The challenge of discipling today’s young adults

By Peter Corney

Photo by numstead
Photo by numstead

A current challenge being faced all around the Australian Church is in bringing this generation of young adults to mature Christian discipleship.

There are a number of contemporary cultural factors that seem to be contributing to this:

  1. The experience of family dysfunction and breakdown. With such a high proportion of marriages ending in breakdown (40%) a large number of young adults have experienced this.  This leads to a variety of personal insecurities that they carry with them into their adult life.
  2. A rapidly changing and uncertain world leads to an extreme form of adaptation – you simply delay long-term commitment.  This is one of the reasons for the high increase in singleness and young adults delaying marriage. Single-person households have doubled over the last few years. (ABS)
  3. Growing up in an obsessively consumer oriented society means that the choices and options for just about everything have multiplied.  Multiple options leads to excessively self-oriented choices and a consumer approach to other aspects of life where it is inappropriate – like relationships, community, church etc. – or to just keeping your options open.  There may be a better offer just around the corner! Getting young adults to formally respond to invitations to events is difficult.
  4. Instant communications technology such as email, mobile phones, SMS and ‘twitter’ has many advantages, but it also produces a short-term and shorthand attitude to planning and communication.  “Just remind me the day before – life’s too hectic to think too far ahead!”
  5. A post-modern world view as transmitted by the popular media creates an intellectual climate of vague relativism and radical inclusivism.  “There is no one truth”.  “All lifestyles are equally valid”.  This un-thought-through political correctness leads to an unwillingness to embrace or stand for Christian distinctives of belief and behaviour.

When these influences are brought together, what is produced in many Christian young adults is a strong emotional resistance to being different, decisive and committed.

One of the strong emotional causes behind this is a fear of rejection.  Some years ago John Bowlby, a British psychotherapist, wrote a book called “Attachment and Loss” in which he talked about the process of a child’s gradual physical detachment from its mother.  In normal circumstances this is a gradual process of separation.  But he observed that if the normal gradual process was seriously interfered with, the child became very anxious, fearing abandonment.

We now have an army of young adults who have suffered family breakdown and separation from a parent, and an increasing number who have experienced “professional child care” on a daily basis in childhood, which can increase feelings of insecurity.  They have also watched their parents, often their fathers, abandoned by employees, suddenly retrenched by companies and organisations after 20 or 30 years of service to them.

It would not be unreasonable to conclude that all this has produced in them a fear of rejection and abandonment.  Add to this the intellectual climate of post-modern relativism and inclusivism and you have a person programmed to avoid standing out from the crowd on belief and behaviour issues and who avoid strong commitments.  After all, you might be let down again!

So as this generation of young adults listen to the teaching about Christian lifestyle and beliefs, they either back away from them or live a double life – espouse them at church but not at uni or work.  After all, who wants to be rejected!

How are churches responding to this?

  1. Most people now realise that discipling young adults will take much more time than in the past: it will require more than a short course!
  2. Some churches are responding by developing lengthy and highly structured courses.
  3. The mentoring movement.  Young adults linked with an older mature Christian in a regular on-going relationship.
  4. Small groups where peer support and encouragement can be experienced on a weekly basis.
  5. Meeting the desire for community.  Community, friendships and relationships seem more important than ever.  Interestingly many of the new alternative church experiments are deliberately small in size.  There is a great fear of loneliness.  Building community among them is critical but hard work.  They want to belong but they don’t always want to join!
  6. The “Recovery Group” process can also be used as a discipling tool.  For those with major personal issues one large Church in Victoria has a program called “Careforce Recovery Ministries”.  It can be used in this way, as it seeks to both teach a biblical worldview and address’s issues of personal dysfunction.
  7. Challenging experiences can lead to significant growth where young adults are exposed to, say, the developing world, or local situations of great need in cross-cultural mission visits and to experiences that really challenge their comfort zones.  These experiences can be strong enough to challenge the self oriented consumer culture in which they are immersed. (Organisations like ‘The Oak Tree Foundation’ an aid organisation for people under 26 yrs, the ‘Surrender’ movement, UNOH, and ‘Tear Australia’   demonstrate that young adults will respond positively to the challenge of sacrificial Christian service if reached in the right way.)