“Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults” – A Review by a Pastor who is an Emerging Adult

When I saw that IVP was publishing a new book on ministry to “emerging adults”, I figured I should I read it. By “emerging adults”, Richard Dunn and Jana Sundene are referring to the ages between 18 and the early 30s which more and more people are experiencing as a liminal state between adolescence and  full adulthood. This is the state in which I live and minister: My pastoral ministry at The Upper Room is largely to people in their 20s and 30s. At Upper Room I also work closely with a couple of participants in the World Christian Discipleship Program, a nine-month intensive discipleship program designed for emerging adults. Almost all of my coworkers at the cafe where I’m a barista fit in this category of emerging adulthood. To top all that off, by the authors’ definitions, my wife and I and all of our close friends are still emerging adults. And in all these contexts, I can see the general traits of what Dunn and Sundene call emerging adulthood. We’re definitely not still teenagers, but we don’t feel entirely grown-up, at least in the ways that our parents embodied adulthood. I’m grateful for the book, and have found it helpful, so I want to offer up a response to the book from my perspectives of being both an emerging adult and a pastor and disciple-maker.

As an “emerging adult”, I found Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults‘ description of my generation accurate and insightful. They do not to use terms like “extended adolescence”.  Because the physical development of the teenage years is complete, practical independence from one’s parents is indeed possible, and one is legally considered an adult (p. 29), emerging adulthood is not merely an extension of the teenage years. But emerging adulthood does share common characteristics. Two of these characteristics are instability in careers or relationships and a tendency to delay marriage or child-bearing. This instability and hesitancy to settle-down arises from the feeling of boundless opportunity which our diverse and globalized society gives us.  Technology provides us with easy access to information and perceived ease in maintaining relationships over distances, however shallowly.  We are a mobile generation, constantly in flux yet seeking constant connection to the rest of the world around us. Dunn and Sundene’s descriptions of these aspects of emerging adulthood resonate closely with my own experience and what I see in the lives of my peers.

So what does my generation need in order to grow spiritually during this time? The authors recommend disciple-making, mentoring relationships with wiser adults. I’m thankful for the authors’ attention to authenticity here. We’re a generation that is allergic to false-advertising.  We don’t want programmatic formulas or quick-fixes.  We want and need real relationships, the sort that require patience, commitment, and vulnerability to develop. This emphasis on real relationship and its awareness of the unique challenges of emerging adulthood are the book’s greatest strengths.

As a pastor and disciple-maker, I found Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults immediately applicable to my ministry. The pattern of discernment, intentionality, and reflection described in the chapters on “Life Restoring Rhythms” is practical and helpful: a pastor or mentor or disciple-maker should take time to prepare mentally and prayerfully before meeting with the person they’re leading, be intentional in their use of their time together, and reflect prayerfully on their mentoring relationship after each encounter. Often leaders are stronger in one of these practices and weaker in others. Inspired by the chapter on discernment, I’ve started blocking out time to pray for the people I’m meeting with each day before we meet so that I can be more attentive to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our encounters.

Chapters 7 through 11 provide examples how this rhythm can be used address to different aspects of an emerging adult’s life (Identity and Purpose, Spirituality, Relationships, Sexuality, Daily Life). These chapters also describe in greater detail specific issues with which emerging adults tend to struggle, such as seeking purpose in their vocation or coping with loneliness in singleness.  I may have missed it in the book, but one issue which I think could have been given greater attention is stewardship of finances. Emerging adults also tend to be saddled with debt, whether from student loans or credit cards. This affects all other aspects of life, and I don’t think we can faithfully lead or disciple emerging adults without addressing responsible and faithful use of money.  Still, the stories which are included in these chapters are helpful and accurate depictions of the world I see in ministry.

Lastly, as a pastor I appreciated the reminder in Chapter 13 to attend to my own spiritual health. Citing the leadership proverb that “As you are, so you will lead”, Dunn and Sundene observe that

Disciplemakers most effectively reproduce who they are and who they are becoming. . . . Disciplemakers must also live in a posture of trust, submission and love.  A disciplemaker engaged with Christ in the pursuit of the Christlife is likely to create a relationship with a young-adult disciple that reflects these postures (p. 224).

As I remember those who’ve discipled me and “considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7), I can see the ways in which my personality and ministry have been shaped by my faithful mentors.  At my ordination service, one of those mentors charged me to “make a wake” in my pursuit of God – to seek the Kingdom with such devotion that it leaves a wake behind me, letting others be affected by the waves and ripples in the water. I think that this is what all spiritual leaders and disciple-makers are called to, in order that those we lead may imitate us as we imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Thank you to Dunn and Sundene for ending with a reminder to pursue this Kingdom life.

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