This is one of four articles reflecting on my early experiences and discoveries of the US church when it comes to reaching and discipling young adults. I have no assumption that all of these learnings are true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. However, I do hope you find this perspective a helpful challenge. So here’s a bit of insight from an “outsider” from Europe, who’s now living and serving churches and college students here in the US.
I want to finish this series by reflecting upon how young people are trying to live out their faith, or perhaps simply perform the faith they think their context requires of them, and what challenge this presents us as disciplers of young adults. I suppose I decided to leave this topic until last because in some ways, I see that my collective cultural observations of the three preceding articles have an effect on this final piece. If it is true, as article one describes, that college students are deconstructing their faith but not always sensing freedom and permission in Christian culture to do so, then doubt, struggles and questions are forced underground. Similarly, if they feel homeless in the local church, or from the local church, and struggle to find communities of honesty and integrity that make sense of their experience in the world, then living out their own faith with honesty and integrity might be something they’ve never really seen up close to learn from. And if faith becomes intellectualised and belief in Jesus becomes head knowledge, not an embodied way of living, especially when we look at issues of justice and good news to the poorest… well then, what does it mean to embody faith at all?
And so we come to the issue of living a double life. Of carrying the Christian label, ticking the Christian boxes that seem to be expected to be ticked in order to ‘qualify’, whilst simultaneously living a whole other narrative. It’s a hard lifestyle to keep up, and in college I’d say this dualism eventually comes to a head and breaks down, maybe leading to breakthrough into true discipleship, or maybe leading to a breakaway from faith altogether. Either way, the longer I am hanging out with college students working out what it means to be a Christian here in the US (and specifically here in Florida), the more I see the need to address the issue of double lives that are being lived and how detrimental this is to young adults living free in Christ.
College students living one way on a Saturday night and another way on a Sunday morning is nothing new of course. If you’ve worked with young adults for any length of time you will have run into this scenario plenty. I’d expect conversations about what it really looks like to follow Jesus today, what it means to submit to ‘biblical values and principles’ (not as cut and dry as you may assume!), to be truly free in Christ, and what on earth to do with all the blurred lines and foggy areas of lifestyle choices and circumstances that don’t seem to be spelt out by Jesus anywhere. Important, necessary, and hopefully normal conversations for anyone walking alongside young adults. Are these things normal, even invited, conversations for you?
I have learnt not to be so surprised when I discover yet another student with more than one instagram account for example. The parents and youth leader type people can see the shiny highlight reel of college life (think friends, food, church, campus ministry, good clean fun stuff). Then, their old friends from high school and their new friends from residence can check in with the other side of the story, the story they want to project and tell to their new peers (think parties, popularity, drinks and maybe weed, drunk escapades and good looking unnamed company cuddling up with them in the the car, maybe an announcement about their serious lack of completed homework, you get the picture). In some ways it is a big complement the day one of our students lets us follow their “other” account and gives us access to more of their whole social media persona. In other ways, this makes us question if we’ve really modeled Jesus’ compelling and distinctive invitation to become like him in the world at all. Is it ok that our students so unapologetically lets us witness them doing some questionable things with their one precious life? Are they testing the boundaries and wondering if there are any consequences to come, or do they just not see a tension? It’s a tough one.
I would say that, in all of this messy dualistic reality, nothing and no one will become joined up, whole, and truly free, until this stuff is freely put into the light and addressed, in kind, truthful community. We’ve got to keep talking to one another about what it means for God to intend us all to flourish, and how this road to flourishing might look narrow, tough, even costly at times, and yet still be stunningly alive and real and fulfilling. We’ve got to not shy away from awkward conversations about why they shared what they shared on social media, and was it really as it seemed, and where did they see Jesus’ invitation in it all? We’ve got to be ok with asking questions around “what do you think the Holy Spirit is inviting you into?” when real life wrestles, temptations and dilemmas come up and also be aware that the students may not want to ask that question of themselves at all. There’s at least an honesty that comes in a young adult saying “I really don’t want to think about what God might say about it, because this is what I want to do”. At least we are starting to deal with their reality, not what they think you want them to say.
It is painful to walk alongside young adults who choose not to join up their faith in Jesus with their lifestyle, choices and priorities. Let’s be honest, we also find our own hypocrisy in the same stuff painful to look at and admit to. Like Paul confesses in the book of Romans; “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” You and me both Paul. You, me and probably every person trying to figure out how to follow Jesus in this world. But ultimately, we don’t want to accept a surface-level or shallow experience of following Jesus. We don’t want anyone to settle for a life of hypocrisy, conflict, a lack of integrity, or the stress of feeling torn and ashamed, or reckless and cut drift. We want life in its fullness, we want the wholeness of the shalom of God, we want to be free in Christ, content in Christ, and the same person online, offline, at home, at work, in church and with our mates.
This is healthy, and health takes time, work and intention. But I am convinced that for young adults in the US to make it beyond cultural Christianity or parental values that are inherited, and into true and lasting discipleship, we must press into the difficult nitty gritty stuff of working out our faith in Jesus. And we must explore this in ways that are embodied, tangible, in community and with integrity. They may not have been set up well with lots of examples and role models of leaders who follow Jesus on and off the stage, but if you and I are sharing life with students, then at least we can be these kinds of Christians. We can be disciples who, by his grace, are letting Jesus transform all of us, not just make our weekends busier or social media shinier.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the the Philippians: ‘In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ I do believe all of us, both students and the wider church family, have the invitation to partner with Jesus’ good news, which we can embrace or resist. But for those of us who try to say yes to his invitation, in our weakness and doubts and hopes and fears, I have faith that God is at work right alongside us and within us. As with all of creation, as with his bride the church, as with all that is still unjust and not made right in the world, I do believe God is a completer-finisher and that our dualism can be joined up and made whole, aligned, refined, and be completed as the good work our lives were always made to be. This is my prayer for the young adults of the US, that they would discover and embrace the whole, full, real life that Jesus has for them, no second instagram account necessary.
Miriam Swanson has worked for Fusion in the UK and Europe for the best part of a decade. She recently moved to Florida, married an American and is now seeking to help local churches reach college students in the US. To get in touch with Miriam about this, you can drop her a line using the links below and don't forget to browse the Fusion website for more blogs, resources and stories of God at work through his church in the universities.
Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash