By Bill Fledderus, senior editor at the EFC magazine Faith Today. Photo above shows him at age 21.
When I look back on my first few years after high school, it’s not my decision to make a public commitment to Jesus Christ that’s the first thing to come to mind.
What I actually remember most vividly are all my awkward struggles to figure out what kind of career to aim for (and what subject to major in), how to find real friends (and keep them) and find a life-partner (and commit to her).
I alternated between uncertainty, exhilaration, pressure, loneliness and fear. How could I ever make all these life-shaping decisions and choices? Committing to a career or a marriage partner looked like it would close way more doors than it opened. I felt I’d be doomed if I made the wrong choices.
I wonder if such memories also came to mind for many of the 100 other Christian leaders who were in Burlington, Ont., on May 15 attending a national consultation about some new youth ministry research.
The research (by a national partnership, www.TheEFC.ca/YATR) looks at how to help young adults stay connected to Christianity as they move from high school to the next stage in life. A final report called Renegotiating Faith will be released this coming fall.
Basically, the new research looks closely at how that stage of life when we struggle to form an adult identity is different for today’s generation. Today what’s called emerging adulthood happens later and often lasts longer than it used to even 30 years ago – and these are changes that have major implications for the Christian community.
One third of Canadians who grew up in the evangelical community are choosing to leave it by the time they became young adults, and other Christian sectors are losing even more, according to the 2011 study Hemorrhaging Faith.
What the newer research shows is that if we want to help young adults grow deeper in faith instead of drifting away from it, it’s crucial we ensure they are enfolded in Christian community during the emerging adulthood stage, which can last into their late 20s.
(In my era people got married or started full-time work and reached other markers of adulthood in their early 20s, but now these achievements don’t usually happen until a person is 29 or 30.)
Christian community for emerging adults
Practically that means churches need to intentionally help our young adults stay engaged with the Christian community. Often churches let go of their youth after high school – it takes intentional organization and effort to pursue them when they move away and can’t show up to the usual weekly church events.
But imagine a mentor who remains in direct contact even after the young person moves away. Or imagine one who helps the young adult become engaged with another Christian community.
When I left my family home to attend university, I never really went to live back home for more than a few weeks. It turned out to be a permanent rupture from the church and community I grew up in. (The rupture was especially drastic in those pre-Internet days when keeping in touch meant either long distance phone calls you could not afford or the time-consuming process of writing and mailing physical letters.)
Thanks to God’s providence, I ended up at a Christian university. (I really can say it was God, because I had very little idea of any other post-secondary options.) I can easily imagine how someone could move away to school and drift completely away from church and eventually also from faith.
The ogre stealing our children
What do many young adults drift into today? The new research calls it UGRE, the Universal Gnostic Religious Ethic. I visualize it a bit like the ogre in Pilgrim’s Progress (well, technically he’s named the Giant Despair). Basically UGRE is the common belief today that all religions are really the same. At root, they are all about being nice and kind and preserving social harmony and avoiding conflict. The “higher power” doesn’t really matter.
The word “gnostic” is there to indicate how this belief seizes young adults – it feels like they’ve stumbled on some secret knowledge that is only shared with certain other people. Their religious parents would never be able to accept this “truth,” but they can find other young people who do.
There’s a lot more to this UGRE concept, but one of the key points for Christian families is that becoming an adult requires finding ways for individuals to show how they’re different from their parents. In today’s society many of the traditional ways to separate and become an adult are postponed and out of reach for someone in their mid 20s.
Thanks to the economy many young adults can’t find a full-time job and move into their own apartment. Often the job market seems to demand so much education that young people are taking even longer to reach the point of using a final graduation as a marker of adulthood.
But one thing children of religious parents can do to show they are different is to adopt new religious beliefs. And because avoiding conflict is such an important part of UGRE, young adults often make the shift as quietly as possible. When we see someone drifting away from Christianity, this is what is actually happening sometimes.
For me the fact my university was a Christian environment helped me develop a mature Christian faith of my own, in some ways different than my parents’ but still orthodox. I eventually made an adult Christian commitment several years into university after many eye-opening experiences of summer ministry, travel, study and being inspired by meeting Christian peers from what seemed radically different traditions.
Adult faith commitment
As a fervent 21-year-old I went back to visit the church I’d grown up in, and I joined with a couple of other believers in a profession of faith ceremony traditional to the Christian Reformed Church. I didn’t have much of a relationship with the pastor who led the ceremony, and I afterwards I felt a little disappointed. I think I had been hoping I could go back and automatically reconnect to the church community where I grew up, and share how I’d grown in my faith.
Perhaps its no surprise that at age 21 I felt I had found the secret to mature Christian faith (something in common with UGRE adopters). At that time I would have explained the secret this way: You can be fed all kinds of right Christian teachings, but they are not enough without a Spirit-filled heart.
I have to laugh a little now at that overconfidence and sense of arrival – of course in the years since then my faith has developed and matured even more in ways I would not have understood at 21. I don’t mean to say the leaps forward we experience in our Christian faith journey aren’t real, only that we need to keep reminding ourselves after each leap that we have more to learn.
Those finalizing the new Young Adult Transition Research are quick to say they, too, continue to have more to learn. They will be busy this summer considering all the action ideas that came up in the May 15 brainstorming sessions and incorporating them into the document that presents their findings. This fall all the results will be made available free online. That will lead to even more learning and discussion.
Four steps to take before September
But I don’t have to wait until fall to take some of the things I learned and implement them with my own teen and young adult children. Here are four realizations and action steps I’m looking at. You might want to consider them too.
First, I have an even higher appreciation for Christian youth groups, summer camps, post-secondary schools and Christian groups on secular campuses. What an important role they have in helping young people meet the need to develop their own identity and mature faith away from their parents.
Second, as a parent and church member I am newly conscious that all these amazing Christian groups have built-in endpoints – so it’s my job to help the young adults in my care as they transition out from one group to engage into some good new Christian environment. It’s not wise for me to abandon them to do that themselves, even if they are somewhat adult. (Of course it’s also not wise for me to be a helicopter parent who won’t let my child do anything alone.)
The window for helping them transition is very short – the research suggests for example that a student’s first month of their first year at university is decisive in terms of whether they will find and stick with a Christian community during their years there.
Third, if I can enable some continuity by helping young people stay in touch with Christians from their past communities, I am doing an important thing. (I will chant this while chauffeuring children to camp reunions, etc.)
Fourth is the importance of mentors. I am reminded afresh it cannot be the youth pastor’s job to help our children develop faith. Every member of the Christian community needs to practise mentoring. What are some of these practices?
As young people become adults, they need mentors to help confirm the gifts and talents God has placed inside them. The young person might already have an idea what he or she is good at, but we all need someone to take notice and validate and value that thing – and encourage its pursuit.
Young people need mentors to re-introduce them to the community where they grew up – to help the community stop seeing them as “Bill’s son” or “that Fledderus boy” and see them instead as an independent adult with independent gifts. I probably can’t do this very well for my own kids, but I can publicly identify the gifts of other people’s teens and make space for those teens to use those gifts in the Christian community.
Young people need mentors to help process damage that happens in Christian community, so that they don’t respond by giving up and leaving but instead recognize at a deeper level how sin is everywhere and needs to be dealt with redemptively in the power of Christ, sometimes painfully and over a longer period of time than we would like.
May God help all of us as we consider the challenges of young adult transitions over the next months and years together.
Author: Bill Fledderus