By Jeff Brumley
There is a trend developing, according to media outlets like the New York Times and Huffington Post, in which American universities are trying to help their students become more thoughtful, well-rounded people.
So, many of them have launched programs designed to widen student focus from careers and money to include emotional, spiritual and moral development, the Times’ David Brooks wrote earlier this month.
These “big question” approaches seek to push students to consider their purpose in life, how they define success and what it means to be fulfilled and happy.
In other words, it’s what many churches and other religious groups have tried to do throughout the ages and are, like those colleges and universities, trying to do more intentionally today.
Ministers and others who work with young people told Baptist News Global they are using a variety of formal and informal approaches to get youth and young adults to contemplate their larger purpose in life. Some churches are even pushing adult members, those in their 50s and older, to wrestle with questions of purpose and meaning.
The effort spans the generations at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga., associate pastor Chris Robertson said.
“We are creating space here at our church to ask some of these big questions.”
Those questions appear in different forms across different age ranges, said Robertson, who runs the youth, young adult and college student ministries at Towne View.
College students currently are going through the Enneagram personality test as part of a process of self-exploration. Participants examine how past experiences have shaped them and what that means for them vocationally, Robertson said.
“With the youth, we are looking at our own stories and what we are passionate about and what gifts we possess,” he said. “Then we take the biblical story and look at how our story intersects with God’s story.”
Robertson said he has also led a group of members ranging from their 30s to 70s through a process of deep questioning on topics of purpose and fulfilment.
“It was a very fruitful exercise of exploration of identity and of calling, meaning and faith.”
‘Many different forms’
The response of older generation to these exercises is usually very powerful, said Kathy Dobbins, minister of spiritual formation at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
The church developed a program called Klesis, a title derived from the Greek word kaleo, which means “call.”
Leaders noticed in the 1990s that older adults were experiencing great satisfaction by exploring meaning and purpose in the second half of life, Dobbins said.
Later, ministers wanted to be more intentional in helping older adults, including seniors, explore the notion of their callings.
“No one was talking about calling for everyone — just for ministers,” she said.
“We wanted to help people understand that you can discern your purpose” regardless of age by examining “your strengths and the things you love and what you are good at,” Dobbins said.
Professionals in their 50s often find existing jobs to be full of ministry opportunities, she said. Others learn they are called to be in different occupations.
The Klesis discernment process can also help retirees discover what volunteer opportunities are right for them.
“It just takes many different forms,” Dobbins said.
‘What is my purpose?’
The same is true for much younger people who are consistently and gently led to consider their place in life, said Amanda Humbert, a youth instructor and mentor at Touching Miami with Love.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ministry has campuses in two of South Florida’s most challenging communities: the Overtown neighborhood in Miami and West Homestead.
In both places, children are confronted with conditions of poverty, struggling schools and social and racial tensions. TML offers after-school programs for children up through high school, including tutoring, computer training, arts, Bible study and mentoring.
And throughout all its offerings, volunteers and paid staff are steadily challenging students to think about the big picture.
“It’s about having those realistic conversations with them,” said Humbert, who ministers at the Overtown site.
Those conversations include job and career interests and, for some, college plans, she said. TML also provides career days and field trips designed to expose students to different professions.
It’s an eye-opening experience for many of them, she said.
“They learn to discover ‘what are the things I am interested in,’” Humbert said. “They are able to find untapped passions.”
But the exploration goes beyond finding the right job, she added. In formal settings like Bible study, and also in casual, unscheduled encounters with students, they are pushed to consider issues like integrity and purpose.
“It’s about finding ways to get them to ask themselves, ‘what do I love, what am I good at, what is my purpose — what is God’s calling for me?”