The Church. Does it really serve Emerging Adults?
In the late summer of 1972 I was in the Syrian city of Aleppo searching for a hotel room. Why I was there is a complicated saga, but it was a combination of a fascination for the so-called Dead Cities of Northern Syria and an interest in the Christian minorities in the country. At the time, aged 27, I regarded myself as young, and thus able to put up with discomfort and squalor in the places where I stayed. Getting to Lebanon and Syria had been an expensive business, so the money available for hotels was limited. I finally arrived at a suitably cheap establishment where the cost of a night’s slumber was 25 pence. For that I had to sleep in a dormitory under sheets of doubtful cleanliness. Three years later I visited the same city, and I went again in search of the Hotel Ugarit as before. When I arrived I found that something had changed. It was not the hotel that had changed, but the change was in me. Over the three intervening years, my tolerance for cheap seedy hotels had vanished. I needed a room to myself and the possibility of washing in warm water. Between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty, at some level, I had developed an adult need for comfort and cleanliness. I was no longer the young man putting up with squalor; I was now the adult.
Everyone who has reached their thirties will have different memories, but most will remember a moment when they realised they had become properly adult. The experience of being grown-up is, of course, a very subjective thing, but the majority who have passed through their twenties, would recognise that, whatever the law says, eighteen is only the beginning of the process of becoming adult. The social psychologists in this century have invented a new expression, emerging adults, to describe the period between legal adulthood and the full acceptance of adult responsibilities. We are talking about such things as the responsibilities of a mortgage, parenthood and a place of full independence from parents. Different writers mark out this transitional phase in various ways but the eleven years between 18 and 29 is a typical suggestion. Whatever period we reckon is needed for making the change from adolescent to full adulthood is probably not important. What is important is for all of us to recognise how much is changing during these ‘emerging’ years. We could say that the process of growing up is going on at equal speed as it had done when we were teenagers.
The parents of small children are often nostalgic for the stage of childhood that has just passed. The putting ‘away of childish things’ is something that parents often feel more upset about than the children themselves. We do, however, recognise helping children to negotiate each stage of growing older as a vital part of parenting. The needs of a nine year old are different from the needs of a seven year old. The wise parent is constantly having to adapt to the new reality of an endless series of changes which accompany every stage of growth. There is a constant sense of newness as the child grows older; some changes seem to happen over a matter of weeks.
I begin this blog piece with a preamble about growth and change as an introduction to a serious question about the way the Church responds to the young adults in its care. Emerging adults are an area of apparent success for the Church, especially in the university towns of Britain. There are many congregations where the average age seems to be about 28. It is clear from such statistics that churches do have an appeal for many young people, especially as they enter this transitional period between 18 and the early twenties. The first question that arises is whether the Church is successfully serving this cohort as it grows older. Is it truly sensitive to the numerous but subtle changes that are taking place throughout the twenties into the thirties?
It seems clear that many young people enter their twenties with a readiness to trust leaders and accept their parental style of oversight. There is enough left of childhood compliance to follow the wishes and desires of older people. The result is that many of them will also readily accept the authoritative style of many con evo churches. Among other things, evangelical churches emphasise the unchanging word of God, together with the need for obedience to the authority of appointed leaders. If this obedience is not a problem for eighteen year olds, there may be an increasing resistance by older members. Here I refer to the 25+ group. They may well chafe at conservative teaching on sexual matters as they move through their twenties. At this stage, they may well be letting go of a variety of dependence habits in other areas of life. From a developmental perspective, we would expect that a twenty-five year old would begin to question the certainties of other aspects of conservative Christian teaching. There are signs that this does indeed happen, particularly as many alternative sources of information are freely available to these young people.
In the past, week two pieces of information have come my way to bring this issue of the Church serving the needs of emerging adults to the fore of my thinking. In the first place there was the article by Charles Foster about the effect of Iwerne/Titus camps on generations of public-school boys. As part of the commentary there seemed to be a consensus that the teaching of the camps had created a persistent nostalgic longing in these young men. Rather than looking forward to adulthood with its ever greater intellectual and spiritual opportunities for service and growth, there was a regressive pull back to the golden days of teenage summers at the camps. Christianity in other words was being experienced as a force for nostalgic regression and immaturity. Some would describe it as a recipe for infantilisation.
Alongside the apparent immaturity of many con evo males who used to attend Iwerne summer camps, another serious issue has come to my attention. I received an email from a woman this week who has been attending a church plant for the past 15 years. She joined the plant at the beginning of its life and for a year or two everything seemed to glow with the light of newness and love. The minister was the same age as the young congregation and this at first seemed appropriate. But it was less appropriate when what was required of the minister was maturity and wisdom to help sort out relationship breakdowns among the closely (too close?) knit community. Without the skills of mediation to offer, such fallings out merely festered until one or other of the aggrieved parties walked away. The implications of leaving a congregation of this kind were severe for this one individual I shall call Joan. Joan was leaving behind her entire social network and all her emotional means of support. London is not a good place to be alone, but the church plant had held the implicit promise never to allow her to be in that situation. As with a cult she had bought the ‘package’ of an enveloping social community which would be there to carry her into the future, spiritually and socially. Worse still, by leaving the church, she came face to face with the appalling realisation that the church had kept her in exactly the same place, in terms of her maturity, as where she had been when she entered fifteen years before. In other words, instead of growing up and adapting to the world in the myriad ways that other emerging adults in society were doing, she was, relatively speaking, still immature and ill-equipped to deal with life outside the church. The Church plant culture had successfully taught her habits of intellectual and social dependence on others. She had been deprived of the insight that, as the years sped by, she was changing along with her emotional, intellectual and social needs. The reasonably intelligent woman of thirty or thirty-five has quite different social and spiritual needs from the twenty three year old. My light-hearted personal anecdote at the beginning was meant to illustrate just how quickly the needs and requirements of a young person can change over a short timespan.
The con evo churches that we have been hearing a lot about in recent weeks have enormous responsibility to care for the young people who come to them. They also have the task of preventing the kind of tragedy that Joan is suffering. Teaching an unchanging Gospel in a way that makes no provision for the evolving intellect and personality of a young person is a kind of enforced infantilisation. It may be appropriate for children and very young adults, but it is not sound educational practice for those in their later twenties and thirties. The inflexibility of message and teaching found in many conservative congregations is, arguably. a kind of intellectual abuse. What we know, what we feel and what we understand is in a constant state of flux as we grow older. Trying to pretend otherwise is an act of emotional cruelty. I am reminded of the custom within China up till the end of the 19th century of binding the feet of girls and young women. This is a kind of parable of a belief system that is in denial of the fact that the human mind and body are for ever changing and growing.
To say, as many Christian teachers do, that ‘my teaching is the true everlasting, unchanging Gospel’, is a kind of blasphemy Teaching, social learning and spiritual growth all need to be, as far as possible, age and maturity appropriate. Is the leader also using the ideal of a perfect community as a way of bringing a group together so that they can serve his narcissistic needs for domination? My liberal background makes me instantly nervous when a church leader claims to be teaching the only true gospel and that everyone, regardless of age and maturity, can flourish in this uniquely safe environment. They do not. The inconvenient fact is that the uniqueness of each of us, the differences of our growth and understanding mean that we will always need to find churches and spiritual settings of infinite variety. Despotic teaching is a kind of abuse. Those who internalise the idea that there is only one expression of truth are trapped into an immaturity which has life-long consequences. They are trapped and unhappy in a place that damns them if they stay and damns them if they leave. Like Joan, poor pastoral sensitivity has put them in a place of emptiness and near despair.Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
About Stephen Parsons
Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding how power works at every level in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues. View all posts by Stephen Parsons →
In the light of the recent scandal in the Church of England of the abuse practised by one of the leaders of IWERNE (a Con/Evo Christian Camp for mainly Public-Schoolboys), this article by a retired Church of England priest, Steven Parsons, provides a very worth-while reflection on the relative wisdom of dogmatic teaching, which can inhibit mature engagement with the moral and intellectual need for the exercise of one’s innate individual social conscience.
The story of ‘Joan’ alerts us to what can happen when the teaching at Christian Camps – or, indeed in Christian congergations – is so strictly dogmatic that the young hearers are in danger of being infantilised in their lack of encouragement to think for themselves and rationally and openly discuss the implications of the ‘faith’ model they are being spoon-fed – along with the feel-good corporate activities that are inevitably part of such evangelistic gatherings.
The nefarious activities of ‘Cult Leaders’ was evidenced at INVERNE under a leader who was later unmasked as an habitual abuser of young people under his care. This abuse was only enabled through the discipled obedience expected of the young men he sought to involve in his lust for power over them. Boarding school students were natural targets for his predation – because of their enforced discplinary background – which encouraged total dependence upon the integrity and humanity of their teachers.
Churches that insist on a ‘clan mentality’, which discourages open discussion of subjects that pertain to their spiritual growth processes are, sadly, helping the individuals concerned to infantilise their dependence on the ‘Leader’ figure in the Church – rather than being maturely encouraged to question the systematic indoctrination that is taking place. It has been said that “Faith is caught, rather than Taught” – a profound reality that has to eventually replace the guru mentality that has often robbed the growing Christian of their ability to think for themselves.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand