes. We partner with Gordon College’s La Vida Center for Outdoor Education and Leadership for a camping weekend. It’s pretty minimalist. We have them turn off their phones and computers; even take off their watches. We prepare meals and eat together. We go on hikes. They struggle at first with being away from the internet and social media, but then they start to feel a relief from being freed from their smart phones. We’re trying to get them to be truly present to one another and to God. Keep in mind that we’re a discipleship program with a workplace face. Our deepest emphasis is really on spiritual formation. We want these young adults to have a very vibrant relationship with Jesus.
We also start with an emphasis on Sabbath because my sense is that at least some of the “faith and work” movement has reduced our “regency” from the Cultural Mandate to work. It’s obviously and crucially about work—but not only about work. It includes society and family. The six days are for the sake of the seventh, not the reverse.
ALS: Do you have comments about the most effective pedagogy for working with Millennials?
KM: Well, you have to keep in mind that these are adult learners. So that means you’ve got to be really interactive. This isn’t about classroom learning. We call our church leaders “facilitators” because the weekly meetings are discussion-oriented.
ALS: So you’ve got the weekly discussion groups, the monthly Teaching Saturdays, and the three weekends. Sounds like a serious time commitment.
KM: The program is pretty intense. It asks a lot of them, to spur growth. We assign about 50 pages of reading a week, too. The commitment is pretty high and the participants pay $850 each (which covers about half the overall cost of the program). There’s a long application form and each applicant is interviewed. We also require them to practice daily prayer and bible reading. Their church can decide on the exact format they all follow together in that cohort. But we think that’s important because a lot of these Millennials are not in that habit. And if we can help them cultivate that, that might be the most important thing the program accomplishes in their lives.
ALS: About how many participants do you typically have?
KM: We had 17 in our first year and 15 this this year. Our partner churches are not large and most can handle about 5-6 participants each. So to grow our strategy is to involve more churches here in the area.
ALS: What’s not worked so well?
KM: We have made lots of mistakes along the way and you probably don’t want lots of details. In an early model of the program, all the Fellows were just graduating from college. We got them 4-day-a-week jobs, and housed them together. That model can work when you have a lot of support from churches with a large volunteer base, where congregants are serving as job hosts and housing hosts, and mentors, and the like. We just don’t have a lot of those kinds of churches in New England. And so trying to run that model just about killed me!
We also used to pair the participants with senior Christian professionals for one-on-one mentoring. But that was hit-or-miss, so now we are partnering with Halftime Institute for optional coaching for those who want it.
We used to assign much more reading, and it was more scholarly. Now we assign about half as much reading per week, and it’s more accessible intellectually, though still challenging and thoughtful. We want them to have time to really process it.
ALS: What sorts of topics do you typically cover in the Teaching Saturdays?
KM: We’ve hit on a number of things, all basically related to the overarching subject of the church and culture. We’ve had subject-matter experts come in to teach on personal finance, on community development, on faith and science, leadership, economics. In the future, I’d like to bring in some people to talk about technology and also about politics and Christian engagement.
ALS: What key messages about calling, work, etc. have been important to communicate to these Millennials? In what ways do they need to be encouraged? In what ways do they need to be challenged?
KM: Our culture has over-emphasized self-esteem and self-fulfillment with Millennials and that’s not served them well. Here’s a paradox that I have seen in my own life: pride and self-centeredness can go hand-in-hand with self-loathing and crippling doubt. Many Millennials experience that.
So, to make amends, we now need to walk with them and coach them with right thinking when life beats them up. We need to let them know: It’s not about you. Give up your life to find it. Learn to serve. You will survive these knocks. God does care about you. Find your meaning and fulfillment in him, not work or a lover or whatever.
In the Boston Fellows program we’re trying to encourage these young adults to develop good habits now. We say: “Take your spiritual formation as seriously as your professional formation.” It’s hard work, so we advise them to surround themselves with godly companions committed to the same ends.
We also try to help them see all the implications of the truth that Jesus is Lord. Yes, he is Lord over our private lives—but also our work lives and every area of life. And he is Lord over every sphere of society. He cares about the mission of the organization you work for and wants it to flourish and serve the community. So, for example, we encourage them to pray according to the mission statement of their company or organization.
ALS: I know the general theological framework undergirding the program is the big Biblical narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. You’ve mentioned the critical importance of teaching Millennials more on creation. What do they need to hear about the Fall?
KM: We remind them about the reality of the Fall. This world will not become what it should be until Jesus returns.
ALS: That’s important, I think, among Millennials who’ve heard a lot about how they can “change the world.” Some end up thinking pretty naively about that.
KM: Yes. We teach them the now but also not-yet of the Kingdom. During this Advent season, we’re helping them lean into the longing for Christ’s return to fulfill all that He has promised to do. So now’s the time to repent and prepare.
ALS: Great. Last question: What would you say are the benefits to the local church that decides to run a Fellows Program?
KM: There are many models of Fellows programs in the Fellows Initiative, a loose affiliation of programs around the country. All have a workplace focus, involve study, and are tied to the local church. Beyond that, the objectives differ, and therefore so do the benefits. The biggest benefit is equipping young adults for a lifetime of life and work with God.
And this program is not happening outside the church; that’s really important to understand. So, because church leaders are the face of personal discipleship, it’s directly connected to the church and the Fellows feel empowered by their church. In the case of the Boston Fellows, our alumni have tended to take key roles of leadership in their local congregations. The Fellows are missional in their thinking and commitments. So I’d say that investing in a program like this leads to big returns in outreach.Topics: Discipleship, Millennials