When I was a child … I thought the sky was blue because God painted it that way. I imagined Heaven to be a massive ice-cream shop in the sky. I assumed the Holy Spirit really was a dove, fairy-like angels sat on my shoulder and Jesus looked like a mini Ken doll (with a beard) who dwelled in my heart and waved at me with a smile every time I looked down at my chest.
These beliefs stitched my faith together. Their warp and woof made the world I once lived in vivid and alive. This mismatched patchwork of images and impressions riddled my reality with spiritual energy and supernatural presence.
At the time, I would have argued and fought for these beliefs … these truths. But not any more. They were a good start. They’ve served their purpose. But now these truths have passed their use-by date.
Ready for More?
A friend of mine in the US works as a spiritual director for emerging and young adults – young people usually in their twenties. Usually they commence journeying with her when their faith falls on rough times and they feel like chucking it in. By the time they begin with her they have often had numerous conversations with others, lots of time mulling things over, and maybe even a couple of attempted revivals – rededicating themselves during a service or making a fresh attempt at a consistent quiet time. Their friends, family and leaders are worried and sometimes these young people have even been cautioned to ‘just stop with all the questions,’ and instead ‘pray or read your bible when doubts begin to grow.’ But of course that just makes it worse because it all appears so simplistic and naive.
As the young person finishes telling their story and furtively looks up (usually with a touch of shame or guilt on their face), they are met with my friend’s broad smile. And nine times out of ten the first words out of her mouth are, “So, you are ready for more then?”
Moving Forward, Not Retreating Back
What I love about my friend’s response, and what so many of her directees appreciate, is that she doesn’t want to drag them back to the faith they once had. Quite the opposite. The careful and deliberate process they embark upon instead assumes that doubting, questioning and exploration are necessary and vital to the process of owning your own faith. And through this process you begin to loosen your dependence on the faith of others, so you can grow a faith that exists alongside others – interdependence, not independence.
How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on… when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back?
~ Frodo, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
Now, lets just pause for a moment to be clear. First of all, the childhood experiences that we associate with faith are important, powerful and lasting. These experiences stamp themselves on our consciousness and powerfully influence the way we engage with … well, reality really … for the rest of our lives (I’ll discuss this later in another post). From this perspective, our ‘childlike faith’ never goes out of date but remains with us for a very long time. Yet, if I were to try to hold on to these beliefs – these ‘truths’ – as an adult in the same way I held them as a child I probably would have stopped believing and left the faith many years ago.
Becoming an Old Dog with lots of New Tricks
Developmental psychologists have helped us understand this point in really helpful ways. They point out that our development is radically influenced by the way we respond to the ever more complex challenges that come our way as we grow older. A challenge that is simple and straightforward is one in which we readily have the resources to meet and master. Like fixing a piece of toast when we are hungry. As long as we have a toaster, bread in the cupboard and vegemite on the shelf, we are set.
However, when something comes our way for which we don’t have the resources, and neither do the people around us, then we must go on a quest to find them. If we find these new resources and integrate them into our lives, we grow! If we don’t, we get stuck and wind up developing a variety of coping mechanisms as a “work-around.”
And one more thing. The more we successfully meet these challenges with newly discovered resources, the better we get at navigating the whole developmental process. That is, we get used to the process of growing and developing, instead of languishing and becoming an ‘old dog’ with no new tricks.
This last point makes me think of my grandfather. He’s a few years shy of 100 and not terribly mobile, but he still readily communicates with his grand kids and great grand kids via emails and messages from his iPad. I can only assume that at some point in his life, Grandpa mastered the art of growing up, and now he is an aged and wise man who is full of surprises and new tricks.
So … Are You Ready for What’s NEXT?
I’ve learned a lot from my friend the spiritual director. I’ve also been privileged to walk alongside a number of folks who in their own way were experiencing the ‘use-by date’ on their faith ticking over. Some of them were able to follow this call to a new way of following Jesus (who is infinitely more complex and mysterious). I’ve also experienced grief when some folks did not. In no way am I saying they are bad or faithless people. But as I think back, it seems like they concluded that the doubts they were having indicated not that their way of going about believing needed an update, but rather that The Christian Faith was, in fact, naive and simplistic – that all that they had been taught to believe is all there is to it. And so they traded in their faith in Christ for faith in something else – often (but not always) becoming disciples of the fastest growing ‘religion’ today – Western Democratic Capitalism.
This is why we describe NEXT as a ‘unique experience of personal development and spiritual formation purposefully designed for emerging and young adults.’ It’s a bit of a mouthful, and doesn’t really roll off the tongue, but it gets to the heart of what we are doing here. You see, NEXT is distinctive because it is designed from the ground up using researched and proven principles of spiritual formation and personal development specifically applied to emerging and young adulthood (that is, life post-highschool through to the mid twenties). That is to say, we are not first and foremost an educational program masquerading as a discipleship experience. Neither are we an internship program that needs young leaders to fulfil our mission. Rather, NEXT can help you to explore and discover what you believe, what is important to you, and how you can go about living that out. And we work on this together, refreshing and updating beliefs that have passed their use-by date by focusing on six areas of development:
- Engaging Spirit – awakening to God’s transformative activity
- Exploring Faith – authoring a creed strong enough to believe in
- Discerning Culture – uncovering the world as God sees it
- Seeking Justice – fuelling compassionate action where it is needed most
- Growing Community – committing to authentic relationship among all people
- Living Purposefully – thinking, speaking and acting with conviction.
(In fact, you could say that these 6 points are our definition of discipleship.)