Emerging Adults – Interpersonal Relationships

In the book Souls in Transition, researchers Christian Smith and Patricia Snell found that while emerging adults have optimism about their own futures, they lack optimism to influence the greater social and political world. They discovered that few emerging adults are involved in anything to do with the public square. Perhaps this relates to their vigorous individualism and difficulty seeing an objective world outside of their own self. Although, as a side note, I do wonder how this relates to the election of Barack Obama since we heard many people voted for the first time to vote for him. But that is neither here nor there.

This withdrawal from the public square and lack of optimism to change the world leads into Smith and Snell’s finding that emerging adults “submerge in interpersonal relationships” (73). I think this is one of their most important discoveries as it relates to ministry and faith:

“They are deeply invested in social life beyond their immediate selves primarily through their interpersonal relationships. And they pursue these private-sphere emotional and relational investments with fervent devotion. Much of their lives appears to be centered on creating and maintaining good personal relationships. What makes emerging adults most happy are their good relationships with family, friends, and interesting other associates. By comparison, the larger public world, civic life, and the political realm seem to them alien and impenetrable” (73).

Emerging adults are radically relationship-oriented. This appeared most clearly during the interviews, said Smith and Snell, as most interviewees checked and answered their cell phones and sent and received text messages. Technology adds a dimension of “instant feedback” to these relationships.

What this means for college ministry is that personal relationships are the key. The majority of emerging adults will enjoy listening and talking and building a relationship with you. Of course, this may take place via Facebook, text messages or other forms of media. But with that said, I do not think we should over-emphasize this infatuation with media because college students, at least most that I know, still want to connect via face-to-face personal conversation.

Last summer I read Billy Graham’s autobiography Just as I Am and found it quite inspiring. Yet I wonder if such a ministry is even possible nowadays in America. Would young people respond to a speaker of truth from a podium while sitting in a crowd of thousands?

When we plan an event on campus I am skeptical of the importance of hanging fliers to advertise. In the past when we’ve hung fliers we’ve attracted very few people. But when we have pressed and encouraged, begged and cajoled the Christian students to invite their peers we have had large attendance. College students do not respond to advertisements, they respond to personal contacts.

Rare is the emerging adult who will drive by your church, be intrigued by your sign advertising a service or event, and come back. If we want to reach people, we must go to them on an individual, personal level.

This is nothing knew. Rodney Stark in his great study, The Rise of Christianity, shows how the early church, from the time of the Apostles in Acts until Constantine’s legalization of Christianity nearly three centuries later, grew through just such small groups and personal friendships. We tend to think the early Christians preached on street corners to thousands who impulsively converted. The truth is, most evangelism happened as Christian individuals spoke with and ministered to their friends.

The same is true today, especially with emerging adults who are cynical about any sort of objective truth for everyone. Perhaps that is where the difference is.  People desiring and enjoying interpersonal relationship is nothing new.  What is new is that it is in such relationships through which truth is communicated.  Truth, if there is such a thing, is sought on a micro, not macro, level.  If we want to gain a hearing with them we must open ourselves up to friendship with them on a personal level. In other words, we see each person as a child of God who has worth and on whom we have the opportunity to demonstrate Christ’s love…one person at a time…

Emerging Adults: Individualists in Every Way

At least once each semester we like to dedicate our CSF meeting to questions and answers, or at least some attempt at answers, about faith, religion and the like. Sometimes we make this just a regular weekly CSF gathering and thus get most of the normal crowd, other times we advertise and recruit and double our numbers with new students and visitors. During such nights those of us giving the responses can generally expect which questions we will get. Nearly every time someone will ask about world religions: If Christianity is true, what about other religions? What about people of other religions who never heard about Jesus? How does Jesus compare to other religious figures throughout history?

In personal conversations with students, both those dedicated to Christ and those who are not, the same questions come up. People are interested in other religions. College may be the first time they meet people of other faiths. They may be taking a religious studies class and learning about other religions. Or they may have had such questions for a long time but never received an answer from parents or pastors back home..

As they encounter such new worldviews they may go through an internal dialogue with themselves. On one hand, they have been taught their whole lives that Jesus is the only way to God. On the other hand, their friends of other religions are decent people, are they just going to miss out and go to hell because they were raised outside the Christian faith?

Ironically, many of these questions came up last evening in the small group my wife and I are a part of. That shows these are not just questions college students are asking.

All of this came to mind as I thought over Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s description of the cultural world of emerging adults in their book Souls in Transition. Many descriptions were of a stark individualism, live and let live, everyone has their own truth and who am I to say someone else is wrong.

Over and over again Smith and Snell found that for emerging adults “it’s up to the individual” (49). They write that “according to emerging adults, the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her own sovereign self. Anybody can literally think or do whatever he or she wants” (49). Individualism for emerging adults results in them recognizing that everybody’s different. Smith and Snell noted that often in answering questions the interviewees would say, “well, everybody’s different, but for me…” (48).

Smith and Snell argue that this is not just typical American individualism but instead “is individualism on heavy doses of multiculturalism and pumped up on steroids of the postmodern insistence on disjuncture, differance, and differences going ‘all the way down’” (48). Getting a bit philosophical, emerging adults find it hard to see an objective reality beyond their own selves:

They seem to presuppose that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything beyond themselves. They are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people that can serve as a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument (45).

What this means is that emerging adults have trouble believing in a truth or reality that is true for everybody. Truth, morality, reality and such are fully centered on the individual. What is true for one person is not true for another.

This does not mean that all emerging adults are hedonistic nihilists. Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults see right and wrong as easy to discover. It is like common sense: right and wrong are discovered by being aware of your feelings and intuition. A common theme for emerging adults is that not hurting other people is self-evident. The researchers point out that emerging adults cannot say why hurting others is wrong, it just is. Finally, many emerging adults have a belief in a sort of karma, though they did not learn it from any religion. For the most part, they simply believe that people just somehow get what they deserve in the end.

I could keep going as other traits of emerging adults also relate to this individualism: being more open-minded, seeing all cultures as relative, morality depending on the specific case, helping others being a mere optional and personal choice. But I think the point has been made.

The challenge for campus ministry is that Christians believe in an authority beyond the individual, our Creator God. Along with this are truths that are true for everybody: that this Creator God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, died for our sins and rose again. Therefore, how do we present the Christian message in terminology that will even begin to make sense to emerging adults? Importantly, this is not just a question for campus ministry…unless you think these young people will magically change the way they view the world as they get older.

I do not really have an answer to the above question. Well, that’s not true, I have lots of answers but I want to keep this short. I think a starting point is realizing that Jesus always meets people where they are at. So when working with emerging adults we should find things we can affirm in what they already believe. Along with that, a good dose of humility is needed: objective truth is found only in the Creator God and our limited understandings of this truth, as good as we think they may be, are not fully there yet. In other words, none of our theologies are perfect.

To return to where we started, one form of the answer I give when other students ask the questions above is to affirm and emphasize the exclusivity of Jesus but not of my way of being a Christian. All we ever ask of anyone is to let Jesus Christ enter their life. In this, Jesus will find some good and some things that need changed. Thus, all we ask of others is what we must ourselves be doing each day: inviting God (Father, Son and Spirit) into our lives where some good may be found and other things will need to be removed and changed. More than anything else, more than our words and arguments, only an encounter with the risen Christ and God’s Holy Spirit will change the lives of radical individualists (or of anyone else).

Emerging Adults in Transition

Newsflash: young people do not have much money! Okay, perhaps not the most ground-breaking finding ever, but it is one of the elements of emerging culture that Christian Smith and Patricia Snell mention in their summary of the cultural world of emerging adults (ages 18-23) early on in Souls in Transition. They admit that such a summary “unavoidably oversimplifies the actual reality” (33). Yet even though all emerging adults are all different, Smith and Snell recognize there are many elements that represent the culture they share. I am not going to go through all of these for there are many in this by far longest chapter of the book. Instead I will look at a few that most directly speak to ministering on the college campus, especially those that have been confirmed in my own experience.

Emerging adults live in a world of “frequent and varied major life transitions…not a lot in life is stable or enduring. Some of what seemed to be proves unreliable or unpredictable..Changes are incessant. A lot is up in the air” (34). If you look back on your college years or your early twenties you can probably remember a life similar to this. Some of these descriptions of the cultural world of today’s young adults are not unique to their generation. Yet even in the similarities with previous generations, there are differences. Perhaps the major difference is that college has become the new high school. In the past while everyone went to high school what happened after high school varied: some went to college, many others entered the workforce. Today practically everyone goes to college and the idea of not going to college seems almost unheard of. Once only a high school diploma was necessary, now a college diploma seems necessary (with graduate school replacing college as the place some go for further education).

This has led some to conclude that 26 is the new 18 and to create a new stage in life with titles such as “Extended Adolescence“.  With numbers in college ever increasing and many continuing on into graduate school into their late twenties things like getting married and having kids (“settling down“) are postponed. Emerging adults live in a world constantly in flux: they go to college, are introduced to new worldviews, change their majors, date a few different people, make diverse friends from various backgrounds, and get jobs and move to new places. This gives them many distinct opportunities and opens the door to more transitions.

In the midst of these transitions, emerging adults are seeking to “stand on their own two feet” without the help of parents or others. Along with this, they are trying to figure out all of the “skills, tasks, responsibilities, systems, and procedures they have to learn” (35). Such elements of young people’s cultural world demonstrates why campus ministry is absolutely vital. For many emerging adults, the majority of these years will be taken up with education. During this time of education they are away from home trying to figure out who they are and how to survive in the world. As we will see later, Smith and Snell show that many of them do not make being part of a religious community a priority. While a few will seek out a church while away at college, or in a new town at their first new job, most simply will not. Campus ministry goes to the campuses where these students are during this topsy-turvy time of life rather than waiting and hoping they come to us when they are twenty-five or thirty.

Finally, Smith and Snell discovered that most emerging adults are optimistic about the future. I definitely see that in many college students who believe if they work hard, get good grades they will get a job and a decent living one day. As they work through many transitions, seek to be independent of their parents and try to figure out the skills necessary to succeed in the world, they hold optimism for their lives.

I find this encouraging and challenging. It is encouraging working with young people because they are very optimistic and positive. The challenge is to build a Christian community they can be a part of while at college. Campus ministry fills the gap so that when these students arrive in that future they are so optimistic about a relationship with Jesus and commitment to a Christian community is a part of their life.

Souls in Transition

I have begun reading Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s study of “emerging adults”, those in the 18-23 age group, titled Souls in Transition.  It is an extremely thorough study and already considered a must read for those who work with young people.  I plan to spend many posts here working through this book and trying to figure out what it means for campus ministry specifically but also for church ministry in general as these emerging adults are the ones who are the future of Christianity in America.  I have finished the first chapter and am already challenged.  It is going to be a good read and perhaps even some dialogue with those of you who work with this age group.