From Jay-Z to Jesus

Reaching & teaching young adults in the Black church

Ralph Watkins | Apr 14, 2009

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

This article is co-authored by Benjamin Stephens III, excerpted from the book titled From Jay-Z to Jesus: Reaching & Teaching Young Adults in the Black Church. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4 Judson,

The young adult struggle: Between a rock and a hard place

“But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered and said to him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And so said all the disciples. Matthew 26:32-35

In many ways this story about Peter typifies the experience of young adults in their faith walk. Peter is trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ, and he goes from one extreme to the other. We can condemn Peter, or we can understand that for Peter and his peers this was a confusing time. They were trying to make sense of their lives, Jesus’ ministry, and this whole suffering servant, crucifixion, resurrection thing. It was a lot to put together.

Peter and the other disciples, homeboys along with the women who were around Jesus, like young adults today, find themselves caught in a web of big questions linked with their faith journey. And they don’t have easy answers. Young adults are in a period of reexamining their lives, motives, call, convictions, and theology.

What are the real issues?

At the root of ministry with and to young adults is what I like to call the “great quest,” the question of purpose. The great quest is tied up with the great question: What have I been put on earth to be and do? This is both an identity question and a spiritual question. This question has theological and sociological implications. Young adults are in the process of defining themselves apart from their parents and in relationship to their peers. They are stretching out on their quest for a new life interdependent with their parents. There is a tension between what their parents defined for them and what they now have to define for themselves. The biblical foundation for quest, purpose, success, and significance is that famous Pauline passage of Ephesians 2:8-10 as Paul invites the readers to struggle with their divine design and purpose as outlined by God: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV).

The Ephesians 2:8-10 quest question

What has God designed young adults to be and do? What are those works that God has prepared for them? Sharon Parks makes the quest question clear in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams as she characterizes the questions young adults are asking. Parks says, “These are questions of meaning, purpose, and faith; they are asked not just on the immediate horizon of where we spend the night. In young adulthood, as we step beyond the home that has sheltered us and look into the night sky, we can begin in a more conscious way to ask the ancient questions: Who am I under these stars? Does my life have a place and a purpose? Are we—am I—alone?” [Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 35.] Young adults come to the church with these questions of meaning on their hearts. Young adult ministry must bring them into a community of faith that recognizes and honors the developmental work they are doing and walks with them.

The young adult developmental period feels like life and death for those experiencing it. It is a valley experience as they seek what’s next (the immediate) and what tomorrow has in store for them (the future). Many young adults leave the church during this period, and as a result they are trying to do this developmental work in the context of popular culture, which bombards them with mixed messages. In the church they need to hear a message that engages the messages they are getting from the culture while teaching them ways to seek counsel from God, godly friends, and leaders as they walk through this important phase of life.

Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, the authors of the book, Quarterlife Crisis, describe this period of life. Robins and Wilner compare the quarterlife crisis (between the late teens and early twenties) to what is commonly referred to and accepted in the culture as the midlife crisis. They say:

While the midlife crisis revolves around a doomed sense of stagnancy, of a life set on pause while the rest of the world rattles on, the quarterlife crisis is a response to overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices, and panicked sense of helplessness….The resulting overwhelming senses of helplessness and cluelessness, of indecision and apprehension, make up the real common experience we call the quarterlife crisis…. Twentysomethings believe they are alone and that they are having a much more difficult transition period than their peers-because the twenties are supposed to be “easy,” because no one talks about these problems, and because the difficulties are therefore so unexpected. [Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001), 4-5.]

Because no one talks about or recognizes the quarterlife crisis, the young adults’ experiences that feel like life and death go unnoticed by the larger culture, especially in church culture. As a result, they are left shivering, alone, afraid, and confused, waiting for someone to stop by their house and talk with them as they walk along this lonely way.

Jesus’ ministry: A model of response

Ministry to young adults was a significant part of Jesus’ ministry during his time on earth. We know that many of the disciples were young men searching for meaning, identity, and life purpose. We can of course assume that many of the women who where part of Jesus’ crowd were also young adults searching for the answer to the big questions of life. We know, for example, that Mary and Martha were close to Jesus and supportive of his ministry. Their search for an answer to what is most important in life is recorded in Luke 10:38-42. Mary and Martha are doing the work of young adults as they ask big questions and listen to Jesus’ answers. In essence Martha asks, “Do I do what is expected of me, or do I do what excites me? Do I sit and listen, or do I stay busy? How do I find God and find out what God wants of me?” The Mary and Martha story exposes some of the tension experienced in the lives of young adults.

Jesus was clear that Mary had made the better choice by choosing to sit and commune with him. Many young adults are busy running around trying to find out what God wants, what they want, and what the world wants on a trial-and-error basis while there isn’t a place for them to sit. A key theological theme in young adult ministry must be making a place for young adults to sit and listen to God. They need a break from the busy, a place where their resting and sitting at the feet of Jesus is appreciated and they are not criticized for what appears to be doing nothing.

Many young adults are caught between making a living, finishing a major, and doing what they really want to do—which in many cases they don’t even know yet. It is unfair to ask twenty-year-olds what they want to do for the rest of their lives. They don’t know. They walk into something that they may eventually struggle with and fight to walk away from.

Is this church for real?

Young adults are looking for confirmation that what they are doing is actually making a difference. They are not willing simply to come to church on Sunday and go through the motions. They question the relevance and power of the church. They critique form and fashion that don’t lead to deliverance. Jesus understood this. As soon as Jesus demonstrated the power of God in the deliverance of the demon-possessed man, he walked with his disciples to the home of Simon and Andrew. He was now about to show them how this ministry addressed their personal lives. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus healed her.

The key here is ministry that makes a difference. Jesus wasn’t offering religious platitudes or promising to do something later for those who were hurting. He responded on the spot in a way that made a lasting difference. Young adults want to be involved in ministry that is real, tangible, and making a difference in the here and now. George Barna calls these types of young adults religious revolutionaries. He says, “[There is] a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s kingdom. They are people who want more of God—much more—in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it.” [George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 7.]

The disciples of Jesus got more of God; they were able to touch God, sit with God, and see God act. Young adults in the twenty-first century want this type of closeness with God. Jesus didn’t have a wall between him and the people. He gave them access and the ability to get involved and start working with the ministry today.

A ministry that doesn’t empower young adults to live an edited life in an unedited world with and among sin and sinners will not meet their needs. They need to be empowered to sit the way Jesus sat with tax collectors and sinners. This empowerment requires an encounter with God’s Word that reveals God’s ways and methods for living in the world they can’t leave.

Action points

1. What has your church done to make sure it is welcoming to young adults? Make two lists of ways your church both welcomes and discourages young adults to participate. Then send out your lists to a few young adults you know and invite them to comment on your lists.

2. What is unique about your city that would fight against young adults’ faith journey? Host a focus group of young adults to discuss the issues and concerns they have about your particular context as it relates to young adult faith and identity.

3. Take stock of the ways your church involves young adults in meaningful service, both inside and outside the church, for the sake of the Kingdom. Then brainstorm new inroads to plug young adults into existing ministries, involving appropriate leaders and of course young adults themselves.

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Ralph Watkins

Ralph C. Watkins, DMin, PhD, is the Assistant Dean, African American Church Studies Program in Fuller’s School of Theology, and an Associate Professor of Society, Religion and Africana Studies. A pastor, author, and musician, Ralph is known for his work in connecting churches with the hip-hop generation. Watkins is an active teaching scholar with over 250 publications and conference presentations to his credit. A syndicated columnist, his column “Black in the City” is published in over 30 newspapers throughout the U.S. His most recent book is The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation. Watkins holds a Doctor of Ministry from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a PhD in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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