Mapping a Young Adult Spirituality
Some years ago when I was taking classes for a Spiritual Direction Certificate at a local theological school, I noticed I was the only student in our practicum who offered spiritual direction to people in their 20s and 30s.
This was curious. I perceived a bias in some of the literature that said the “suitable candidate” for spiritual direction is an older person with the “spiritual maturity” of several decades of life experience. On the contrary, I became convinced that young adults need spiritual direction as much as any other generation, perhaps even more.
The spiritual path of every young adult is unique, yet I find strong common themes among this faith-seeking demographic that faith communities – and ministers in particular – should understand.
• Old wineskins, new wine: Perhaps the most significant theme in the spiritual lives of many young adults is the challenge of reconciling the catechesis of childhood with a nuanced experience of adult life. If religious lessons from childhood later seem insufficient, will the young adult give herself permission to adapt that childhood framework to life’s changing circumstances? Is the faith tradition of childhood still the right spiritual home, or is it time to seek a new community whose values and practices more closely mirror her emerging identity? Or will she reject religion outright and become “spiritual but not religious?” Confronting the limitations of one’s belief structure can be scary. It is critical that people have a non-judgmental support system where they can explore this fragile reality and find hope for the future.
• Love: The period of young adulthood can bring the profound experience of romantic love – and also the well-known related turbulence of break-up, rejection, loneliness, or longing. The lesson that “God is love” can be understood by an eight-year-old, but it takes on new dimensions for a 27-year-old who is reeling from a break-up, a 34-year-old who realizes she wants to spend the rest of her life with her partner, or a 37-year-old who wonders if he will ever meet the right person. As the heart matures, the joys and sorrows of love influence – or are reinterpreted by – the unfolding relationship with a God who is love. The varied experience of love and its encounter (or dissonance) with the sexual ethics of a faith tradition bring new challenges to the spirituality of adulthood.
• Loss: Many young adults face their first bout with grief in the form of the first loss of a loved one. Unlike future losses, though, they lack experience that offers strength in this painful period. They cannot say, “I’ve felt like this before, and it got better over time. I will emerge from this, too.” Instead, the grief can feel hopeless and provoke difficult questions about life’s purpose, the afterlife, and the nature of God.
• Discernment: For many people, crucial moments of discernment happen during the young adult years. Emerging adults face an unrelenting onslaught of major life decisions: educational pursuits, career path, personal vocation, marriage or partnership, parenthood, geographic relocation. In the midst of the big decisions, young adults are choosing how they will live those decisions – how to be ethical in the workplace, how to contribute to the wider society, political activism, parenting style. Having an impartial listener to offer support and share wisdom from Christian tradition can be a compass in the midst of terrifying uncertainty.
• Spiritual discipline: Many young adults crave silence and even commit to “unplugging” in order to seek encounter with God. Yet when they do enter into a precious few minutes of quiet, they might find themselves unsure about how to use that time. What does it really mean to pray? Where can someone talk about the experience of silence or be held accountable to a fledging commitment to regular prayer? How can the experience of prayer overflow into the rest of life? Spiritual companions can offer guidance as young adults learn to cultivate their own spiritual well-being.
How can the church respond to this spectrum of issues?
Young adults are more than just new recruits for parish membership rolls. It’s important for faith communities to cultivate authentic relationship and meet young adults where they are in their lives. Some starting places may include:
• Spiritual direction: We’re in a time of rising interest in the professional ministry of spiritual direction. More theological schools now offer spiritual direction certification programs. Many people would benefit from spiritual direction, yet few know it exists or how to arrange it. The church should develop relationships with local spiritual directors, make congregants aware of their services, and support that work by allowing church facilities as a space to meet. The directory at Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org) is a good resource.
• Mentorship: A young adult who skips church on Sunday mornings might still be willing to meet for coffee with a mentor in the congregation. Mentoring is a mutual relationship of shared interests and respect cultivated for the benefit of the young adult. The mentor is there to listen, not to instruct. The pastoral staff can provide training and formation for those who want to become mentors.
• Spiritual programming: Partnering with nearby churches to offer a “busy person’s retreat” can be a rich way to give all parishioners, including young adults, a concrete experience in regular prayer and spiritual direction. Through a week- or month-long “retreat in everyday life,” a person commits to daily prayer and periodic meetings with a prayer companion. The companion helps the retreatant sort out and ponder his experience of prayer. Young adults are often more willing to pursue a program that offers a finite commitment and flexible scheduling.
• Small faith-sharing groups: These are growing in popularity. Participants commit to meeting regularly for prayer, scripture reflection, and life sharing. Often led by trained parishioners, these gatherings allow young adults to connect with other members of the parish. Empowering young adults to take turns leading sessions can build their confidence to take on greater leadership roles. The organization Christian Life Community provides a great model. See www.youngadultclc.org.
• Online sources: Young adults are much more likely to tour a church’s virtual site before they step foot inside the physical one. A PDF of an online meditation or a tweeted link about discernment may be, for some young adults, a godsend.
With creativity, patience, and commitment, our faith communities can be companions for young adult seekers through the complicated landscape of their spiritual journeys.
Angela Batie Carlin ’07 M.Div. is a Roman Catholic spiritual director and retreat leader in Tacoma, WA. She previously worked with young adults in a university setting and in retreat center administration. Her writing has appeared in U.S. Catholic magazine, and she contributed to the 2010 book From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism (Liturgical Press).