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    « Book Review :: Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero | Main | Hauerwas, Literacy, and Baptist Life »

    Emerging Adulthood, Causes for Conern, and the Practice of Asking Questions

    Over the course of this past year, I've taken the time to get to know a number of new friends ages 13 to 25. If you've paid any attention to the headlines, there is a growing concern for those in this age bracket, not only in my denominational tradition, but in all of American Christianity (see the Religious Landscape Survey from Pew here). Though it is an oft repeated statement that the church of every age must reach the next generation, recent statistics suggest that fewer young people are taking the claims of Christianity seriously in America, evidenced partly by the decline of conversions and baptisms among millennials. The message of the gospel has been obscured or is being rejected.

    For over a year I have been on the front lines in a new context, doing my best to build relationships with youth and emerging adults. I have listened to their beliefs, questions, perceptions, and troubles, and attempted to create a forum, or public commons, where we can explore concerns together. It's difficult work, but deeply rewarding.

    The articles cited above present a refrain so common I have come to expect it: "Young adults are abandoning Christianity." And we need to be wary when we hear these warnings. The research isn't always sound (see this book, which I wish more pastors would read).

    Dramatic wailing leads to a good click-through rate for online publications, and is intended to inspire action when repeated in congregational life. But the most common responses I have encountered are mourning, grief, and anger. Disillusionment, disappointment, and sometimes fear. And any response born out of fear, and not love, will be lacking and lead to a multitude of errors.

    The problems have to be diagnosed, and diagnosed accurately, before an effective response can be deployed.

    And there's the rub: most of us don't know how to respond. We don't know the real and practical steps we can take to be good neighbors to youth and emerging adults. I would encourage humility, curiosity, and compassion. God is sovereign over all things, human beings are each created in the divine image, and the work of salvation is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit drawing all people to the Son, to the glory of the Father. Our calling is to witness--a much richer vocation than we have assumed. Perhaps one of the greatest keys to effectively responding to youth and college students is a deep faith in God resulting in an abiding peace, and the willingness to be engaged.

    Causes for Concern

    While keeping tabs on denominational developments and trends in American religiosity, I have also been reading Christian Smith's work Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011). For anyone working in college and youth ministry, it's an indispensable sociological study of the prevailing beliefs, practices, and worldview of those entering adulthood. It is also sobering, for Smith and his team suggest that the prevailing beliefs of emerging adults are inherited and assumed due to the influence of the existing adult culture. Our unwillingness to face the problems of emerging adulthood is likely rooted in our denial that the problems of youth and emerging adults are, in fact, our own. "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

    Smith's research uncovers five primary areas of concern: 1) moral relativism stemming from radical individualism; 2) an addiction to consumerism and the inability to envision a need for restraint; 3) routine intoxication; 4) hurt and regret resulting from unhealthy sexual relationships; and 5) little or no vision for the common good, leading to civic and political disengagement. The first step in addressing these five concerns is admitting they are a very real part of young adult experience.

    Let me expand these five areas of concern. Youth and college students are asking questions about the foundations of morality. Generally speaking, I have found that they possess a set of values inherited from education in the public school system or picked up through cultural osmosis via the brine of popular music, movies, television, magazines, and social media. Emerging adults also possess economic power, either through their parents or via credit. Possessions are seen as symbols of status or totems of happiness.

    Youth and college students are also subject to numerous temptations related to drugs, alcohol, and sex, which is nothing new as a supposition, though Smith's research reveals trends that are alarming. And because of strong commitments to individualism and moral relativism, emerging adults lack a framework for navigating these temptations. They are ill-equipped. And lastly, while youth and college students have a desire to change the world, there is much work to do in helping young people move beyond their individual concerns to a commitment to the common good.

    In listening to students, I know that these concerns are very real. My congregation is a stone's throw from a university campus in my community. We are an outpost of the kingdom of God, strategically placed, and have a great opportunity to serve emerging adults. I take this very seriously, because I want our congregation to be a good neighbor to the youth in our city, but even more so to the university students pursuing their vocation in our immediate area.

    The Practice of Asking Questions

    In response, as a practice I ask questions. I listen. Some of my new friends know I like to talk. But my efforts will be in vain if I do not address the reality these students are facing.

    If you care about youth and college students, ask a lot of questions. Ask what people are struggling with. Ask about the objections your committed students are facing at school and in their social circles. What do people find compelling about Christianity, and what do they find problematic?

    Then, return to the Scripture and the riches of our tradition. Mine wisdom and bring it back. Refrain from judgmentalism and moralistic chatter. Restate the questions to your hearers, so everyone knows, precisely, what the problems are, and how we are attempting to address them. Then, solicit feedback. There may be better answers on offer, even in your own congregation. Students may be able to tell you how they are applying and thinking about the gospel. They may be able to testify how certain answers are effective in ways beyond your suggestions.

    When you hit on a helpful approach, share it generously with your students, and give credit to those who have found ways to overcome a challenge and live faithfully to Christ.

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