Surfing the Waves of Emerging Adulthood

wave-1628850_1280People often refer to stereo when talking about sound and music, but not so often about sight.  Stereopsis is the enhancement of sight by using two eyes.  Having two eyes allows one to have depth perception that would not be possible with just one eye.  Looking at the college years and twenties through the lens of Souls in Transition and The Defining Decade helps us see emerging adulthood much more clearly.  Though the two works focus on the same subject, they are positioned from different angles which make stereopsis possible.

Souls in Transition comes from a sociologist focusing on religion and early emerging adulthood, while The Defining Decade is from a psychologist looking at the twenties in general.  Souls in Transition is an academic work, The Defining Decade a self-help and motivational book.  But don’t be deceived, they both help us see emerging adulthood in sharper contrast.

If emerging adulthood were surfing on a bright sunny day off Oahu, then Souls in Transition would be bringing those relentless waves into focus.  Are the waves cresting?  How long is the tube?  Is the wind blowing offshore or onshore?  We just don’t see the individual surfer, but also the forces that propel that surfer.  Souls does offer some case studies that highlight individuals much as The Defining Decade does, but the real punch of Souls comes from its tables and charts.  We see the ocean.

Souls in Transition is the second in a series by Christian Smith who analyzed and interpreted the National Study of Youth and Religion which interviewed 13-17 year olds.  He released his first book, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers in 2005.  Souls in Transition looks at third wave data he has gleaned more recently and specifically looks young adults from 18 to 23 years old, which meshes well with the traditional college demographic.   Dr. Smith wants to ask questions and these are the questions he asks:  “What do the religious and spiritual lives of American 18-23-year olds look like and why?  What are the social influences that shape people’s lives during these years? And how do people change or not change religiously and spiritually as they exit their teenage years and head into their twenties?”

Some of the answers we get are surprising:

*The religious lives of parents are one of the most powerful influences on the outcome of emerging adults.

*Teenagers are still more influenced by parents or other caring adults than peers

*There is little evidence for internal belief without external expression

*Attending college does not increase the chance of losing one’s faith

*Most emerging adults think nobody ultimately really knows what is true, right, or good

*Emerging adults as “sovereign individuals” lack conviction or direction


For all those pastors who have been saying the ultimate responsibility for a child’s religious education rests on the parents they are right.  But even if a parent cannot be there, some other adult’s involvement in the life of teenager is highly important for the religious outcome in the emerging adult years.  Teenagers and emerging adults need older adults as mentors and guides.

Perhaps some of the most perceptive writing about this observation comes in the section entitled The Cultural Triumph of Liberal Protestantism.  Here referring to the work of sociologist N. Jay Demerath, Smith relates how the decline of liberal Protestantism is actually a victory of their theology, since more and more emerging adults have no reason to care about religion.  Smith writes: “liberal Protestantism’s core values—individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving.”  Even though liberal Protestantism has all but imploded, it has won the theology wars by leaving a “who cares about religion” mindset with most emerging adults.

Though we have only skimmed the waves in this review, Souls is a profound book that every leader working with emerging adults should read. Its scope and magnitude go far beyond “college students” to seeing how waves are developed well out to sea.  Staff working with youth and parents would be wise to read it as well.   Coming in at over 300 pages, however, it is not the type of book most emerging adults will actually read.  What is where The Defining Decade come in.

If Souls helps us see with more clarity the waves pushing our imaginary suffer, then The Defining Decade by Dr. Meg Jay, focuses on the surfer, and the decisions he or she makes.  Is she turning left or right?  Is she about to wipeout?  What board is he riding?  Looking through the lens of The Defining Decade we see the twists and turns the surfer should make, hold our breaths as they shoot through the pipeline, and rejoice with them as they ride the really big ones.

Though not written from a religious perspective like Souls, there are echoes of the wisdom literature in this book.  Whether describing work, love, or the brain and the body, there is a much needed common sense attitude that comes through to the reader.  We can resonate with her advice saying, “The church has been saying this for years!”

The main theme of Dr. Jay, is that the surfer actually has to surf, and the earlier the better. After college, many emerging adults tend to just drift on their boards without actually standing up.  Dr. Jay wants to change that by lending her experience in counseling to any and all twentysomthings who will listen and realize that their twenties do in fact matter.

Dr. Jay reminds emerging adults about key guides for life:

*Identity capital is important and needs to be cultivated early.

*That prudent life choices in one’s twenties sets the stage for success in later life

*That too many choices can lead to paralysis

*That who you marry is one of the most important decisions in life, and no one in college teaches you how to decide.

*How commonalities and similar likes help sustain a marriage

*That couples who live together actually have more of chance of divorce after marriage.

Those in collegiate ministry can use these books to help them zoom in or pan out to see the particular student or wave as needed.  Souls in Transition can be used to help build an integrated ministry from teenager to early emerging adult.  The Declining Decade makes a good book for an individual emerging adult to read by herself, and to help parents, grand-parents, and lay leaders understand the zeitgeist of mellinnenials.

Putting these two books together helps us see a way forward for ministry with emerging adults:

*Churches need to be coaching parents on how to mentor their children in religious development

*Transmission by participation needs to replace transmission by entertainment

*Mentoring needs to begin early and continue through early emerging adulthood

*Evangelism must be done beyond the church walls since most emerging adults aren’t interested in coming to a church service

*Ministries can reach emerging adults in their brokenness and indecision through incarnational ministry that is passionate, directional, and healing

These two books work well together helping to balance the tendency by some who think a self-help book can solve any problem, or those who think everything is determined by sociological factors.  As Christians we know that God has given us personal choice and a mandate to follow him, yet readily admit that God remains sovereign.  In reading these two books, we are reminded of this tension of sovereignty and choice:  of the crash of the wave, and the use of a board. Let’s do our part in reading these books to be the best surfing coaches, lifeguards,  oceanographers, and weather forecasters we can.


Five Disruptions That Could Shake UP College Ministry

IMG_3099In his 2011 book, College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture,  author Stephen Lutz listed five trends that could shake up college ministry as we know it.  I love looking forward at coming trends, but also backwards later to see where predictions were correct or off point.  Lutz’s book is about half way through the ten year span that he forecast from, so now is a great time to look back.  By the way, he did a great job in picking out these five topics.  If you have not read his book.  You should.  Here are the five possible disruptions in no particular order of importance.

The Higher Education Bubble Will Burst

The rapid growth of Higher Ed was built on the largest cohort of college students ever, plus years of low-interest rate student loans.  But that was before the Great Recession.  With tuition costs at an all-time high, and loan obligations stretching out  longer, people are increasingly wondering if college is worth it.  Institutions themselves are overextended and making cuts.  The system as we know it may not be sustainable for much longer  p. 172

 Five year laters there seems to be no large-scale drop in enrollment of students.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 20.2 million students expected to attend college in the fall of 2015.  This is up 4.9 million from 2000.  Though the 20.2 million is slightly down from its 2010 high, it does not seem crippling.  See the data here.  But we still have five years to go.  Can cost still go higher?  Will a flight to community colleges cripple some colleges?  We will see.

Technology Will Distance, Disperse, and Depersonalize Connection to Students

The rise of online learning is a profitable boon for Higher Ed, but it’s not an unmixed blessing.  The lower cost and easy accessibility of online higher education make gaining a college degree easier for older students with families or those who can’t afford living and learning on campus.  But among other things, online students miss out on gathering as a group in a classroom, learning not only from their professors but from their peers.  p. 173

Since students will not be spending as much time on campus, it will be harder to meet them, round them up and expect to minister to them in large groups.  Instead Lutz sees campus ministry having to go outward and smaller to reach people.


The future of all campus ministry may look like what’s happening at community colleges around the country–large but disjointed student bodies, moving targets that are exceedingly difficult to reach.  p. 174

This is, perhaps, the hardest to verify in numbers, but we know it is happening.  More and more campuses are integrating distance learning with online classes and online tests and homework.  Students are able to have a more flexible schedule, but it also shows the fractured lifestyles that we all live now.

Non-Traditional Student Will Become More Traditional

I can say with certainty that on this one Lutz was right on.  In researching for Generation Z and North American trends, I can see the non-traditional student becoming more traditional.  Lutz sees more of these types of students:  older, part-time, more females than males, and a huge change in the demographics of students.

In addition to non-traditional students, we’ll also need to adapt our methodologies to appeal to students of differing ethnic and racial backgrounds and cultures.  Many college settings remain overwhelmingly white, but as the demographics of North American continue to shift toward a majority of minorities, Higher Ed is following suit.  p.175

In July of 2015 a U.S. and World Report article came out declaring the younger than five demographic to be more than 50 percent minority.  It also pointed out the huge growth in multi-racial marriages and the children that are being born to this age group.  See the article here.  Generation Z is now entering college, and will be the most diverse generation in US history.

Combining with technology, transferable credit, and huge cost increases, more and more students will look at crafting their own academic learning paths that may pull from multiple campuses, and learning venues.

The elephant in the room for many ministries will be reaching an ever-growing minority demographic.  Churches, campus ministries, and para-church groups will have to reach minority groups, and transition leadership to those groups to make any lasting impact.  It’s going to be disrupting to many groups, but for those who get it, it will lead to more students reached on the campus.  It didn’t take ten years to prove him right on this one.

College Ministers May Face Diminished Access to Secular Campuses

In 2010 the campus ministry community was reeling from the Hastings case, the Supreme Court case that allowed the Hastings Law School to restrict clubs on campus from excluding members, even those who disagreed with the club on matters of religion and policy.  What followed the ruling was the decision by the California state university system to not recognize numerous Christian clubs for excluding those who did not hold to their doctrinal beliefs.  Later, the California university system walked back from that policy.  However, in many ways, that drama was overshadowed by the Obergefell case which finally legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.  That case was quickly followed by lawsuits, issues relating to transgender rights, and a recent bill in the California senate which would allow homosexual students to sue religious colleges and universities for discrimination.

From Bilola University

The provisions of the proposed bill represent a dramatic narrowing of religious freedom in California. It would mean faith-based institutions would no longer be able to determine for themselves the scope of their religious convictions as applied in student conduct policies, housing and restroom/locker facilities, and other matters of religious expression and practical campus life. Though the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by both the U.S. and California Constitutions, SB 1146 would make religious institutions like Biola vulnerable to anti-discrimination lawsuits and unprecedented government policing.

Even though the state senator who introduced SB 1146, decided to pull the bill, we should still be concerned that the bill got as far as it did.  In fact, he has hinted that he could possibly reintroduce the bill at a future time.

In looking at these situations and the general trend, Lutz’s speculation seems entirely possible.

Eventually, many more campus ministries may have to figure out how to function without full university recognition or legal sanction. . . . We ought to be working on navigating the coming challenges with grace and humility, adding value and generally seek to bless our campuses, and planning the future model of our ministry in the event that we have to go “underground.” p.176

He is right on this point, but the question is do enough churches, campus ministries, and Christians grasp this point?  Looking forward, it seems that the fallout of Obergefell and a tendency to restrict religious liberty will continue, and will affecting Christians on campus tremendously.

What is your ministry doing to prepare in case it cannot retain its RSO status?

Financial Sustainability Will Be Challenged

The next ten years will likely mark a significant decrease in the North American base of ministry funding, as approximately 100,000 churches will disappear.  The world War II generation will be gone, and the Baby Boomers (now at the peak of their earning power) will transition from giving to organizations like ours to receiving Social Security, Medicare, and the like on reduced incomes.  p. 176

He hit it right on.  Though we are only five years from the book’s publication, we have seen the International Mission Board of the largest Protestant denomination pull back hundreds of missionaries from the field, and other data that tends to show a demographic tsunami which will affect church patterns shortly.

In his book, The Great Evangelical Recession (published in 2013, two years after Lutz’s book) John Dickerson echoes Lutz in his concern over future giving in a chapter entitled “Bankrupt.”  Looking at stats from the SBC, there were mixed results in the 2015 report.  Numbers for members and baptisms were down slightly, but giving was up slightly.  But we still have five more years to go. Of course these are stats from just one denomination. What exactly will happen?  We do not know,  but those doing collegiate ministry would be wise to start thinking out of the box to figure out how to grow staff who can generate income through support raising, or bivocational ministry.

I hope after reading about these five possible disruptions you will be encouraged to pick up a copy of College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture, and think about how you do college ministry, and what you need to do to get ready for the next five years.  You will be challenged.

Hear Steve talk about these five disruptions as he talks with me in the No Campus Left Podcast 




Building Bridges for Gospel Conversations with International Students



As we start out the new academic year, our students and ministries may be thinking of how to connect with international students.  Sometimes we charge right in with spiritual conversations without knowing much about these students, what their context is, or what their spiritual needs and questions are.  We often lack a bridge to help them understand who Jesus is.

I want to describe four words that can help bridge the gap of misunderstanding, and help to make our conversations more clear.  Think of these four words as four spans crossing a river that bring the Gospel closer to those who need to hear.


The first span is love.  If we are going to reach these students we need to have God’s love in our life so it can overflow into a credible witness.  Working cross-culturually can be an exciting venture, but it can also be a confusing and frustrating venture as well.  Misreading cues or being tired of catering to special food restrictions can make us want to quit.  But when we think of God’s mission and his love for the nations, we have the vision to keep trying.  Several ways to bless these students is through hospitality and servanthood.  We can “wash feet” by hosting students for several days while waiting for the dorms to open, picking up students at the airport, or inviting them over for meals.  But in order to show this love, we have to be open to others.  In his book, Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer defines openness as “the ability to welcome people into your presence and make them feel safe.”  Being open is the first stage to show God’s love.  It moves us off our comfort zones and into action.


If we are going to reach international students with the Gospel we are going to have to spend time with them.  We need lots of face time and “hang out” time to let them in on who we are as a Gospel people.  They need to see that we are authentic in what we profess, and that we can be trusted.  Many students will be experiencing culture shock while in the educational transition in the US.  We can help them by being there to explain cultural norms, and to be their advocate when “the system” seems to baffle them.  For many students the words grace, God, Jesus, and sin will need to be explained many times before they have a clear understanding.  Don’t forget, for many of them, they are talking to us in their second or even third language.  By spending time with these students we incarnate the Gospel as well as speak it.

But it wont all be suffering and frustration.  Hanging out with students from other cultures can be fun as well.  You can brush up on your Chinese, Hindi, or Portuguese while eating some incredible food.  Do you think your soccer game is good?  Wait till you see their skills.  And you will have to laugh at your self and American culture when someone asks you why we do certain things, and you end up saying, “I have no idea.”


Listening is a very important part of sharing the Gospel with other people.  It is also very important with sharing cross-culturally.  We often think we have a “silver bullet” presentation that can explain everything quickly to everyone.  But listening to the actual questions people have is important to addressing their real concerns.  Is the student you are talking with a Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or animist?  What is his or her background, experiences, and status back home?  What is his misconceptions about Christianity?  What are the personal fears and hopes of the student with whom you are sharing?  Knowing the answers to these questions can help cut to the heart of the spiritual problem, but also build trust in the relationship.  There are many verses in the Bible, but when we listen to our friends and the concerns, hopes, and hurts they have, the Holy Spirit has an unique ability to bring to mind what we need to say.  Know your Bible, take comfort in the truth of the Gospel, and listen.


If we want to learn how to reach international students, one of the best things we can do is learn from international students.  We need Christians with a cosmopolitan view of God’s kingdom and how it is much, much, bigger than our small collegiate experience of life.  In seeing God exalted in the nations, we need to spend time learning about the world views, languages, customs, and histories of those we pray to experience God.  The college campus should be a learning environment, and there are many opportunities to connect with students while learning.  Language clubs, cultural exchange partners, international clubs, study abroad, and of course sharing meals or a cup of tea on campus open many doors for learning.  But in learning, God also does something else.  He changes us.  He helps us see how our own American culture shapes our view of Christianity and the expectations that come with a culture.  He gives us a new perspective and the ability to go deeper in our relationships as we share the good news of the Gospel.  Hopefully, in learning we also become better at sharing the Gospel in clearer, more culturally relevant ways to our friends.  Hopefully, we become more humble and dependent on Him, and less confident that we know all the answers.

I hope these four words, love, live, listen, and learn will help you build better bridges with international students, and with those bridges, better Gospel conversations. For more ideas about connecting with students see my post on Third Spaces.


Third Place for International Students

For eight years, every Friday night during the apexels-photo-27451cademic year our ministry hosted students for a free meal and a chance to practice English, make friends, and talk about topics that allowed us to share our worldviews.  We played music, learned about different cultures, looked forward to seeing old friends and making new ones.  We shared the Gospel with students who had never been to church, or in some instances, had never met a Christian.

Though I didn’t think of the term “Third Place,” every criteria mentioned by sociologist Ray Oldenburg was included in our ethos:  free or inexpensive, food and drink important factors, highly accessible, welcoming and comfortable, involved regulars, and old and new friends could be found there.

In a recent post on the Collegiate Collective about Third Places and campus ministry, Ben Pontius described what is a Third Place and why these spaces are needed.  His article got me thinking about Third Place and international students, and how to help people create, or in many instances, take advantage of preexisting Third Places.

For  many international students there is not a natural draw to attend church or check out a campus ministry listed as a “club” or RSO.  So, we tried to create a neutral place or “spot” where we could integrate Christians with non-Christians.

In those days we used the fellowship hall of a local church to create a cafe style meal and conversation time with our international students.  We had great help by American students and church members, but also met many Christians who could not grasp an incarnational ministry that did not focus on getting people to church to “hear the preacher” rather than being missionaries themselves.  One of the biggest problems, of course, was that students could not understand the preacher. Nor did they want to get up early on a Sunday.

Other ministry leaders wanted us to bring international students into the local Christian college ministry.  Here the problem for many of the visiting international students was no connection to Christian campus culture.  They were excited to be hanging out with other students, but just could not follow what was going on.  There were just too many cultural divides (depending on where they were coming from of course).

So utilizing  neutral spaces for international students is crucial.  And it does not have to be as elaborate as a meal with programing and all the planning that goes with it.  The key theme is an outwardly focused, incarnational mindset that sees the Third Place as a connecting point.  The  Third Place is a gateway to more conversations for certain, but it is, in and of itself,  a valid use of time and resources for Kingdom purposes.

So, what are some Third Places for international students on the campus?

First of all, one of the great things about doing ministry on a campus is that the campus is a melange of all three places:  it is work, home, and neutral space to many students.  The library, the quad, the gym, and the “study lounge” in dorms all have a feeling of being certain degrees of neutral.  Look around at the space on campus and be creative in using it.

Second, the great thing about working with and through the university International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) is that you do not need to reinvent and administer programs that already exist.  Many of these programs are designed to match people together.  Some programs are even open to  non-students as well.  Make use of them!

Examples of Officially Sanctioned University Events 

  • English Conversation/Cultural Exchange Programs on Campus.

Many colleges have programs that match an American student with an international student to learn about cultural differences and perhaps practice English.  Most ISSO offices are looking for more American students to join than international.  Cast vision for your students to be learners, listeners, and friends through this program.  It’s up to the participants to find the place, but the program has put the people together.  It won’t be hard for students to find a Third Space while having coffee and talking.

  • Host Family Programs that Church Members Can Join.

Just like they are often looking for American students to be cultural partners with international students, many ISSO offices are looking for non-student families and singles to be host or “friendship families” with students.  Sometimes the ISSO will need a home for a student to stay in for a few days, but mostly these programs are to match up a student with a family to meet several times a month throughout the year.  This is a great opportunity to get families involved in supporting your efforts on campus.  Though having students over to a home is not technically a Third Place, I think many international students may see it as something the university offers as supplemental to their experience.  Most encouragingly, the students are excited to be there.  But you don’t have to start at home.  You can meet on campus or take a student shopping.

  • International Programs Coffee Hours on Campus.

Some ISSOs actually create the Third Place for you!  Check around to see if the ISSO hosts regular coffee hours or drop-ins for students.  These can be great ways to keep consistency in regular meetings and met friends of friends to keep expanding your network.  If your college does not have a coffee hour, perhaps you could help get one started or offer to sponsor some of the meetings.

  • Joining and Participating in an International Students Club or Language Club

Check out your college’s list of RSOs and see if there is one listed as international or language specific.  This can be a great way to help American students learn about different countries, cultures, and language practice.  Thinking of going to a Spanish-speaking country for a mission trip?  Why not practice the language while meeting students in the Spanish club?  Many of these clubs meet in classrooms around campus, so again, the university has provided the space.

I encourage you to read Ben’s article on Third Place and then look around your campus for places where you can integrate Christians with international students.  Use your imagination to create wonderful Third Place for ministry while also making use of Third Place that the university has provided for you.