Saturday Book Review: Dunn, Sundene

This review is by my colleague, Joel Willitts, who posted this earlier at his blog, Euangelion. Joel teaches Bible at North Park and works with young adult ministries at his church in Geneva IL.

Richard Dunn and Jana Sundene have written an important book about ministry among emerging adults: Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults: Life-Giving Rhythms for Spiritual Transformation (IVP, 2012).

The term Emerging Adulthood has been coined by sociologists (e.g. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett) and refers to that segment of young adults that largely mystifies most churches, the 19-35 year old crowd. I know of very few established churches that are effectively reaching and discipling adults in this life stage.

If you have a burden for the next generation of the church, this book will not only fire you up but also give you some practical wisdom for shepherding them. This is not a pragmatic ministry strategy book. No ministry models will be found in these pages. If anything, it’s a call for the church to come back, to return to the basics of pastoral ministry. It is a call in fact to relational discipleship – a striped down, decentralized, face to face, authentic living life with young adults approach. Through the ebbs and flows of life, one disciples emerging adults intentionally toward maturity in Christ. In Dunn and Sundene’s words, “[The book] is a call to vision and action”.

Emerging adulthood is now widely recognized as a “new and unique” phase of life. Jeffrey Arnett provided five distinguishing marks of emerging adulthood (Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, p. 8):

  1. It is the age of identity exploration.
  2. It is the age of instability.
  3. It is the most self-focused age of life.
  4. It is the age of feeling in-between, in transition.
  5. It is the age of possibilities, when hope flourished, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.

The content of the book was borne out of a question: What can we do in this generation to empower and equip emerging young adults to reach their God-designed potential for spiritual transformation?

Dunn and Sundene put forward to potential disicplemakers the central task of a disciplemaker of these young adults: to empower them to discover their adult identity and their present purpose in the midst of God’s larger story (40).

Emerging adults need spiritual caregivers who will prayerfully engage the disciple’s maturation, steering them away from navigating these life-shaping years primarily based on their own personal or experiential truth. To reach full maturity and maximize potential impact, the emerging adult needs to be challenged and supported as they are awakened to the way, the truth and the life offered by the Father, discovered by the Son and imparted through the Spirit . . . As disciplemakers of emerging adults, God has given us a stable “geographic center” based on the reality reflected in God’s Word and represented by his Son (41).

The book is divided into three parts after an introduction. Part one addresses the art of disciplemaking. Among the notable elements of this first part is this quote:

Let’s face reality: There are no programmatic shortcuts to effective disciplemaking. There is no “easy button”. Disciplemaking is about relationships. Relationships are inefficient. Disciplemaking is about life change. Life change is messy. Disciplemaking is centered in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ allows no pretense. Disciplemaking is unpredictable. Unpredictability requires risk. Disciplemaking is unique to each person, each generation, each cultural context. Uniqueness eliminates the possibility of universally applied “paint by the numbers” disciplemaking relationships (58-59).

So, what is the essence of disciplemaking according to Dunn and Sundene? Two things: (1) a simple vision of what a mature disciple of Jesus looks like, and (2) an authentic understanding of relationships that will facilitate, encourage, challenge, support and lead young adults in this generation to become mature disciples of Jesus. A more concise and useful answer you’ll have a hard time finding.

No mechanical five-step strategies for life change, clever methodologies to mimic or ultra-cool programs to apply. Just inefficient, messy, unpretentious, unpredictable, risky relationships with no “paint by the numbers” answers on how to proceed. Just you, the young adults you are investing in and Jesus. Nothing more—but so much more than enough (59)

One expression of the vision of a mature disciple is with the three irrefutable essentials provided by Dunn and Sundene: Trust, Submission and Love. They discuss what these look like in the life of Jesus and in his disciples. They point out that these are things that must be true of the disciplemaker first.

But the next question, and perhaps the most crucial, is what is the core capacity a disciplemaker needs to foster these qualities in the lives of emerging adults?

The answer: The ability to build authentic, naturing discipling relationships. They state it so clearly:

A person’s unwavering trust in God’s wisdom, humble submission in embracing God’s heart, and love that pursues God and others with selfless generosity can all be rendered ineffective and unproductive by relational incompetence in the disciplemaking journey (74)

There is real advice here. Not models, but good advice. We must raise up adults who have an aptitude for developing discipleship relationships. The three skills of discernment, intentionality and reflection provide the foundational skill set of a disciplemaker. The first deals with attention, the second, with direction, and the third, with evaluation.

The second part of the book is dedicated to exploring five issues that are particularly complicated or confusing in the phase of emerging adulthood: (1) identity and purpose, (2) spirituality, (3) relationships, (4) sexuality, and (5) daily life. And the third part consists of three chapters focused on the disciplemaker.

Shaping The Journey of Emerging Adults will be an excellent resource for ministry teams in the present committed to a vital church in the mid-twenty-first century.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mark h

    Agree with everything they have said. I just wish we could begin this when they are in Jr. High.

  • http://c-far.blogspot.com/ josenmiami

    looks good, I’ll get it and read it.

  • http://www.drbilldonahue.com Bill Donahue

    Among the texts I used in my Ministry to Adults class this fall was Jana’s book, and it was well received by the students. The three-fold discipleship framework (discernment, intentionality and reflection) is a fresh approach to creating meaningful dialogue while promoting movement toward Christ-likeness. Definitely worth having and using.


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