College Students: Learn How to ‘Adult’ Before You ‘Missionary’

With more young people delaying adulthood, our emphasis on “radical” living can have counterintuitive effects.

“Every head bowed, every eye closed. Good. Now, do you feel a stirring deep in your soul when I talk about missions? If so, stand up.”

If you’ve spent any time in evangelicalism, you know all too well this familiar scene, when the trajectory of one’s life boils down to a single, mystical moment as the band ascends the stage and a synth pad drones in the background.

January isn’t just the season of resolutions, frigid temps, and caloric deficits. It’s also conference season in the evangelical world. And for many college-age believers, it’s a chance to double-down on their spirituality, arms high and heart abandoned in a sea of like-minded students.

I’m not against conferences—many of them I love. I work conferences regularly, I am friends with those involved, and I even attended a Christian university where our thrice-weekly chapel was itself a literal arena event. But the problem with spiritual mountaintop experiences, like any other high, is that there’s always a low. Just as the demon-riddled lowland greeted the disciples after the transfiguration, the monotonous valley of everyday life never lags too far behind the final chorus. This is normal. And it wouldn’t be a problem at all, in fact, if it weren’t so radically divergent from the enchanting bill of goods the Christian conference cottage industry often sells young adults.

Many conferences rally young people to do extraordinary, counter-cultural, radical things for kingdom. High school, college, and seminary students are exhorted to do anything but settle for a predictable, cozy existence. The drumbeat, intentional or not, is risk, run, burn out, and die for Jesus.

This, admittedly, is what many young people—and the rest of us—probably need in order to pierce through the haze of apathy that envelops our cushy American lifestyles. But I doubt if such rhetoric always represents the counsel most fitting for current college students.

Generational Trends

Christian college students are far from immune to the cultural trends affecting Generation Z (defined, after millennials, as those born after 1997).

College students need to learn to “adult” before they “missionary.”

I’m not saying that all students born after 1997 are delinquents. Such a claim would be absurd. I am saying, however, that our pastoral rush towards the “radical” rally-cry exposes a gap in our discipleship track: ordinary faithfulness.

Faithfulness First

When I was a biblical studies student at my Christian university, I bought into the logic of extraordinary Christian living. I rushed to finish my undergrad in two years, convinced I had a far more glamorous calling awaiting someplace in which my talents and I would finally be recognized as God’s gift to the world. God needed me, after all.

Our pastoral rush towards the ‘radical’ rally-cry exposes a gap in our discipleship track: ordinary faithfulness.

Wide-eyed for ministry, I eagerly proposed to my girlfriend, and we made plans to begin our adventure right after college. But with precious little professional experience at my unripe age, having pigeonholed myself as a professional evangelical, my ambitions backfired, and I quickly found myself scrambling for ministry jobs to no avail.

The best pieces of advice I received during that season of life came from two respected guys on campus, both a few years my senior. My first friend brought me to 1 Chronicles 21, where David, relying on his own achievements, orders an unsanctioned census of Israel, incurring national judgment. In spite of David’s hubris, God mercifully lessens the severity of the punishment (v. 15), an act of mercy that literally lays the foundation for the temple (v. 28; cf. 22:1). In this, the Lord reminded me that knuckleheaded decisions have consequences—and God is gracious anyway.

The second guy simply reminded me of Luke 16:10: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (ESV). At a season in life when I was looking for my big break—to burn out for Jesus in a proverbial blaze of glory—I needed to focus on ordinary, menial obedience.

I wanted to win the world, but I needed to get a job. I wanted to preach, but I needed to do the dishes. My calling was simply to do the next thing, what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Starting Small

Hell is real, Jesus saves, souls are in the balance, and time is short. The oft-posed Monday morning question, of course, is, what next?

If we do not disciple the up-and-coming generation with an understanding of obedience in the ordinary, we will produce fickle missionaries at best. Full-time ministry—in any culture—is, after all, the sum of a hundred ordinary days at the office, church budget meetings, and sermon prep sessions after the kids have gone to bed.

While we challenge young people to live lives of eternal significance, our counsel must also include:

  • Join a church. (As a member.) Submit to elders. Serve faithfully. Do jobs nobody else wants.
  • Make a budget. Limit your expenditures. Live below your means.
  • Get a job. Develop a good rapport before the watching world. Make yourself useful to other people. Contribute to society.
  • Tithe. Give above a tithe. Save money. Pay off your loans.
  • If you want to get married, stop playing juvenile dating games and get married. Learn to love a spouse, raise children, and die to self.
  • Exercise. Eat right. Lose weight if you need to lose weight. Gain weight if you need to gain it. Pick a goal and strain to reach it.
  • Read your Bible every day. Know it by heart. Master it, and be mastered by it. Abide in Christ.
  • Pray fervently. Make disciples locally. Preach the gospel in your Jerusalem.

I’m not saying that full-time ministry is reserved for those who have reached the pinnacle of human perfection. God graciously uses us in our mess—just as he redeemed my boneheadedness in college, and redeems my daily boneheadedness now.

But adulthood is a baseline qualification, not the pinnacle. It takes no super-saint to have a spiritual experience while the music reaches crescendo in a room of thousand; the proof is in the life that follows. We should be able to say, with Paul, “When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

God’s program for our lives always winds through lengthy valleys of ordinary faithfulness.

Rally-cries have their role, but God’s program for our lives always winds through lengthy valleys of ordinary faithfulness. This requirement is intrinsically good and is divinely hard-wired into the sanctification process for our maximal maturity and God’s greatest glory.

If we aspire to ministry greatness or missionary success, we must first be made small. If we cannot be faithful with the “little” of adulthood, we will surely be unfaithful with the “much” of mission.

Edtior’s Note: This article was originally published January 10, 2019.