Recently, I was at an event with a number of wonderful young leaders from around the country and I was part of the team that was tasked with including and holding space for emerging adults. We were talking about a number of topics and I made the assumption that everyone around the table identified as a raised/homegrown/lifelong Unitarian Universalist (UU) just based on how we were talking about our faith and our hopes for the event. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. I was quickly corrected and my colleague shared that they converted to Unitarian Universalism late in high school.
This actually happens to me pretty frequently. I’m not secret in my passion about supporting those who grew up in Unitarian Universalism and our young people. As someone who grew up in the faith, I know that Unitarian Universalist young folks carry and embody the heart and soul of our faith differently than those who come into Unitarian Universalism when they are older. Those two groups don't tend to overlap in the spaces I'm in, but more often than I care to admit I’m corrected by a friend who found Unitarian Universalism as a high schooler or young adult. A few years ago, I started saying that I include those who found Unitarian Universalism before they were 25 as part of our raised/lifelong family because our brains don’t stop developing until 25. The typical response from folks who converted young was an eye-roll and a raised eyebrow, both deserved.
Well, I shared that opinion with my colleague and was quickly told they weren’t raised UU and they weren’t a lifelong UU. They were a convert and embraced that identity. At that point, I realized I needed a new term to talk about our young folks because there are so many similarities between Unitarian Universalists who grew up in the faith and those who found it in high school, college, or in their new community while they were still developing their sense of self, spirituality, and other identities. As my colleague and I continued discussing this topic, we stumbled on the term formative and tossed it around for a bit.
Thus, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of formative UUs. Formatives (acronyms are exclusive...and sometimes- even when they are inspired- can be unfortunate) are Unitarian Universalists who found Unitarian Universalism before the age of 25. They typically share a similar passion for our faith, self-identify as UU, have an understanding of our theology, and exhort our faith to live into its full prophetic potential. The more I use the term, the more I like it. Formative is inclusive of the different experiences of our young folks while lifting up our similarities. It’s multigenerational and it speaks to the influence we have in Unitarian Universalism.
One way we discuss this topic is through Fowler’s Stages of Faith. In the Essex Conversations in the essay Learning Types and Their Needs (p. 85), Daniel Harper questions “Why was it that some of our UU youth seem (to me, at least) to be further along in their faith development than some of our UU adults?” Harper goes on to point out that there are three types of “new” adults in our churches: come-outers (those who left a faith for UUism), come-inners (those who didn’t have a faith and came to UUism), and pass-throughs. I argue that when “come-outers” and “come-inners” join Unitarian Universalism as youth or young adults, they are able to move through the faith formation stages relatively quickly and develop deep faith. Older adults have practices and rituals and paradigms that need to be unpacked and relearned. It’s similar to learning a new language, it requires conscious effort to learn the structure and form of a language and relationships to learn colloquialisms, but it’s much easier to learn a new language the younger you are.
Another framework for looking at Fowler’s Stages of Faith is through Joy Berry’s work on “Wrought Faith”. In her work, Berry has identified that there are collective stages of faith as well as Fowler’s original focus on individual faith formation. She points out that many of our people could be identified as threes or fours on the stages of faith and asks “where are our fives?” and “can we develop the faith identity of our young people beyond the stage of the adults who are teaching them?”
Both Harper and Berry emphasize that our youth and young adults, including converts, are typically far more advanced in their faith development than many of our adults. We also know that only about 10% of UU adults self-identify as raised or lifelong UUs. There is power in numbers and so it’s time for us raised/homegrown/lifelong UUs to draw our circle wider by including and acknowledging our cousins and siblings in deep faith. It is no longer useful (it probably never was) to separate ourselves into raised and convert when Unitarian Universalism informed, taught, and moved us during our formative years. Furthermore, formatives have a strong sense of religious identity and ownership of their Unitarian Universalist faith that is a boon to our wider denomination.
We, the formatives, help form Unitarian Universalism as it helped form us. Our commitment to Unitarian Universalism comes from a deep love of the faith and what it can become, because we know that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. Let us come together as formative UUs to continue leading and shifting the landscape of Unitarian Universalism to what we are called to be. Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults have always led the way in our faith and this will be another way we continue to the lead the way together (YouTube).