Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults: Life-Giving Rhythms for Spiritual Transformation

Richard R. Dunn and Jana L. Sundene
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012


Dunn and Sundene claim that the main factor that determines young adult thriving (rather than simply surviving) is having mentors and teachers who invest in them. The authors present story after story of young adults needing or benefiting from mentoring relationships. This thesis is developed through a framework for “disciplemaking relationships” including two foundations, three rhythms, and five applications of those rhythms.



Dunn and Sundene start with the “why.” In their first chapter, they begin by diving into developmental research on emerging adulthood, noting the societal landscape young adults are entering into, including considerations of career, relational needs, physical instability, easy access to the internet, and more. They then call for “adult disciplemakers” who are needed to walk with emerging adults and direct them toward faith during these transitional years.

The second chapter describes five shifts that the Church as a whole will need to make in order to “shepherd and equip” emerging adults. These five all hit at a similar point, that the Church needs to be active, rather than passive, when it comes to ministry with young adults today. Chapter 3 then lays out two foundations for this work: simplicity and authenticity. The authors describe a “simple vision” for mature discipleship: trust, submission, and love – as modeled after the life of Jesus Christ. Building upon this, they talk about an “authentic understanding of relationships” that lead young adults to become mature disciples. There is no one way to have a disciplemaking relationship, they point out, but all must be centered on learning from Christ.

The next three chapters go into the “rhythms” Dunn and Sundene suggest for building disciplemaking relationships: Discernment, Intentionality, and Reflection. This is the crux of what they have to offer to disciplemakers. Discernment is described as a deep listening, both to the young adult being discipled and to God. Intentionality speaks to the focus of the adult disciplemaker on the spiritual growth of young adults—not just spending time with them, but challenging them to grow. Reflection calls adult leaders to take time to check in with how the discipleship relationship is going, to make sure it continues to be intentional.

After identifying these rhythms, Dunn and Sundene spend the next five chapters looking at how these rhythms play into the particular challenges of young adult life, namely: sense of purpose and identity, spirituality, relationships, sexuality, and daily world. They speak of teaching young adults that their purpose and identity is in God, that their whole lives can be a part of their spirituality, that their relationships are in God’s control, that their sexuality should align with a heterosexual marital union norm, and that their daily life needs to include time for prayer and scripture.

The authors finish out their call to become disciplemakers with two chapters directly dealing with “established adult” disciplemakers, their journeys, and their postures (namely trust, humility and love). The book ends with a conversation reflection with the two authors on the topics of the book and the process of writing it.



Richard R. Dunn is lead pastor at Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, a congregation that describes itself as primarily consisting of emerging adults. He previously served as chair of educational ministries at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Jana Sundene is Associate Professor of Christian Ministries at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, where she works with emerging adult undergraduate students. Before teaching, she worked in youth ministry for ten years. She has spent many years “disciplemaking” with individuals and groups.

Together, Dunn and Sundene operate out of the assumption that young adults have unique challenges in today’s culture. They write with the understanding that the larger Church can do something about these challenges and that intentional disciple-making is the key.



Both authors operate from an evangelical framework of Christian faith that tends to be more conservative. They are concerned with “spiritual viability” and “fully mature spiritual adulthood.” Dunn and Sundene build their argument assuming that making disciples is vital not just for the lived experience of young adults, but because of “kingdom participation,” which includes entrance into heaven after death.

The authors also have a strong sense of the inerrancy of scripture. Many of their points are supported by scripture passages, but some seem to be a stretch to relate to the topic at hand. Dunn and Sundene understand mentors only as those who are the same gender as the person they mentor, an assumption that comes from their understanding of gender as described in scripture. In addition, using the bible as a reference, they come out strongly against late term abortions, same sex relationships, having romantic relationships with non-Christians, pre-marital cohabitation, and having sex outside of marriage.



Dunn and Sundene hope to convey a vision for discipleship where mature Christians are in intentional mentoring relationships with young adults. They first paint a picture to illustrate why they see this as important, then they describe how this looks (through their rhythms), and finally, they describe major areas of life that discipleship relationships interact with. This book was written to shape disciplemakers into their model of relationships.



The major strength of this book is in its intentional description of mentoring. For those completely unfamiliar with mentoring relationships and how mentoring operates, this book could offer some practical and helpful ways to think about encouraging others to grow through relationship with them. The “discern, be intentional, reflect” process can be beneficial for many different types of mentoring relationships, even those not religiously focused.

For mainline and/or more liberal audiences, the evangelical framework of this book might be blinding at times. The chapter on sexuality in particular could be especially difficult to digest. While the authors claim that there is no one way to have these relationships, there is a consistent sense that the authors are pushing for disciples (and disciplemakers) to behave, act, and think in a particular way. Additionally, though it is only seven years old, this book is already showing its age. The emerging adults detailed and described in this book are very obviously millennials (though not named as such), and these patterns may not continue to be found in the following generations.


[Review by Jocelyn Wildhack]