Spiritual Challenges of Emerging Adults

Spiritual Challenges of Emerging Adults

How to minister to the unique spiritual needs of 18- to 30-year-olds

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

The need for spiritual growth can come in many forms. Some people have an idea of what they need, while others have no clue where to start. Working with an emerging adult who does not have an idea of how he or she wants to grow underlines the need for the disciplemaker to develop discernment. Here are ideas for working with the spiritual challenges of emerging adults.


Discern growth frontiers. It's essential to ask the obvious: "Where do you sense the Lord wants you to grow right now?" One young woman, Becky, was able to express to me (Jana) that the Lord was challenging her in regard to frustration with her parents for mistakes they made with her as she was growing up. We had previously talked about other struggles she experienced in relating to others. Lack of forgiveness was an obvious theme. I was grateful for her self-awareness in regard to her parents, and as a result of careful listening, we were able to identify the roots of this spiritual roadblock and begin to address it.

Discern potential strongholds. At times, growth obstacles stay in place because of spiritual strongholds. Ed Silvoso defines a stronghold as "a mindset impregnated with hopelessness that causes one to accept as unchangeable something known to be contrary to the will of God."

Second Corinthians 10:4 (NLT) reminds us, "We use God's mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments." Strongholds require a different level of spiritual confrontation in the life of the disciple. Prayer disciplines, fasting, Scripture memorization, others praying over the disciple, and engaging the armor listed in Ephesians 6 can all be helpful practices for breaking strongholds.

Ask pacing questions. For example, how is she responding to God's invitation to walk closely with him? When does he sense God's flow of grace? What things seem to block that flow? Where does she find herself having difficulty (or success) in trusting, submitting, or loving like Christ?

Explore the young adult's expectations for living life with Christ. What beliefs do they hold regarding what it means to follow Christ through life? Perhaps they think living the Christlife is about behaving morally, receiving God's blessings, or the eventual outcome. You might also explore disappointment or disillusionment they may have with God. A look at what drives them—or what demotivates them—in their walk with Christ can provide an opportunity to refocus on a faith that is receptive and responsive.


Confront unwillingness in submission to the Father. My (Jana's) friend's toddler has an interesting strategy whenever he doesn't want to do something she asks him to do. He simply pretends he didn't hear her. He continues to play or run or color even when she makes louder and louder appeals. Adults often do the same thing, whether by being deaf to the call to obedience or by a stubborn unwillingness to follow Jesus. They may be so self-focused in regard to their own needs that they cannot see what others need. Even if they tell you that they value living for Christ in all areas of their life, you might observe fragmentation. When disciplemakers see contradictory behavior they need to be an accurate mirror to help young adults see when they are living inconsistently with their desire to live with trust, submission, and love.

Be a truth teller so they can connect with God's wisdom. A young man asked me (Rick) to help him share Christ with his unbelieving fiancÉe. He was convinced that if I spent time with her, she would become more open to the gospel. After a period of time, I discerned that he was seeking to manipulate a religious outcome rather than submitting to the heart of God for his life—and for hers as well. Therefore, I agreed to spend time with her on one condition: he had to call off the engagement, explaining to her that he loved her but that his love for Christ was greater. I told him that if he really wanted his fiancÉe to see the value and worth of Christ, he should demonstrate this to her in his own life before asking me to talk with her. Speaking truth can be hard, but it's essential. (Note, however, that responding to a disciple in such a confrontational manner should not be done casually; being blunt and bold must be coupled with both discernment and compassion.)

Connect them to other growing adults. Help emerging adults gain a vision for connecting with others for interdependent, life-giving spiritual growth. Examine their connection to the virtual community of believers, and help them see how they might take advantage of online connections for encouragement in faith matters. Refocus adults who are overwhelmed by transitional challenges by connecting them to the wisdom of the community. Take time to explore with them how connection to the local body can provide support through resources or presence in times of need or confusion.

One emerging adult woman we know belongs to a women's group that deeply fulfills the definition of peer discipleship. This steady, consistent, godly group of women meets regularly and is committed to being present in each other's lives in order to support each other and call each other upward in Christ. In each group meeting they seek to identify the issues that lead them away from their loving Creator. Their work is to lovingly yet firmly lead each other back into a place of unhindered connection with him. For each woman, this involves self-awareness, confession, integrity, and a willingness to allow others to speak into her life. For the group, it means a willingness to be discerning and intentional about reflecting reality—whether that is helping each other see areas of hidden sin or gain a clearer picture of God's grace.

Ultimately, the group calls them to a vulnerable place of submission to God's loving leadership in their lives. Their pursuit of life with Christ is a beautiful picture of courageous and caring interdependence. Of this close-knit circle of believers, our friend says, "God uses this group of women as one way to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, and to continually turn my focus back to him."

Empower them with skills that are needed to pursue spiritual growth goals. Skills needed might be "holy habits" like solitude, deeper Bible study, or prayer. Or they may be skills that counter spiritual erosion such as decision making, problem solving, spiritual-warfare strategies, or apologetics. As emerging adults assess purpose and impact, assist them in forming a balanced perspective or in setting new goals.

Spiritual growth is holistic. The development of trust, submission, and love reaches all aspects of our lives; becoming like Christ involves our whole self. Thus, holy habits also need to be formed in beliefs, attitudes, relationships, and approaches to life. We believe Scripture, prayer, and worship are central to becoming like Christ, but Bible study is not something that should be limited to a 15-minutes-a-day quiet time (though this may be helpful too). Instead it should inform us and be consulted by us as we go through our day. Indeed, we cannot surrender to the Father's wisdom if we don't know what he has said in his Word. And the act of surrender at any point is worship. Therefore, emphasize an integrated, whole-life approach to these disciplines—which is how they ought to be practiced in our lives.

Challenge emerging adults to explore and resolve spiritual doubts. Questioning their faith and trying to understand where Christianity fits within our increasingly diverse culture is a healthy way for emerging adults to pursue their Christian identity. Wise disciplemakers therefore help them unearth and then address spiritual doubt. Someone once said, "By God's grace, truth is revealed, not exhausted, by investigation." In the history of our faith, many great Christians have encountered doubt: John the Baptist, Augustine, Martin Luther, Josh McDowell, Billy Graham. Help young adults find resources and biographies to investigate how others have resolved issues of faith.


Ask questions that allow you to assess movement. Jacqui was discouraged about her mentoring times with Alissa when she came to talk with me (Jana). She felt like the time she was spending with Alissa was keeping her from making progress. I let her talk for a while about her frustrations and then I asked her, "As you look back over the last six months with Alissa, where have you seen her change or grow?" She looked at me, cocked her head to the side and thought for a few minutes. Slowly she began to tell me about how they had come to a place of mutual trust in their sharing. Then she listed two or three areas where Alissa had taken positive steps in her walk with Christ. A significant step had been taken in a family relationship as well. I sat back and smiled. Then she smiled. Then we took some time to celebrate the movement of the Lord in Alissa's life. Understanding how the Lord had been working in Alissa's life gave Jacqui insight into how to facilitate further movement in their times together. Realizing that the Lord was at work even if she did not always see it also gave Jacqui more peace about the process. Other reflection questions you might ask yourself are:

Where do I see God growing him in regard to the Christlife (trust, submission, and love)?
Where does our relating/studying/praying feel dynamic? Where does it feel stagnant?
What would draw us into a deeper conversation with Christ?
How do I sense the Spirit nudging her in the area of loving others in her life? How responsive is she to that nudging?

Help them reflect on a vision for purposeful living in everyday circumstances. Though it's worthwhile to set long-term spiritual goals, young adults also need to be challenged to find spiritual purpose and live out their identity in everyday ways. Integrating our "spiritual persona" with our "everyday persona" means living with a spiritual mindset in the nooks and crannies of our day. We never really know all that God is choosing to accomplish in the spiritual realms through our everyday actions.

A story is told of a Mr. Genor in Sydney, Australia, who spent a portion of each day standing at a corner on George Street. His goal was to be a simple witness to ten people every day. After 40 years of being faithful to that goal, he had never heard that even one person turned to Christ on his account. Without knowing of Mr. Genor, a pastor from England continually rubbed shoulders with people who talked about the influence one particular man (whose name they didn't even know) had had on them. He decided to track down both the man and his impact. An extensive count determined that at least 146,100 people from all walks of life had been influenced for Jesus by the faithfulness of this little, unknown man.

Especially in the late 20s and early 30s, emerging adults may feel like they're giving up their big plans for small ones. In God's economy, however, small acts of obedience and faithfulness may have far-reaching effects that elude detection! Encourage them with the impact a life of everyday faithfulness can have.

Map growth in the Christlife postures. Create a chart to assess growth areas being pursued. For example, you might map growth in trusting God's wisdom, submitting to the Father's heart and leadership, and loving as God does in the young adult's relationships with others. Is there evidence of progression, a reason to celebrate, or a sense that they're stalled? Looking for these kinds of patterns is not meant to over-categorize a complex relational dance or judge a person's maturity. It is merely the beginning point for further exploration. It may reveal areas to bring before the Lord and/or to discuss with the disciple. Mapping must be done with humility, grace and flexibility to provide insight in how to serve the other well.

Seek God through fasting. Fasting can be used to reflect with the Lord or to wait on him for redirection. Don't be afraid to be creative with it. Fast from food (to create space and a physical reminder to listen to God), from noise (constant use of media as background noise may hinder you from hearing the Lord clearly), from social networking or technology, from others' opinions (especially if you rely on others' feedback and need more time to listen for the Lord's insights), or from some other type of time waster or distraction (like video games or recreational shopping). The idea is to create space and energy for reflection.

—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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