Over my 20-plus years in youth ministry, I’ve engaged in a lot of conversations with parents about their college-aged and post-college-aged children. Conversations where a parent says something like, “I didn’t pay for his college tuition so that he could get some poor-paying job.”
At the same time his son is confiding in me, “I want to do what I feel God is calling me to. Besides, why would I want to do what he does? He’s been miserable his whole life.”
Other times, a mom or dad just desperately asks, “Would you help point him in the right direction?”
I’ve also had a lot of conversations over the years with searching young adults. Their questions to me are more like: “How do I know if what I’m doing is really what God wants me to do? I just don’t want to wake up one morning 15 years from now and feel like I’ve wasted half of my life.”
The angst is real on both sides. Emerging adults are feeling the weight of life-long choices, and sometimes their parents aren’t able to be the sole sounding boards for those choices.
Mentors are one powerful answer—wise, godly adults in the church who will walk alongside. But I would argue that in traditional mentoring relationships, the influence often flows only one way. What if, instead, we emphasized relationships that are rooted in equality and mutuality?
What do I mean by equality and mutuality? In writing to the Romans, Paul says that believers are children of God and have received the “Spirit of adoption”(8:14-17). At our spiritual birth, we are ushered into a family and are equally sons and daughters before Him.
Adoption, therefore, assumes that while some have much to teach others because of experience, we are all equal, all have value and therefore all have something. Adoption means there is “familial mutuality.”1
This idea is reinforced by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (12:22). Relationships that emphasize learning from one another will not only help emerging adults but also help the church more fully realize a biblical ecclesiology.
When the church helps emerging adults become spiritually formed, the church is also becoming spiritually formed. The church serves as a place where spiritual gifts are discovered and given space to be practiced, further shaping the body. Failure to live into this kind of ecclesiology will at best result in emerging adults being nothing more than spiritual consumers and, at worst, result in an exodus from the church entirely.
When your mentoring relationships don’t emphasize equality and mutuality, you run the risk of making any ministry for emerging adults feel like a youth group. Not to diminish youth ministry, but this age cohort does not need a youth group. Emerging adults are developmentally different from adolescents and therefore do not need a remix of the same music, same talks and same activities that have merely graduated from PG-13 to R-rated.2
In addition to releasing spiritual gifts, mentoring that’s mutual invites emerging adults to add their voices too—voices that the church needs. Voices that I as a mentor need. These voices may question my church’s traditions or my own long-held assumptions; they may help explore shifting cultural issues with grace and forgiveness; they may speak prophetically of a hopeful future when others are acting fearful.
Despite some honest angst, more than 80 percent of today’s emerging adults do feel that they are living in an age of possibilities, with unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.3 They have much in common with those whom Paul wrote about in Romans 5:2-5: rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God, knowing that while the church may suffer, it produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.
Finally, the church needs emerging adults, and I need emerging adults, because who better to teach us about our sophisticated changing culture than those helping to create it? In creating culture for others to enjoy and utilize, emerging adults are living out what it means to be an image-bearer of God—to be in relationship with and to be a co-creator with the Creator. I want to have a front-row seat for that, one that allows me to learn from them and to collaborate with them.
Yes, emerging adults in our churches need relationships with other godly men and women—to help navigate an unstable season of life (even while living in their parents’ basement). They need the wisdom that comes from simply having lived life and walked with God for longer. No shortcuts can cut it.
Yet through mutual rather than hierarchical mentoring, we who are older can acknowledge and nurture gifts, passions and wisdom that will mentor us as well.
1 Chap Clark, Adoptive Youth Ministry (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2016), page 3. ↩
2 From “Seeing and Supporting Emerging Adult Spirituality,” by Steve Argue, part of the April 19, 2016, Fuller Youth Institute “Growing Young” webinar. ↩
3 Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults: Thriving, Struggling and Hopeful,” 2012, page 5. ↩
Kris Fernhout (D.Min., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2014) has been a youth pastor for more than 20 years, most recently as student ministry pastor at Christ Community’s Olathe campus (EFCA). At age 44, he calls himself “a Gen Xer who dealt with the same assumptions that plague millennials: slackers, narcissistic, cynical and afraid to commit to anything.” Beginning in August 2016 he will direct Kansas City Fellows, a marketplace internship program (at Christ Community Kansas City) to help college graduates explore the intersection of faith, work and community.