His name was Max and for a while, we were friends. We hung out at church, mostly. He was in fourth grade, I was in third. One Wednesday night after our grade-specific classes had met, I heard the news. During “Good News and Prayer Requests” in class, Max had stood up and proudly announced his good news: Rebekah is my girlfriend.
Only, I wasn’t his girlfriend.
It wasn’t a lie, exactly. Max thought it was true. I was a girl and I was his friend. When his friends told my friends and my friends told me, I laughed nervously. He was older, he’d already announced it, I was flattered, I was scared to bring it up. “Yeah, I’m his girlfriend,” I answered my friends. By the next Wednesday, Max and I were no longer together.
We never did talk about it.
Take out the names Max and Rebekah and this could potentially be the story of our graduating high school seniors, college students, and young adults and their relationships with our churches: not talking, not defining our relationships, and not staying together.
What is at risk when we fail to have the conversation? What becomes possible when we engage in this deeply intentional way with the people we have been entrusted with?
Steve Argue of Fuller Theological Seminary proposes the idea of a “define the relationship” (DTR) conversation with churches and young adults to address this very thing*.
“At one time or another, you’ve probably had to do this. It’s that moment in a significant relationship when you take a moment and ask, “Who are we, together?” “How shall we relate to each other?” “What can I expect of you, and you of me?” and “Where is this thing going?” Relationships that don’t have one (or more) DTRs live in ambiguity and eventually dissolve because no one is clear as how to relate, act, or anticipate. Ambiguous relationship = break-up.
Faith communities need to have a DTR with their 20-somethings before more blame is launched or another program is created.” (http://youthspecialties.com/blog/its-time-to-define-the-relationship-with-our-emerging-adults/)
Taking a cue from Steve Argue, and Fuller Youth Institute’s research on Growing Young, we had a “define the relationship” conversation with our newest young adults: our high school students on the cusp of graduation. Here are some tips for your own DTR:
Be clear in your own mind on what the church leadership expects from young adults, and be equally clear about what young adults can expect from the church leadership and congregation. Do the research necessary to tell the truth here. Often, institutional clarity is a process. Don’t start this process at 9pm the Saturday before the Sunday of your DTR. If the goal of a DTR is to minimize ambiguity, than you do not want to begin by muddying the waters.
Lean into already existing rhythms. Don’t know what 25-29 year olds can expect from your church or what to expect from them? Then don’t start there. Start with your graduating high school seniors and their families. Continue your commitment to them as young people, expanding the definition of what that means in this new chapter.
Have the DTR over food. We texted each student asking their favorite cereal on Saturday night. On Sunday morning they showed up for our DTR and for the cereal they had ordered. Your young adults need to know you want them there and can’t imagine having this conversation without them.
LISTEN to your young adults! They are really good at being their age. They will give you all kinds of clues about what it’s like to be in their skin, what they are scared of, what they hope for, where they need the church to be Jesus for them in the lives they actually live. Don’t miss this beautiful chance to know some of the most interesting, passionate people you will ever meet.
Frame conversation through stories. We started our DTR by asking, “Why are we having this conversation? What’s at risk if we don’t have it?” and told a story of a relationship stunted and soured over miscommunicated expectations leading to feelings of betrayal and resentment. The risk is high. The risk is ourselves, our community, our contribution. I told another story then, of a relationship I am committed to forever: my marriage. Lead with stories, pulling out themes of risk and hope, and mostly, of a community with a shared future that young adults participate in creating.
You have to mean it. The thing about DTR’s is that relationships without a future don’t have them. A DTR is a step towards a promise of continued relationship. Keep your promises by giving clear next steps and channels of communication. In our context right now this means the young adults meet early for breakfast and conversation every Sunday, then serve the children in the kids department for the Sunday school hour. This is not something they did before our DTR, but it is an experiment in the vein of the new relational expectation on both our parts. We talked about a movement into adulthood being a movement from consumption to collaboration in our DTR. Now, post initial DTR, there is a clear path to collaborate with other adults for the sake of the next generation.
Remember these are your people! This is a new form of embrace for people who you already love. The students who your church has adored as children, cheered on as middle schoolers, and loved all the way across the high school graduation stage still need their church.
Though the relationship shifts with our high school graduates, it does not disappear. Define and celebrate this new phase together!
*For further reading on young adult ministry, don’t miss Fuller Youth Institute’s blog: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/posts