Twenty-six. That’s when it usually happens. It’s often earlier for women and later for men, but somewhere between the ages of 20 and 32, the human animal loses its mind. The carefree swagger and optimistic grin give way to Munch’s "The Scream." Previously pleasant, jocular adults begin entertaining severe notions of life alteration. The monosyllabic office clerk dives headfirst into eHarmony and is married within a month, pregnant in two. The ambitious law student sets her books on fire, moves to Greenwich Village and declares herself a “performance artist.” The ex-college athlete abandons sports to work out his right arm at the local brewery. When twentysomethings bail on their typical lives and set a course for the bizarre, you know that the inevitable has occurred: The Fear has arrived.
Two or three generations ago, gainful employment and marriage by the mid-20s was expected. People left the warm cocoons of family and school for the stable world of marriage and work. Not anymore. Today most young adults get dropkicked out of school into a world where there are few expectations and limitless options but limited resources. The reality of daily life dilutes and sours self-confidence and lofty goals. This might be tolerable for a few years, but eventually The Fear kicks in. The fantasy of adult life gives way to dread. Young adults experience an overwhelming, often irrational feeling that their life will never be what they once dreamed. They panic. Their fight-or-flight reaction produces a flurry of extreme choices and questionable judgment. When someone is convinced that he’s going to wind up poor, alone and inconsequential, he can do stupid things. Or he shut down altogether and gives up. Not even marriage and a steady job safeguard young adults from The Fear. Those who wed and achieve financial stability at a young age observe the “adventures” of their peers and often worry that they’ve missed something.
Few young adults seek help when The Fear overtakes them. Most white-knuckle their way through, pretending everything’s fine while they’re dying inside. In a postmodern world where “everything’s cool,” nobody wants to admit they’re freaking out because of uncertainty and lack of direction. As a young adult leader, you’ll have to raise the issue before they’ll confess their fears. Since you’ll scare them if you ask, “Has The Fear taken you yet?” it’s better to address specific issues. Here are five things that scare the charity bracelets off most twentysomethings:
1. Never Getting Married & Getting Married
“No one is ever going to love me, and I’m going to be alone forever.” When you’re not single, you see this fear for the laughable, fleeting thought that it is. Many twentysomethings, however, have just left college and a dating pool of a few thousand. They’ve discovered Saturday nights alone with Netflix and ramen noodles. The answering machine that used to be filled with exciting invitations now chirps only once a week with a message from mom. Their social life revolves around “colleagues” from work with an ulcer and 20 years on them. At this point, the fear of being alone is neither funny nor fleeting.
On the other side of the aisle are people in serious relationships. Engagement and marriage are staring them in the face, and they aren’t smiling. Though these individuals are in love, they’re convinced that marriage will swallow up their youthful vitality and sentence them to a life of minivans, early bedtimes and “adult alternative” radio. They seldom reveal their fears to their beloved and they certainly won’t tell you, lest they get the “eventually, we all have to make a choice” speech.
2. Never Finding a Direction
Before entering the real world, choosing a career seems about as hard as picking pizza toppings. They soon learn differentlu. Once confronted with the time, sacrifice and obstacles that stand between them and their dream career, many young adults despair. Postmodernism has fostered some positive traits, but delay of gratification isn’t one of them. Those not prepared for the long haul often make knee-jerk career choices that only add to the confusion and prolong a feeling of hopelessness.
3. Never Finding an Identity
Young adults spent their late teens and early 20s basking in the freedom and acceptance of their culture. They got tattoos, dressed funky and tossed around big ideas about changing the world. Suddenly, someone wants them to get up early, wear a suit and cut their hair. A new husband finds that his wife won’t allow his vintage Star Wars poster in the front room. People who’ve never had serious demands placed on their identity encounter new expectations from every corner of their life. A recent study found that identity confusion now persists into the early 30s. This can lead to depressed passivity or angry rebellion, but mostly it just feeds the fear of never figuring out who they are.
4. Living in Uncertain Times
In the last decade, war and terrorism happened in “other countries.” Then evil people started flying planes into buildings. When you can no longer count on your own safety in the most powerful and free country in the world, there’s not much you can count on.
5. Uncertainty About God’s Will
Young adulthood is usually where the existential doo-doo hits the fan. In the warm security of family, church and school, it’s easy to believe that God has a plan for your life. When you can’t get a date, a job, a car or a sane roommate, faith becomes harder to sustain. Many young adults have never had to trust God through adversity. It’s not fun, especially the first time around.
Into this fear festival you stroll, the leader who might not be much closer to overcoming these fears than the people you serve. And did I mention that they won’t admit their fears to you? Unless you take action to address these fears, it won’t matter if your young adult group is seeker friendly and has a cool name like “Tribe.” One of the reasons that young adult ministries are few and poorly attended is that they seldom provide the kind of security that young adults secretly crave. Unless twentysomethings see an opportunity for romance or job networking, most will move on, searching for an anchor in the storm.
Unless you make your group that anchor. You can provide young adults a place to recover from fear and renew their strength. Here are a few things you can do to tackle The Fear directly and make your young adult group a haven:
CONFESS YOUR OWN FEARS
When I was in third grade, my Pee Wee football coach told us about how scared he was when he first played football. He then asked us to raise our hand if we’d ever felt afraid during a game. We all raised our hands. He nodded and assured us that it was normal. He said he would help us in any way he could and welcomed us to come talk to him whenever we felt afraid.
After Coach told us that, we became the most fearless miniature football team ever to take the field. The smallest guys barreled into opponents twice their size with wild abandon. I actually snarled at a massive linebacker who’d taunted and tormented me all season. As long as we knew that what we felt was normal and help was available, we could play boldly.
Realizing that fear is normal removes the shame that only intensifies it. A good way to help young adults with this is to share some of your fears, especially those you had (or still have) during their phase of life. Sometimes the strongest leader is the one who can show weakness. You don’t have to confess your darkest fears, but let them see that you’re human and they’re not freaks. Then let them know you’re available to help and listen. Knowing that will be sufficient comfort for many. People jump higher when they know there’s a safety net below.
PROVIDE MENTORS WHO “GET IT”
There’s great value in a mentor who’s 20 or 30 years older, but young adults benefit most from one who’s five to 10 years older. Provide each a mentor with similar interests or characteristics but at a more stable place in life. The mentor will have a lot of empathy and the “mentee” will see that better things are just around the corner.
PROVIDE MEANING AND PURPOSE
Bowling, coffee and rafting trips have their place, but young adults need a cause to sink their teeth into. They’re better equipped than the teenagers we usually shove into mission work. Make them responsible for a challenging situation that involves intense relationships and high stakes. Sign them up to be Big Brothers or Big Sisters and have regular meetings to discuss and pray over the experience. Provide aid and outreach to groups that intimidate others, such as addicts or homosexuals. It will be difficult, but they need a challenge more than they need another trip to Denny’s.
PROVIDE A PLACE
Every corner of the universe has a space dedicated to teenagers, most of whom prefer the house of a friend with a swimming pool. Young adults are in just as much need of a place to gather. All you need is a room with a couch, a coffee maker and a couple of computers with fast Internet connections and a laser printer. That way, people can claim that they come to “work” when they really don’t want to be home alone. Give them keys, make them responsible for it and install a doorknob that gives an electric shock to anyone under 20. Then sit back and watch a family grow.
TEACH THEM ABOUT REAL FAITH
Stop reassuring them that things will get easier. God loves them and will look after them, but He won’t drop a job, a spouse or an identity into their lap. There will be tough times and uncertainty ahead. Teach them how to experience God in the midst of that. Study Psalms 30-40 with them, and show them how David freaked out on a regular basis because he couldn’t see God’s hand. And this is the guy who dropped Goliath. Help them develop a faith that’s not dependent on good fortune. A mature relationship with God means finding His presence in the darkest times. After all, Christ is the anchor that they really need. Once they learn to experience God’s love and peace in the midst of uncertainty, The Fear won’t be as scary anymore. And when God’s blessings finally come, the joy will be greater than ever.