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By Roxane B. Salonen, Published May 31 2013

Finding a safe place to discuss faith

MOORHEAD – Growing up in Maple Grove, Minn., Nicki Stulac experienced Sundays like any other day off from school.

Though her family wasn’t atheist, they weren’t religious either, so dressing up to attend a church service or singing hymns just didn’t happen.

After high school, she landed at Concordia College for its academic offerings. Friends invited her to become involved in campus ministry, and she eventually became Lutheran. But without the typical points of religious reference, Stulac struggled.

“As I took on that identity, I kept wondering what that meant and how that fit into who I was,” she said. “I knew some people who attended The Project F-M, so I went a few times and really liked it.”

Finally, she had a place where she could ask questions and not feel like an anomaly.

“I think the project is really cool,” Stulac says. “It encourages my questioning and my discovery of who I am as someone with religious faith who didn’t grow up with that background.”

A new ministry

The Project F-M started in 2008 when a core group of ministry professionals gathered to imagine a new young-adult ministry program that would more adeptly meet the needs of today’s young faith-seekers.

After securing funding from various sources, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, they brought their first full-time community organizer on board.

In 2011, the group hired Adam Copeland as full-time mission developer, and since last August, Holly Johnson, director and recently ordained Lutheran pastor, has led the endeavor.

The group’s purpose is to make space for young adults to love God and neighbor by cultivating an open-minded, curious faith. Though espousing a Christian bend, everyone is welcome, including non-believers.

To encourage meaningful discourse, the group offers several regular events, including Theology Pub, where participants gather in casual settings like local bars to explore faith questions. Speakers often help spark conversations.

The first such event, Brett Hershberger, 23, Moorhead, attended was on gun control and how that intersects with faith. He said the conversation was thoroughly engaging.

“There were so many different views,” he said, “everything from gun owners who didn’t want to see (gun use) curtailed to people worried about shootings and those in the middle who are timid about the issue because they perceive it as polarizing.”

Responding to a need

Marrying later and having kids later in life has helped define this emerging demographic of young adults, Johnson said.

“Even in the ’80s, people would leave church and come back when they had kids,” she said. “Now, some people don’t have kids or don’t get married or don’t make their way back to church once they do because the gap is longer.”

Though already more pronounced in other parts of the country, Johnson said, the shift in the faith needs of young adults will be more and more evident in the coming years in the Midwest.

Technology plays a significant role, she said.

“With things like the Internet, you can find authority anywhere you want. It doesn’t just reside in institutions anymore,” she said. “Weird things happen. I’ve even had people fact-checking things I’ve said in my sermons while I’m preaching.”

Like other institutions, Johnson said, the church hasn’t caught up to the fact that they don’t own the same space they used to.

Science has intertwined as well, offering new information about the world that encourages people to question things that, in the past, were simply handed down as fact, she said.

“Our young people want to make sense of these things, and for whatever reason, it doesn’t always feel safe asking those questions in church.”

Discovering safe places

Michael Larson, 26, grew up Lutheran in rural Minnesota. His faith was formed and kept solid through music, eventually leading him to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

“I came with many questions, and left with even more, but it was a way I was able to think about them finally in a more graceful way,” Larson said.

While there, he met Johnson, a fellow classmate, not knowing someday he’d be back in Fargo-Moorhead working with her as a board member for what many refer to as simply, “The Project.”

“I’m thankful for finding The Project,” said Larson, currently music and arts ministry director at Lutheran Church of the Cross in West Fargo. “It’s given me an outlet that allows me to be myself without fear of being rejected. As a gay man, I’ve found it difficult to be my entire self within some church institutions.”

Larson plays an integral role in the group’s “Sounds Sacred to Me” events, which incorporate music and poetry to engage and inspire participants.

“I love how music can proclaim something beautiful and something of grace and love and something bigger in ways that sometimes spoken words and didactic talking fail to do,” he said.

According to Larson, these events allow participants to explore within their community what it means to be human in an ever-changing, chaotic world.

“There’s a space for people to name the chaos in our lives and the world and yet know we are part of something greater,” he said.

Looking for connection

Jen Engquist, 26, happened upon The Project F-M at a significant time in her faith journey.

“I often don’t feel like I have a group of peers in my faith life, so I was searching for that,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more where I go as I grow in faith, and as I grow outside of faith, too.”

Engquist said she and others in her age group who don’t have children often feel misplaced in traditional church settings.

“It’s not that my church isn’t welcoming, but our culture and church just aren’t set up to feed the faith of a 20-some-year-old, theological-minded person,” she said.

Engquist said her mother once told her that when she was younger, she enjoyed church in part to be around other young moms to discuss things like potty-training and gardening.

“That’s appropriate, but none of that applies to me, and I don’t know if it ever will,” she said. “Where do you go on a Sunday in between services for deeper theological discussion?”

Currently a director for Churches United for the Homeless, Engquist said she and her fiancé both are community-minded thinkers who don’t want just a place to show up, but somewhere they can continue to grow.

“I’m just a human trying to figure out how I’m going to be my best self in the world,” she said.

This story was written exclusively for The Forum.

Readers can reach Roxane B. Salonen at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com