Article Feb 12, 2018

4 ways to encourage and disciple young adults

When I was a kid, I loved looking at optical illusions. One of my favorites was the kind with a 3D hidden image, where you look at a busy, colorful pattern and try to spot the hidden picture. To do this, you’d hold the picture close to your face and slowly pull away (or, if you were a cheater like me, you’d just cross your eyes). As you zoomed out, another image would take shape, and you’d see an animal or a flower, or some other form that seemed to stand off the page.

I’d go through books of these illusions until my head hurt and my parents threatened that my eyes were going to stay crossed if I wasn’t careful. If you didn’t know how to approach these hidden images, you would wonder what’s so fun about staring at a hodge-podge pattern for so long. However, if you knew what to look for, all you had to do was hold your gaze and wait patiently for the hidden to become clear.

The disillusionment of millennials

I don’t spend much time looking at these pictures anymore, but they remind me a little bit of what life is like now. As I lead and minister to young adults, I realize that the millennial generation finds itself increasingly disillusioned by what’s in front of us. In a time where truth is said to be relative, and individualism is the standard of living, many are staring into a world that seems chaotic, struggling to find clarity.

The world tells us that what we need to figure out is ourselves—what we’re meant for and who we are. This has escalated from a pressure to find meaning in vocational calling. Now the world preaches that our identity is found in what we feel and what we want, and that to deny ourselves of certain desires is to deny truth and the very essence of our beings.

I read an article recently that declared millennials to be the generation of self-help. Considering what’s available to us at our fingertips, from the Internet to the billion-dollar industry of self-help books, I couldn’t agree more. We have the ability to purchase or obtain information that tells us who we are, what we lack, and how to fix ourselves in order to live our best lives. Yet the more conversations I have, the more I see how so much of this “helpful” information is really driving us further away from a sense of reality and an accurate understanding of our place in the world.

As Christians, we know that the purpose of life is not self-realization or self-glorification.

The self-help generation and the church

As Christians, we know that the purpose of life is not self-realization or self-glorification. We can easily affirm the truth that it’s not about us, and yet Christian culture is not immune from the influence of the self-help generation. I’ve come across resources meant for discipleship and spiritual growth that are laced with or written blatantly in self-help language. It is frighteningly easy, especially with great branding, to lead someone into believing a false gospel by asserting that God wants us to fulfill amazing, personal destinies, if only we would have enough faith and dream big.

The majority of encounters I have with young adults who feel dismayed by the unknown of the future are because they have access to so many opportunities and feel the pressure of living up to the world’s standards of a perfect life. For others, it may be that they are trying to figure out who they are apart from their family heritage or their associations with school and work.

We can say that these stresses are privileges; that someone living in true hardship has no time to worry about self-discovery. That may be true, but in the Western world, there are hundreds of thousands of young people who do live in a privileged reality, and the church has a great opportunity to minister to a generation of people who are at risk of missing the great glories of God in the world because they’re staring too closely at their own lives.

The opportunity to mentor

I remember a day about seven years ago when, sitting across from a mentor, I lamented about feeling confused and disoriented in my life. Nothing traumatic had happened, I was simply feeling the impending pressures of a new phase of life as I had graduated college. As we ate our salads at a local restaurant, I went on and on about how stressful it was to make decisions about graduate school and whether or not to move to a new city. I asserted time and again how desperate I was to know God’s will for my life and to choose the “right” path for my future. I remember that day, and the many others before and after it, when my mentor listened patiently, nodding and asking questions and never once interrupting to tell me to get over myself.

That can be our tendency, sometimes, in situations like this. We might offer some light encouragement in the vein of “you’ll figure it out,” like a parent assuring a child she’ll spot the hidden picture eventually. To ourselves we think, “This isn’t that big of a deal. Life isn’t that complicated.” Or worse, we say, “Just wait until you get married and have kids,” or, “Wait until you’ve got a mortgage and a full-time job, then you’ll really have to worry.” We might go back to our friends and laugh at the days when we were carefree with no responsibility and plenty of youthfulness. Sound familiar?

The reality is that when we do this, we are missing a huge opportunity for discipleship. In a world where we know the enemy prowls around looking to destroy, we must help those younger than us to know and recognize what is truth and what is not. When the world shouts, “Do what makes you happy,” we must reply, “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding.” When Satan threatens to twist a shaken faith with lies or multiply fears and doubts to become all-consuming, we must remind those we influence that the Creator of the universe loves order and directs our steps, as he organized the universe when he laid out the foundation of the world.

My mentor gave me a lifeline when, in grace, she helped me realize that I was searching for answers about myself and my purpose rather than returning to the truth of the Bible, which did more than simply tell me about me. I needed to know what it said about God, to be reminded that I am very small in the world, but Jesus has already overcome the world.

Rather than dismissing me and telling me to follow my heart and figure it out, she walked with me through confusion and uncertainty. We studied the Bible together for weeks, trying less to strangle a personal application out of what we read, and more so to hear God speak the story of sending his son to save and redeem not just a generation, but a world that could not save itself.

As the weeks passed and our study time ended, nothing radical seemed to happen in my life, but as the months and years passed, something significant did happen. I began to trust the Bible in a new way, returning over and over to the words I had read, underlined, wrestled against, and finally let take root in my soul. I was grounded in a way I hadn’t been before. I know now it was only because this dear person in my life had spoken truth to me and turned my eyes upward and away from myself, pointing me to the Word and ultimately to Christ, the Word made flesh.

This is the opportunity we have to minister to a generation lost in its own reflection. It is a responsibility and a gift to speak into the lives of those younger than us and remind them that God is in control, and his glory is our utmost purpose. So what does this look like in a practical sense? Here are four ways we can encourage and edify young adults in Christ:

  1. Listen: Be patient with people and hear their stories. Frederick Buechner said, “To see is to love, and to love is to see.” When we seek to understand people, to really see them for all their fears and limitations along with their gifts and blessings, we find it difficult to dismiss them. Instead, we can meet people where they are and let them know they are not alone.
  2. Ask questions: You know what’s really easy? Telling someone they can do anything if they follow their heart. That’s not empowerment; it’s a lie and neglect. It is difficult to ask the tough questions, to help people think about what’s really in their hearts and discern what God may be leading them to surrender in order to fully obey him.
  3. Encourage appropriately: In all my naiveté, I needed to be reminded about grace. I also needed to be reminded that the world is not about me. One of my favorite quotes is from Karen Swallow Prior, and says (paraphrased), “Existential crisis is code for ‘I take myself too seriously.’” We can speak life and grace in ways that build up but do not puff up.
  4. Implant wisdom: Most importantly, we should pass along what we know about the gospel and about the world to those who have not yet learned. Titus 2 calls us to make good examples of ourselves in our works and teaching, and to encourage and rebuke as needed, knowing we too are in submission to God and his authority.

The other night I sat across the table from a younger friend, listening to her share from her heart the ways God was working in her life through both joy and sorrow. I offered some insight from my own slow journey of sanctification, but mostly I listened and marveled at how the Holy Spirit does the work that cannot be done by even the best self-help.

For those of us who know this, who find hope not in personal liberty but in the person of Christ, we have a responsibility to those who come after us. As the world tells us to make our own way and believe our own truth, we must remember the words of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” On Jesus we hold our gaze, leading others to do the same, as we wait patiently for the hidden to become clear.