There seems to be a wider gap with this younger generation, dubbed Gen Z, than previous generations. This brings unique challenges to those who care about engaging the next generation. Sean and Scott interview Steven Argue about his new book Growing With. They discuss what makes engaging and reaching this generation so tough and offer some practical strategies for doing so effectively.
Get a free sample chapter of Steven's new book here: https://growingwithbook.com/think-biblically/
More About Our Guest
Steven Argue is an Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University and has also worked in youth ministry and pastoral positions at the local church. Along with Kara Powell, Steven is the co-author of the recent book Growing With: Every Parent's Guide to Help Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in their Faith, Family, and Future.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here today with a guest that I have been looking forward to having on for a long time. Steven Argue is the associate professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and is the author or co-author along with Kara Powell of a fascinating new book we're going to discuss today called Growing With. Steve, thanks for joining us today.
Steven Argue: Sean, it's so great to chat with you. Scott, it's great to hear from you as well. Really glad to join you guys today.
Sean McDowell: I'm such a fan of the work that you guys are producing at the Fuller Youth Institute. The Sticky Faith, you've been working on that for a while, and Growing Young. This book in particular, Growing With, the title just fascinated me. What does the title reveal about what makes this book and your parenting approach to this generation unique?
Steven Argue: Yeah, thanks. It's a great question. At the Fuller Youth Institute, I think one of the goals that we have is we're always thinking about the research that we're doing and thinking about how we turn that into resources. As I know that both of you know, a good research begets more questions, which leads to more research, right? I think that Growing With really came out of the work that we've been doing as you mentioned through Sticky Faith and Growing Young. It just leads to these really important questions about faith longevity in young people.
We really want to help churches and leaders support young people in their faith development, but we also realized that there was something unique about the parent-growing child relationship that is unique in the literature but also in the work that we've been doing. As Kara and I wrote this, we really came at it in two ways, one as researchers, but also as parents. Kara's got three kids in their teenage years. I have three daughters who are 24 and 22 and 19, so this is more than just theory for us. This is everyday life for us. Kara and I said as we wrote this, "This is the book we wish we had when we were youth pastors."
Something that was a resource to really help leaders support parents as they're thinking about raising their kids. This idea of Growing With was really crucial to us because we realized through our work, through conversations, through our research, that the parents, they're really wrestling with a couple of things. One is, I think, they have a fear that their kids are going to grow away from God, and also there's a fear that they're going to maybe grow apart from each other. One of the things that we talk about in the book is just to say, "Just because our kids are growing up doesn't mean that we have to give up, and it doesn't mean that are growing apart, but we actually can grow with each other."
We actually unpacked this idea of Growing With. We really defined it in this way, that growing with parenting is a mutual journey of intentional growth for both ourselves and our children that trust God to transform us all. If I could unpack that really quickly, we're just saying, "Look, it's a mutual journey. This isn't about just getting our kids to act a certain way as they're growing up, but it's about a journey that we're in together that's constantly changing." There's this idea of intentional growth where we need to seek new resources rather than defaulting to old patterns in our parenting or in our living.
It's for both ourselves and our children that as our kids are changing, we as adults and as parents are changing as well. We're trusting that God's going to transform us all, that this project of life, especially as parenting does something or God is working in each and every one of us. There's a hope with that as well that tomorrow can be a better day than today and that we're trusting that God is doing a good work in all of us.
Scott Rae: Steven, I think what I appreciate about your book and I think what you've done such a good job with, it's a great book about parenting, but a lot of our listeners are not parents. I'd say to our listeners at this point, "Don't tune this out yet if you're not a parent," because the book is also a really good discussion of the cultural background and the cultural milieu in which students and young adults are growing up in today.
I love the note of realism in the book that you have, because early on, you say, "Look, let's be honest with ourselves. Let's admit as parents we're not perfect. Let's admit we're not meant to be perfect and neither are our kids." That's such a helpful note of realism, yet I don't hear people saying that that often anymore. Why did you start here?
Steven Argue: I mean, part of, I think, writing this book was probably as much as confessional as anything else. I think that we as leaders and even as now as parents, both Kara and I have just realized that a lot of times, the conversations that parents are having are usually in whispers in the corner of rooms. No one's really wanting to admit that this is hard, that they're struggling, that they don't have a perfect family or a perfect kid, or they themselves are a perfect parent.
I just think that, Kara and I, as we thought about this is that we didn't want this book to be one that we're piling on. Like, "Oh, here's another 10 things that as a parent you need to be doing on top of the 10 other things that you're already not doing." I just think that what parents need is just an honesty with each other to say, "You know what? Parenting is hard." As ministry leaders, I would hope that we could take those conversations that are often in the corners of the room, then actually bring them into the centers of our conversations where we can really say to each other, "Hey, you know what, this is really, really hard. Life is messy."
"As parents, we don't have to compete with each other. Why don't we stand down and admit that all of us are muddling through the uniqueness of our children and through our relationships, and let's create conversations in our churches where we can actually have those conversations rather than pretending like we're perfect." Scott, I love what you're saying. I think as ministry leaders, I think we can take the lead in that. I think we can say, "Hey, you know what? As we follow Jesus as individuals and as families in our relationships and everything else that we do, let's just be honest about the challenges associated with that, and let's put that on the table. And let's talk about that with each other rather than pretending that we have it all together."
I think when that happens, there's just more generative conversation, and we actually can talk about the things that I think that are the people in our congregations and especially your parents in this particular case really, really want to talk about. For us, we hope that that statement just speaks to our humanity and lays it on the table saying, "Hey, from one imperfect person to another, let's figure this out and let's find some hope in that as well."
Scott Rae: Let me underscore how important that is. I was having a curbside conversation with one of my neighbors a few months ago. I was suggesting that folks in our neighborhoods should start to get together more often, and he had a cynical response to this. He said, "Why would I want to get together with people and have us lie to each other about how our children are doing?" What an admission.
Steven Argue: That is dead on. I think, I mean, and some other researchers have talked about this idea that we are in the middle of a scholastic's arms race. We're competing with each other, trying to somehow find the edge to somehow get ahead. What we're actually doing is we're just creating a place where we can't really talk with each other. Scott, as you said, we're just lying to each other rather than having these honest conversations. Then I think about the church. I'm like, "Why can't we be the community that communicates good news simply in the ways that we're honest with each other?" How great would that be for our neighbors and for the people around us? I'm with you 100% on that.
Sean McDowell: Steve, one of the statements that you and Kara made is, "Growing with parenting stems from our belief that today's generation gap is often wider." I'm a Gen Xer. I remember people talking about how Gen X, the generation gap is wider. People talked about that with millennials and now Gen Z. Tell me what you mean how it's often wider, and why you think that may be the case.
Steven Argue: I think that's a great question. I mean, as you know in your study of culture, you know that generationally, there's always going to be some gaps, but I think what we're seeing over the course of time is that not only are there gaps intergenerationally, but some theorists talk about this idea that there actually is an intragenerationalism. What's happening there is we're actually seeing that within our lifetime, relevance is turning over quicker and quicker.
Where generations used to have some overlap and experience, now, we're finding that we're literally having to reinvent ourselves within our lifetime. So as a Gen Xer, that's what I am as well, Sean, you can remember a time before the internet. You can remember of time where there are things that you did that are completely irrelevant to the way that we live our lives now, and so this rapidly changing thing is happening technologically. We live in a global society. We're in a unique time in life where I think this turnover is so much more quick that we just need to recognize this gap. I think that the point here isn't to debate whether it's happening or not. I think the point is is to acknowledge that there is this widening gap.
Then I think that leads us more toward empathy. We talk about this in the book, that probably a phrase that I think older people think is helpful when they talk with younger people is to say, "You know, when I was your age." I understand what they're doing. They're … I'm sure I've done it. As older types, we want to tell people, "Hey, we're just trying to connect with you," but for a young person, that can also often not be a bridge but a barrier because when they think of when we were their age, that was light years ago with regards to the way they're living their lives now.
With that, I think just raises new challenges, and it forces us to ask some hard questions. I think the way I try to tell especially older leaders and parents is this, is that I think because we live the teenage and young adult years, we think that we understand teenagers and young adults. There's a little bit that we do, but I think when we were teenagers and when we were young adults makes all the difference.
For those of you that are interested, out of Beloit College, they have something called The Mindset List. These sociologists actually every year talk about the incoming freshman class and what their life experience is, and so it gives us perspective as to what are current events for them compared to the current events that we had when we were younger. They did it to help their teachers think about the illustrations they were using in their classes, but I think it's something quite telling. I was actually talking with a thirtysomething person a couple of weeks ago. He leads a bunch of twentysomethings.
He said, "Yeah." He goes, "I was talking about 9/11, and the people that I'm working with said, "Yeah, I was in kindergarten then." He said, "You know, for me, 9/11 was this moment as a teenager that rocked my world and changed my perspective," but for these twentysomethings, that's ancient history. Not that it's not significant, but the impact of that event for some of us has a different meaning than for a previous generation. Again, I think when we begin to just acknowledge that, it helps us understand the starting points of each of the generations in our discipling, in our leading, in our parenting, in our working with staffs, and everything else.
This gap is not only felt in parents and child, but I've talked with senior pastors that are like, "I do not understand my youth pastor." I mean, we seem a world apart. I'm not exactly sure how we're supposed to connect with each other and vice versa. I mean, we're feeling it in our church staffs as much as families as well.
Scott Rae: Steven, this is really helpful. I think, what it's motivated me to do is to refrain from telling you and our listeners what I didn't grow up with and what the seminal events were that changed my view of the world. When I was in high school, in college, and my kids are about the same age as yours. My kids are 28, 26 and 23.
You've got a great phrase in the book that 14 is the new 24 but you also say that 28 is the new 18. Since I've got kids that are not ... I got one that's 28 and one that's almost 24. I'm really interested to know what you mean by that because I don't want to guess at it. Tell me exactly what you mean, because those two phrases together sound … they sound somewhat contradictory.
Steven Argue: Exactly. That's the effect we wanted to have. Think of this more symbolic, but I do think it's rooted in some of the research and the thinking that we've done. When we think of this idea of 14 is the new 24, in many ways, it feels like kids are growing up faster, and so there's a gas pedal. Life is moving faster. There's less institutional support. Families are working harder to make it. We're just in a rush, rush, rush all the time. I think that kids are marinating in an environment where there's just so much pressure and anxiety.
One study says that the 13 to 17-year-olds are more likely to report feeling extreme stress than adults. Mental health is one of the leading indicators right now of challenges for young people today, including suicide as well. What we're seeing here is that young people seemingly have to grow up quicker to make it in this world. A 14-year-old can feel the pressures of maybe what previous generation, 24-year-olds felt. There's this enormous amount of pressure and stress that our younger teenagers are feeling.
At the same time, I think, while our kids journey toward adolescence is accelerated, there’s also this inverse reality is true as well, that the typical twentysomething in the U.S. in the process of becoming adult has slowed down. I mean, a lot … they're getting married … the indicators for adulthood that we've used in the past are delayed. Five years later for marriage, having children, financial independence, finishing school. Part of this is not just choice. Part of this is just the realities of a world where it takes longer to grow up today.
For many of our kids, Scott, if you think about this, the 28 can be like the new 18, where in previous generations, 18 is when you launched out into the world armed with your high school diploma and the hope of a good paying job that could buy a house and support a family isn't the case for 18-year-olds now, let alone mid-twenties. You have this acceleration and also this delay, and it's this herky-jerky movement that young people are trying to navigate in this especially third decade of life.
What's interesting about it is this, is that it raises new questions for emerging adults and young adults, but it also raises new questions for those who are in relation to them. This is especially true in light of the book with regards to parents. Now, there's all these new questions that parents have to think about like, "Can my kid live at home? Am I enabling something? What does financial independence look like for them? And how do I support them? How do I engage with them as they're figuring out their lives?"
I thought that at their early twenties, they'd be settled down and on their way to starting a family, but that's not the case, etc., etc. It's just raising a bunch of new questions that feel exactly as you say, Scott, almost contradictory, but definitely herky-jerky.
Sean McDowell: My father has spoken at about 1,200 universities. He's told me that the questions that kids used to ask him in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to filter to high school and even younger. In a sense, 14 is the new 24, yet, like you said, we're pushing these maturing life experiences even later. Kids are just left in this tension. I think the way you guys phrased this is so helpful to understanding the tension that this generation feels and really why maybe this generation gap that we talked about is wider than it's been in the past.
Now, you used a term that seem to grow around the time that millennials came on the scene, which the word adult, which is typically understood as a noun, has become a verb and people are talking about adulting. What does that mean and what would it look like to help young people “adult”?
Steven Argue: We didn't make up the term. If you go to your Twitter feed, you'll see that it's definitely been around for a while. I think that adulting has been used in ways to say, "I think I'm starting to do adult things." Again, I think especially for those in the third decade of life, they're trying to navigate what that is because the scripts aren't as clear as they used to be, sort of the lock-and-stock, go to school, get married, have children, etc. It used to be much more linear, which isn't the case anymore.
It's this interesting challenge to actually figure out what that is for us in the way that we talk about it in the book, because we really wanted to focus in on two aspects of adulting. The way we define adulting is really a young person's growth in agency as they embrace opportunities to shape the world around them. This idea of agency is really important, right? They're beginning to step into from a Christian perspective who God has called them to be. We looked at this in two particular ways. That would be with relational adulting and vocational adulting.
A lot of emerging adult research would suggest that there's really three things that emerging adults, which should be 18 to 29, are really trying to figure out in this third decade of life. One is this idea of love or relationships, whether that's a romantic partner or the friendships or the community that I'm a part of. It's also this idea of work or vocation. How am I living into the type of job or career that really is congruent with my values? Then the other one, which we'll talk about later in the book, is just this idea of belief or faith.
We just tried to unpack really it was the adulting, this idea of relational adulting and vocational adulting saying these are really two key elements that emerging adults are trying to work through. I think that for parents, I think, having conversations about these important aspects are crucial especially as they're getting into their twenties.
I also think it's crucial for ministry as well if you're a pastor and you're thinking, "Gosh, what do we do for twentysomethings in our church?" which is a question I get all the time. I'm not going to give you programmatic advice, but I'll tell you this, if you're, if you're not talking about community and relationships and you're not talking about vocation and calling, start there because that's right in the sweet spot of what's always in the minds of emerging adults.
Scott Rae: I so appreciate that emphasis on calling and vocation and how important that is. I'm sure you're aware, a lot of the best Barna research out there tells us that students and young adults who have had meaningful connections between their faith and their vocation are several times more likely to stay connected to their faith and to their church, but making that happen, I think, in a local church context or in a family context is a lot. That's a lot easier in theory than it is in practice.
What are some of the ways that you have found to best help students and young adults meaningfully connect their faith with what they're going to do with the vast majority of their waking hours?
Steven Argue: I think that that's a great, great question, Scott. There's a couple of things that I might suggest. One is, I think for adolescents, obviously, they're still in school and a lot of their lives generally speaking are taken up by high school and studying and all that comes with that, but I think that parents and mentors can really use that time to help them reflect on their experiences. Too often, I think the instinct is to fill the résumé so that I can get into my next stage in life, which is off in college or whatever it might be.
But I do think there's this moment, especially in the adolescent years, where we can help them reflect on, "Well, what are they doing and what are they like, and why did they like it?" Out of the choices that they could make with the time that they have, why would they choose one thing over another? I think this critical self-reflection gives them a chance to begin to own and find their agency of what they truly like, because I think what we're finding a lot of times is that worried parents especially overly prescribe the adolescent years so that when a young person leaves high school and goes to work or especially goes to college, they don't haven't really thought about what's important to them.
What do they love? What are their gifts? There's this crisis moment for them because they've done what their parents or their mentors have told them to do but haven't critically thought about that themselves. I think any conversation like that is really great rather than assume. Let's just not assume that they're figuring that out. I think young people want to have that conversation. That's just a really, really simple way. I think for those that are older, in their third decade of life, twentysomething, I would just say this.
When I talk with ministry leaders, I usually get three questions from them. The first one is where did all the young people go, which is always a great, great question.
Sean McDowell: Interesting.
Steven Argue: Then the second question is how do we get them back, which is a fair question. If I'm really critical, I'd say in both those questions, who's doing the moving, the movement? It's the young people, not the older ones. The third one is always really interesting. They usually ask me in whispered tones, they say to me, "And if they do come back, what are we supposed to do with them?"
Sean McDowell: Oh no.
Steven Argue: I think that's a really honest question. I think the instincts sometimes ... Scott, I'm getting to responding to your question here is, I think, the instinct sometimes is, "Oh, we need another program. We need another college-age ministry. We need another something to kind of keep it going." My argument with that would be I think we have to be really, really careful with that because what we're doing is if we're not careful, is we're perpetuating a form of youth group for an older group of people.
What we're implicitly telling them is, "The way we want you to relate to our community is like you did when you were a teenager," but we don't want that. Right? We actually want them to engage the community as an emerging adult, someone that's growing into adulthood. When it comes to vocation and calling, I think a better ministry approach would actually be more of a grassroots effort. Just say to those in their twenties, "What do you see hurting in the world and how are you gonna use your gifts to solve it? And what can we do to help? What's the vision that you have? And let's talk about what it may look like to put a business plan together."
"You actually do that. We're gonna try to give you some resources to make that happen, and you come back and report that to us and tell us what you think." Instead of providing small groups for a bunch of people in their twenties, maybe we say to them, "You know, you're old enough where we don't have to make friends for you. Who are the people that you're running with and what does it mean for you to meet to have intentional conversations? And we'll resource you along the way. If you need help thinking about books or different ways of approaching that, that's fine, but I think you know who you're running with, and what can we do to help?"
You see, what's happening is we're changing the agency, and it's allowing them then to step into that. Then the other thing I'd say is I just think that those in their twenties are looking for mentors to talk about what it means to live their Christian life into the school because they're a teacher, into the office because they're a business person, into the shop because they're a mechanic, into their home because they're a parent." They don't need a program. They need a mentor and a person to talk about the particular challenges in their lives.
I think we can provide great news and support for them through our parenting relationships and also through our ministering relationships so that they can really step into that vocation that God's called them to.
Scott Rae: I appreciate that, especially the last emphasis on mentoring. I can't think of a better thing for an experienced, more seasoned adult who's been successful in a particular profession, and has continued faithful to Christ and meaningfully integrated those two to mentor the next generation of what that would look like. One of the things that we found that's pretty important in this is to frame vocation correctly theologically, because I think some of the messages that our students get and our young adults get is that if you really wanted to make your life count for God's kingdom, then you better do something that turn the paycheck from a church to another Christian organization.
We try to tell our business students that, "If you are a follower of Jesus, you are in full-time ministry, and you don't leave full-time ministry by virtue of changing jobs. You're just simply changing arenas of service." Try to point out to them that the reformers actually gave their lives to eliminate this hierarchy of callings. Then I think it's a really important component to that.
Steven Argue: I love that. I think that's so significant. I think that does something even for the business people, I’ll use that as an example in our churches. I mean, a lot of times, we hit them up for money, but we don't hit them up for mentorship. What if we just raise the bar and say, "Look, we're all in this together, right?" I just think the church is just a wealth of resource for young people. I don't buy the narrative that young people don't care about church and then all that comes with that.
I actually think that the church is filled with resource, and if we actually said to young people, "We are here for you to support you and mentor you and help you navigate, especially this third decade of life," I think there would be people lining up outside our doors to want to be part of those types of community. It gives me tremendous hope for what the church can be.
Scott Rae: That's great. Yes. Steven, thank you so much, not only for coming on with us, but for you and Kara doing this book, Growing With. I want to highly commend this to our listeners. It's great stuff, super insightful stuff, not only about parenting, but also about culture in general. We're very appreciative for you spelling out a little bit further some of the really important ideas that had come out in the book. Hopefully, our listeners will take those and want to see more by getting a hold of the book. Again, thank you very much for coming on with us. Really grateful for the time you took with us.
Steven Argue: Scott, it's a privilege and an honor. Sean, grateful to both of you for your work, and grateful for your listeners and for the way that they're trying to navigate their lives as well. I just wish you God's grace and peace.
Scott Rae: Well, likewise. Thanks very much.
Steven Argue: Thanks.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Steven Argue, and his book Growing With, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.