young adults “tinkering” with faith

fascinating post by jonny baker the other day, about how the faith of today’s young adults could be characterized as “tinkering”. as i read the post, i was struck by a tension that jonny doesn’t address (but is surely more than aware of): the conservative church would freak at the idea of coming alongside people who are tinkering, labeling this syncretism, and forcing an “accept the whole thing or none of it” choice-point. of course, the other side of the tension would be liberal churches that not only support tinkering, but have it embedded as a primary assumption and value of their theological systems.

i’d like to think i’m living in the tension somewhere in between those two extremes, and suspect (since i know jonny, or at least think i do) that he would be in a similar place. in this tension, how can we contextually live out the gospel by coming alongside “tinkerers” and assist them with tinkering tools that move them (or, to use less forceful terms, allow them to move) toward the gospel? this is a very interesting question to me, as it not only has practical implications, but tons of theological and assumption implications.

here’s some juicy bits from jonny’s post (but, really, go read the whole thing):

The single word that best describes young adults approach to religion and spirituality – indeed life – is tinkering. A tinkerer puts together a life from whatever skills, ideas and resources that are readily at hand… Tinkerers are the most resourceful people in any era. If specialized skills are required they have them. When they need help from experts they seek it. But they do not rely on one way of doing things. Their approach to life is practical. They get things done and usually this happens by improvising by piecing together an idea from here, a skill from there and a contact from somewhere else.

Like the farmer rummaging through the junk pile for makeshift parts the spiritual tinkerer is able to sift through a veritable scrap heap of ideas and practices from childhood, from religious organisations, classes, conversations with friends, books, magzines, television programmes and web sites. The tinkerer is free to engage in this kind of rummaging…


can we view religion as a cultural resource? (david lyon raises this question in his book jesus in disneyland) i.e. are we prepared to take the risk of putting the insights, treasures, liturgies, theologies etc out there for people to weave into their lives as they tinker? and how might we go about this?

what skills do people need to be able to tinker? and related to this do people need some spiritual capital or theological capital to tinker? this is a challenging area. i think the answer is yes but often people don’t have a lot – they think google is enough! a parallel could be drawn here with improvisation in music which will be much richer and more creative if the person knows the traditions and has done the work in terms of learning their craft – that will free them up. the same is true for spirituality – those that know the tradition, the scriptures, the theological takes, spiritual practices, liturgies, other improvisations that have been made etc will have much more to draw on. the problem for churches is that their tradiitions often feel like they are heavily policed, something to be protected rather than something to be creatively opened up, made open source and tinkered with.

if there is this extended period of young adulthood where there are little support structures in place (young adults see friends as key in terms of navigating life’s choices ) could mentoring or being a soul friend help? is this an area where the church could make a creative contribution?

and lastly how can we encourage communities of tinkerers? i have found being a part of a community like grace amazing in terms of friendship, support, faith development and creative spirituality. it’s located in the church but with space to explore and tinker (not that we have ever used that term!).

5 thoughts on “young adults “tinkering” with faith”

  1. One difficulty in “tinkering” is that a young adult will find themselves in an already existing church community. What if most of them are 50-60 years old? How do you tinker with a Sunday service? VERY difficult to do.

  2. One way we can come alongside “tinkerers” is by becoming known as a place that welcomes questions (I have one kind in my Bible study who always apologizes for asking questions, and I remind him every time that when he stumps me, I go home and thank God for it!) and also by practicing admitting when we don’t know the answer to a question. There’s a big difference, I think, between knowing that Jesus is The Answer, and knowing how to apply that Answer to the situations we face everyday, and that’s what tinkerers are looking for; a way to incorporate faith into daily life. So I think that’s our opportunity; entering into their questions.

  3. In many ways working with “tinkerers” is liberating. It means that you are free to do whatever it is that your church does well and not worry about the rest. The tinkerer is going to make sure that their needs are met – they are not dependent on the church for everything.
    I can see a legitimate fear being that the tinkerer won’t be spiritually hungry and therefore search for the “wrong” things. Really anyone who is hanging around with Christians should find that they are left with many questions they can’t answer. That’s how the search for God begins. If that’s not the case then the problem is not with the tinkerer, it’s the lifestyle of the Christians they are surrounded by.

  4. i think that your comment re the conservative church freaking at tinkering is rather interesting, as it’s of my experience that the biggest tinkerers of scripture, culture, faith have been the most conservative, fundamental churches i know of… we held two camps in two weeks across my region, at one spoke a conservative youth pastor, rarely did she have the bible in hand and much of what was said (from my opinion anyhow) was tinkered, the second i spoke at, and all the time with the bible in hand, i’d only just moved and knew that the conservative leaders were possibly testing me out, and many had issues with my message, although they couldn’t (really) argue with the message as it was entirely out of scripture and was based on socio-political readings of the texts… thats just one example, but i fin that many churches in the more conservative areas are big tinkerers, although they might not see it as such.

  5. I might be alone here, or I might not, but I somewhat relate to what Jonny Baker is saying about those searching being “tinkers”. I would say in a certain sense that I, and to another degree we all, are “tinkers”. Speaking only for myself, I take what I can theologically, philosophically, metaphysically, and use it to expound upon Faith, life, Love, God, etc. I don’t think that “tinkering” is a bad thing, it is just that they are thinking differently, and as Issac said, we have to thank those that stump us or challenge us. As culture continually changes, and always will, the ideals that are timeless and changeless, need to “change” or at least the way they are understood while still remaining the same. I am quite possibly tangenting right now, so I will stop before I get too far off topic. I just wanted to say that I agree in a sense with Jonny, and think that we need to have “tinker” minded people that help the “thinkers” in understanding truth, but at the same time not to forget to simply be friends with them too.

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