Graduating in turbulent times
New college graduates are entering into a world not only enveloped in a turbulent global recession, but also experiencing a myriad of other changes. Our poorest neighbours at home and abroad are suffering the most during this economic crisis, but even those who are more well off—including college students—are being affected by this growing downturn.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicts that the class of 2009 will face the lowest level of job opportunities in six years. Though many graduates may land their dream job, others will settle for jobs in the service industry to make ends meet—jobs that they could have taken without a college degree.
For followers of Jesus, times of change represent new opportunities. Christian students who cannot find their dream job could use this challenge as an opportunity spend a year extending God’s compassion to the poor, many of whom are being devastated by this global recession, by working with an organization like Mission Year or the Peace Corps.
“Is there life after college?” Yes—for those who seek first the purposes of God in these turbulent times. Let me sketch a little more of the bad news and the good news, then explore how students can live with a more compelling sense of purpose, in order to be more a part of the good news for this changing world.
Good news/bad new
The bad news first. Our poorest neighbours, both locally and globally, face a few very difficult years, struggling with the global recession. As the downturn recedes, the poor across the globe could face a return to soaring inflation rates, exorbitant food prices, and a reversal to the campaign to make poverty history. Over the next decade, the price of oil could climb beyond even last year’s highs, as the Chinese and Indian economies return to high growth. This creates a host of new challenges, not only for the poor, but also for the middle class, and it may accelerate the rate of global warming.
The church also faces some daunting challenges. According to The American Church in Crisis, weekly church attendance is only 17.5%, and declining. Twenty- and thirty-year-olds are leaving the church at an unprecedented rate. Declining numbers also mean declining financial giving over the next ten years, as the boomer generation started retiring last year. As these challenges mount locally and globally, the capacity of the church to respond is likely to seriously diminish unless we change our understanding of what it means to be the church in mission.
The good news is that God is working in a new generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are creating new expressions of church, new forms of community, and new ways to make a difference. There are four streams of these young innovators and risk takers, which I described in my book The New Conspirators:
- The emerging stream is creating new expressions of church to reach out to their peers who would never come to a traditional church. Emerging leaders might, for example, create a cafÃ© in Grand Rapids to reach out to the arts community. The Hot Metal Bridge faith community was started by young innovators to reach out to their peers on the south side of Pittsburgh.
- The missional stream seeks to create churches that focus outwards, meeting the needs of those beyond the church. The Evangelical Covenant Church is successfully starting new congregations that are focused on local and global mission. Typically, they offer no programs for people inside the church community. Instead, they equip their members through small groups to reach out to their neighbours. While most traditional churches only invest 10% to 15% of their income in missions, these churches often invest 30% or more toward making a difference in their communities and the larger world.
- Mosaic or multi-cultural church planters are mission-focused, and are also discovering what it means to be the family of God across race, class and culture. Efrem Smith has planted a church in Minneapolis that is 40% African American, 40% European, and 20% Latino and Asian. They are creating new expressions of church that look more like both God’s kingdom and America’s future.
- The fourth stream is the monastics. These urban Franciscan-style innovators live in community, work with the poor and are committed to a life of prayer. This stream includes Shane Claiborne and other new monastics, as well as older groups like Word Made Flesh and INNERchange. Those in this stream have very little interest in church planting, instead focusing on creating new radical ways to be the church.
Those in all four streams have this in common: they want to see followers of Jesus embrace an authentic whole-life faith. They want to be a part of communities of faith that authentically embody a kingdom faith, and are more outwardly focused on engaging the urgent issues that fill our world. Joining these new conspirators is a great opportunity for college graduates to put God’s mission purposes first in their lives.
Life after college: Seeking first the purposes of God
The first life decision for new graduates is not where to work, where to live, or even who to marry; it is how to follow Jesus by making God’s purposes their own. The most important work you can do while you are in college is to join with friends to discern God’s call on your life—your vocation. To the extent that you are able to define a beginning sense of calling, you can join these conspirators in beginning the journey towards authentic, mission-focused, whole-life faith. If you can begin to identify the purpose and vocation God has for you, then you can more effectively make your other life decisions about where to work, where to live, and even singleness and marriage.
My wife Christine and I wrote a book called Living on Purpose: Finding God’s Best for Your Life that might be of help in enabling you to discern something of God’s call on your life. In our book, we outline an “active listening process” to help you discern ways God is speaking and enable you to hear His voice.
One good way to practice “active listening” is to meet weekly with a small discernment group in which each member helps the others listen to all the different ways God is speaking by answering the following questions:
- How has God been speaking to us through the Bible? Specifically, how has God been calling us to connect our lives to God’s kingdom purposes?
- How has God been speaking to us through prayer? Specifically, how have you felt nudged to use your life to be a part of the good news of God’s new order?
- How has God been speaking to us through the needs of others? What are the needs that particularly tear at your heart—teens in your city destroying their lives with drugs? AIDS orphans in Africa? Families in economic free-fall in your community? Those needs that tear at your heart could be God’s call on your life.
- How has God been calling you through your gifts and strong interests? How might God use those gifts or interests to advance His loving purposes in our turbulent world? How is God also calling you through your broken areas? Often, God seems to do more through our broken places than our areas of achievement.
During this active listening process, participants should write down everything they are hearing and share it with everyone in the discernment group. Prayerfully, the group can help each member discern a beginning sense of their vocation. After working through these questions, write down a preliminary “calling statement” that draws on the answers gleaned from the active listening process. Make sure your calling statement is brief and focused, and includes a clear sense of how it connects to God’s kingdom purposes.
Take immediate steps to live your calling statement while still in college. Begin exploring ways God might use your life while you are still in school to make a difference on campus or in the community. You can work with your compatriots or advisers to use what you are learning in your area of academic study to create a new way to innovatively change your world. One student, Jill, an engineering major, began designing site-specific solar and hydro energy projects to support community development ventures in Kenya.
Students in their final year of study might consider working in a small group to create a one-year life plan for their first post-graduation year. Such a plan would define a clear way you intend to work toward making a kingdom difference in your workplace, community, or the larger world. Several recent graduates who were members of an emerging church in the UK felt called to work with at-risk teenagers in their city. Toward that end, they decided not to work more than 30 hours a week for money, in order to spend twenty hours each week working with teenagers. A young mother attending First Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington involved her preschoolers in doing housework for bedfast elderly, and her children found real satisfaction in caring for others. Seniors should also consider where they intend to live and how to steward their time and money so that they can put God’s priorities first as they begin life after school. Most importantly, they should prayerfully find a community of mutual support in which to fully and festively live their calling.
Be certain of this: if you don’t spend time seeking God for a calling and vocation that connects to His mission, the global mall will write one for you. You will end up like many other sincere Christians, caught in the stressful race of getting ahead in your career and comfortable lifestyles, with precious little time or resources left over for the things the church claims to value most.
Is there life after graduation in these turbulent times? Absolutely! Every challenge really is an opportunity to give creative expression to that new world that is breaking into this one. If you would like to join BJ, Katrina, John, and so many other new conspirators who are discovering how God can use their lives to have a little impact, you can begin by discerning God’s call on your life; then, you can begin to imagine the new ways God might use your mustard seed to become a part this quiet conspiracy that is flourishing, one small plant at a time.
Sidebar: One mustard seed at a time
Consider this your invitation to join a new generation of innovators and risk takers. Ask God to show you imaginative new ways to use a mustard seed to be and make a difference—and write them down! Others have discovered that God can use their mustard seeds to make a difference in the lives of others:
- Jeremy: getting entrepreneurial in Fresno. Jeremy was a sophomore computer science major. He told me that he “made the ‘mistake’ of getting involved in the InterVarsity fellowship at Fresno State University”—who recruited him to tutor primary-age children in reading in inner-city Fresno. The experience turned his life inside out. Having come from an affluent suburban home, he had never been around kids living in poverty before; remarkably, Jeremy discovered in this difficult environment Godâ€™s call on his life. While still a junior, he and a friend studying business developed a start-up plan for a new educational ministry to train the children and their families to use computers, thereby increasing not only the children’s skills but their parents’ employability. Their computer education program was designed to give every family who completed the program a computer for their family.
- BJ, Katrina and John: getting missional in Pittsburgh. While at Westminster, BJ Woodworth was influenced through the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) to work for Habitat for Humanity, an experience which greatly impacted his life. While working on his M.Div. at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, BJ began to see God’s call on his life, as a vision for the creation of a new missional church plant came into focus. Today, that church plant—The Open Door, where BJ is lead pastor—has about 80 regular attendees. It isn’t simply a place to go once a week for worship; it is a community with a mission.
Sixteen of the members, including BJ and his wife Katrina, are a part of the Rippey Street Christian Community. They live in the inner-city neighborhood where the Open Door congregation gathers for worship, and they are discovering how to be family together and make a difference in their neighborhood. One of their major efforts is working through East Liberty Development, a local non-profit community development corporation, to rehabiliate homes, enabling low-income families to stay in their neighborhood.