On March 6, several hundred people gathered in Redeemer University’s auditorium to participate in a panel discussion about Renegotiating Faith, a report that has emerged from a research partnership between the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), Power to Change – Students, InterVarsity, Youth for Christ and Truth Matters Ministries. Subtitled “The Delay in Young Adult Identity Formation and What it Means for the Church in Canada,” the report investigated 18-28-year-olds as they transition from high school to the next stages of life. This study is a direct response to the Hemorrhaging Faith report of 2011, which explored why young adults are leaving the church in such large numbers – and, alarmingly, not returning to the faith later in life. In contrast, the Renegotiating Faith study focuses on those who choose to maintain their faith commitments. Recognizing that Hemorrhaging Faith did not answer the question “What can we do about it?,” this study asks “How can we help young adults who are transitioning from high school to the next phase in life, wherever they are headed, stay connected to church and faith?”
The focus of the Redeemer event was an overview of the report presented by Rick Hiemstra (Director of Research and Media Relations for the EFC) and a panel discussion moderated by Syd Hielema, director of Faith Formations Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church. The panel included Hiemstra, Lesli Van Milligan (Faith Formation Ministries), Karmyn Bokma (lead pastor at the Meeting House in Oakville, Ontario), and Ken Herfst (Assistant Professor of Ministry, Redeemer University College).
The Renegotiating Faith study surveyed over 2,000 young adult respondents and 1,500 ministry workers. It built on developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s (1968) identification of the eight stages of psychosocial development, particularly focusing on stage 5, Identity vs. Role Confusion. For Erikson, the key turning point of stage five is making a career choice: identity is formed when you define your role in your community. Later research recognizes that as modern society has developed, deciding on a career has become more difficult for many young adults, a pattern that has resulted in both delayed career identification and delayed identity formation. As a result, we have seen an increase in the number of young adults who are experiencing both extended adolescence (up to age 28, according to some studies) and emerging adulthood (in recent decades, adulthood has been delayed by 5-7 years).
In order to become our own person, we need to differentiate ourselves from our family of origin. Differentiation can be complex for emerging adults when some of them are not yet positioned to find a new job, family or home. One of the ways a young adult can differentiate themselves from their parents is by their faith. Some young adults leave the church because it is one of the ways they can differentiate themselves from their parents. And once they leave, they often do not return.
Churches need to ensure that young adults have the capacity to develop adult roles and identity while their support communities are present. While the study provides many resources, a number of implications are worth considering here:
1. Ensuring that faith commitment is not part of the differentiation process. A young adult needs to be a member of a faith community, not just a family. Then when young adults develop their identity apart from their parents, leaving their parents’ faith behind is not an obvious step. If young adults in our churches have opportunities to become integral members of the faith community, they can better negotiate a Christian identity of their own.
2. Encouraging intergenerational interactions. Churches need to explore how different generations can experience life together through things like community events, shared meals, service opportunities and so on. Consistent with our baptismal vows, parents should not be the only adults who are influencing the emerging faith of children and young people.
3. Identifying gifts. One of the key elements of identity development is recognizing one’s gifts, and finding a place where one’s gifts and passions can be used – both for personal fulfilment and for Kingdom service. Parents and others at church need to recognize and affirm the gifts of children and young people, naming them and providing opportunities for them to be used.
4. Developing a mentoring culture. Young adults crave adult relationships and influence but often don’t have opportunities to interact with many adults beyond parents, teachers, youth leaders and coaches. In the panel discussion, Van Milligan made a careful distinction between establishing mentorship programs and the need for an authentic mentorship culture. Such a culture can start when adults ask: Is there a young adult in my congregation with whom I share similar interests? How can we collaborate?
5. Encouraging the transition to the next Christian community. We have an opportunity to help young adults transition into new Christian communities. There is only one church, even though it manifests itself in many buildings, denominations and communities. Which building and community will young adults attend when they transition from high school? How can they find them? Is your local church the next Christian community for emerging adults?
6. Don’t put all your eggs in the ministry programs basket. Churches need to prioritize extending their vision for youth and young adult ministry beyond their traditional programs.
As the panel discussion came to an end, a youth leader from a small church asked the panel: “What can we do?” The pain and desperation in her voice was potent. While the Renegotiating Faith report provides ample fodder for discussion, Hiemstra ended with two important suggestions. First, he noted that most church youth groups end their programs in June. He suggested that churches should extend their youth programs to Thanksgiving, ensuring that a support community and opportunities for dialogue and interaction remain in place as many of the senior members of the youth program transition to a new community. Secondly, Hiemstra suggested that church leaders should require that their youth leaders network with other people, and create support systems to ensure that this happens. Those who are called to lead youth ministry in our churches must be encouraged and even required to attend conferences and form support networks with other youth leaders in order to share resources and serve as sounding boards. He specifically drew attention to connecting with existing initiatives in local universities (intervarsity programs, chaplains, etc.), as well as drawing on existing expertise, such as Redeemer and Faith Formation Ministries, as well as churches that are experiencing some success in these areas (such as the Meeting House).
In my work as an educational leader and teacher, I have had countless interactions with young people concerning issues of faith, particularly as a high school Bible teacher. It is clear to me that emerging adults crave adult relationships and authentic dialogue. Many young adults take their faith very seriously. But many of my former students struggled to find a meaningful forum for exploring issues of faith and finding ways to live out their faith within the context of their own faith communities. It is okay if they join another church. It is not okay if they walk away from their faith. Our churches need to do a better job of ensuring that church members of all ages have opportunities to wrestle with, embody and practice their faith.