Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults

Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults: Life-Giving Rhythms for Spiritual Formation, Richard R. Dunn & Jana L. Sundene (InterVarsity Press) $ 18.00

As someone who is passionate about helping young adults develop their faith and spirituality, I eagerly picked up this book, anticipating a rich learning experience from two individuals seasoned in the work young adult spiritual growth.  Richard Dunn is currently a megachurch lead pastor in Knoxville, Tennessee, but has and continues to invest significant time in mentoring young adults.  Jana Sundene is a Christian ministries professor and church leader who cherishes the opportunity for disciple-making relationships with young adult women.  This book flows out of their desire to help train others to join them in their ministry.

Drawing from the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jenson Arnett, the authors adopt his label “emerging adults” to explain the transitional time frame of post-adolescence to adult stability.  While having adult capabilities, emerging adults struggle to function as adults due to the following five factors:

  1. They are still engaged in identity exploration.
  2. They are in transition out of their family of origin into independence.
  3. Their lives (financially, vocationally, relationally, emotionally, etc.) are unstable.
  4. They see life as full of possibilities which they want to pursue and experience to the fullest.
  5. They, therefore, are very self-focused, while figuring out who they are and what they want to be.

Dunn and Sundene believe the role of mentors is to guide emerging adults to resolution of these issues so they can become spiritually mature adults.  They specifically give guidance to mentors on how to exercise discernment, intentionality and reflection in the areas of identity, personal spirituality, dating relationships, sexuality and real-world living.

The strength of the book lies in its recognition that the mentoring process is a long-term, messy and highly-individualized process.  While there are general characteristics that define most young adults, each young adult uniquely experiences those characteristics through the filters of their own faith, family, friendships, experiences and education.  No one should expect to find a prescription for mentoring that miraculously works across the board.

While the book, thankfully, shies away from giving such simplistic step-by-step solutions, neither does it do much more than advise the reader to listen a lot, pray without ceasing and search the Bible for answers.  The authors regularly incorporate personal stories and metaphor in an attempt to illuminate what effective mentoring looks like.  Sadly, these come across more as canned sermon illustrations than informative insights.

I was also disappointed that the authors viewed the role of mentoring of emerging adults as “restoring” them.  While not condemning young adults for what they go through in their twenties, the book’s underlying presupposition is that this age group is in grave danger of being ensnared in the false philosophies of the secular world and the church must rise up to rescue them before it is too late.  The church must convince them that Jesus is the Way, Truth and the Life and that non-Christian philosophies only lead to pain, sadness and separation.  While I wish the authors would have admitted the failures of dogmatic theology, discussed its contribution to young adults’ apathy towards Christianity, and called for a revisiting of our theological positions, their position makes sense when you understand that they embrace a fundamentalist, evangelical approach to following God and living a Christian life.

I join the authors in calling the church to rise up and invest relationally in emerging adults.  We desperately need people to walk with them on this journey filled with energy, creativity, joy, heartache and confusion.  But we also need to listen to young adults.  Their very questions and struggles might reveal how the church needs to change to effectively live out the gospel.

Todd Leonard lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Robin, and their three daughters.  He’s planted and led churches for 13 years in Atlanta, Georgia and northeast Tennessee.  He currently serves young adults and high school students at Vallejo Drive Church in Glendale, California. 

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