I posted a question on social media recently: “When is someone an adult?” and received a variety of passionate responses. Some thought we should do away with the label altogether. Some thought younger generations are not taking growing up and becoming adults seriously enough. Being an adult is not even viewed as a desirable thing by some emerging adults and even adults! (Just check out all the adulting memes.)
In this age of elongated adolescence, it seems all of us are a bit lost and confused.
Wait – who am I and what am I suppose to be becoming? Do I even want to become THAT?
Wait – am I suppose to treat them like an adult? You mean “they” are an adult? I didn’t act like that at their age?!
For years my sister Lana and I have kept an on-going fun list of our markers of becoming an adult: choosing to listen to CBC radio, choosing to eat soup for a meal, voluntarily cleaning the gunk out at the bottom of the sink, choosing to go to bed early…
I think we started and kept this list because we realized we were becoming adults without either of us following the traditional path in the traditional order.
The traditional markers of adulthood are: leaving home, finishing schooling, beginning a full-time job/career, getting married and becoming a parent.
The trouble is – life does not work like that anymore.
And dare I say, nor should it.
Partially it is a good thing the list is changing – a plethora of opportunities and options are open to all genders, that were simply not available in the same ways in previous generations. In addition, look at these traditional five markers closely - someone could achieve all five and still be immature or be a jerk.
The trouble is, we still hang onto this BIG 5 list – when we look at younger generations and at ourselves.
Let me be clear – few will follow this exact path in this day and age, and that’s A-OK.
There is a better way.
There is a helpful newer recognition that becoming an adult, maturing, has more to do with intrinsic markers, with our character – being responsible, serving, thinking of others ahead of one’s self, being financially responsible (e.g. saving), thinking long-term, sticking with things even when they’re uncomfortable and difficult, and making decisions on your own.
Now that kind of list is something the church should be able to get behind – helping people with character development, inviting the One who transforms us to mature us into being fully human.
After all, Jesus, who was fully human and fully God, would not be considered an adult by the traditional five markers – he never owned a home, never had a savings account, he left carpentry to wander around preaching and healing, he never married, he never had kids. And yet Jesus was fully human, fully mature, the perfect example of what it means to be fully human.
As we recognize that becoming an adult has less to do with society or church imposed markers, and more to do with maturing of character, churches have a great opportunity to come alongside emerging adults.
Churches can support emerging adults (~18 to 29-year-olds) through the big questions and character formation going on. They are wrestling with big questions like:
Who am I?
Where do I fit/belong?
What difference do I make?
The Church and Gospel have helpful answers, discussions, and community to offer around all theses questions.
Churches can help by not judging that they are “not adults yet” and they should “grow up” and “move out of the basement”, instead choosing to walk alongside them in their questions and growing.
Churches can help emerging adults (~18 to 29-year-olds) by:
1. Intentionally journey alongside them – pair older adults with emerging adults for mentoring, create small groups that mix emerging adults with adults, invite a panel of adults into a young adult group to talk about relevant emerging adulthood issues. Bring back shadow days and invite an emerging adult to join you at work for a day or two.
2. Treat them like adults – invite emerging adults into greater adult responsibilities in your church and community. Give them leadership, listen to their voice, let them experiment and fail or succeed, give them real ministry responsibilities.
3. Change your markers – stop communicate that the only way to become an adult is to reach the five traditional markers (leaving home, finishing schooling, beginning a full-time job/career, getting married and becoming a parent). Those days are gone. Don’t stick adults in the young adult group just because they haven’t met these traditional markers, that’s demeaning. Start taking more of an interest in emerging adults own thoughts, character, hopes, and dreams.
4. Mark and celebrate transitions – find ways to mark and celebrate transitions. What if we celebrated becoming a teenager and talked about the responsibility, and community support in the church, that comes with it? What if we celebrated starting into adulthood (at 18?) and talked about the joy, responsibilities, and support available to them in adulthood? You can have a church celebration, family celebration, get mentors/friends to write letters, allow parents to speak into their kid's lives, give gifts/advice to help with the next stretch of life…
5. Offer extra support during transitions – often churches back away from emerging adults as soon as they are done high school. Look for ways to offer extra support during transitions – transitions to university/college, to a first job, to a new city/town… Here’s a few simple suggestions: Could the church find a connection or mentor in these new places?, Could the church help build a connection with a new church/Christian community?, Could the church send care packages?, Could the church set-up Skype check-ins?, Could someone from the church do a road trip and take the person out to lunch?
6. Speak directly to emerging adults – often churches talk around or avoid issues relevant to emerging adults – talk directly about singleness, dating, handling finances, committing to another, holding down a job etc. in ways that glorify God. Remember emerging adults and their situations in your audience.
7. Teach emerging adults about areas they might have missed – For a while in a church where I served we offered a Grade 12 day where we talked about financing for school, doing laundry, cooking on a budget, ironing, dressing for interviews/business, how to tame technology – some basics that many teenagers had missed! If you discover areas where emerging adults need help in developing a skill, pull them together, invite in a few adults who excel in that area and have a great time of learning together.
What other opportunities do you see for churches that care about emerging adults?
I’ve been doing extra reading and research lately around emerging adults for a course I’ll be teaching on reaching and retaining young adults. It is an area where research, writing, and blog posts are exploding. (Thanks to everyone for all the articles and videos you are sending me.) You can check out the course at Acadia Divinity College or I’m sure I’ll be posting some more here as I learn (although I don’t want to give too much away to the students :))