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Interview: Ruth Perrin, research fellow

21 February 2020

‘God told me that he didn’t want me to follow a normal career path but to follow bunny tracks’

I never intended to become a researcher, but, after a decade of ministry with students and young adults, I had questions about the efficacy of what I — and others — were doing. Living in Durham provided me with the opportunity for academic study; so I’ve spent ten years now researching young adult faith development, and just published a second book: Changing Shape: The faith lives of millennials (Feature, 31 January).

The effect it’s had on my own faith surprised me. It’s been much rougher than I expected. If you’re empathetic, you tend to absorb other people’s pain when you listen to them. In a pastoral context, I’ve learned to pray with people to process that, but, in a research context, it’s not appropriate. Plus, you repeatedly go through someone’s story to analyse it. I found the stories of faith loss or painful experiences in church very difficult.

At the end of 50 interviews, my transcriptionist said: “I’m so glad I’m not young any more.” I agree. Young adulthood is such an intense life-stage, and it can be an intense experience to try and walk through it with others.

The research hasn’t changed my faith per se, but it’s changed my ministerial practice. I have a lot more grace for people’s doubts and allowing them to voice those. I’ve also become more intentional in terms of mentoring those who are struggling; following them up more often. You can think someone is 26 and a grown-up, but, in many ways, young adults are quite vulnerable, and many relocate or drift away from church unnoticed.

The dominant “OK Boomer!” narrative is that the generation gap is growing. But what I’ve found is that young adults want friendships with their elders. They are really open to those who reach out with hospitality and sincere concern. I’ve become close friends with some I’ve mentored who are ten to 15 years younger than me. There are cultural and technological gaps, but it’s typically Baby Boomers and Generation X cohorts who are surprised by the idea of cross-generational friendship, not millennials.

Young adults typically want to talk about their faith; but it’s difficult for older people to help if they haven’t had that support themselves. Small groups, prayer triplets, spiritual direction – those sorts of activities help people’s spiritual growth and enable them to understand following Jesus as a communal, not solo, activity. 

I’ve also found that socio-economic background is significant in terms of faith and intergenerational relationships. For one thing, working-class families are often much tighter-knit; so cross-generational friendships outside the family may be less common than among young adults who left home for university. Plus, most young adults in British churches are middle-class, which makes it difficult for those from lower socio-economic groups to feel they belong.

Lots of para-church groups, like Junction 42 in the north-east, are doing important work with the very vulnerable, but there’s a need for ministry to, and research into, non-privileged young-adult faith.

It’s also important to recognise that digital expressions of Christianity are part of young-adult discipleship. It’s not my area of expertise, but, contrary to the hype, not all young adults are “digital natives”. The online world can be rich, stimulating, and create community among those who find themselves isolated, and I’m all for that; but most young adults are “both, and” in terms of their engagement. Yes, they listen to podcasts, stream worship, are part of digital communities, and use social media to help their faith, but they want physical relationships and community, too.

In terms of discipleship, I believe public worship is vitally important. It brings people together to focus on Christ, and it’s a forum for working out callings, giftings, and spiritual growth, besides providing support and encouragement. However, young adults need that worship to be meaningful — to connect them with God. It might be large and loud, but not always; ancient and liturgical worship draws some young adults, too. Both Charismatic/Pentecostal and High Church spirituality are about engaging with the numinous — having a profound encounter with God — which is what many younger people hunger for.

Currently, I’m doing a lot of speaking and preaching, including overseas; lots of people are asking the same questions about faith and the young. I’ve also started a new research project looking at young adult “altrepreneurs”: my word for altruistic entrepreneurs. Inspired by their Christian faith, so many awesome young adults have set up charities, businesses, and non-profit organisations. I’m interested in hearing their stories and understanding how they’re shaped by and shape their discipleship journey.

My research interests have definitely been informed by my own faith journey. I’m the eldest of three children, brought up in the East Midlands to Christian parents. I’ve been part of a church all my life, in several denominations — although from 15 to 25 I was there in body, not spirit: I was a party girl. A few years ago, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since university, and he literally cried with laughter at the thought of my being a Bible teacher, because I’d been such a pastoral nightmare as a student. Honestly, it was rooted in deep insecurity, but I probably have an affinity to those who struggle, because I did. I still love a party, mind you!

My own story is that I had what I’d now call a prophetic picture when I was about 14. I didn’t know what the images in my mind meant, but they were so strong I wanted to tell someone but didn’t have the confidence. Later, I studied history at Leeds, and became a teacher before embarking on a six-month mission trip which evolved into 25 years of ministry in church and para-church settings.

I was a young adult during the tail-end of the Charismatic renewal and Toronto blessing. That experience of God’s power was profoundly influential. CYFA [Church Youth Fellowship Association] camps gave me a community of Christian friends and taught me to preach. Doing a YWAM [Youth With A Mission] course made me fall in love with scripture. I’ve since had the chance to study with world-class Bible scholars in Durham and learn to hold intellectual studies and my Charismatic Evangelical faith together.

Jesus promised the woman at the well that people will worship God in spirit and in truth. That’s what I’ve always wanted. For example, I profoundly met God in a study of the book of Leviticus; discovering what are astonishingly progressive social and economic laws, given their date. Or understanding what a beautiful and sophisticated piece of literature Matthew’s Gospel is makes it more, not less, spiritually significant, to my mind. We can make things very complicated. I’ve done ministry with ex-offenders and addicts. For them, the word of God is simple and freeing. They understand grace in a way I don’t. As one told me, he was living in hell, and now he has a future.

The thing I’m most proud of are the interns I’ve mentored in various programmes who are still passionate disciples of Jesus and live for the sake of his Kingdom. Not having biological kids, I count them as my spiritual children.

Many years ago, God told me that he didn’t want me to follow a normal career path, but to follow bunny tracks: to follow where the Spirit appeared to lead me. I’m not a naturally brave person; so my life mantra has been “Fear is just excitement on a bad day.” It’s been the biggest challenge when I’ve just wanted life to be safe and conventional. Still, 20 years of ministry, a Ph.D., and the privilege of mentoring so many young adults aren’t too bad a legacy.

Injustice and cruelty make me angry. So do the fear and hatred we’re witnessing as a society; similarly, that our young people feel such hopelessness about the future. Personally, I do have hope, though. The present darkness means our hope in Jesus shines brighter. Many of the young adults I know are really committed to their faith, and scripture teaches us it needs only a few in any generation, plus the Holy Spirit, to see things transformed.

I’m happiest seeing joy and hope in those I care about — and a cracking party with dancing.

I love the sound of rain on the window when I’m tucked up in bed.

My commonest prayers are for God to have mercy on our nation, and pour out his Spirit again. For the Church to be brave, passionate and kind; for so many I know who are finding things hard; and for dignity and hope for people of the north-east.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Hilda of Whitby. What a woman! I’ve got lots of things I’d ask her.


Dr Perrin was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Changing Shape: The faith lives of millenials is published by SCM at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £15.99).


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