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The Key to Successful Discipleship Between Generations

We probably all have our examples of mismatched assumptions.

Making the wrong choice of clothes for an event we believed to be far more formal than it actually was.

Assuming an invitation to a meal or a coffee came with (or without) an expectation of contributing to the bill.

Or, more seriously, thinking that all is well with the person smiling in front of you, when in fact they’re putting on a brave face amid some major struggles.

I am sure we can all identify with these examples in some way or other. Perhaps we are a little more aware of the dangers of assumptions when we are interacting cross-culturally.

What I am coming to realize, however, is how critical this is inter-generationally, most particularly with 18- to 25-year-olds, dubbed by some as the “Emerging Adult” generation.

The older generations tend to look at the Emerging Adult generation and roll their eyes while claiming they are simply facing the same challenges that everyone else faced at the same age. However, this is simply not the case.

Not only is their way of seeing the world significantly different; the speed of change is also accelerating.

We experience this at a micro-level in my own family. The issues, pressures and cultural assumptions that my 12-year-old is facing are now even more intense than those experienced by my 19-year-old just seven years earlier.

What does this have to do with discipleship? My point is simply this: We mustn’t assume that exploring discipleship with Emerging Adults is based on the same cultural assumptions and worldview as those from older generations.

We can no longer take it for granted that Emerging Adults attach the same meaning and understanding to discipleship as I do.

If we want to avoid awkward and embarrassing misunderstandings, we would do well to listen carefully to the underlying assumptions of different generations when it comes to discipleship.

During my recent sabbatical, I read “Lost in Transition” by Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson and Patricia Snell Herzog. This book aims to identify some of the challenging features of the Emerging Adult culture.

Based on extensive and robust research, this book explores five themes: morality, consumerism, intoxication, sexual liberation and, finally, civic and political engagement.

Some of what we can read in this book will not surprise many of us. A highly individualistic and experiential approach to life and morality and the lack of objective moral reference points certainly affect understandings of discipleship.

When I think about discipleship, I understand that to be an exclusive commitment to following Jesus Christ and I learn what that means through reading the Bible. For me, discipleship is bound up inextricably with Lordship.

We cannot assume that this is the case for Emerging Adults though, where to follow something means to be interested in a multiplicity of people and themes and where what is right is determined by what feels right for me and how that will be perceived by my peers.

And what are we to make of nurturing a lifestyle of discipleship amid an almost universal acceptance of the economic necessity of consumerism? Where the development of character and social justice is drowned out by the culture of material gain?

And there are also the challenges of being a disciple in a culture where alcohol, drugs and sexual activity are all pervasive and part of the norm. Where the assumption of what a good life looks like is “endless novelty, change and excitement, as the titillation of the senses by every available stimulant, as unlimited possibility,” as Christopher Lasch observes in his book, “The Truth and Only Heaven.”

You, like me, however, may have come to believe that the Emerging Adult generation is poised to rise up and shake the political and civic structures of our day. Isn’t this what we saw in recent political history in the United Kingdom?

The statistics tell another story, however. Based on survey data from the U.S., the conclusions are stark.

The “Lost in Transition” authors write, “The vast majority of EAs [Emerging Adults] remain highly civically and politically disengaged, uninformed and distrustful. Most feel disempowered, apathetic and sometimes even despairing when it comes to the world beyond their own private lives.”

And can we be surprised? In a world where Emerging Adults are overwhelmed by globalization, pluralism, communications technology and information overload, is it any wonder that they find meaning in the world that they can experience and test for themselves?

For many, the bottom line is that you can only really trust yourself and what you experience to be good. It is easy to see, then, that individualism brings welcome meaning and scale to a huge, complex world.

But just before some of us throw our hands up in horror and despair at the Emerging Adult generation, please stop and pause to consider a very hard hitting and prophetic point that this book makes. These Emerging Adults have been socialized and nurtured by us – our society and our churches.

Perhaps, it is not so much that they have not listened to their elders; maybe they have learned all too well.

Of course, it is not that we just give up on discipleship then. Rather, what I want to suggest is that those who are older use their listening, cross-cultural skills and awareness to understand the world that Emerging Adults live in – prayerfully and thoughtfully reflecting on how they describe, invite and accompany Emerging Adults on their discipleship journeys.

Can some demonstrate maturity in realizing that what worked for you is not being devalued, but that others may need something different?

Together, will we have the grace, generosity and love to hold out Jesus to others, and not merely our ways of connecting with him?

In the light of this, some things that would seem to be important for discipleship now and in the future would be enabling others to experience faith and have moments of awe and wonder.

Seeing discipleship as a mutual accompanying journey rather than primarily a teacher / pupil relationship is also key.

As I reflect on Scripture, it strikes me that the first disciples often began their journey following a rabbi, yet there came points where they encountered Jesus as Lord (Mark 4:41, Luke 5:8, 9:20, 24:30-31, John 1:48-49, 20:28).

My prayer is that, together, we will pool our spiritual gifts of insight, wisdom and discernment to encourage each other on this journey.

Editor’s note: A version of this article appears in the Autumn 2018 edition of Baptists Together magazine and is used with permission.

Lynn Green

Lynn Green is general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.