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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 4–12 

Big Questions, Bigger Faith

Rodney P. Reed

Young adults are the forgotten segment of the church, reminiscent of “the man without a country.” They have graduated from high school and therefore no longer fit in the youth group. Yet they also do not fit in with the adults in the church. Additionally, the church has rarely understood that young adults have distinct spiritual challenges and needs at this time of life. In fact, young adulthood may be the most important spiritual time in a person’s life. So why do so few churches minister well to young adults?

Ministry to young adults is challenging for a variety of reasons. To minister effectively to young adults, the church needs to understand who they are, what they are experiencing, and what the church should offer them.

A ministry to young adults must, at all costs, avoid simple answers, cliches, and fads.


In a culture that continually seeks to define itself and its members, the task of defining contemporary young adults is exceedingly difficult. Young adults vigorously resist categorization. Labeling is seen as a way to superficially pigeonhole them, rendering them anonymous if not irrelevant. It denies individuality to people for whom individuality is paramount. Defining young adults is challenging because one can find characteristics of all current generations present in contemporary young adults. As Sharon Parks states, “Young adults themselves continuously prompt me to notice that even some of the ‘disciplined’ interpretations of young adulthood are misleading.” 1 {5}

The task of describing young adults is also made difficult by the fact that neither Canada nor the United States is a monocultural nation. Differences in ethnicity, gender, and home communities confuse the task of definition. Although most churches have more homogeneous congregations (unfortunately), their young adults are still heavily influenced by a multicultural society.

Nevertheless, contemporary young adults do share some common characteristics. Some of the primary influences are the instability of family relationships, a pluralistic society, and the omnipresence of technology.

Instability of Family Relationships. The breakdown of families (one’s own or others) causes young adults to hold very tightly to family relationships. Although more than fifty percent of our students live on campus, a majority go home on the weekends, exhibiting greater connection to old relationships than new ones.

A Pluralistic Society. Young adults are often open to differing viewpoints and truth claims. They are quite often comfortable with contradiction and paradox. While openness and willingness to listen to others is a benefit, it often leads to uncritical adoption of popular thought patterns. The vice president of a large Christian university recently observed, “Students come here with a love for God in their hearts, but their minds think like pagans!” 2

Technology. Young adults struggle to balance the immediacy and anonymity they enjoy on the Internet with the desire for significant long-term relationships and authentic human contact.

Young adults live in paradox: growth vs. connection to family, head vs. heart, technology vs. human contact. Sharon Parks again:

There is something particularly powerful and poignant about the “twenty-something” years, harboring as they do, both promise and vulnerability. Young adults embody critical strengths and yet remain dependent in distinctive ways upon recognition, support, challenge, and inspiration. 3


Like the rest of the population, young adults are experiencing a world in transition, if not turmoil. If this was not true prior to September 11, 2001, it certainly is now. While everyone faces new questions, anxieties, and fears as a result of those acts, young adults face these things in the midst of their own lives in transition if not turmoil. It adds one more subtle dimension of uncertainty in the midst of an uncertain time of life. At a time when the vision of their own future is opaque at best, their {6} vision of society’s future becomes blurrier as well.

Given the uncertainty of the future and the transitional nature of their lives, one of the hallmarks of young adulthood is asking the big questions of life. The following are just a few:

  • Who am I?
  • Am I significant?
  • Where do I fit in the world?
  • Who is God?
  • Is my faith my own?

Being able to reflect critically upon oneself and one’s relationship to others, the world, and God is a key component of spiritual maturity. Most Christian high school students uncritically adopt the faith of their family and/or church. As they venture forth into the world, however, they begin to wonder if that faith is really their own. Parks describes this as “shipwreck”: events or catalysts that call into doubt previously held beliefs. 4

I regularly talk with students in shipwreck. They have lost a significant relationship, or their parents are getting divorced, or they have chronic health problems, or they are failing in their major, and they want to know why God lets it happen. They often find that the answers which satisfied them last year are no longer sufficient.

This process of questioning is healthy, even necessary, for the young adult to come to a place of true commitment to Christ. It is even the church’s responsibility to ask big questions if young adults ignore them. Young adults need help from individuals and church communities in navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of life.


What the Church Should Not Offer Them

Young adults do not need extended youth group. This is especially true for nonbelievers; they are searching for something more. An effective young adult ministry should also not focus merely on knowledge transfer. This is not because young adults do not need more knowledge and biblical training—they do. The focus, however, needs to be on applied knowledge. In addition, a ministry to young adults must, at all costs, avoid simple answers, cliches, and fads. If the church tries to apply simple answers and cliches to complex problems, it communicates to young adults that faith is superficial and insufficient for the realities of their lives. {7}

A young man who was not a believer spent a summer with a Christian group and made these comments:

I attended their church services regularly and did my best to open my mind fully to the possibility of Jesus as a savior and the Christian faith on the whole. . . . However, I decided that they were too sure of themselves and of each other. If [God] exists, I felt they trivialized his existence. Their comfort level was too high and their tolerance for nonbelievers was more like pity. There was not enough doubting for my liking (emphasis added). 5

Contemporary young adults, especially those not from the church, recognize life’s ambiguities. They live in a postmodern context that thrives on contradiction. Simplistic answers from a trivialized God do not sit well in a post-September 11 world. Some in the church may bristle at this, saying we must have confidence in God and his power in our lives, and they are right. Our confidence in God, however, must be tempered by humility regarding our own comprehension and apprehension of him.

God has demonstrated great willingness through the ages to confound human attempts to confine him. If churches desire to engage young adults, they must help them experience our great, infinite God, and find faith sufficient for the complex world they face. One of the most effective ways to do that is through mentoring ministries.

Mentoring Ministries

The spiritual mentor is an older, more mature person who “walks with” young adults as they traverse the landscape of faith development. Mentors challenge, inspire, encourage, give hope and wisdom, and help young adults ask important questions on the way to discovering faith in Christ that is big enough for all of life. Again, it is important to emphasize that this process is not merely information transfer, indoctrination, or direction. It is a dialogical process in which mentors and young adults work together to discover and commit to faith. Keith Anderson and Randy Reese refer to this as “spiritual hospitality,” where the mentor opens up his or her life as a comfortable place where the two can explore issues of life and faith. 6

Unfortunately, there are not enough people who feel competent or have enough time to mentor all who need this process. Parks advocates instead for creating “mentoring communities.” A mentoring community {8} is one in which mentors minister to groups of young adults. Obviously, the mentor would not have as much contact with each person, but group members also minister to one another. The influence of mentoring, then, is spread across a greater number of people.

I contend a community-mentoring model would work well for Mennonite Brethren churches. A community-based model resonates well with our Anabaptist distinctives. Relational ministries are at the heart of who we are supposed to be. The dialogical character of mentoring also fits with the collaborative nature and practice of Anabaptist faith. It recognizes the contributions of the older and the younger, the neophyte and the sage.

Finally, the holistic nature of mentoring reflects our Christocentric discipleship focus. The spiritual mentor is concerned with all of life and how Christ transforms the whole person. Mennonite Brethren communities can help young adults discover a faith that will help them commit all their lives to the Son of God who works through them to change the world.

Mentoring communities and the practices they employ can and should look different in different communities. Churches continually need to analyze the young adults of their church and community to determine how to shape the specific local ministry. Young adults must be involved in this process to help the church address relevant issues in relevant ways. This is not just for symbolic or strategic reasons, but because young adults have insight and connection into what will reach those inside and outside the church.

Big Questions

As mentioned above, young adulthood is a time when the big questions of life present themselves, often at surprising times. If churches do not allow and encourage these questions, faith development may be stunted or rejected as the young adult searches elsewhere for authenticity and answers. Douglas Huneke, a minister whose congregation attracts young adults, was asked, “Why do you think so many young adults are present in your church?” He responded, “I think it is because we are willing to welcome a lot of questions.” 7

Questions are important for a variety of reasons. One of the most important is to reveal the complexity of life young adults are sure to encounter, if they have not already. When we prepare them for complexity, they are less apt to be surprised and shipwrecked when it happens. They learn that what Jesus said was true, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. {9} But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV). Jesus prepared his disciples, those whom he mentored, for the troubles to come, and he did it so that they would have peace.

Understanding the complexity of life also necessitates a God who is big enough to handle complexities. The church often sanitizes life and God himself. Young adults recognize that a sanitized life and a packaged God do not work. One young man sensed this, saying, “I want to go to an environment where I’ll really be tested. It seems so often here that I haven’t needed a God, and I think maybe in Chicago I’ll need one.” 8

When young adults examine the complexities of life in the context of their own limitations, they realize they need a God who can help them in whatever they face. One of my favorite quotes is, “The Gospel is revealed, not exhausted, by inquiry.” 9 The God of creation and his Son are not threatened by questioning young adults. Scripture is full of saints who seriously questioned God. A partial listing would include the authors of many psalms, Moses throughout the book of Exodus, Job, Esther, Elijah, Paul, and Peter. True questioning involves seeking God, and he said to the exiles, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13 NIV).

Mentors provide a safe place for questioning and seeking. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once remarked that the writings of his literary mentors George Fox, Jacob Behmen, and William Law “during my wanderings through the wilderness of doubt, enabled me to skirt, without crossing, the sandy deserts of utter unbelief.” 10 We need to help young adults, many of whom are wanderers, if not spiritual exiles, to question and seek God with all their hearts, so they will only skirt the deserts of unbelief.

Providing space for questioning means ministries need to be structured creatively. Churches must still provide opportunities for Bible study, prayer, worship, and service, for these are the cornerstones of spiritual development. However, the forms they take may be quite different than for other ages, another reason for involving young adults in the process.

A ministry that encourages questioning requires mentors to be fluid in their leadership. They must be comfortable with unanswered questions, loose ends, and paradox. Good mentors also understand they do not have all the answers, nor need to have them. Young adults are looking for someone who is willing to enter into dialogue with them about life issues, and is willing to be a learner.

Leading this type of ministry is difficult for people who “require precision, order, sequential progression and careful forward motion—for spiritual mentoring is messy because life is messy, disorderly and random.” 11 If such messiness is true for the general populace, it is especially {10} true for young adults in a postmodern world, for whom two favorite words are “random” and “whatever.” It is for this reason that spiritual hospitality and mentoring relationships that endure are so important. Young adults need people who persevere with them. When questions or shipwrecks arise, they have someone on whom to lean.

Bigger Faith

Mentors do not encourage questioning for its own sake; mentoring is purposive. We encourage questions and invest in young adults for a purpose: we desire that they discover and form a faith big enough for all of life. “It is not mindless or soulless meandering but a journey that recognizes itself as pilgrimage, a journey with a spiritual or devotional purpose. The trajectory is purposive but not prepackaged” (emphasis added). 12 We want them to have a faith that makes a difference, but we do not expect the process or result to take the same form for everyone.

We do want them to have a faith as articulated by this young woman: “In high school my faith was more of a passive process—an assumed backdrop for my life. Now it is much more of an active process, something I think about every day as a component of so many different aspects of my life.” 13 It seems that as Anabaptists who strive for “whole-life” discipleship, this is what we want our young adults to attain. We want to help them understand faith is something we do in all areas of life.

A young woman who was struggling with faith and God, and was experimenting with a variety of religions and cults, compared her faith to mine one day. She said, “The difference between our faiths, Rod, is your faith influences everything you do, whereas mine is just one of many influences.” Many students compartmentalize their lives this way, but it rarely allows them to live as they wish. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance between what they claim to believe and how they live torments them. Mentors have the privilege of helping young adults develop a faith that encompasses all areas of life.

Soul Care

Asking big questions and searching for a bigger faith is a difficult process. Mentors play crucial roles as they care for young adults. They become invested in their lives because mentors do not just dispense spiritual wisdom; they “care about your soul.” 14 The range of issues that arise in this relationship is staggering. Some of the issues are explicitly spiritual, but much is not. If we believe all of life is interconnected, however, we realize faith development touches on all these issues. As young adults experience the various struggles and joys of this transitional time, {11} they depend upon older, wiser, caring mentors to minister to their souls. Such soul care takes different forms.

First, mentors must know young adults well enough to be able to see what is happening in their lives. Mentoring, even in mentoring communities, is not merely a task; it is a relationship. In those relationships mentors bring fresh sets of eyes. I look back on my own young adulthood and see mentors who recognized in me what I did not see. They encouraged me when I failed. They challenged me to do things I did not feel qualified to do. They gave me tough love, embodying Proverbs 27:6, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” When ministry and life seemed bleak, they gave me hope recognizing strength and potential. They inspired me to make a difference. This gift of recognition of strengths and potential is immeasurable. These people cared for my soul as they walked through wonderful and difficult times with me. They are still important to me today.

Such soul care is especially important given the family and technological issues discussed above. Although young adults strive to remain connected to home relationships, they are still seeking authentic, meaningful relationships that will endure. This is even more evident in young adults without church backgrounds. Having an older, wiser person who believes young adults are important enough to share their lives with is an amazing gift. When mentors invest in individual young adults for who they are, the love of Christ shines through.

Practical Ideas for Churches

A church desiring to help young adults form a holistic faith will provide a variety of opportunities for burgeoning faith to be applied. Mentors should not only discuss spiritual development; they should plan spiritual retreats to practice the disciplines. In addition to discussing faith and poverty, they should provide opportunities for service in the community and around the world. They should teach about the priesthood of all believers and spiritual gifts, and then discover and practice them in the community.

Unfortunately, churches often neglect the ministry potential of young adults in their congregations. Young adults can bring much needed enthusiasm and energy to a variety of ministries and leadership positions. They also bring important insight from different perspectives that can broaden the impact of many ministries. For those young adults who have attended a Christian college or university, many also bring more biblical training and ministry experience than most church members have. The church neglects their gifts at its own peril and to the detriment {12} of the spiritual development of the young adults.

Emphasizing faith in action not only reflects good Anabaptist theology; it connects with postmodern young adults. They seem to inherently recognize that faith is not just cognitive assent to doctrine; it also deals with senses and actions. When we involve them in active faith development and practice, they experience God in new ways and get a glimpse of how real faith can be in their lives. They begin to see that faith in God can be a reality in a complex world.


A mentoring ministry has the opportunity to participate in God’s transformation of young adults. Mentors give hope and inspiration. They recognize strength and potential. They challenge and sometimes wound in love. As mentors provide a safe environment for big questions, they set the stage for the creation of a transformative, lifelong, holistic faith that is big enough for the complexities of life. Mennonite Brethren churches and ministries are in a prime position to provide this essential ministry.


  1. Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 3.
  2. Quoted by Charles Colson, Breakpoint commentary, 28 August 2000.
  3. Parks, xi.
  4. Ibid., 28.
  5. Quoted in Parks, 99.
  6. Keith Anderson and Randy Reese, Spiritual Mentoring (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 28; also Keith Anderson at Fresno Pacific University, Student Life Division, staff training seminar, 16 November 2001.
  7. Quoted by Parks, 199.
  8. Parks, 97.
  9. Kelly Monroe, chaplain with the Harvard Graduate School Christian Fellowship, quoted in The Ivy Jungle 5 (fall 1997): 14.
  10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907), 98, quoted in Parks, 133.
  11. Anderson and Reese, 28.
  12. Ibid., 48.
  13. Parks, 77.
  14. Ibid., 128.
Rodney P. Reed is Campus Pastor and Interim Dean of Students at Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California.

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