In a recent About Campus article entitled “The New Student,” Professor Fred Newton profiles today’s young adult college student. His insightful analysis includes a statement that today’s young people “receive extensive and rapid exposure to a vast and ever-increasing level of informational activity [but] have received less hands-on mentoring from parents or other adult figures.” I, too, have had countless conversations with “twentysomethings” that confirm Newton’s observation. They consistently articulate a desire to connect with parents and other adults—even with older adults, that vast mysterious cadre of human beings virtually unknown to them. You could say that young adults are information rich and mentor poor.
Social psychologist Sharon Parks takes up this theme in her latest book, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. Parks’ latest work culminates thirty years of research on young adult development in the North American context. As she explains in the preface, Big Questions began as a re-write of her acclaimed 1986 work, The Critical Years: The Young Adult Search for a Faith to Live By. However, “critical shifts have taken place (in North American culture) that call forth deepening understanding of the anxieties and aspirations of young adults” as they construct their lives. Among these critical shifts, she mentions the economy, the extension of the life span, the technology / communications explosion, and the rise of religious pluralism. She argues that it is increasingly necessary to understand the holistic nature of faith, defined as “the activity of making meaning,” in order to effectively mentor those who are forming and being formed by the world views around them.
Parks’ understanding of the role of faith as meaning-making characteristically occupies a critical space in the landscape of the book. Briefly, this is the notion that the way to form a faith is to question it, examine and grow in your appreciation for other faith expressions, then reformulate a new, critically examined faith of your own. Parks states that although she remains concerned that young adults will be willing and able to move to the third step of reformulation upon completion of the questioning and examination stages, she is more troubled that young adults today “are not being encouraged to ask the big questions that awaken critical thought in the first place.” Thus, she concludes that “swept up in religious assumptions that remain unexamined and economic assumptions that function religiously, they easily become vulnerable to the conventional cynicism of our time or the economic and political agendas of a consumption-driven yet ambivalent age.”
Parks is not interested in providing a Christocentric, orthodox overview of human development and faith formation. She does, however, write with clarity, depth, and passion out of her own more pluralistic yet spiritual world view about the persons and context in which young adult formation occurs. As such, she provides challenging yet biblically dissonant material for the discerning evangelical reader.
In the face of such a potentially calamitous cultural reality, Parks vigorously argues that “mentoring communities” play a—perhaps even the—pivotal role in the faith and world view formation of young adults.
Individual mentors, she explains, have not outlived their usefulness; they are most helpful when the entity into which the protégé is being introduced is static and well-defined. However, “if one is going to be initiated into a profession, organization, or corporation and the societies they serve as they could become, then only a mentoring community will do.” In other words, according to Parks, if you need the protégé to be encouraged and managed, get a mentor. If you need the protégé to be encouraged and inspired, find a mentoring community.
This artificial distinction breaks down in that certain individual mentors cast vision and inspire their charges and certain mentoring communities maintain the status quo and dull the passions of their members. It is not Parks’ purpose to drive such a wedge between the two—she is merely drawing brief comparisons for the purpose of illustrating the cumulative power of mentoring communities.
To Parks, the features of a mentoring environment include:
1. A Network of Belonging—A trustworthy place where the young adult can try and fail or succeed while experiencing support and challenge.
2. Big Enough Questions—An attitude of inquiry where questions of meaning, purpose, and faith are welcome and pursued with vigor.
3. Encounters with Otherness—Experiences with those “outside one’s own tribe.”
4. Habits of Mind —Habits that invite genuine dialogue, strengthen critical thought, encourage connective-holistic awareness, and develop the contemplative mind.
5. Worthy Dreams—Imagined possibilities that orient meaning, purpose, and aspirations within the young adult.
6. Access to Images—Images of truth, transformation, positive selves/others, and interrelatedness.
7. Communities of Practice—Humanizing practices that include hearth, table, and commons.
Parks concludes the book with a vision for how mentoring communities might function in various spheres of life such as higher education, professional education, the workplace, travel, the natural environment, families, and religious faith communities. Her snapshots of how young adults come to maturity in these contexts is compelling and challenging as we consider how this discussion might influence church and ministry-based “mentoring communities.” Such visionary application resonates with the Biblical framework of transformational being and hopeful becoming as both the process and goal in the Kingdom of God. Perhaps such practice would lead to an environment where young adults are both richly informed and mentored.
Questions1. Do you participate in a mentoring community? To what extent does your group reflect the features of a mentoring environment that Parks describes? How do these features compare with the Biblical notion of the Body of Christ?
2. How does your church or ministry relate to young adults in general? To what extent are they made to feel welcome, asked to consider big questions, invited to imagine worthy Kingdom dreams, and engaged in “humanizing” Christ-honoring hospitable practices?
3. Where and when do young adults participate in the life of the church or ministry? What is the relationship between how often they are “grouped” by themselves with how often they are integrated in multi-generational activities? How are their interests represented during decision-making opportunities?
4. Do you know young adults who are information rich and mentor poor? How might you and your church respond to those who exemplify this reality?