(NOTE: this is from a paper with my own research that I wrote for my mentoring and coaching class at the Oxford Graduate School. I hope to publish some variations of it in a couple of magazines.)
I’d been in similar situations many times before. This time, I was sitting in an ice cream shop with several coworkers when the topic of mentoring came up. I was the youngest one at the table (and also the only female) and seized the opportunity to encourage the others that the younger generations actually are quite open to the idea of being mentored by older adults. “This must be an ‘in-your-twenties’ trendy thing,” one of them said. “My daughter is always going on about the same thing.” I used that to support my case but assured him it isn’t just another fad. Another of them stated wryly, “Well, I really don’t think anyone in their right mind would want me to mentor them.” I tried to reason with him that as long as he was being real with a mentee, he would appreciate any time and effort he had to invest.
These are some of the varying reactions that I’ve received from more mature adults when I tell them people under 35 are very interested in being mentored. Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I’ve been quite surprised at the incredulity some have expressed. It has been difficult to not interpret this as unwillingness and to instead see that possibly some older adults, for whatever reasons, simply lack the self-confidence to view themselves as mentors. I also believe that perhaps the fierce independence of a small percentage of the younger generations (as in, those young, rich, and famous) has overshadowed the majority thread running through us—the desire for community and relationship.
While there is a dire need for mentoring in every area of society in this day and age, this paper will focus on the immediate need for developing mentoring relationships within the Church. As Christ’s ambassadors to the world and as one body with many members, we should be setting the standard for mentoring and life-investment. Other social arenas should be able to look at the Church and say, “Wow. What they are doing is working. How do we get what they have?” Sadly, this is not the case in the majority of today’s American churches.
What exactly do I mean when I use the term “mentoring”? For the purposes of this paper, I will define mentoring as a committed, growing discipleship relationship between two persons for the purposes of both parties’ spiritual and personal maturation, with a focus on the mentee’s needs as primary and the goal being the mentee’s preparation for mentoring others who will mentor others. In many contexts the mentoring relationship may come to a close eventually. However, the mentor may always be involved in the mentee’s life in some form or fashion, as the mentee becomes a mentor him/herself.
Is mentoring in the church really necessary? Absolutely. If I may be so bold, I would like to propose that mentoring in its purest form is disciple-making, and as followers of Christ we are called to be and make disciples. Jesus had a group of twelve disciples, from whom He drew three as special companions. Paul had a special “father-child” relationship with Timothy. Peter had a close friendship with Mark. Each of the early disciples must have passed on Christ’s teaching and lifestyle in intentional yet organic ways. Otherwise, could the essence of Christ-following have been lost to history? Thankfully that isn’t a question to which we need to give much time or thought. The first disciples made other disciples—they mentored, and here we are today. But the church today doesn’t really look like it did back then… or does it?
What are young adults today looking for in a mentoring relationship? It’s pretty simple. We are looking for those who have gone before us in some aspect of life, who have made some mistakes and are willing to be honest about them so we can learn from them. We are drawn to those who are authentic, and we can see through “fake” in a nanosecond. Young adults want to be wanted and wouldn’t mind if you might need us to teach you a thing or two (most would love to show you how to use an iPod and get you a Facebook account if you want one!). A young adult does not need someone who wants to make decisions for her, but instead someone who will take the time to teach her how to make the best decisions possible in everyday life.
Young adults love getting to know other people, really getting to know them, hearing their stories, finding things we have in common, enjoying differences, and learning from one another. The hard part for members of the older generations is getting past the younger generations’ “hard candy shell”. You see, many of us came from broken homes and don’t really know what it means to have a healthy marriage, let alone a healthy dating life or how to have truly healthy relationships. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re a bit scared that we’ll mess up our kids, if we ever have any. Many of us grew up in Sunday school but got sick of the hypocrisy of “church people” and swore we’d never become like that. (Some of us took that a bit too far and decided we can do without church at all.) We can be a bit jaded and a bit suspicious of those who want to tell us what to do and how to live our lives. However, if you find yourself being particularly drawn to one of us for some reason or another, we would really love it if you were brave and just started talking with us. Ask us to go to lunch, dinner, or coffee. If we shoot you down the first time, pray about it, and try again if you’re led. Basically, don’t give up on us. We’re used to people giving up on us, so if you don’t, that will really speak volumes to us. And honestly, we need someone to model to us what a true, loving commitment is. You just might be that person.
I created an online survey to see if I could get some feedback on different sorts of things people 35 and younger are looking for in a mentor. I collected responses entirely online via e-mail and Facebook and got a total of 335 responses. When asked to choose what sorts of things they would like to do with a mentor, the top three responses were: 90.3% “Have casual conversation;” 81% “Self-evaluation and improvement;” and 74% “Hold me accountable.” The remaining responses (ranked in descending order) were “Pray,” “Study the Bible,” “Career and job coaching,” and “Service projects.” Several wrote in that they would like mentoring in the area of marriage and parenting, making academic choices, and just life in general. I think this shows that a mentoring relationship with a younger adult is not as intimidating as it might seem.
Of the 335 surveyed, 175 said they have had a mentor at some point in their lives. However, 52% of these 175 currently do not have a mentor at all. Those surveyed also had an opportunity to tell me how they would feel about someone older than them asking them to be their mentor, and 298 responded to the question. 92% said they would be open to someone 10 years older than them asking to be their mentor. 87% said they would be open to someone 20 years older than them asking to be their mentor.
It wasn’t a question on the survey, but I only had one person write in that he or she would rather be the one to initiate a mentoring relationship. I think this shows a great openness on the part of younger people to mentoring, but may put a lot of responsibility on you as an older adult that you didn’t realize you had (and that you may not even want right now!).
Many Christ-following adults in the older generations may find themselves in a challenging situation when it comes to finding younger adults to mentor. Recent LifeWay Research studies reveal that about 70% of church-attending teenagers will leave the church by age 23, and 34% of those surveyed had not returned at all by age 30 (Grossman, 2007). Ideally, the mentoring relationship begins organically, with the older adult and the younger adult being mutually drawn to each other by things such as common interests or spending time in the same locations. But with fewer young adults in traditional churches, older adults may not have as many natural opportunities to reach out to younger adults and may have to be a little more creative in their pursuits. In many larger cities, there will be “younger” communities of faith such as church plants or “emergent” churches that are mainly made up of adults under the age of 40 (or in some cases, even younger). While an older adult may feel extremely out of place in a group like this, these are precisely the people who will need him or her the most. Other mentoring opportunities may present themselves in campus ministries, outreach to international students, mother’s day out programs, and even the local coffee shop.
As for my own experience with mentoring, my life would have taken a drastically different path if not for the godly women in my life who were determined to pass on a passion for mentoring and disciple-making. My mentors have lovingly served me as spiritual parents, confidants, counselors, career coaches, and friends. None of them have had any special training in mentoring; they have simply been themselves. They have been honest with me even when it hurts, have admonished me, have encouraged me, and have believed in me.
I hope some of this paper has helped readers realize that mentoring doesn’t have to be a programmatic, stuffy experience, but instead can be a natural progression of an intentional relationship. I know I am asking a lot of you. But I hope that you can see the eternal value of mentoring the younger generations. I don’t think you need any convincing that we’re getting to a critical point in American history when it comes to family, relationships, faith, and community. If mentoring is discipleship, you have been mandated by Christ to be an active participant. I hope you answer the call.
Grossman, C. L. (2007, August 6). Young adults aren’t sticking with church. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-08-06-church-dropouts_N.htm.