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…

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