Primary influence is still parental – especially through college, but starting to wane a bit as people start thinking more and more like independent adults. Congregational influence can still be very strong at this age if the congregation knows what to do. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re giving this series – so congregations will know what to do to help people of all ages develop and maintain a relationship with God.
In this age group there are broad avenues for spiritual connection wired into our brains at this time, so, if we know how to access those, we can help people in this age group immeasurably – in this age, spiritually.
The primary developmental task of people in this age group is identity formation – who am I? What kind of person am I? What kind of person am I going to be? What’s the meaning of my life? Where am I headed? What do I believe religiously? What will my life be like?
When I was seventeen, my thoughts were all about fitting in with my friends. I did whatever I had to do to fit in. Rocking the boat was absolutely out of the question. I just wanted to be with, and I wanted to be doing what they were doing, and that was primary. Three months before my eighteenth birthday, it was as though a switch flipped in my brain. Suddenly, what my friends thought wasn’t really as important as it was before. I still valued their friendship, but I wanted to chart my own course, make my own decisions, figure out who I was. And I wanted to do that with my group, but I didn’t want the group to impinge on my ability to make my own choices. I didn’t know it then, but that change took place in me at seventeen – a little early – but it was biologically hard-wired into my brain – installed by God at my conception to happen. And there was a crisis that surrounded that. And a lot of times, that’s how these things kick in. But it’s still all in the plan for each person. It’s also interesting that most of the rest of my life is built on the decisions that I made around education, morality, religion, career, friends at that time of my life. So…very, very important time of life, with huge spiritual implications.
Now there are four developmental tasks – all related to identity formation – that take place during this time. One of them is autonomy from parents . And that’s not necessarily talking about breaking away from parents, or about alienation, or conflict, or rejecting. Autonomy is the ability to regulate one’s own behavior and to select and guide one’s own decisions. So, it really has to do with differentiating from parents and becoming one’s own person, and taking responsibility for one’s own choices and the consequences of them. Sometimes that’s a rocky transition – out of the home into an independent adult life – and sometimes it isn’t. The Bible says, A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife , and that’s what’s going on in this autonomy from parents task.
Leaving home is a part of this process, too. And I like to throw something out for those who are eighteen or so. It’s my experience, working with people over the years, that leaving home is a very big step. You have to learn to shop for yourself, figure your own checkbook, cook, wash, clean up, run a household, laundry – those kinds of things. That’s all new for a lot of people. I’ve noticed that people who go to a community college have the advantage of staying for two more years while they learn the ropes of college. And so it’s kind of a way to take one step at a time – a lot less stressful for people. I think when that happens, though, parents and eighteen-year-olds might want to renegotiate house rules at that point to allow for a young person’s new adult status.
And thinking about autonomy, a personal example comes to mind. A few years ago I used to teach backpacking at a youth camp for teenagers. And I’ve taken many teens from my congregations on backpacking trips. It’s fair to say I’ve taken hundreds of kids on wilderness backpacking trips. When working with teens, we’d send them a list of things to bring, and we would require that they give the list to their parents. And then once they would arrive at the camp, we would go over every single item in their gear bag, piece by piece to make sure they actually brought it all. We would teach them every skill that they needed to learn in the wilderness. We would shepherd them through the entire experience, making sure that they were all with an experienced adult at every point of the trip. A few years ago I took a college-aged group of people backpacking – twenty of them. Now, they’d all been with me as teenagers, so I knew they had some experience, but I took a completely different approach with that age group. I sent them a list. I gave them the dates. I waited for them to arrive. And I went backpacking with them. I treated them like young adults, because that’s what they are. I only gave them the boundaries that I would have given any adult group that I was taking on a wilderness trip. I included them in all the decisions of the trip. And in my mind, I was inviting them on this trip because I wanted to take them to the next level in this sport, and that would be being responsible for their own gear, travel and arrangements. And I hope, at some point, some of them may go on a trip by themselves, because that would be the next step. Having learned to get to the site with the gear, the next step would be to plan a trip for yourself. I hope, maybe at some point, some of them may take teenagers on a trip at some time in the future, and that that would be my legacy passed on through them to others. That, by the way, is called the biotic principle of multiplication . You try to multiply your efforts to affect many other people.
The second task of this age group is gender identity . Now earlier in this series, we saw that pre-school aged children begin to develop a gender identity. But now it’s time for another round, because the brain is now developed to include other things. They have the brain wiring to develop a set of attitudes, beliefs and values about themselves as a man or a woman. How do we function as a man or a woman in society? at college? at work? at church? in intimate relationships? in a community? These are the kinds of things people this age are working on.
I remember a few years ago, at a teen summer camp, every evening we would have interactive discussions with the campers and staff. A question came up about a woman’s role in the church. There was an older minister there who spoke up and put forth a very conservative view, and it was obvious that he hadn’t really processed the social changes that have occurred around him in the last twenty years or so. And I noticed that none of the younger teenage girls had much to say about his position, but the young staff women, who were in this eighteen to twenty-five-year-old category – most of them college aged – just wouldn’t let him off the hook. They were respectful and relentless. And I thoroughly enjoyed the entire discussion. I’m really glad I was not the one in their gun sights. And that’s the right age for that kind of wondering and thinking and trying to find a way – you know, how, as a woman, do I fit into the church, or as a man.
Another issue here is intimate relationships. In the previous stage – of teenage – people are getting used to their new bodies, but now the focus is on relating to others as a sexual being. How do a young man and a young woman treat each other – socially or romantically? How do young people show affection to older people, or those younger than them? How is a man supposed to act? And how are women supposed to act?
It’s my observation that quite frequently women and girls won’t let boys be boys. When I was working at a public school a few years ago, this woman teacher brought these two fourth grade boys in tow to me. I was on the playground at the time. And they had been down the hill, behind the barracks, fighting. That was where everybody went to fight and do all the bad stuff, because they were out of sight. It took them quite a while to figure out they needed an adult down there, too. But before they figured that out, she caught these two boys fighting down there. I knew both of them. They’d never been in any trouble before, but she was extremely indignant that these two boys were fighting. She just had them by the arm, and she brought them up and turned them over to me. I don’t know why. I didn’t have any particular authority. I guess she thought I was a guy and I would take care of it. After she left, I said, “What were you guy fighting about?” “I uunuu…” They didn’t have any idea. Fighting? Who’s fighting? They didn’t know. I said, “Well, who won?” They looked at each other. They didn’t know that either. “Well, what were you fighting about?” Had no clue. They were just…”What fight?” And I said, “Come on, I know you guys. You haven’t been in any trouble. You just wanted to see if you could fight, didn’t you – if you were man enough to fight? So what was that like?” “I don’t know.” “Did you guys take any licks?” They both nodded their heads. “Did you give any?” “Yeah.” I said, “So now you know what it feels like to fight, right?” “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, so don’t let us catch you doing that again or I’m going to turn you into the principle, and she won’t be so nice.” You know, they just wanted to see if they could fight, because that’s what guys…they have to know that they can do that. And I think women, a lot of times, just don’t understand that.
Girls, do you want a nice guy, or do you want somebody who will fight for you? Well, if you want somebody who will stand up for you, then he has to find out whether he can do that or not. That said, young women don’t want a young man who wants to treat them like clay and force them into any shape he wants. They don’t want to be manipulated and controlled. They want somebody who values them enough to let them be their authentic self, and at the same time, who will defend that authentic self and take care of it and nurture it.
I was listening, a while back, to a young adults group have an interactive Bible study. And one young man was deliberately saying things to challenge the young women. Later one of the older adults commented to me that this young man seemed to be trying to resolve his own identity issue in this discussion, and that was, was he going to be a benevolent or a controlling dictator with the woman that he married? In thinking about that observation, and thinking back to that situation, it seemed to me that, while all these young women really rose to his challenge and were all strongly attracted to his good looks, they were completely repelled by his arguments. I think he lost a lot of ground in that discussion, because he wasn’t the kind that was going to try to take care of their authentic self. He was going to try to make them into what he wanted.
Another task is internalized morality . This task was begun in early school age – mostly internalizing values of parents. But now it’s going to move to another level. I was talking to a young man at the Feast one year. He was a college freshman. He was talking about getting out of school, as a college student, to go to the Feast. And he said, “I used to tell my teachers that my parents were taking me away to a church thing. That answer just doesn’t cut it any more.” You know, you can’t say that at college, because your parents don’t take you places when you’re in college. You do it yourself. And he said, “So I had to understand for myself why I was going to the Feast. It was good for me.” So he’s really internalizing his own spiritual values – what kind of a spiritual person he’s going to be. He realized that that crisis is what caused him to think his way through that.
During the presentation on teenagers I mentioned that it was good to get them together in their church peer group and bring up moral issues that they have and help them process them as a group. And they will tend to “buy in” as a group if the group and the leadership is supportive and loving. I’ve seen that so many times. This kind of activity is great for this age, too, but for completely different reasons. It’s so interesting to see the difference.
While I was backpacking with this college-aged group, we kept the Sabbath in the wilderness. And I asked everyone, when I invited them to come on the trip, to bring one question to ask the group – a personal question they wanted an answer to. So when the Sabbath came, it was a cold, drizzly day. So we built a big fire. Everybody was sitting around with their rain gear on. It wasn’t raining hard – just sprinkling a little bit – but it was a cool day. So we opened it up for discussion and these people started posing the questions that they had. They covered everything from sex to evolution, to faith, to politics. It was amazing – this far-ranging discussion! And after an hour I asked if they’d had enough, and they said, “No, let’s keep going.” So after two hours, I asked again, and they said, “No, it’s the Sabbath. What else do we have to do?” So after three hours, a few of them finally went and took a nap. But some of them kept going for three and a half hours. And as I listened to this discussion – where people would bring up questions that they had about life, and church, and work and all of these things – I got this very strong sense that these people were not trying to fit in with each other, but they were using the intellects of their peers to sharpen their own arguments and define their own values. They were seeing if their positions would stand up against their friends’ opinions and positions. Very impressive display of intellectual power and of deeply internalized spiritual values. I just wished that every parent of those college-aged people could have been a fly on a wall that day and hear that discussion that went on. They would have been so proud. It was just awesome.
Now one of the reasons that this can happen at this age group, and doesn’t happen during teenage, is because there is a lot of new brain wiring that happens after eighteen that gives them all this new cognitive capability. I think I mentioned, during the teenage thing, about my discussion with my track coach and how he’d ask these questions, and all I could say was, “Yes,” and couldn’t say, “Thank you,” because that was a two syllable word. That’s kind of the way it is sometimes when we’re teenagers, and especially when we’re guys. But boys this age are really starting to develop their cognitive capabilities.
I know when my youngest was nineteen, she had landed a summer job working as a receptionist for a chiropractor. Great money. Good job. Easy work. What more could you want? To get the job, she’d obligated herself to work all summer with no breaks. So not long after this great job came along, an opportunity came up for her to go to Europe – something that she’d always wanted to do. So she was experiencing a lot of inner conflict over this – so much so that she was extremely emotional about it. Her mother and I sat down with her and we began to lay out all the choices she had. We were kind of brainstorming with her about what to do. And one of the choices was to simply quit working for the doctor and go on the trip. I think I was the one that put that forth. After I did, she looked at me, and she said, “Well, I could do that, but I am not that kind of person. I would never do that to him!” She made her daddy proud. That was such a nice thing to hear. I knew that she desperately wanted to go on this trip, but keeping her word to this person that was depending on her meant a lot to her. And it meant a lot to me that she felt that way.
The fourth task of identity formation is career choice . The textbook we’ve been using says that this is an age of high anxiety, and from my experience usually comes centered around this choice. It’s a very complex world that we live in and finding a place to work in it is becoming increasingly complex as well. Now some are fortunate enough to find their way early on, and that’s great when that happens. But other people – most other folks – have to struggle with it. How do you know what you want to do if you’ve never tried a lot of things. Some people go through four years of college, work in their field and find out they can’t stand it.
I was talking to somebody the other day that’s a very gifted artist – went to design school, paid a lot of money for a very high-powered education, came home and decided that if she made her living doing what she loved, pretty soon she wouldn’t love it anymore. And she just wanted to keep that special in her life. So she’s following a career path in business now, so that she can have her art as a special thing for her. How would you know that if you didn’t try it?
So it is complex. One of the big issues for young women is the homemaker or career orientation. For most girls this crystallizes in early adolescence – surprisingly enough for some of us. Most of them, by that time, have an idea of what they want to do.
So that’s what a lot of people are working on and what the brain wiring is requiring of them to do in forming their identities.
The next thing that we do in this series is we talk about a psychosocial crisis that occurs at every age. People who do not come out of this stage, at twenty-five, with clear cut ideas about who they are, what they believe, what they want to do for work face a very difficult situation. This is a true crisis. You probably know people in their thirties or forties who still haven’t resolved this issue – are just kind of floating and wandering around – a very detrimental situation for them.
Now the way this crisis is resolved is by role experimentation. That’s the process we go through to figure out what we want to do. That’s why college people often do so many strange and risky things.
I saw a young man at Lexington at the Lexington Family Weekend this past year. Been friends with his family for years. And while we were talking, he said, “When was the last time I saw you?” And then this embarrassed look passed over his face, and he said, “It wasn’t at the hospital, was it?” And I said, “I believe it was at the hospital.” He said, “Oh, I was afraid of that.” See, he had fallen out of a two-story dorm window on the concrete some time after midnight on a Saturday, wearing nothing but his underwear, about two years earlier. And we were all so glad that he only had a concussion instead of killing himself. But we didn’t probe too much about how that happened actually. Of course, none of us who are older ever did anything crazy when we were his age, so we didn’t know what possibly could have happened….
Interesting how sometimes role identification…we’re not just trying to find out what we want to do, we’re trying to find out what kind of people we’re going to be. Are we going to be the kind of people that fall out of windows in our underwear after midnight? Or are we going to be people that go to bed at ten? All that’s involved in that kind of thing. Role experimentation is the way that people resolve those crises.
I also want to talk about attachment in identity formation before we go on. We tend think of identity formation as distancing ourselves from parents. You know, we have to leave our father and mother, and cleave to our mate, and become our own person. But it’s interesting to know that a lot of research that’s been done recently has demonstrated that a strong family connection actually promotes the separating that happens between children and their parents. I can explain it this way. You remember that in infancy, somebody who develops a secure attachment to mother has a foundation for exploration and the next stage, because they’re secure. They feel safe. And so that gives them what they need to reach beyond mother, and to experiment, and try things out. You remember, I gave the example of a little baby, that was sitting on mother’s lap when someone came to visit – that the baby’s never seen – and how eventually they climb down off the mother’s lap and they toddle their way around the coffee table. And they don’t make eye contact with the stranger, but maybe they allow the stranger to touch them. And that sends them back to mother to get another load – a tank full – of security and connection so that they feel safe enough to venture forth again, and maybe allow themselves to be picked up or talked to. It really is the same exact process going on at this age. People who have secure relationships with parents feel more secure in loosening their attachments to parents and pushing out. A lot of times, when those attachments are secure, there’s no need for a big battle. It’s the insecure ones that have to fight to break their way loose.
By the way, did you know that the way we attach to parents in the first two years of life determines our relational style for the rest of our lives? We’re going to be talking a lot more about that as we go, because our relational style has so much to do with how we relate to God and church.
Okay, the $64,000 question: What can those of us who are older do to help people in this age group to strengthen and to deepen and to promote a relationship with God? One of the things that we can provide for them is opportunities for peer networking and fellowship within the church. Now this group has transportation. They have money. They can take care of their own social needs. That’s for sure. We don’t need to have a pie and ice cream social for them on Saturday night so they can meet with their friends. They’re going to do that anyway. But there is a need for national and regional activities that’s very helpful for our people – our young adults. They can meet other people that might be eligible for marriage. They find a connection to the church at a greater level than they would at just a local level. So those things are very, very helpful.
At the Lexington Winter Weekend that I just mentioned earlier, I met at least six young men that I had met here and there over the years. They all knew each other. They came together specifically to spend time with each other and others. They spent quite a bit of money and took time off of work and all that to do that. It’s very important to them. So, the greater church has a responsibility, if it’s wise, to provide those kind of activities for our young adults.
It’s interesting. Even the ones who are married and have children come to those things, because they realize they are the church of the future, and they need to make connections with other people.
Second thing I think we can do is – for those of us who are older – to develop authentic connections with those who are younger. While we were at Harrisburg for the New Testament Evangelism conference, I met a number of young adults with young children. I asked them to sit with me for lunch so we could talk about what LifeResourse Ministries might be able to do to help them with their spiritual needs. One young mother expressed a desire to learn more about doing Biblical research so she could study what the Bible says about mothering. So here is some authentic discussion happening. She’s expressing a desire for more information – a real need has been expressed. It’s interesting that I happen to know about her need because I made an effort to make a connection with her and her peers. I asked them to eat lunch with me and talk about it. And that’s how I learned about it. So I think that kind of points the way for those of us who are older that it’s okay for us to engage these people in discussion and talk to them about what they need.
In the nineties, my friend, Guy Swenson, did a study. He learned that the drop-out rate for this age from church was much higher than for teens or for adults. It’s not only that their spiritual identity is formed in this age group, but if they’re going to leave, this is most likely when it’s going to happen. If people haven’t defined themselves as Christians by the end of this developmental stage, they are usually going to fall by the wayside – at least, for a time.
And I think another reason for this problem – there are several others, but one of them is – because of all their new brain wiring – they’re much better equipped to detect flaws in adults than they were years earlier. So they start to see the weaknesses of the people that they respected and the hypocrisy sometimes that is a part of church. In fact, the ones who still attend, that I know, tell me their friends who’ve left, mostly cite hypocrisy in the church, and then church leadership, as the primary reason they’ve stopped attending.
We can engage these people in discussion about these real issues that they face, and get them out on the table, and noodle it around, and look at it with them, and see it from different angles, and help them process these new insights that they have. They’re not pleasant and not fun to think about. This kind of support comes from connections with those people who are spiritually elder. So those of us who are older, we need to make an effort to be connected to this age of people. We don’t want to control them, but we do want to connect to them.
The third thing I think we can do – I’m going to use a term here…I’m going to use the term spiritual mentor . Paul talked about the role of older women taking younger women to themselves and helping them learn about their role as women in the church. The same would go for men. Over the years I’ve had a lot of young men come to me for help with career issues, morality issues, mate selection issues, relationship issues. I’ve always been careful to let them make the decisions. I just ask the questions and sometimes I provide information. I try to avoid giving advice. Why is that? My advice is my solution to their problem.
Mentors help people find their own solution to the problem. So what does it take to become that kind of mentor – that kind of person? For my part, when I began to trust that God had hard-wired some very good instincts into people, and that He is very active in people’s lives, it became a lot easier for me to let go and let people make their own decisions. If we believe that then we don’t have to control them. It’s between them and God. And things will go the way they need them to go if they’re seeking God.
I was talking to a father a number of years ago. This isn’t actually age specific, but it makes the point about mentoring. He was upset with his fifteen-year-old daughter because she was going steady with a boy from school, and he was worried. I think the term he used was straighten her out . So I asked him how his relationship with his daughter was. He said that he knew he hadn’t spent enough time with her, and that she was pulling away from him, and he wanted advice. And I declined. But I did begin building a relationship with his daughter while he was around so that he could see what to do and could see her response. And later he said, “Watching you with my daughter, I know what to do now.” And he did know what to do. I watched him, as time passed, build a relationship. I told him he should just take her out to eat every couple weeks, and sit down and let her look into his eyes, and he should look into hers, and ask her about life and her hopes and her dreams, and just get to know her. No negative stuff. No correction. Just spend time. And I did that with his daughter while I was present with him. And he understood that and things were better after that. I just believe that showing people is so much better than telling them – or asking them questions until they can come up with their own answers.
The last thing I want to say that we can do to help these people, is to include them in the real work of the church. Now this inclusion is going to take place without anybody doing anything about it, because eventually all the people my age are going to die, leaving those who are younger to shoulder the load. But wouldn’t it be so much better if we trained them how to do it before we died like Christ did.
While at the Lexington Winter Family Weekend we had a meeting with the people from Harrisburg about the upcoming evangelism conference that they were hosting. At that meeting was the owner of a prosperous construction company, a dentist and a loan officer from a bank. The man running the meeting was in his twenties. I thought, “Wow! These people know how to include younger people in the congregation’s work.” That is a very spiritually healthy congregation – and so spiritually healthy for him to be able to be included at that level. It’s great for these old people, too, because they don’t have to do all the work, and the young people get to learn how. So it’s good for them.
So, as with all the age groups that we’ve covered so far, the conduit to spirituality, and spiritual development, and passing faith from one generation to another is through relationships. Now, if you’ve picked up on that, from these presentations – we’ve had seven of them – then you understand much more than simply how to help people who are younger. You understand the core of the plan of God, because God’s plan is all about relationships. The law is a set of relational boundaries. It’s how to treat people so that we can have good relationships with them. The Kingdom is an eternal family relationship with God. The devil, wishing to derail the plan of God, wrecked Adam and Eve’s relationship with each other and with God. That’s why at LifeResource Ministries we will always be helping people build and restore relationships. That’s what we do. It’s through relationships that God works from generation to generation. And he does that heart to heart .
By the way, many parents of people this age talk to me about how to restore lost relationships with their adult children who have lost their way. We don’t have time to cover that here, but we do have a series planned on this topic. So keep a lookout for it.
The next time will be number eight in this series. We’ll be talking about young adults, and our emphasis here is going to have to shift, because we will no longer be talking about those who need support, but those who give it.