The Words of the Winings Family
The Education Corner - Am I Losing My Young Adult Son or Daughter?
Dr. Kathy Winings
Q: "My son just started college and it seems he isnít so interested in church activities anymore nor does he seem concerned about doing anything for his life of faith. When I talk with him about it, he simply says that he doesnít know why he feels this way but that I shouldnít worry because he isnít the only one acting this way. In fact, he says, several of his friends feel and act the same way. What is going on with him? Has he rejected everything he learned in the church? Have we lost our son?"
A: Dear Concerned Parent:
Your experience is not uncommon. Young adult faith development is a vital area of ministry and religious education because it is both an amazing as well as scary period of transition for these young men and women. The best way to respond to your question is to first look at the life of a young adult and then consider ways to respond to your question.
Young adults are experiencing several changes in their life. While we may think it is a period of transition from childhood to adulthood, in reality it is more of a transition from legal dependence to first adult life structure. One researcher of young adults has called this period the "birthplace of the adult vision." Letís step back for a moment and look at what this transition includes. For those who are college-bound and living on campus, it is a transition from home life and direct dependence on parents to living on their own either, in a dorm or in an apartment. Even if they are sharing the dorm room or apartment with other students, they are, nonetheless, responsible for their own decisions and actions in a new and direct way. There is no immediate safety net. If they run out of food, money or clean clothes -- they must deal with it because mom or dad are not right there to pick up the slack. For those who enter the workforce full-time, they are now responsible for their bills, savings, financial management and growing adult relationships.
Developmentally, young adults are faced with new issues and needs. For instance, these young men and women are faced with what might be called the three "Iís" -- independence, identity, and intimacy. They are looking at having to separate themselves from their families in order to create their own identity (independence). They are trying to establish their own unique identity and self-concept that gives a sense of coherence and unity to their thoughts, actions, and values (identity). At the same time, they are also establishing those friendships and relationships with others that will last a lifetime and that will be supportive of their maturing identity and life (intimacy).
Independence is, in particular, a major issue for this period of time. This independence may be psychological, physical, and economic all at the same time. It is hoped that as the young adult is forging a sense of personal independence together with their philosophy of life that it is toward a mature view of interdependence.
Of course, all of this is tied to their on-going faith development and relationship with God. One researcher in the area of young adult faith, Robert Gribbon, has used the term "explorers" to describe young adults between the ages of 18-24 -- the very age group of Concerned Parentís son. It is an appropriate description I think. As they go off to college, they are immersed in an environment of exploration and adventure academically and socially. They are meeting new people, learning new ideas and theories, and having to make choices about what to think, who to believe and who to trust. This is one reason why it is not uncommon for young adults to simply stop participating in church activities and programs. While I am not saying that this is a good thing, it is simply something that may happen with some young adults.
Some of the new ideas and people they will meet in college or in the workplace will probably be very different from what they were taught or experienced as children and teens. These new ideas may come into conflict or appear to challenge their current belief system. In an environment in which they are having to make their own decisions and in which they are trying to act like adults, they may temporarily put their own beliefs and practices on the back burner -- so to speak. This also coincides with their exposure to new ideas and concepts in college. As part of their process of questioning these ideas, they may ask hard questions about their own faith beliefs. In doing so, they may suspend their beliefs in an effort to compare concepts. They may visit a mosque or synagogue in order to test out these theories. Or they may stop participating altogether.
All of this may be part of their effort to move from a searching faith as a teen to an owned personal adult faith. John Westerhoff has described this as "belief without belonging" in which the young adult will have a high level of belief but with a lower level of involvement or confidence in church institutions. Add to this a possible dose of suspicion of institutions and structures that they may develop while on campus or with their new friends. In reality, they may in fact be questioning the church itself rather than their beliefs as they become more conscious of the challenges of theory and practice. Young adults may become quite critical of the adult worldís inability to live their faith more fully and truthfully. And so again, we should not necessarily equate their personal walk with God with church participation. In other words, we should not assume that they are now rejecting their faith or beliefs. It may just be that they are trying to deepen their beliefs through these questions, doubts, explorations and tentativeness.
Combine these points with the fact that they are living in a postmodern world, a world in transition toward Godís kingdom of true love and principle. More and more of their friends come from single parent homes. Confidence in todayís business practices have been shaken more than at any other time in modern history. The ethics and morality of elected officials are visible and now part of the public debate. Our inability to practice stewardship over the environment is more evident as well. This goes hand in hand with what is happening in the religious world. Can you blame them for questioning religious institutions when our daily newspapers reveal horrific abuses committed by men and women of faith? Juxtapose that with their desire for true love and you can see the tensions with which they must deal. For those young men and women who have taken True Parentsí message to heart concerning true love and the need to create true families and who want desperately to experience that kind of love and hope, they may be hesitant to rush into the blessing. As marriage or blessing is so intimately tied into the substance of their faith, you can see the dilemma some may be experiencing.
The question then is: What can we do for our young adults? How can we minister to, teach, and guide our young men and women effectively? Of course, the best preventative is a faithful home and an effective childrenís ministry program. But, outside of those corrective, we need to develop a strong young adult ministry in general and an effective campus ministry subsequently for our college students. When I say "campus ministry," I am talking about a trained ministry on campuses that is distinct from a student-based program such as World CARP and Service for Peace. Faith development is the purview of pastors and parents. Student-based programs will work more effectively and clearly when there is a complementary campus ministry present as well. I would hope that more and more UTS students will focus their studies on young adult ministry in order to meet this challenge.
What else can we do? I have five additional suggestions. First, we need to be there for our young adults. Young adult faith is not a question of programs as much as it is a question of relationships. While our relationships as parents will change from one of dependence to interdependence, we still need to be there for them and with them. The nature of the parent-child relationship may change but it will never go away. In addition, the faith community as a whole should be there for our young adults. As William Glasser expressed it in Identity Society: "Involvement with at least one successful person is a requirement for growing up successfully, maintaining success, or changing from failure to success." I believe the same holds true for success in our life of faith. Our young adults need to see that our faith works for them. They can only do this if we are there together with them. That also means including our young adults in the life of the community in integral ways. Unless we enhance the availability and quality of our young adult and adult relationships, we will not be able to support these men and women effectively.
Second, we need to affirm their questions as well as the questioners. Rather than fear their questions or think that they have fallen into disbelief or rebellion, we should see their questions for what they are: a search for an adult owned faith. Listen to them. Talk together with them. Show them how to search for the answers. Share with them, as adults, your stories of a living faith. The same goes for the wider faith community.
Third, and possibly most important, we need to provide mentors and peers for our young adults. I would encourage all concerned parents and pastors to form small groups of young adults led by a mentor and older peers who have navigated these waters. Through these small groups, these young men and women can ask those "hard questions." They can voice those hidden concerns. They can dare to express their worries. All of this can be done under the auspices of a mentor who can create the atmosphere and environment through which Godís love, truth, and beauty can be felt and known. In addition, having those peers who have experienced these things or who are now well on their way toward a mature adult faith will support and nurture these young adults at the same time. After all, young adults tend to become intensely tied to small groups of people and ideas during this period of life. Why not have these older peers be those people around whom your young adult men and women gather?
Fourth, all of us need to believe in our faith in real and vibrant ways. If we do not practice our faith vibrantly, if we do not believe in real ways how can we expect the young adults to do the same? Young adults are more discerning. Therefore, the faith community and adults around them are challenged to be more genuine and vibrant in their faith. The key words are: genuine and vibrant. Anything less than that will only support their suspicions and doubts concerning institutional religion.
Fifth, we need to show a lived faith. This helps to counter the over-reliance on reason and intellect. Many young adults are surrounded by the world of intellect and so may readily wonder whether God exists or not, or whether faith is real or not. As long as their faith remains intellectual, it will be hard for them to experience the living God. How often I have heard a young adult say: "But I just donít know if God really exists or cares about me. Science tells me something different." If we want our young adults to feel the heart of God, the heart of True Parents, then they need to see how to live their faith. This comes down to fulfilling True Parentsí dictum of living for the sake of others. This is the area called service learning. This is why Service for Peace is not a service group but an educational endeavor: it challenges young adults to practice their faith by living for the sake of others. It is in that matrix that our men and women will "see" God, will come to "know" God, and will come to "feel" God in their very being.
If we can do all of these things, I believe that we will see a vibrant, faithful, mature young adult faith community who will, in turn, become the true men and women, the true parents, and true families of Godís kingdom.
Got a question concerning education? Write to Dr. Winings at IRFFint@aol.com or mail your questions to her at: 4 West 43rd Street, NYC, NY 10036. Dr. Winings is Dean, UTS-NYC, and President, Educare.
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