The New Youth ministry: Emerging Adulthood?

I wonder if the new youth ministry of the future will be with a brand new stage of development: Emerging Adulthood.

Keith Drury


JohnLDrury said...

I definitely agree with #7, but only if we "launch a new aggressive “care program” for these young adults that shepherd them through their 20s" as you say. Just keeping names on the rolls doesn't accomplish anything, so I see why church governing bodies drop them off when they lose contact. But if we really start to "oversee" this process, it could be a real boon for both the emerging adults and the church!

JMKendall said...

I've been thinking thinking about this issue a lot the past year or so, probably because I am a part of this emerging adulthood generation. It has been interesting to see friends and recent graduates move off to do just what you said: some travel, many move home with their parents, others move to bigger cities living the not-so-glamorous 'friends' lifestyle in apartment complexes, and still others are working odd-jobs waiting for direction on their life-calling. I guess I want to reiterate a few things you said and expound on others:

1. "Don't decry this new age." I can't imagine how difficult this must be for parents, but it is important to stress a new way for parenting emerging adults. Continually nagging (because that's all we hear and can't understand that you are just wanting 'the best' for us) only adds to the confusion and frustration we face. We don't know what we want to do, but we do know we don't want to work an 8-5 job that puts food on the table for the next 50 years of our lives. We want something that gives us meaning and contributes to the world. Money is secondary, which for many of our dads is completely contrary to how they think. Both sides need to work on finding middle ground here.

4,6,9. Emerging Adults and Church. This is a tricky one, but I think we've hit on two potential remedies here. Mentoring is a must, not just for the college professor but for adults in local churches as well. While in college students have the physical presence of a mentor, but this relationship must continue after they leave. This brings us to the 'new youth pastor' role you mentioned. I doubt many churches are willing or able to hire a new staff member primarily for this role, but it could be a small extension of the youth pastor. Sending letters, facebook messages, actual worthwhile 'care packages', etc to past youth group members I believe is life-changing. Most emerging adults won't get plugged into a church even during their christian college years. Most typically feel forgotten at the churches they grew up in and rarely feel welcomed back beyond their first year away. Having a mentor or youth pastor who stays in touch would go a long way and give them someone to work out life issues with. This is a relatively small addition for youth pastors of most churches.

Ultimately, I think serving this generation is going to require creativity, flexibility, and above all commitment. Skepticism of the Church and bitter feelings toward evangelical, republican Christianity can be overcome by mentors and fellow believers who genuinely care and are in it for the long haul.

::athada:: said...

If emerging adults are dropping out, and this time for even longer, will the EA ministry even exist? Or will it be more a resource center / social network as they exist and question outside the church (like e-mails to old professors)? By the time they come back they have a spouse and a kid so that's another stage. Don't see how the math works out to another church "growth industry".

Pete Vecchi said...

This article is VERY thought-provoking. We have just recently renamed our "Director of Student Ministries" position to Director of Student and Young Adult Ministries."

I was at a seminar led by Thom Rainer last week, and he gave the statistic that according to their research (and leaving open the obvious truth that no one can judge another person's spiritual standing before God) only 4% of Americans born between 1977 and 1994 have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

if you ask me, this is truly a mission field right here in the U.S.

postmodern redneck said...

The sad thing is, this has been brewing for a long time. Back around 1971 I had to read a book for a Chr. Ed class that discussed the lengthening of adolescence that was already recognizable. And I have met too many young people who still have not grown up by their mid-thirties--my own observation is that the longer they put it off, the less likely they are to grow up at all. And I have seen this in young people who grew up in church, and in the young-adult friends of my own grown offspring.

Mark Schnell said...

Now I finally understand what's up with all the students I'm in seminary with. Most of them are in their mid to late twenties. Several of them have expressed how they are just taking their time through school. I always think to myself, "WHY?!" Many of them are not sure what they'll do when they graduate. At least in this case they're getting an education that at the very least can make them a much stronger church member.

Keith Drury said...

MARK, Yes, we've described a host of seminary and grad students--like you say at least they are getting some education. What I hope for is a more strategic response from the church. However mostly I hear complaints that they're not growing up as fast as their parents did, and to be quite honest many churches simply don't care--like ADAM said--if you don't show up at church the church seldom worries about you. So while I hope the church will respond, I’m not convinced their (immediate) self-interest is great enough to make it happen.

It has changed drastically the nature of what we do in a Christian College like IWU... the old model was students came to college, had their doubts about the call while they were around here, got their call clarified then graduated to spend the rest of their life in ministry. Now we see about half of our graduates (my estimate) either never enter church work or after a few years move on to other careers. This is why I hope we will quit rushing these young adults to get ordained. As for students who walk away from their faith (which also includes ministerial students who claimed a certain call when they gradated) these may be the scariest fact of this new stage of adulthood. We hope they will come back to the church when they have children 3-4 years old… BUT most denomination shave abandoned any firm doctrine and process for “backsliders” to be “reclaimed” …and after a full decade of living as practical atheists the route back is pretty tough and few there are that find it. As for younger folk considering abandoning the faith “for a while” they might seriously consider this is a lot like abandoning their spouse for a while… once abandoned it is harder then they might think to ever return.

Thanks for the comments above—I suspect this is one of those changes that sneaks up on us slowly… as it has been for more than a decade and caught us sleeping

Anonymous said...

I think the young adults should grow up and do something meaningful with their lives.

Anonymous said...

I remember the first time I heard you talk about this over lunch. I was ordained....and 29. :) You then very kindly said "of course there would be exceptions" with a characteristic Coach D wink. I am fine with not hurrying people to get ordained. But I also think if they do have a strong call and are already "middle aged" as you say we shouldn't hold them back either.

I am not troubled by the try-things-out-twenties (depending on the things). I am troubled with the pattern of "abandoning a spouse" as you say that is growing rapidly. People ditch the Church (and therefore in a lot of ways Jesus) and find it hard to come back.

Fascinated by your new picture of a prof. A lot of people are tempted to say "I just won't ever get it" with blogs, facebook, twitter, etc and give up on it.

I wonder if this should actually be part of our training at IWU and other Christian colleges for professors?

I also wonder though if there is another element here. I wonder if our Christian colleges really foster a safe place for doubt and questions. It is possible, and you would have a thumb on this I imagine, that we are either too safe or too doubting without the balance in between. We all know the problem with doubt-happy schools. Have we given sufficient thought to the too-safe schools?

I wonder if we need to develop a pedagogy of doubt for faith.

Outside-the-Beltway Drury said...

Consider a different take.

This article echoes a similar theme to government school critic John Taylor Gatto.
Gatto on Extended Childhood.
He argues that one of the stated goals of public schooling is to extend childhood beyond the normal. He cites Alexis de Toqueville for observing that American democracy of the 19th century nearly eliminated adolescence. de Toqueville observed that extending adolescence tended to reinforce European aristocratic class consciousness and its near elimination in America freed Americans to be more entrepreneurial, self-sufficient, and correspondingly productive.

To use the vocabulary of this article, an emerging adult is not a full adult, is not fully responsible, and looks to parents, government, corporations, and life coaches to to be the adult "in charge."

Gatto tends to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but those who have actually read early American education theorists like John Dewey will find Gatto's characterization of the origins of public schooling disturbingly accurate.

Gatto argues that public schooling is intended to be a "handicap," holding children and "emerging adults" back from what would otherwise be considered normal maturity.

The fact that the church and Christian education in general has tended to accept and follow dominant secular educational theory has lead to the creation of long-term spiritual adolescents. Possibly this is why senior ministry students at IWU are more and more wondering what they will do "when they grow up." Even many of the most mature and motivated students will be putting off full-time ministry for 3 or 4 years of seminary training.

My point is that maturity is a broader cultural issue that the church is ill-equipped to impact since the paradigm of public school dominates the landscape of family life in America today, Christian or no.

::athada:: said...

D. Ward -

From my time at IWU ('07) I would say it leaned (by default?) toward the "too safe" side. However, I think I personally was surrounded by a group of students/profs who really helped me process issues of doubt/faith in a healthy way. Perhaps the official stance of IWU is on the safe side; this is what admins have to project to parents and donors ("hold the line", "stay faithful to the call" etc). But I was very impressed with the profs who led us carefully into the deep recesses of life, to the edge of doubt or ultimate reality... or whatever you call it.

I'm sure there is the danger of the doubt-happy arena, but don't think we're there.

Keith Drury said...

KRIS, your comment reflects my own thinking—but we are hopelessly out of touch with the changes in society ;-)

DAVE WARD, We have not yet fully implemented the extended relationship thing—but it is under way. As for you… you were middle-aged in college—so, would that make you about 50 now? (I took my first full-time pastorate at 23—so that would make me about 80 now? ;-)

OTB Drury: Your insight is helpful…enough to prompt next week’s column—thanks!

ADAM2: Some students do face doubts and firmly make up their minds during the college years… but as you know, many face this after college now. And yes, IWU tries to help students face these issues in college—however some students shrug it off only to later face the very same issues without a supportive structure around them. I’d say that as many as a third of graduates now face it later.

ALL: Thanks for the good thoughts here. And thanks for a HOST of parents who wrote directly to me instead of posting—“I wo’nt tell” ;-)

Amanda said...

Wow! What a great post!

I think you're right that churches will increase their hiring of young adult pastors. However, I'm afraid that many of these churches will just "lump" that ministry in with youth ministry. While emerging adults may live lifestyles more similar to teens than adults, I don't think they will respond positively if we rely on "youth group" models.

By the way, Princeton Seminary is hosting a conference on Emerging Adults with Jeffrey Arnett as the keynote.


KCDean said...

Keith, thanks so much for this post--I admit that I'm completely taken with #5 on the role of professors (ever thought about expanding on it for Chronicle of Higher Ed?)

I wonder if you're seeing counterarguments for extended adolescents--not the Epstein or Gatto view that bashes all things modern--but either push back by "new Victorians" (think Lauren Winner for the Christian version; see http://www.observer.com/2007/new-victorians) or comparisons to Depression generations, where maturity became more of a response to the economy, and the need for young people to take responsibility sooner. (NYT, "Generation OMG - http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/weekinreview/08zernike.html?_r=5&pagewanted=1&ref=weekinreview).

Wrestling with these issues myself, so nice to eavesdrop on your own thinking on this subject. Btw, my own take would be that churches should be cautious when developing ministries for emerging adults so we don't fall into "programming" the way we did with teenagers--that's proven to be a rut that's hard to break out of. I'd rather see churches think about ministry WITH emerging adults, considering them partners more than objects of ministry. (Of course, I'd like to see that with teenagers too!)

btw, I'm a fan from afar, thanks to your amazing progeny! (whose presence makes life here at PTS far more wonderful)

ScarredWarrior said...

I have been not only working with this group for a few years now but have often wondered about what was going on in my own life and head... I was married before I graduated college, have two kids, and have been in the same church for 4 years but it has all been a struggle. This are really great observations and the church needs to figure out how they are going to help young adults navigate these (previously) uncharted waters.

Good wwork.