May 2012 - Vol. 60..

Emerging Adults
by Michael Shaughnessy

Relationships and emerging adults
Relationships rank high in the minds of emerging adults (22 to 30 year-olds) but maybe not in the way you think. The terminology in use reveals something. “Hanging out” is one term. It reflects that modern relationships have the feel of fluidity, not loyalty, casualness, not commitment.

Emerging adults express a desire for secure, lasting relationships but few have much experience of it. Parents divorce. Roommates change. Lovers leave. Siblings move away. It's a mobile world.

Emerging adults often have many Facebook friends who know the kinds of things normally reserved for one's closest friends. Few have many reliable, face to face friends. It may be “all about relationships” but do they work?

Emerging adult relationship with parents
Emerging adults almost all say their relationship with their parents is one of the most important things to them. That is helpful for parents to know, especially for parents who are tempted to compromise their standards for fear of losing their relationship with their children. Some parents feel they are in a bind they aren't actually in. They see signs that their children are challenging the boundaries. However, the signs being given off aren't necessarily accurate.

“Very few emerging adults want to drastically break their ties with their parents. If anything, they actually want to improve their relationship with their parents...but they want that on a renegotiated ground.” (p.78) If it is negotiable, they will very likely negotiate! However, “when parents are seriously religious, want their children to be seriously religious, and have raised them to be so, the emerging adults' desire to have a good connection with their parents tends to encourage them to continue to affirm and practice their religious faith, even if perhaps in a less intense way.  In such cases, to reject the religious faith of one's seriously religious parents... would be symbolically and substantively to damage that relationship.” (p. 85-86)

In other words, if parents make their children's moral and religious practice something that clearly defines whether their children are in a good relationship with them, their children are much more likely to uphold the same values. Violating what has been defined as important threatens the relationship. 

This isn't the whole of what is necessary to raise children who are radical disciples, but it is part.

Sword of the Spirit European communities on holiday together
The four “R's”
“Religion is not made for young people. Look at the entertainment aspect – even education, the average elementary school all the way through college, it's so oriented around movies, video games, entertainment, fun books – why on earth would young people go to church if it doesn't offer anything personal as a reward, especially when church just tells them what they're doing wrong? Why would we go? To youth, it's boring.” (p.31)

Many youth workers will read such a statement and come to the wrong conclusion: the church needs to increase the entertainment value of its programs to reach youth.

The analysis of what actually gets young people involved, and keeps them involved, does not show entertainment to be a very significant factor. The most significant factor is having parents who are serious about their faith and pass that seriousness on to their children.

A second significant factor is “having more adults in a religious congregation to whom they can turn for support, advice and help.” (p.233) Youth workers are often the adults youth will turn to, but there is also great value in transgenerational relationships. “Real adults” can do things youth workers cannot.

So, the first factor is relationship. The second factor is relationship. The third factor (you can see it coming) is relationship. Youth who have a living relationship with the Lord, manifested in devotional practices, especially personal prayer and reading of scripture (p.234) become faithful adults. Although most youth workers would find conversion experiences critical as well, such experiences make little long-term difference if youth have no daily-manifested relationship with the Lord.

There is a fourth relationship factor: the peer relationship. The right peers encourage the right  behavior. Those who believe, support those who believe. Those who don't, don't. Good youth work puts its main emphasis on the four R’s, not entertainment.

All quotes are from the book, Souls in Transition, by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, (c) 2009, published by Oxford University Press.

Mike Shaughnessy is an elder in The Servants of the Word and the Director of Kairos in North America. Kairos is an international federation of outreaches to high school, university and post university aged people. This article was first published in the February 2011 Issue of the Kairos North American Youth Culture Newsletter..
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