Shaping or Being Shaped?

Shaper

Interacting with Emerging Adults

by Jana Sundene

“More than anyone in my life, you have not only witnessed but pilgrimed with me in my singleness and now also in my relationship with my new husband. You have challenged me in sin, encouraged me to life, sharpened me through conflict, loved me deeply in listening and spoken God’s presence to me. . . . You know the beauty and the ugliness and have sacrificially loved me and paced with me in both.”

This is from a note written to me recently by an emerging adult that I have had the privilege of walking with for a good number of years now. The note honors me by sharing how I have been a shaping force in her life. What the note does not reveal, however, is how my relationship with this young woman has been a shaping force in my life! She has also been a voice of affirmation for me (as you can see by the note!). She has challenged and sharpened me through her questions and through engaging in conflict with me. She has many times ministered God’s presence to me through prayer, scripture, or listening.

So it strikes me that the name of the book Rick Dunn (PhD ’94; former chair of the Department of Educational Ministries at TEDS) and I wrote, Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults, is a bit presumptuous. Though the book is concerned with discovering how to be a transformative influence in the lives of young adults (shaping), some of the most powerful chapters to write were the chapters at the end of the book where we reflected on the personal life of a disciple-maker (being shaped). In the book, we give guiding principles for people who desire to assist emerging adults in negotiating life’s challenges. We define an emerging adult as someone between the ages of twenty and thirty-five who is in a time of identity exploration, tends to live in flux and be in transition, and probably shows a reluctance to enter what they perceive as “full-fledged” adulthood. He is well connected yet often lonely. She is adventurous and globally aware. We also discuss ways to journey with emerging adults and examine how those who disciple emerging adults are shaped in that process.

In this article, I want to comment on the shaping aspect of that process.

Yes, effective disciple-makers need to understand the world of “Emerging Adulthood.” We need to understand how growing up in this economy with the constancy of technologically mediated communication and yet the instability of relational, geographical, and vocational constants has and is affecting this generation. We need to develop compassion for their reticence to “grow up” in the same ways that generations before them have. And yes, we need a plan for how to journey alongside young adults who have a deep spiritual and relational hunger but have too often felt themselves a bit alienated by the local church. It’s true that the plan can’t just be adding a new program for this demographic. It must be personal, interactive, and responsive, yet anchored in the truths that give us direction for how to become more like Christ in our everyday lives. Those things are important. So important that the first 11 chapters of Shaping the Journey attempt to compassionately explore those areas: challenges emerging adults face, clear goals for walking alongside them for life transformation, and a rhythm of relating in order to be helpful to them as they search for the best ways to grow into adulthood in a Christ-like way.

But understanding and walking and helping others is rarely effective when it is done from a place of superiority—“I know what you need and you need what I know!” So perhaps the last few chapters of our book are some of the most important because they engage us in our own spiritual journey—our willingness to be shaped. I won’t be an effective journey companion for an emerging adult if I am trying to fit myself to the exact contour of the emerging adult’s journey—to become like them in order to reach them—I must live my own stage in the journey authentically and reflectively. This brings to mind Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” My words might seem to run counter to this advice. However, Paul was explaining that he chose not to despise or judge those who were unlike him, but to be compassionate and respectful by refraining from placing a stumbling block in someone’s way that would keep them from receiving the gospel. I do not think he was suggesting we pretend to be something we are not, but that we refrain from behaviors that might be alienating. I think this is good advice for interacting with emerging adults! In essence, what I am saying is, in order to be good “Shapers” we must be in the process of “Being Shaped.”

“Yes, of course,” most established and seasoned adults would say. But don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about the common formula bandied about for disciple-making where one is told, “You must be x, y, or z as a pre-requisite for reaching into the life of another.” If that was the way it went, then I would probably be tempted to think, “I am not z, so therefore I should not disciple” (the reticent disciple-maker), or “I am x, y, and z, and therefore I can tell others how to live their lives” (the arrogant disciple-maker), or I would be in denial or trying very hard to cover up that I was not x, y, or z (the disguised disciple-maker). I am talking about the willingness to be in one’s own journey as one journeys with the young adult. That’s it. It’s about my own openness to the way God is working with me presently. It’s about the way that God might choose to work in me through my relationship with this young adult. If indeed I am reticent or arrogant or often in denial, then instead of using that as a qualification or a disqualification for journeying with an emerging adult, I can see it as a connecting point.

In fact, the rhythms of discernment, intentionality, and reflection that Rick and I suggest as a good approach for walking with emerging adults have a built-in place for us to connect with our own journey. I’ll explain these relational rhythms briefly. Discernment is a look forward—listening to what will be needed in your encounter with the young adult. It is a listening time with one ear to God and one ear to previous conversations with the young adult. This time may help the disciple-maker determine where God is already moving or might want to move in the emerging adult’s life. The second rhythm is intentionality. This is a step forward with young adults to assist them where they are struggling or help them cooperate with where God is moving in their lives. In this step the disciple-maker takes action with the young adult on what has been discerned. The last rhythm is reflection. Reflection asks you to look backward—what happened when we took these steps? How did I contribute or hinder them in moving toward the goals of trust, submission, and love? This is the step that helps me learn where I can grow as a disciple-maker.

Do you want to know how to effectively interact with an emerging adult in your life? In a very real sense all you need to do is show up. Really show up. Not with your advice or the lesson you learned last year or 15 years ago, but as a fellow believer who is struggling to live into the abundance of all Christ has put before you. Let the young adult into your world, your messy and imperfect world, so you can open a dialog about how one does negotiate the challenges and adventures of adulthood as a follower of Christ.
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Jana Sundene (MA ’00) is associate professor of Christian Ministries at Trinity College, and is also a founding and long-standing member of the Association of Youth Ministry Educators. She has written several articles and essays, including the book Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults, co-authored with Rick Dunn.

{This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Trinity Magazine, pp. 12–14.}

 

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