December 5, 2017 Benjamin Gomez

Engaging Emerging Adults

What are we doing for the 20-somethings in our communities to help them flourish in life? I have been wrestling with this thought lately myself.

Research by the Barna Group and Pew Research provides us with the notion that emerging adults are leaving the church in droves. You may be asking yourself, as I did, what is an “emerging adult?”

Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett originated the term emerging adult (“EA”), which is an 18-29 year old who experiences an extended period of exploration and instability in five areas: (a) identity, (b) love and work, (c) self-focus, (d) feeling in-between, and (e) possibilities/optimism. According to the Barna Group, EA’s experience of their Christianity feels “stifling, fear-based and risk averse.

22% of EA’s perceive the Church as ignoring real world problems and demonizing everything outside the Church.

So, how do we engage EA’s to provide them with a nurturing environment, which at the moment they feel the Church is not facilitating, wherein they can express and ask questions related to their spirituality?

As my friend Abby Burns, who is an EA, shared, “EA’s want to be unique in our individuality, but we want to be part of a larger community.” Sociologist Christian Smith, in his research of emerging adults’ individualistic morality, explains that “the general approach… is not to judge anyone else on moral matters, since they are entitled to their own opinions, and not to let oneself be judged by anyone else.”1)Smith, Christian, Kari M Hojara, Hilary A Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

While identity can be defined as the unique characteristics displayed by an individual as to their purpose,2)Gilbert, Roberta M. Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference. Falls Church, VA: Leading Systems Press, 2006. there exists a nexus between purpose and identity.3)Padilla-Walker, Laura M., and Larry J. Nelson, eds. Flourishing in Emerging Adulthood: Positive Development During the Third Decade of Life. 1st Edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

This rift poses a challenge for many EA’s.

Kendall Cotton Bronk and Rachel Baumsteiger define purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement in the world beyond the self.”4)Padilla-Walker and Nelson, 46 Therefore, in response to our question above, as EA’s enter the stage of life where identity is a challenge, mentors can provide a calming and empowering environment for the emerging adult to reach an advanced stage of emotional and mental development that is developed around their purpose.

Whether it is a church, educational institution, or corporate organization, there should be a consensus to support EA’s moving forward in their self-authoring faith.

Mentors in the church should be willing to accept the entirety of an EA’s life, not just the parts they deem acceptable.

Furthermore, mentoring relationships are essential to emerging adult growth and development. As EA’s attempt to find purpose and identity in the different dynamics of their life, it is imperative that mentors provide a positive environment where they can fail.

As EA’s seek to find meaning in their jobs, relationships, and life in general, mentors and churches that really want to engage EA’s should welcome questions that challenge the community’s presuppositions and status quo. Churches and mentors can help EA’s with their aspirations by providing recognition, support, challenges, and inspiration. Thus, emerging adults will be able to flourish within a paradigm that enables not only the growth of purpose, but also the development of a positive identity.

Regardless, we should not attempt to change EA’s as much as strive for them to be shaped by their own experiences.

The church should walk alongside EA’s,to better understand how they wrestle with the tensions of life, and clean the lenses through which they perceive life, as they are developing into adulthood.

References   [ + ]

1. Smith, Christian, Kari M Hojara, Hilary A Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
2. Gilbert, Roberta M. Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference. Falls Church, VA: Leading Systems Press, 2006.
3. Padilla-Walker, Laura M., and Larry J. Nelson, eds. Flourishing in Emerging Adulthood: Positive Development During the Third Decade of Life. 1st Edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
4. Padilla-Walker and Nelson, 46
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About the Author

Benjamin Gomez

Benjamin is a faculty member at Southeastern University where he teaches in the Children, Youth, and Family program. He is a member of the Association of Youth Ministry Educators. Benjamin served on executive pastoral staff at mega-churches as well as a corporate executive for a Global Fortune 500 Company. He researches, speaks, and writes on topics surrounding adolescence, emerging adulthood, spiritual development, and spiritual struggle. You will find him cycling, reading, and recently camping.