Authenticity, Community, and the Church

Our thanks to Wesley grad Erica Ridgell (2014), for taking the time to write this reflection after our splendid weekend with Nadia  Bolz-Weber (March 18-19, 2016).  We hosted over 800 people throughout the three events!

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I was on the Nadia Bolz-Weber train very early on. Even two years ago, I remember learning she would be coming to the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2016 and making promises to everyone I knew that we would all come back to the Wesley Foundation to hear her speak. I never spent much time analyzing what it was I liked about her, but I knew for sure I liked her. So, with the far-off date suddenly approaching, like a good UVA grad, I prepared. I reread Pastrix and purchased her new book, Accidental Saints. Coming into the weekend, I expected her to make us laugh, and maybe cry, and definitely give us a lot to talk about over drinks later. What I didn’t expect was for her to remind me of all the reasons I loved the Wesley Foundation in the first place.

Nadia shared with us that people often ask her how she attracts so many young people when Christianity is so clearly not relevant to millennials anymore, and when they ask this she always feels taken aback. “It’s just like phone booths,” she said. You can look around and see that there are no phone booths any more and say, ‘Young people really just aren’t into phones anymore, it’s a shame’, and then those same people say, “Nadia, will you come redecorate our phone booth so we can attract more young people?” She believes, as do I, that Christianity is still relevant, it’s just too often being packaged in the wrong way.

My generation places a great deal of value on authenticity. For a buzz word that usually makes me cringe, authenticity does a surprisingly good job of explaining what it was I liked about Nadia in the first place. She didn’t pretend to have it all together, or act like she had all the answers, she simply gave her congregation and her readers permission to get stuck in all of the contradictions and mess that is Christianity, and then allowed them to look around at each other and realize they’re all caught in the same web.

That’s exactly what the Wesley Foundation did for me, too. When you’re part of a group of eighteen year olds who all come to the same place to individually decide what you’re all going to do with the rest of your lives, a whole lot of energy is wasted trying to convince yourself and everyone around you that you have it all figured out. Most days it felt like I was the only one who didn’t, and that’s an incredibly lonely place to be. When I found the Wesley Foundation, I found refuge from that loneliness. It was a place where I could shed the protective layers and look around a room of people who were stuck in the same messy, confusing web as I was. And more than that, it was a place where we were willing to admit it to each other.

That’s all my generation wants. We want a place where we can look at the person next to us and say, “Wait, you don’t know what you’re doing, either?” Free of judgment, full of nuance. That’s the church we want. Churches are spending an immeasurable number of hours trying to figure out how to get my generation in the door, and most of them are going about it all wrong. Nadia is doing it right. The Wesley Foundation at UVA is doing it right.