Smashing Boxes: Young Adult Ministry without Preconceptions

Malvina Reynolds’s song, “Little Boxes,” satirized the boxy houses that dominated suburban landscapes in the mid-20th century, and the conformist spirit they symbolized: they were “all made out of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same.” Today, we’d see them as symptomatic of an even larger reality. To live in a certain place, in a certain kind of house, with a certain kind of job, a certain kind of lifestyle, and a certain set of beliefs about the world—this was the essence of Modernism in both its architectural and philosophical forms. Modernism insisted on putting everything in its place—we could call it a sociological version of Linnaean taxonomy.[1]

In the 1980s generational cohorts became the object of classification by writers like William Strauss and Neil Howe. Starting with the Baby Boomers, they described the distinctive characteristics that set members of a generation apart from their parents and grandparents. The project made sense initially. All the Boomers were adults—the oldest were in their 40s-and so they had established a significant track record from which conclusions could be drawn.

But Strauss and Howe offered more. They deduced a pattern of recurring cycles, and claimed this made it possible to predict how the members of future generations would act and think. A couple of years later the first books on “Generation X” appeared, though the oldest Xers were only turning 30. And not long after that came the books on “Generation Y” (a.k.a. “Millennials”) even though the oldest members of this cohort were still teenagers, and the youngest were in diapers!

These books spawned a cottage industry of experts who were hired to give seminars and trainings on how to understand today’s youth and young adults, and why they had conflict with other generations, and how to minister to them. For nine years I was director of young adult and campus ministry for a major Catholic archdiocese, and I was one of those experts. I used these categories in courses I taught and in seminars I presented.

But I started getting suspicious when those books on the “Millennials” came out. It is one thing to label a generation that has been around a while and has some accomplishments—but how can you label a generation when most of its members are in grade school? I found sociologists who shared my skepticism. They noted that late adolescent and early young adult years are the critical period for the development of ideas. It is a time of experimentation and openness, when young people are trying new things and quickly discarding them. But it doesn’t last forever.

“…After about twenty-five years of age there is a solidification of values making them resistant to change, and researchers studying the life cycle find that people in their forties, fifties, or sixties tend to have the same values they had back in their twenties.” [2]

The gurus of generational analysis were confidently classifying the permanent, defining characteristics of “the Millennials” at the very time the oldest members of this cohort were just entering the period of greatest identity change, using a classification system based not on research, but on their questionable and overly simplistic theory of generational cycles.

I think it is time to consign all these generational theories to the trash heap, along with the other pseudo-scientific faddish labeling systems popular on the consulting circuit—systems like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram and similar “modern astrologies”[3] that assign numbers and names and labels to “understand” who they are and how they will behave. It’s not just that they are wrong, and without a scientific basis. It’s not just that they attempt to give respectability to blatant stereotyping. It’s that they presume a way of looking at the world that is no longer tenable.

The shift from the modern to the postmodern is real. The well ordered cities of modernism are giving way to the blurred diversities of the megalopolis. The walls of our mental boxes are being broken down. It isn’t enough to simply swap the labels “modern” and “postmodern” for “Boomer” and “Xer” and “Millennial.” If we are labeling at all, we haven’t grasped the enormity of the shift that is taking place.

We will never understand young adults or youth or any other group by trying to establish sweeping generalizations. We will only understand young adults by listening to them as individuals who have unique stories.

Ministry with young adults cannot be built on research or theory, but must constantly be done afresh from among them. I suggest we do our ministry as Jesus did his: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This means emptying ourselves of agenda and preconception. It means humbling ourselves and making ourselves vulnerable. It means being among them as authentic flesh and blood, with our own stories of what has brought us to this moment, being honest about our hopes and fears.

Like Jesus, we need to be motivated by love, desiring “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Like him, we need to engage them in conversation, respecting each one as an individual, our eyes able to discern the unique hurts and questions and gifts and joys of each one. Only then will we be able to extend to them Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

The world is changing. It is different in many ways from the world of the past few centuries. But it is not so different from the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day. The public square is filled with temples to multiple gods, known and unknown. Young adults today, as then, can pick and choose from various philosophies and worldviews as these make sense or are useful to them, creating new Gnosticisms to shed light on the mysteries of life and the universe.

We can’t assume they share our knowledge or perceptions of the world or society, and so we can’t come to them with a chain-linked list of proof-texts. We must be able to speak to their unique questions, and to persuade—not just giving facts, but explaining why, and giving witness to what difference it has made in our lives. It means taking the time to open ourselves to their questions and criticisms—and being willing to admit when we don’t know the answer.

It can be frightening to stand in the open, without the protection of the walls we’ve built. It can be upsetting to see our carefully packed boxes spilling their contents into the middle of the road.

But standing there, exposed, and vulnerable, we may feel the wind in our hair once again and recall that once it was said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8, NKJV).

[1] See, for example, Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern Fables. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

[2] Dean R. Hoge, William D. Dinges, Mary Johnson, Juan L. Gonzales, Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), p. 20.

[3] Thomas G. Long, “Myers-Briggs and Other Modern Astrologies.” Theology Today, vol 49 no. 3 October 1992 http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/oct1992/v49-3-editorial.htm 

Originally published in Adventist Today.