Signposts in the spiritual landscape of young adults.
1. Erratic idealism
Young adults are trying to make their way in the world and make their mark. They have a long period of choice and exploration before the urge to settle asserts itself. In that period they can become highly motivated, idealistic, self-sacrificing, compassionate and focussed. A few months later they may well be apathetic and focussed almost entirely on consuming entertainment. It is possible to see these swings between apathy and idealism as an exploration of individual strength and resilience and almost a “trying on” of individual values that might guide their future life. Some young adults, needing more black and white simplicity in their search for meaning may well commit themselves to a comprehensive system of values through religion or a political ideology that can scaffold their development into the future and give them a sense of identity. Most are comfortable with muddling along and saving value decisions for later. The focus is clearly on life-style rather than lasting meaning which may be seen as static and stagnating.
2. Eclectic sampling
Young people have been born into a world that is suspicious of institutions. Large organisations are seen as a threat to individual freedom and as a having hidden agendas. The focal point for young adults is the individual, mu choices, freedom, rights and dignity. Therefore they are unlikely to accept complete answers but will be drawn to construct their own meaning by a DIY process of collecting different elements into a personal package that can grow and change with life. Therefore they will adopt practices from a range of traditions without necessarily importing the beliefs behind them. What they are interested in is the immediate experience rather than the dogma behind the practice. This can be confusing for religious people who may feel that they have engaged with a young person only to find that they are also exploring nature religions at the weekend. Young adults do not experience a division between the secular and sacred, they can sense spirituality in life more easily than previous generations. That means that they do not feel the need for church because they locate the sacred within themselves. The experience of church does not feed their deepest hunger.
3. The shape of spiritual community
The problem with a DIY spiritual life is that it is a lonely process where motivation can ebb and flow. Many young adults give up and may meet later challenges without the inner resilience that faith can give. However, in order to support young adults now, the community needs to have some clear dimensions if it is to avoid damaging the personal spiritual development of young adults. Here are some of the elements:
a) Listening should be the primary mode of communicating- valuing the experience and unique history of each young adult.
b) Avoid lumping people together and suggesting that “we are all on the same journey” because that is not how young adults are likely to experience their life.
c) Expect inconsistency between what is expressed by young adults and their life-style. The pressures to conform are strong and extended into mid-life. Living consistently across the board is more difficult because young adults can compartmentalise their experience and compromise- as all of can.
d) Any group gathering around spirituality needs to avoid “gurus” in whatever shape they may come, partly because of the power differential that may lead to manipulation but more because they may undermine the personal autonomy of a young adult in discovering their identity and direction in life.
e) The general atmosphere has to be one of freedom and the space to have one’s voice heard. Top down talk will not do.
4. Belonging in groups
The group is the sacred space for young people. With all its strengths and weaknesses it is the place where values, identity and meaning are forged for the future. This is particularly true for many young women. The flow of SMs, online chat, the falling out and reconciliations become a curriculum for clarifying what is and is not important. This spiritual work goes on constantly through the random events of social life but it becomes more focussed when a cause is espoused. Compassion and anger can be explored and strengthened through justice and service of others. Beneath the practical work values and beliefs are tested and a broad vocational direction is explored. These groups can be related to church but it would not be wise to assume that such young adults are buying into the beliefs of the church- they are simply doing good and testing themselves.
5. Extended adolescence
We can all revert to adolescence at any age but today adolescence is prolonged for many young adults. The strong desire for autonomy alongside an extended period of financial dependence in western culture make for frustration in living out a longer adolescence. The importance of remaining flexible in a changing world inevitably delays the longer term commitments of adult life. Many decisions need to be deferred and the time of explorations and experimentation extends. For this reason travel, parties, casual sex, video games, changing jobs, extended study and ambivalence about “settling down” highlight this period of uncertainty. The uncertainty comes to an end when a crisis or a choice forces a decision that pushes the young adult out of a self-focussed developmental phase into committed action. The absence of a crisis moment might condemn even mid-life adults to an almost perpetual adolescence.
6. Plurality of culture
Young adults have grown up in a western world where multiple cultures live alongside one another providing a rich source of approaches to meaning within which the Christian approach is just one among many. This richness is expressed in clothing, music and dance most visibly but notions such as re-incarnation, karma, mindfulness, Feng Sui and so on explored and adopted at least for short periods of time. However, where cultural identity is weak some young adults find the variety threatening and can opt for single black and white answers that can lead to rigidity and eventually to prejudice against other expressions of culture. Closed belief systems tend to reinforce this approach and even promote such rigid young adults as examples of faith and commitment. In fact the closed black and white system can become a house of cards that can collapse leaving the young adult feeling betrayed and angry.
7. Social movements and politics
Movements and political parties are classified under a “suspicious” heading in much the same way as church when considering values and identity. Young adults need to question all authority and expect that these organisations to win their respect and not assume it to exist. Therefore they are slow to join groups or movements and often do not stay for long. There is a strong desire in young adults to change the world but alongside that there is also a desire to find their own way and a powerlessness to make any difference in a complex dynamic world. Therefore young adults worry about globalisation, environment and fair trade but most are unlikely to change their personal choices about spending or travel to ease those global dilemmas. They worry about the gap between their deepest ideals and the power they have to make a difference.
8. Anxiety and violence
Global terrorism is a constant concern for young adults. The extremism and narrowness of view behind anarchic terrorism confuses the average young adult. The destabilising impact of violence globally and locally casts a fearful shadow over the optimism of young adults and raises suspicion of national groups in a multi-cultural society. The suspicion extends to any organisation that makes meaning claims that threaten individual identity. The ability of such “isms” to suffocate individuality to the point where suicide bombings seem to make sense leaves young people at a loss. How can violence be an answer? What is the best response to it? Does religion promote narrowness? There are no clear answers for young adults to these questions and their strategy is to avoid all narrow closed systems as a form of self-preservation. The absence of young adults from church is not apathy but a commitment to authenticity.
The landscape within which young people grow is their sacred ground and we must be careful not to judge. Instead we need to walk with them and listen to them well. It is only when we have assured them of their dignity and freedom and met them with loving kindness that we can hope for the invitation to unwrap our own treasures and offer them new reasons for living and hoping.