Mentoring and attachment

Mentoring and attachment: Insights to ministry to emerging adults

Why mentoring emerging adults is crucial in helping them hear God's voice.

Amy Drennan, at the time of this writing, was a graduate student, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.
Jermaine Ma, at the time of this writing, was a graduate student, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.

After graduating from college and leaving a close community in which I (Amy) was deeply invested, and then transitioning into my new church’s post-college group, graduates and professionals (GAP), I faced a sense of loss. Although initiated with the hopes of facilitating connections between each young adult in the church, the group proved to be just what the name, GAP, implied—a void. I could no longer walk across the hall for a profound conversation with my college friends and mentors, all who knew me well. My relationships in college provided fertile soil that enabled me to discern God’s voice and allow my gifts in leadership, ministry, and communication to grow, something which I now didn’t have. Consequently, participating in weekly GAP meetings was an affirmation of my deep-seated post-graduation fear of being unknown, lost, and without guidance.

As I searched my church’s mission statement, I was astounded to find the conviction to serve college students, families, and to facilitate a deeper connection between the two included in the statement. But there was nothing for my group. How could my church overlook my peers and me? Are we not an integral part of the congregation too?

Becoming a thriving adult doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it develop in a vacuum apart from the influences of community, especially mentors. In our experience, there is a notable disconnect between the challenges of emerging adults—typically those between the ages of 18 to 25—and the ability of the church to effectively disciple them.

Thus we contend that mentoring should be an integral solution to this problem—an effective way to fill “the GAP.” Effective mentoring can create a positive attachment relationship between two people that allows space for emerging adults to explore their identity and commitments in a safe environment and ultimately help them hear the voice of God. As emerging adults are given the space to discover who they are and develop themselves and their gifts through discipleship, they will have a greater desire to integrate into the church as a whole.

Emerging adults

Teri, a talented and fun third-year college student, was entering a key decision-making period. She had unlimited opportunities to explore her career options, yet she felt a desire to marry and start a family. Her decision to go to medical school came during the critical juncture of discovering who she was and how her vocation could contribute to the world.

Herein lies the tension of emerging adults: they have the unprecedented freedom to choose their life path, yet they are still in the midst of discovering their identities and learning to discern God’s voice. This challenge can often be debilitating and paralyzing.

In the industrialized West, society generally defines adulthood as being married (often with children), holding down a stable, full-time job, and operating out of a coherent worldview. However, in the last half century, the typical age of marriage and parenthood has steeply risen, causing a seeming delay of adulthood. Due to this dramatic shift, emerging adults such as Teri, when asked if they consider themselves adults, will respond in “some respects yes, in some respects no.”1

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett describes the emerging adulthood life stage as “not simply an ‘extended adolescence’ ” nor a “ ‘young adulthood’ ” but rather a stage that is a “distinct period of life in its own right.”2 Arnett describes the emerging adult step as the (1) “age of identity explorations . . . especially in [the areas of] love and work;” (2) the “age of instability”; (3) the “self-focused age”; (4) the age of “transition”; and (5) the “age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.”3 What value it would be for Teri to have a mentor who could come alongside her and recognize and identify the spiritual, vocational, and developmental factors involved in making these decisions, while also providing wise counsel to help move her towards well-informed commitments.

What are the spiritual needs of emerging adults?

James W. Fowler, in his important work on the human development of faith, identifies a six-stage framework that highlights an emerging adult’s faith transition from an adolescent to an adult. Adolescents have a prequestioning faith where their basic beliefs and core values are informed by others.4 On the other hand, young adults in the subsequent stage generally experience a critical distancing from their faith community in order to reform their belief system.5 Fowler categorizes young adults as “tak[ing] seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs, and attitudes.”6 Thus, emerging adults are in the middle of this faith transition: leaving the stated beliefs of their parents, pastors, and youth group leaders in order to arrive at a faith that is their own.

Campus ministers of emerging adults7 have worked with a number of students like Teri, who struggle with their newfound freedom, shifts in their faith, and access to seemingly unlimited amounts of information and opportunities. We believe mentors can help create a sacred, safe space where emerging adults are encouraged to commit their life to God and are empowered to explore new opportunities without the fear of judgment.

Mentoring: A vehicle for secure attachment

Eli and Samuel: A biblical mentoringattachment relationship. Mentoring should be an integral way for the church to lessen the gap between emerging adults and their communities. Similar to a caretaker watching an infant, so is a mentor empathetically aware of the emerging adult in a way that allows the emerging adult to “feel felt,” to use their God-given gifts creatively, and also to help develop a greater sensitivity to God’s voice.

The story of Eli and Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1–17) is one example of the key role that mentors play. Eli, a priest of Israel, mentored Samuel at a critical juncture in his life because “Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7).8 As God beckoned Samuel numerous times, his mentor, Eli, had the wisdom to recognize both the boy’s eager learning posture and the voice of the Lord. The experiential lessons that Samuel learned through Eli (listening and responding to God) continued to be hallmarks in Samuel’s future ministry (1 Sam. 3:19, 20), especially as he mentored the future kings of Israel (1 Sam. 8–10; 12; 13; 15; 16).

Mentoring in many ways is an art: a melding of thoughts and mediums that come together synergistically and create a picture of great potential.

Emerging adults long for mentors who will help them process who they are and how they are uniquely gifted. This time of their lives compares well to an unfinished canvas. A desire to create something unique and beautiful existed; the challenge was how to do it. Eli saw Samuel’s potential and helped create an awareness of his underdeveloped patterns of relating to God. Eli utilized their mutual deep devotion to one another— their secure attachment relationship9—as a vehicle through which he attuned to Samuel and helped him encounter the Lord. Eli was a mentor who was attuned to Samuel, his mentee, and to Yahweh. He, as a mentor, created a safe space for Samuel to obediently explore the role of a prophet (1 Sam. 3:15–18) while being obedient to the inner voice of God himself. His attentiveness to Samuel’s seemingly unimportant questions became an opportunity for Eli to witness a deeper work that God was doing in Samuel and allowed him to give his mentee the tools to encounter the living God (1 Sam. 3:4–10).

Practical suggestions for mentoring emerging adults

We suggest three practical applications to meet the unique needs of those in this life stage through mentoring relationships.

1. Give space and freedom to explore without fear. Emerging adulthood is fraught with many pressures: mapping out the rest of life, selecting the right mate, and discovering the perfect job. These critical questions are diffi cult for emerging adults to answer without a period of healthy and safe exploration. Thus, effective mentors need to identify with their mentees’ fears and then validate their underlying faith and identity questions. Instead of giving into cultural pressures to have everything “figured out right now,” the mentor can assure their mentee in this unique time to explore their gifts and personality by pursuing different jobs, church positions, and hobbies, for example. Mentors can then help an emerging adult to identify where they excel as well as their limits, what brings them joy as well as what exhausts them. Through this intentional process of exploration, reflection, and discernment, the mentor creates a space for the mentee to discover God’s answers to these critical identity and vocational questions.

2. Share vulnerably. One of the appeals of having a mentor is the opportunity to interact closely with someone who has had more life experience and who can share the wisdom gained from their journey. Effective mentors are ones who willingly and vulnerably disclose the joys and pains of their own story. Mentoring with authenticity creates a safe space for mentees to feel understood and also share their struggles, questions, and discoveries without fear of judgment. Choosing to disclose our painful experiences and mistakes may be a catalyst for our mentees to feel understood as well as to recognize that they are not alone in this process. Mentors who take the time to reflect on their own journeys of identity and vocational discoveries will be a storehouse of wisdom for emerging adults who might be struggling with similar questions.

3. Give wise, nondirective, prayerful advice. Effective mentors have learned the art of giving wise, prayerful, yet nondirective advice. Often times mentoring becomes most effective when a mentor asks open-ended, engaging questions that draw out the mentee’s hopes, dreams, joys, desires, and fears. As emerging adults are in the process of forming their beliefs and making decisions about their future, the decision making should be left up to them. If mentors can help draw out key issues and allow their mentees to answer their own questions, the developing adult will remember and take ownership of what they themselves have declared.


Our roles as mentors have many facets and implications on the future of the church. As we recognize the shift towards this new life stage called emerging adulthood, we as the church, need to respond with sensitivity and openness to these adults in a way that enables their healing and transformation as well as their inclusion in the church body. While the generational gap between emerging adults and the larger congregation poses challenges in reaching this adult population, we hope to emphasize that emerging adults desire to connect not only through singles group ministry, but also within one-on-one relationships with other members of the church. As the church comprehends and creatively plans to meet the needs of all of its members—including emerging adults—it is our hope that mentors will be a key resource.

1 Jeffery Jensen Arnett, “Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development From the Late Teens Through the Twenties,” American Psychologist 55, no. 5 (2000): 471.

2 Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), vi, 4.

3 Ibid., 8; emphasis in original.

4 James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 154.

5 Ibid., 179.

6 Ibid., 182.

7 Amy Drennan served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Texas for five years, and Jermaine Ma served with Asian American Christian Fellowship in Washington and California for seven years.

8 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New International Version (NIV).

9 For more information on attachment theory, see Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive (New York: J. P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003), 102 and Timothy E.
Clinton and Gary Sibcy Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do: The Secret to Loving and Lasting Relationships (Brentwood, TN: Integrity Pulishers, 2002), 23.



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Amy Drennan, at the time of this writing, was a graduate student, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.
Jermaine Ma, at the time of this writing, was a graduate student, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.

September 2008

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