Sunday morning service had concluded, transitioning to a scene similar to church gatherings all over the world. Adults stood conversing, children ran laughing and playing, and the pastor extended warm welcomes to first-time visitors.

I was one of those visitors, a guest speaker welcomed into the open-air church in the rural suburbs of Kampala, Uganda. The red-brick church stood in a small, red dirt compound that also housed an orphanage and an elementary school for impoverished children in the community.

The pervasive poverty surrounding the church compound stood in stark contrast to the lush resources that exist within its immediate geographic region. Uganda, self-described as “the Pearl of Africa,” is a resource-rich country whose agricultural and economic potential still remains largely untapped. As I mingled casually among the colorfully dressed congregants, I was poignantly reminded of a less visible, yet more tragic reservoir of untapped Ugandan potential.

The Missing Key

Joseph, the church’s part-time youth pastor, moved purposefully toward me to greet me, to thank me, and to share his heart with me. He offered a very personal response to my teachings on the Father in Luke 19, the story of the “Prodigal Son.”  In my sermon, drawing upon the wisdom of Kenneth Bailey’s The Cross & A generation with incalculable spiritual leadership potential lies largely untapped in community after community…the Prodigal and Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, I had painted a picture of a passionate, pursuing, strong, and compassionate father. I can still see the sadness in Joseph’s eyes as he said with resignation, “We don’t have fathers like that.” Through extended conversation, I learned that he was referencing the lives of the university and secondary school students among whom he served.

My dialogue with Joseph echoed conversations I have experienced in multiple regions of the United States as well as multiple continents around the world. Longing. Loneliness. Disappointment. Discouragement. And, in many cases, despair. Emerging adults in diverse contexts and divergent cultures similarly lament the absence of men and women to whom they can look and upon whom they can rely for personal, passionate, strong and compassionate relationships. Across the world, a generation with incalculable spiritual leadership potential thus lies largely untapped in community after community, country after country. And the key that unlocks the potential, the missing element that transforms “what could be” into “what will be” are the men and women who follow Christ into the world to serve and empower this generation of emerging adults.

Spiritual Empowerment: A Pauline Example

To see the weighty impact of spiritual empowerment in the life of an emerging adult one need look no further than the progression of these verses in Paul’s letters to Timothy:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Tim 1:1, 2).

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress (1 Tim 4:11-15).

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:1, 2).

Presence. Purpose. Proximity. Paul provided all of these in Timothy’s life.  As a result, Paul’s disciple-making in Timothy’s life was being multiplied over four generations: from Paul to Timothy to those Timothy taught to those Timothy’s students would teach.

Anticipating a Conversation

As I approach this weekend’s Emerging Adult Consortium, I keep thinking of my conversation with Joseph. I keep reflecting on the relationship of Paul to Timothy revealed in this personal letters to Timothy. And I keep asking myself,

“How can we live and lead as the 21st century Church to empower personal, passionate, strong and compassionate disciple-making relationships in the lives of 21st century emerging adults?”

This larger question prompts a number of secondary questions:

“Which of my assumptions about 21st century emerging adults needs to be challenged and re-examined?”

“Which of my perceptions regarding the relationship between 21st century emerging adults and the church, on a global scale, are partially or completely inaccurate due to the limitations of my own personal experiences, my age, and my local context?”

“How do we as educators, pastors, and spiritual leaders continually engage one another as a learning community to seek understanding and to offer resources that will effectively promote fruitful disciple-making in this generation of emerging adults?”

“How can I, in my local context, be a faithful contributor to the broader Kingdom movement of God in the lives of emerging adults?”

I thus find myself prayerfully and with hope looking forward to a weekend of exploring these questions in the context of the Emerging Adult Consortium.