Interview by Ailin Darling, photographed by Kenya Feldes
It’s a warm July afternoon, and Charlie and Bekah Shaw sit at the head of a patio table packed with 20- and 30-somethings at McMenamin’s Edgefield, watching local folk veteran Jon Koonce wrap up his set. Half-finished beers, smartphones and the last few tater tots litter the tabletop. Few words are exchanged over the loud music, but in between songs conversation moves from beloved 90s sitcoms to random celebrity sightings to summer plans. It’s a typical Portland hangout session. It’s also the second gathering of Imago Dei’s newly formed Young Adults Community.
Charlie, 33, & Bekah, 32, are married without kids. He serves as Imago Dei’s director of young adult ministries and leads worship regularly on Sundays. She’s the administrative assistant to Imago Dei’s pastor of families and a regular small group leader. In forming the YA Community, the two seem to have drawn deeply from their own experiences (good and bad) of being young and “not quite settled” in the American Church.
Whom are we talking about when we say “young adults”?
Charlie: The idea is post-high school, pre-considering oneself a full-blown, arrived adult. We loosely say 18-30, but there’s not really a hard age demographic. It’s more of a cultural niche. Because of where we are with technology and culture, there’s this emergence of adults who are just sort of living and experiencing life. They don’t necessarily want to have kids right away; they don’t want to be established in the traditional sense. So it’s kind of that demographic.
What do you think the perception is around young adults groups in churches?
Charlie: A lot of young adults don’t know how to engage with church because up until high school graduation, church has always engaged with them. Some churches do have something for young adults, but you show up and find out is that it’s actually like going to a speed-dating event at a community center. It’s not a young adults group; It’s a pre-married group. We see such a strong effort in the Church to be for families, but that has often overlooked folks who aren’t necessarily in that space.
Bekah: I would say that the young adults groups in most churches are like the misfit toys. They haven’t reached a certain standard the church has put on them: “You’re not married, you don’t have kids, you’re not successful in your business yet.” Whether they’ve grown up in church or not, that’s an awkward spot to be pushed into. No one’s given them a home, like they’ve had in youth group or in school. A good example is an individual that we know….someone who felt identified, important and needed while she was in school. And literally the moment school ended, she was like “What do I do? I’m lost.” There’s a search - she’s wanting something, and she’s going to church for it. I think that’s an opportunity for the Church to step in and say, “No, keep going, keep striving.”
What have some of your own experiences been?
Bekah: “You’ll understand when you have kids” is something Charlie and I have been told forever and ever. We’re still told that. When I work in kids ministry and with kids ministry people, I take myself down a lot of notches, where I’m just like, “I’m not a mom, so I can’t understand what kids need.” But in the background, I have a lot of experience with kids, and I’m really great with them. We’re putting limitations on ourselves because they were already set there before us, and we often just accept them because it’s the easy thing to do.
How do you hope the Young Adults Community will help combat these issues?
Charlie: We want to be proactive in connecting young adults to each other and to the life of the church. So we’re kind of standing between the two, hoping to introduce them to each other. The church needs people who aren’t married and who are married without kids to be part of their community. The people who are shaping our culture are 23 years old, and the people who probably feel the least welcomed in our churches are 23 years old. That’s a problem.
Bekah: I would argue to that those are your most formidable times, when some of your freshest ideas come in! Those ideas need to be utilized at church.
Charlie: We’re working to cultivate relationships - young adult to young adult and young adult to the rest of the church community. So we want to get people together. We have a schedule of activities planned for the summer, like the Alberta Arts Walk, movies in the park and 80s dance parties. Anybody’s invited to join us. Our only agenda is to be ourselves, and hopefully get to know each other. Jesus always draws people to each other in community; There’s no such thing as following Jesus solo.
What avenues are you hoping will open up to young adults related to church involvement and leadership?
Charlie: I would hope that everything that Imago does in the name of Jesus would be accessible and inviting to somebody who might not be married or might not have kids. I would never want somebody’s age or life chapter to stand between them and being a part of God’s people. But it’s not just about accepting folks in our community. It’s about introducing people to Jesus. Portland is our home. We’re investing in it. I like the word “occupy” because it’s kind of taken on that meaning - that we are staying here for the purpose of change for the good of everyone. Ultimately, I would love people in their twenties in Portland to occupy this city as God’s people. Not as a fringe, not as a niche, not as a novelty, but as just, this is life...loving God and loving our neighbors.