Rachael Harder is listening to the spiritual pulse of her generation and helping the church to respond.
The Briercrest alumnus is Associate Researcher at James Penner and Associates, a research firm based in Lethbridge, Alta. that specializes in Canadian youth research. She is studying why youth raised in a Christian home choose to leave or maintain their spiritual faith.
Harder was honoured for her work in a Briercrest chapel this week when President Dwayne Uglem presented her with an award naming her the 2012 Young Alumnus of the Year.
“(We are) thanking you for giving yourself over to the Lord and saying ‘yes’ to Him,” Uglem said. “We ask for the Lord’s blessing in your life.”
The honoured alumnus has been busy compiling research for the study.
“Basically from coast to coast we’ve done 70 face-to-face interviews, and we’ve done 2,000 plus electronic surveys,” Harder said. “It’s given me the opportunity to hear the stories of my generation and understand why they’re making some of the decisions they’re making concerning spiritual faith.”
The results seem to point toward two main themes.
“One is a misunderstanding of identity,” Harder explained. “The second is a misunderstanding of right authority.”
The Lethbridge resident explained the far-reaching impacts of identity.
“We have lots of young adults running around engaging in false identity,” she said. “They’re wanting to build a life for themselves rather than inheriting the identity that Christ has already given them. So what that brings about is a works-based mentality. In the end it destroys the church because it’s a false gospel.”
Harder went on to point how the misuse of spiritual authority has also negatively impacted her generation.
“My parents’ generation witnessed a huge abuse of authority,” Harder said. “Out of that they became burnt and really hurt and unfortunately my generation inherited that. So we now function a lot out of fear, wanting to reconstruct a world for ourselves that is safe. For us that world looks like independence and self-reliance. What that revolves into is a draw away from the church and a leaning on self.”
Harder personally understands the heartbeat of those who have been hurt by spiritual authority.
“I stopped coming to church when I was 13,” she recounted. “Basically I was really hurt by the church at that point. Then I went on a missions trip when I was 14 and the Lord really used that to impact my life and I realized that I needed Christian community. I needed to be discipled but I didn’t necessarily want to do that within the context of the church because I was still scared of it.”
Harder found the community she desired by attending a Christian high school from Grade 10-12.
“So during my time there I was a part of weekly chapels,” she said. “I had amazing Christian teachers who mentored me and spoke into my life. Grade 12 rolled around and I began to consider what I wanted to do after I graduated. I felt that it would probably be good to have some time in a school where I was able to study not only social sciences but also a little more theology and Christian ministry background.”
That desire led Harder to Briercrest College and Seminary where she completed a two-year associate’s degree in social sciences. During that time, Harder says her eyes were opened to the way church life could be when she attended The Gathering, one of the churches in Caronport.
“Sean Davidson and his wife were really instrumental in pouring into me,” she said. “Out of building a friendship with Sean, he really is the one that sparked an interest in me for what church could be. I started attending the church there at the time he was helping to pastor it. I joined a house church – that was an incredible experience for me because it was the first time since leaving church I saw Christian community done well. That really made me begin this journey of asking, ‘Could there be more? Could the church actually be like what I see in Acts? Is that still possible for today? I’m really thankful for that journey because I think I’m still on it.”
After graduating from Briercrest in 2006, Harder began studies the next fall at the University of Lethbridge where she struggled to find Christian fellowship.
“My first year was void of community and meaningful interaction with people so it was an incredibly lonely year,” she said. “I came out of my first year feeling pretty battle worn and knowing that something needed to change—specifically in my living environment.”
As Harder began to pray about the situation, she felt God was leading her to buy a house.
“As you can imagine, at the time only being 20 years old it kind of seemed kind of ridiculous,” she exclaimed. “But the Lord is faithful and when He calls us to do something He also provides the means.”
Within a couple of months, Harder had a house. She invited three other women to live with her.
“It was really cool to watch the Lord work in that,” Harder said. “Just to watch the Spirit revive us and heal us and just work powerfully in the years we lived together.”
The positive effects of Harder’s living environment were so visible that her pastor approached her about it.
“He said, ‘Rachael, we notice there’s a lot of health in the girls’ home and in you,’” Harder recounted. “He asked if I would consider helping establish another house—or maybe a couple more—of students. That was something that really excited me so I took it on and spent a summer just looking at houses, talking to landlords or talking to students. . . so in the Fall of 2009 we launched two more houses in addition to mine—a guy house and a girl house.”
Harder’s church in Lethbridge, River of Life, now has six of these homes for college men and women which they call Greenhouses. They seek to be a place where students can be mentored, learn to live together well, and follow the calling God has on each of their lives.
Harder knows from her own life that getting to the place of healthy Christian community can be a process. Her own journey has helped form within her a heartfelt message she’d love to give to people who may still be wary of church because of their hurts.
“I would start by repenting for the hurts that they’ve received on the part of the church,” she said. “I would ask for their forgiveness as an ambassador of Christ – as one who represents the church. I would ask to hear their story. I would lean in and I would listen and I would want to be trusted with their hearts for the sake of them being heard and taking steps toward health.”