Recently, I have been reading and thinking a lot about the challenges many young Christian adults face as they strive to cultivate a faith that is both authentic and attractive to those around them. One of the things that makes this process challenging is the transitory nature of where they are in life. But before I jump into the dangers of living in a transitional stage of life, it may be helpful to see the overview of all six dangers I plan to cover.
- Living in a transitional stage of life
- Difficulty establishing important spiritual habits
- Difficulty making meaningful religious commitments
- Living in an independent culture
- Difficulty prioritizing the local church
- Difficulty obeying/honoring parents
- Living in a technological age
- Difficulty leaving the virtual world
- Difficulty exercising “slow” spiritual disciplines
- Living in a post-modern era
- Difficulty accepting long-standing traditions
- Difficulty embracing moral absolutes
- Living in a sexualized society
- Difficulty with relationships
- Difficulty with personal purity
- Living in a sacred-saturated secular context
- Difficulty avoiding religious superficiality
- Difficulty discerning secular from sacred
One of the reasons this topic is important to me is that I have the enormous privilege of doing life with several thousand college students who happen to be figuring out their faith at a Christian university in the middle of the Bible Belt. By its very nature, college life is transitional. Habits are being formed. Character is being cultivated. Questions are being asked, ideas are being weighed, and beliefs are being adopted or abandoned. And religious beliefs are no exception to this process.
Much of what they are currently engaged in has a non-permanent flavor. For example, their daily schedule and flow of life are different from what they experienced during their high school years and definitely different from what life will look like after college, when there are no spring breaks or summer vacation. However, there are things during these years that are permanent, such as forming friendships that last a lifetime, finding a spouse, and developing core values and beliefs that will guide them throughout life.
What are the dangers that have potential to derail life during this important season?
Failure to seize these years as formative for the rest of life
Many college students view these years almost exclusively as years of preparation before “real life.” While there is no doubt that the patterns and events of these years are distinctly different from both the past and the future, they are in fact “real life.” Life does not start and stop in hard categories or ironclad stages. Both the education and the experience gained during these years are very much part of the formation of personal character and permanent values.
Lack of living intentionally is one of the greatest dangers facing young adults during these formative years. Because this season of life is done in a context that has defined boundaries (college years) with a defined goal (commencement), it is easy to let these years go by without defining specific life goals and measuring personal progress.
Difficulty establishing important spiritual habits
Closely connected to the temptation of living without intentionality is the difficulty of establishing important spiritual habits. It might surprise you to that habits make up an immense part of our daily life. (According to Charles Duhigg, habits make up about 40–45% of our actions.)
That means almost half of the things we do every day are done without intentional thought. But what happens when, like a typical freshman, you enter a new environment with new friends, new schedules, etc.? Those habits you relied upon need to be re-established, especially spiritual habits or routines. When are you going to read your Bible, study, pray—and where? What church should you go to? How do you get there?
The transitional nature of the college experience creates a context where new questions start to be asked that haven’t been considered in years. Up until now, things like church attendance, Bible reading, and praying have just been habit for many. Now, in a new context, these important spiritual disciplines can be very difficult to maintain. New context means new patterns of life, new pressures result in new challenges, and new challenges often leave us scrambling for solutions to life. And often, instead of being driven to the spiritual disciplines we desperately need, we may end up being more hit-and-miss.
Transitional times tempt us to push off taking care of our soul to a time when life is less busy and our days are not so swamped. However, those of us who have made it through these important transitory years can attest that life usually gets busier. What students need are friends and mentors who will constantly point them to their greatest need—an abiding relationship with Christ—not just in the future, but now. Accountability can even be key as students attempt to re-establish important spiritual disciplines in their newly rearranged life.
Difficulty making meaningful religious commitments
The educational years are viewed as stepping stones. The decisions that are made at school will potentially have big rippling effects for the rest of life, which can create an attitude of “strategic stepping.” This attitude is all about taking the next best step that will put you in the best position for the next best step. Anything that ties you down for more than a year is potentially taking away the chance of that “better step” just around the corner. Culture watchers call this “The Fear of Missing Out” or “FOMO.”
For example, engaging in temporary spiritual activity or projects is an important component of spiritual life during these years. However, there is a very real danger of substituting short-term spiritual activity for important long-term personal commitments. “Because I am only here for eight semesters, I don’t think I want to join a church and become a vibrant part of that living community of believers. Instead, I will attend a number of different churches and participate in the things that interest me.” Unwittingly, this approach to church life can result in real spiritual damage by cultivating a consumer mentality.
Our desire to focus on seizing the important educational experiences must be coupled with an intentional and purposeful approach to making lasting spiritual commitments. “I’m only here for a few years, so I don’t need to get fully immersed in a local church.” “I’m supposed to be focusing on my education, I can wait until later to devote more time and energy towards spiritual stuff.” There are a lot of reasons we can come up with. The point is, we’re in danger of committing spiritual suicide with the thought that we can be revived later once things get settled.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
In this passage, Jesus is warning that we can end up living with a very worldly mindset today in spite of our good intentions to live for spiritual things tomorrow. We combat this danger by making God’s kingdom objectives the priority for why we are pursuing all of the other objectives in our lives.
Are You Cultivating Core Spiritual Values?
Values are an indispensable part of living a significant life. Far too often, the busy activity of a transitional stage of life crowds out important life values that should be established and embraced. The activity of our life should rise up from core values that define and shape our lives—values like honesty, integrity and servant-mindedness. None of these values are instinctive to us—they must be intentionally embraced and purposefully cultivated. This takes time and commitment—commodities which are in short supply during the pressure and stress of a transitory time like college.
Although developing life values is challenging in a time of transition, it is often that transitory time that allows a person to do a “life reset,” establishing a new direction, pattern or habit that will become part of who they are for the rest of life.
This post was coauthored with Garrett Martin.