This past summer I went fishing with a friend who had recently begun raising support for a full-time ministry role. As we casted and reeled, he recounted some of the big events and decisions in his life over the past several years: how he had gone to Bible college with a heart for ministry, which he assumed meant pastoral ministry. A fourth-year internship in a local church challenged some of his expectations, and he started to question whether this really was what he was supposed to pursue. After graduating, he worked at a few jobs without a strong sense of direction.
But then, through a series of circumstances he didn’t foresee, he found himself thriving in an unexpected capacity. Finally, he felt like he’d found what he was supposed to be doing.
Still, there seemed to be regret in his voice. “I can’t believe it took me until I was 25 to figure this out.”
My response to him went something like, “What you’ve just described is exactly what your 20s are for! You’ve been doing just what you should be doing: trying things out, taking steps forward, and figuring out how God put you together. You’re right on schedule.”
It seems like my friend had bought into a common myth: the idea that once you’ve finished college, you should be a fully-formed adult who understands yourself fully, knows exactly what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, and walks confidently into that future with full assurance.
I’m not sure where this myth comes from. Perhaps it comes from the few people who legitimately have had this experience. Early on, they decided what they wanted to do, they went for it, and they thrived. But in the 10+ years that I’ve served as a pastor to 20-somethings, I’ve seen that most needed some time and experience to figure out how God built them, what they’re good at, and how they can best serve Him and others. There was some trial-and-error before they had real clarity on their path ahead. Even for those who did have an early sense of what they were supposed to do with their life, it took some time to grow in maturity before they began to find the fruitfulness they hoped for.
A Biblical Pattern
When we look to God’s word, we don’t encounter the pressure to have everything figured out by 22. In fact, there’s an interesting pattern in Scripture that would suggest to us that 20-somethings are still under substantial development, and aren’t ready for some key tasks until they begin to move into the next decade of their life.
In ancient Israel, men were counted in the national census and enlisted to go to war from the age of 20 (Exodus 30:14, Numbers 1:3). Similarly, the unfaithful generation who died in the wilderness were those 20 years old and upward (Numbers 14:29).
But when it came to enlisting those who would serve in the house of the Lord, the age limit was a decade higher: “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old up to fifty years old, all who can come on duty, to do the work in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 4:1–3). That age restriction (30 to 50) is repeated six more times in that chapter.
Apparently, there was a greater maturity required to serve in the tabernacle. This is all the more surprising when we consider the age cap on the other side. Apparently, after the age of 50 most men at that time weren’t able to handle the physical labour involved in setting up, taking down, and transporting the tabernacle. And yet they waited until they were 30 before they could serve. God restricted this group to “men strong enough to transport the tabernacle and mature enough to care for such holy items.”1D. A. Carson, ed., NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 231. Emphasis mine.
It is interesting to see that later on, in Numbers 8:24, Levites aged 25 and up were able to serve with the tabernacle. Later still, the age seemed to have come down even further (1 Chronicles 23:24, 31:17; Ezra 3:8). Some have suggested that these years prior to 30 were an “internship” period of preparation and training. However we explain these discrepancies, it’s beyond a doubt that at one point in Israel’s history, God restricted the tabernacle workers to those 30 and older.
30 is how old David was when he began to reign (2 Sam 5:4). Some kings started out a lot younger than that, but David was the ideal monarch. While anointed by Samuel as a younger man, David was prepared by God for his task by long years of difficulty—running from Saul, living in the wilderness, dwelling among the Philistines. It’s not hard to see how God used this hard season of David’s life to prepare him for his task.
John the Baptist was around 30 when he stepped into his public role. Marked out from birth for a specific job, he spent years out in the wilderness waiting for it to begin. His actual ministry lasted months at most, and perhaps only weeks. But still he waited through his 20s until the time was right.
And then there is Jesus, the son of God, sent from heaven to earth. If anyone was ready for an early start to his life’s ministry, it was him. At 12 he was blowing the minds of the teachers in the temple (Luke 2:42, 47). Yet Luke 3:23 tells us that “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age.” And that ministry only lasted three years or so.
There’s a pattern here, and at the very least this pattern challenges the idea that someone in their early 20s should be fully formed and ready for anything. Instead, this Biblical pattern reinforces the idea that the 20s are a decade of significant development, maturing, and of growing into the adult that one is becoming.
Don’t Waste Your 20s
And so my advice to 20-somethings is that they shouldn’t feel the pressure to have their life fully figured out as soon as they are 20 or 22. They should expect that throughout their 20s they’ll be learning, growing, bumping into some walls, trying some things out, and developing a sense of how God put them together. They’ll learn what they flourish at, and what they can do to help others flourish. And while there’s no magic number, if they’ve done their 20s well, as they move into their 30s they’ll have a much better sense of the particular ways they can use their life to fruitfully serve the Lord and others.
On the one hand, this takes some of the pressure off. It’s okay for 20-somethings to still be figuring some things out. But on the other hand, this also puts some pressure on: it’s important for 20-somethings to actually be figuring things out! They need to make sure they actually are growing, developing, and taking steps forward. Others need to be able to see their progress (1 Timothy 4:15). Maturity doesn’t happen by itself, so it needs to be approached deliberately.
If someone wastes their 20s on TikTok or video games or pornography or endless late-night hangouts with their besties, they probably won’t be in any different place by their 30s, and they’ll end up needing to use their 30s to figure things out. Or maybe they’ll never figure things out, and prolong maturity indefinitely (a trend we’ve certainly seen increasing over the last number of years).
So what does it look like to use your 20s well? What does it look like to be diligent about growing in maturity? Out of the many things that could be said, here’s four suggestions that rise to the surface:
1. Stay Teachable
If what we’ve seen so far is true, 20-somethings still have some maturing to do. Some development to do. Some learning to do. And many young people resist this idea. One of the saddest hallmarks of youth is that we tend to be the least teachable right when we need the most teaching.
On the flip side, one of the marks of maturity is knowing that you still have more distance to cover (Philippians 3:13-15). In other words, if someone feels patronized when they’re told that they still have some growing up to do, they’ve just proven the point.
I was 32 when I stepped in to my present ministry role. I had felt ready for a role like it for at least a decade. And one of my reflections as I began this ministry was how much younger I felt at 32 than I did at 22. In my 30s I was so much more aware of what I didn’t know, and I was so much more hungry to learn from those who were older than me.
The first 9 chapters of Proverbs show us the importance of teachability. They’re written from a father to a younger man who is at least of marriable age, and over and over again the father pleads with his son to be teachable: listen, to pay attention, to have his ears open. If he doesn’t listen, he’s headed for disaster. But if he learns, he’ll find wisdom and life.
20-somethings will not use their 20s well if they think they know everything already. They will only make the most of their opportunities to grow if they know that growth is what they need.
2. Find Some Mentors
Joshua had Moses. Elisha had Elijah. Timothy had Paul. To every 20-something I would ask, “Who are you learning from, in a real, relational, life-on-life kind of way?”
The encouragement here is to find a mentor. Better yet, following the pattern of Proverbs, find some mentors. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). Surround yourself with older fathers and mothers in the faith whom you can learn from (Titus 2:4).
“Older” is a key word here. Getting opinions from your buddies or besties is not the path to maturity. Remember Rohoboam, who “abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him” (1 Kings 12:8)? We know how that worked out for him. And he was already 41 when that happened (1 Kings 14:21).
Using your 20s well includes seeking out and learning from older mentors.
3. Avoid False Substitutes
One of the ways people waste their 20s is by finding false substitutes for maturity. They find “easy” things that make them feel like they’ve grown up and accomplished something in life, when they actually haven’t.
For example, video games. I grew up with a Nintendo and actually find video games enjoyable to this day. But I’ve seen how they so easily short-circuit the maturing process by giving an artificial sense of accomplishment. They can make you feel powerful, or victorious, or adventurous, when all you’ve actually done is build thumb-eye coordination. And in the process they can sap away the God-given drive to actually go do things of real importance.
Pornography works the same way. Rather than feel the motivation to become a protector and provider who wins the heart of a real woman, pornography provides a guy with a virtual harem that requires no effort on his part whatsoever. Is it any coincidence that the emergence of pornography has coincided with the widespread delay of maturity in so many young men?
Even sports fandom can have the same effect. Attaching your identity to a favourite team or pursuing greatness through a fantasy league can be another way to derail real-life maturity.
Now, I get it: some people are able to maintain a well-balanced love for sports, even using it as a tool for God’s kingdom. I’ve seen this done really well.
But young men in particular need to be aware of the danger of investing too much of their time and identity into things that ultimately don’t matter. Your post-game commentary might impress your buddies, but isn’t improving anybody’s lives now or into eternity. I highly doubt you’ll get to the end of your life and and think, “I wished I had yelled louder at that ref, or just memorized a few more stats.”
The point is that if someone is going to use their 20s well, they’re going to need to get out and actually do some stuff. Work some jobs, hone some skills, try their hand at a craft or two, serve in different ministries—real things with real people. While expecting some trial and error as they learn about themselves and others, they should understand that very little of this important development is going to happen alone in front of a screen.
4. Love Your Church
This is where it all come together. God designed local churches to be greenhouses for maturity (Ephesians 4:15-16), and 20-somethings need to be immersed in the every-member ministry of the people of God at least as much as anybody else. Younger adults can serve and be served by people of all ages, whether that’s watching kids in the nursery, joining an all-ages small group, or going out for coffee with seniors who might be scared by the word “mentor” but would love to answer questions about things they’ve learned over the years. Surrounded by a supportive church family, they can grow in their giftings as they try their hand at various ministries and, through loving feedback and careful affirmation, develop a sense of what they’re good at and where they (and others) thrive. Through formal membership, they can learn the privilege and responsibility of commitment. The list could go on and on.
In short, a healthy local church is dripping with opportunities to help 20-somethings grow in maturity. And this is one of the reasons why, at Emmanuel, we deliberately don’t do a ton of activities just for 20-somethings as an isolated group. As much as possible, we want to encourage them to take their place with everyone else in the body, with whom they can “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
So, 20-somethings, you don’t need to have it all figured out. But you should be figuring it out. And getting deeply connected with your local church is one of the best ways you can help this happen.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about On Using Your 20s Well – Emmanuel Baptist Church.