Keeping it Real: Ministry to Emerging Adults
Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, has written extensively about the changing realities of young adults in our postmodern world. His books, Soul Searching, Souls in Transition and Lost in Transition, have become the standard texts in dealing with this demographic. He practically introduced us to the concept of the emerging adult. According to Smith, we have now added another developmental stage to our human life cycle – the emerging adult. Before this, children became adolescents and adolescents became adults. There were well defined markers that defined these transitions. Starting school, getting your driver’s license and getting married were all events that told the world we were growing up.
But over the last several years, things have changed. Instead of graduating college, getting married and starting a career, young adults now are postponing all of these. There are several reasons for this. First, the job market makes it more difficult to find a job that marks the beginning of your professional life. Because of this, fewer people can afford to get married. Parents are more willing to support their children not only through college, but also through post-graduate degrees. A lot of young adults aren’t ready to make “forever” decisions in their early twenties, and so they put these choices off until their late twenties… or even their early thirties. In a lot of ways, adolescence now ends at 30.
Here is the other important development. In previous generations, young adults would drop out of church during college and then return to the church when they began to “settle down.” Newsflash: they aren’t coming back. Every major evangelical denomination is sounding the alarm and trying to strategize an effective response to this new reality.
Now, add to this mix some other important realities for emergent adults, such as:
- They are the most marketed to generation in history. Everyone wants something from them.
- Divorce has left them emotionally disconnected and leery of adults.
- Personal failures of public figures (pastors, politicians, etc) have left them very cynical.
- The communication revolution means they have dealt first hand with competing truth claims. Rather than work through the merits of each claim, emerging adults have simply decided to treat each truth claim as being equal – even when they’re mutually exclusive.
Needless to say, this new reality of the emerging adults presents a daunting challenge for most local churches, but not an impossible one. In his book, Viral, Leonard Sweet, theologian and futurist, makes the point that emerging adults find truth in relationships rather than in propositional statements. This is key for us to understand the new setting of our mission and ministry.
Here is what it means: The emergent adult won’t trust you to tell them about Jesus until they…well, trust you. Let me give you an example. When I began my ministry 30 years ago, evangelism was a simple matter of presenting the gospel story from the Bible. You would go through the points and expect a decision. No longer. Evangelism now begins with an authentic relationship with the other person. You will have to hear their story, understand their journey before they’ll trust you. You will have to share your story, your journey, and then, be tested by them to see whether or not you’re the real deal. In other words, they will have to know your love for them before they will listen about Jesus’ love for them.
I’ve learned I have to be extremely vulnerable with our emerging adults. I’ve had long conversations with them about the good things of life (my marriage, my relationship with my sons) and the bad things (my diagnosis with cancer and the death of my father). Each time, the sharing of real life stuff has opened up real life conversations.
The question isn’t “Is Jesus true?” but “Is Jesus true for you?” As they watch and see how you answer that question, then they’ll want to know if Jesus can be “true for them.” If you aren’t living it, they won’t listen.
Then, again, this is the way it’s always been in the church. Philip goes to get Nathanial, Andrew goes to find Simon Peter. One person going to find another and telling them what they know about Jesus. My guess is, right now, even as you’re reading this blog, Jesus is bringing to mind the person to whom you are being sent…and it’s for that person—and you – that I’m praying for right now.
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