Explore Identity and Purpose

Explore Identity and Purpose

Help emerging adults discover what life is all about.

Note: This article is excerpted from Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults.

When it comes to shepherding emerging adults in identity and purpose, there are many opportunities, but you'll need to be intentional. Here are just a few ideas to get you started when discipling 18- to 30-year-olds.

Think Through the Life Stage

Think about how adulthood is being defined. The absence of traditional markers provides disciplers with the opportunity to explore a spiritual definition of adulthood. Take time to search for biblical markers of maturity. Differentiate between childlike faith and childishness. Look for Scripture that expresses growth in terms of spiritual wisdom, responsiveness, and love. Grapple together with the concepts of dependence, independence, and interdependence within the family of origin and the body of Christ. Potential passages to look at include Proverbs, Ephesians 4, Hebrews 5:14, and 1 John 2. You may also want to take time to explore how the young adult is defining adulthood for themselves.

Ask pacing questions. These are questions regarding the young adult's journey that you can ponder as well as questions you may want to actually ask them, such as, How does the disciple see herself in relation to God? What is his present sense of God's purpose for his life? And how does he live out that purpose in the midst of a job or present relationships? What present circumstances make it difficult for her to trust how God designed her?

Correct, Challenge, and Encourage

Provide correction that helps emerging adults trust God's wisdom regarding identity. A woman in my (Jana's) small group was convinced that God was only interested in using her as a tool for the sake of others. She did not see God as a Father who valued her as his precious daughter whether or not she did something for him. Change began to come as, over time, others in the small group repeatedly corrected her false view of God and her worth to him. Correction is important when someone believes lies about God, or is misinformed about how to live out a calling to be like Christ.

Challenge unawareness about the importance of doing the Father's will in discovering purpose. Emerging adults may not understand that God has given them spiritual gifts to use as an expression of love within the body of Christ. But the apostle Peter says this is "most important of all":

Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins. Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay. God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen (1 Peter 4:8-11, NLT).

These gifts were given to us as a means of loving. We are told to manage them well in order to be a conduit of God's generosity, love, and wisdom.

This implies two things: first, we must help emerging adults discover their areas of giftedness, and second, we must help them understand how to engage these gifts as a loving outflow of God's generosity and an expression of kingdom purpose rather than as a legalistic requirement to fulfill.

Recently, as I (Jana) interacted with two different groups of emerging to established adults, I asked them to take a test to determine their spiritual gifts. For many of them, this was still an area of discovery. We cannot assume that the people we're working with know how God has supernaturally equipped them to lovingly engage in the body of Christ. Even if we're working with emerging adults who know their spiritual gifts, we still may need to help them understand those gifts as an expression of purpose and overflow instead of obligation.

Encourage trust in the Father's wisdom in making life decisions. It can be frustrating to journey alongside an indecisive young adult. Prodding her to make a choice or pushing him to act on a decision may produce compliance instead of responsible action. Helping a young adult develop a pattern of reliance on the Father for wisdom as they make decisions or for the power to act is therefore essential. Exercise caution here, though. As fallen creatures, we all are imperfect in discerning wisdom and in carrying out his will. Encourage humility when poor choices are made and an acceptance of life circumstances; this can help relieve the pressure young adults might feel to be perfect. And no matter what the outcome, reinforce the truth that God is for them and accompanies them on this journey.

Explore vocational and relational identity questions. Adults in their late 20s and early 30s may think they should have it all figured out by now. Singleness or a career choice that turns out to be unsatisfactory may feel like a setback for them. Help them find ways to grow in trust and lean into the Father's embrace in the midst of their questions. The ability to love and be loved is achievable no matter what one's marital status. And the potential for living purposefully exists within and outside of one's job.

Encourage proactive contentment in present life situations. Older emerging adults are in the midst of making a transition to a more concrete identity and a more settled lifestyle. They need to know that they aren't necessarily as constrained by their circumstances as they may feel. If they're not yet in a career that they think meshes completely with their sense of identity, help them listen for God's call about whether they should stay in their current job for a time or move on. Then encourage contentment in following the Father's will and relying on his wisdom, like Paul expresses in Philippians 4:11-13. Helping disciples see the hand of their Father in present circumstances can encourage them to learn the embrace of the Father as they experience the different stages of emerging adulthood.

Time to Reflect

Chart patterns to gain a clearer sense of calling. This can be a helpful reflection exercise for the both the discipler and the young adult. I (Jana) did this with Susanne when I was discipling her. For several weeks, every time Susanne and I met, we created a timeline that highlighted the ways God had moved in her life up to the present day.

Seeing his past work in her life then helped us discern how he was presently working. For example, we noted how God seemed to bring new personal growth each time she exposed herself to an experience that forced her out of her comfort zone. In addition, insights about her gifts and abilities created new understandings for us about how God had wired her as well as his purposes for her life.

Reflect on what it means to live into God's Story. Emerging adults may hesitate to commit to a direction with their life or career out of a desire to first figure out who they are or find a specific fit. In the midst of their waiting, help them understand that the story God is writing through their life is the story they are living now. He is not waiting for them to find the perfect job, relationships, or role in the church in order to use them mightily. Review the ways God is working in their present relationships and circumstances in order to help them sense purpose.

Reflect with them on the difference between constructing an imaginary future and living with vision. In Facing 30, Lauren Dockett and Kristin Beck write, "How we deal with aging in large part depends on how well we deal with the age-appropriate task of accepting reality." An imagination submitted to the Lord can be a wonderful asset. To have vision for our future or even to set our minds and hearts on heavenly things (Colossians 3:1-2) requires some amount of imagination. Living with our own fantasized idea of the future, however, creates specific expectations in our hearts that often lead to disappointment.

God calls us to live with expectancy—to trust that he is at work and will continue to write his story through our lives. To live with expectancy (instead of self-created expectations) creates a hopeful vision. In John 8:32, Jesus proclaims that knowing and living in truth will bring freedom to us—and he clearly reveals that he is the truth (John 14:6) and that the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). Learning to stay connected with reality involves being dependent on the Holy Spirit and staying rooted in the perspectives and truths of Christ. That, along with openness to the insights and feedback of other adults, can help emerging adults exchange the temporary comfort of living in a daydream for the freedom of living with vision.

Help them see the "30s crisis" as an opportunity. Young adults can use the angst they feel as a motivator to take stock of their life and press toward new growth. They may need to revisit prior expectations for this stage of life and grieve over unmet goals or desires.

When emotions have been acknowledged and expressed, the focus can turn toward developing a vision for the next stage of life. Areas of dysfunction and patterns that are no longer appropriate can be examined. New goals for growth can be established. Disciplers can help the disciple celebrate this stage as one that can be spiritually rich in its challenges and opportunities for growth.

—Richard R. Dunn and Jana L. Sundene; excerpted from Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults by Richard Dunn and Jana Sundene. Copyright 2012 by Richard R. Dunn and Jana L. Sundene. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

For more on ministering to emerging adults, use our resource Meaningful Groups for Emerging Adults.

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