How to Help Young Adults Discover Purpose in Work

In Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, young Hugo Cabret is orphaned after his father, a master clockmaker, passes away. Hugo is left on his own to navigate life, but it isn’t as though his father left him with nothing. Hugo carries on his father’s technical mind and passion for working on machines. It is through the lens of clock making that Hugo tries to make sense of his place and purpose in the world.

Despite his unusually difficult circumstances, Hugo holds on to hope by believing that his life matters and by feeling a sense of responsibility to the rest of the world to discover his purpose. It is as if the world needs him and will be in some way broken or defective if he fails to serve his purpose.
Too many young adults in our communities are struggling with discerning a purposeful, vocational vision for their lives. This is in part the result of an overly compartmentalized view of the world and their place in it. To put it another way, they’re incapable of discerning a holistic vision for their lives that encompasses career, community, faith, family, fun, etc. As a result, they have come to see career as the place to make a living, family as the place to rest and share love, church as the place to be recharged and encouraged, and community as the place to consume goods and be entertained. In this view where vocation is equated with career, there is nothing connecting the significant compartments of their lives with any coherent, overarching meaning.
To make matters more complicated, the two most dominant themes in popular vocational discernment are independence and choice. We rightly celebrate a young adult’s emerging independence when we see them successfully navigate the challenges of life by utilizing their own skills and embracing their unique agency. We rightly celebrate their many choices as the affirmation that their education and upbringing afforded them many diverse opportunities. However, there are shadowy sides to each of these.

Shadowy Sides of Independence and Choice

Where independence is overemphasized an appropriate sense of responsibility is lost. We cannot encourage young adults to be free without reminding them of all of the ways we are significantly bound to one another and responsible for one another. Where choice is overemphasized an appropriate sense of duty, place, and purpose is lost. We cannot encourage young adults to do whatever they want to do without guiding them to discover what they are supposed to do.
[Tweet “We cannot encourage freedom without reminding of all of the ways we’re bound to one another”] Christian sociologist Christian Smith captures this angst well in his book Souls in Transition. In it he writes, “Emerging adults are determined to be free. But they do not know what is worth doing with their freedom. They work hard to stand on their own two feet. But they do not really know where they ought to go and why, once they are standing.” The result, to borrow the metaphor from Hugo, is a generation that feels like extra parts.
Freedom and responsibility, choice and purpose. These values are not exclusive of one another. In fact, they invite each emerging adult into the dialectic of discernment.
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Four Points of Purpose

In the book Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, David Setran and Chris Kiesling suggest that ministries “must provide [young adults] with a picture of vocation that is ‘large enough’ to encompass the kingdom vision of God.” When young adults begin to see how the life of the kingdom has broken into our broken world they can live out a vocation that anticipates that future reality in the here and now. Setran and Kiesling offer four vocational categories to help us understand how our work translates into kingdom-oriented vocation.
Communion – In the broken relationships between people and God, our vocations can seek COMMUNION, the reconciliation of people to God through the gospel of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Community – In the broken relationships between people and people, our vocations can seek COMMUNITY, working for healed friendships, marriages and families, and race, class and gender harmony.
Character – In the broken relationships between people and themselves, our vocations can seek CHARACTER, helping people understand their woundedness and recognize the need for integrity, healing, and wholeness.
Cultivation – In the broken relationships between humans and the rest of the created order, our vocations can seek CULTIVATION, promoting environmental stewardship and creating new cultural goods that glorify God and serve others.
By fleshing out these four vocational domains we can discover how thousands of careers fit beautifully within the kingdom vision of God for our future and the future of God’s world. Moreover, this framework allows us to understand our career in light of a whole life mission. For example, a mechanical engineer may begin to understand her work in terms of cultivation, as she designs manufacturing processes that utilize fewer fossil fuels and produce less carbon emissions. Her employer is happier because her new systems cost less to operate. And she has discovered a deeply profound, kingdom-oriented purpose to the work she does each day.
But she doesn’t stop there. Understanding her vocation through the lens of cultivation not only gives meaning to her day job, it also influences her family, her involvement in the community, her relationship with her church, and so on. Cultivation offers her a thread that binds the many diverse patches of her life. That is a life worth living! That is a life of purpose!
Developing a kingdom-oriented, vocational vision for our lives challenges us to annihilate the work, life, faith, fun, etc. categories that fragment our sense of self, place, and purpose. When we as ministry leaders begin to embody a full sense of vocational calling we will better understand how to invite young adults in our community along in that discernment journey.
How does your community talk about vocational calling? Is there a spiritual hierarchy implicit in your community that recognizes careers in ministry as somehow more impactful for kingdom purposes? How could you elevate a diverse group of vocational voices to share their experiences in the areas of communion, community, character and cultivation? Does your church’s eschatology support a holistic vocational vision? Or does your church’s eschatology implicitly or explicitly reinforce the sacred/secular divide that leads to the compartmentalization of life, work, and faith?
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About the Author

Welford Orrock

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