Let me tell you about a person I have not always liked. He is 20 years old, reasonably bright, friendly, and—when he wants—capable of influencing people. His name is Tom.

Until recently his life appeared to be unraveling. His parents, who live 2,000 miles away, are on the verge of divorce, and that's thrown him for a loop. I don't think he has the slightest idea of how much his crumbling family has hurt him. But those of us who know Tom are quite aware. We have worried for him.

Recently, Tom received a form letter from his university telling him that if he has one more semester like the last, he will be suspended from school. This I find perplexing because he has a better mind than that.

One of the reasons I have struggled to like Tom is because his character is defective. His work habits are poor, and he moves from job to job. Financially, he lives from day to day. His personal life is undisciplined, disorganized. He's a people-pleaser and often makes promises he does not keep. Result: people tend to be disappointed in him.

Having been brought up around church people, Tom knows the language and the appropriate behaviors of church people. But there is little about his Christian life that one would find compelling. Tom is not a bold sinner (his "testimony" is not worth a book); he certainly isn't a bold follower of Christ.

I keep wondering what is going to happen to Tom. I see versions of him every day. Do young people like Tom ever think about the future? Do they understand that choices have consequences? Will they ever settle down to steady relationships, to work that adds value to their generation, to faith that is durable and connected to vital issues?

But then, hey, I'm an old guy. What would you expect from me when I look at a younger generation? The older generation has always wondered about these things.

I want to be quick to say that I really admire the top 10-15 percent of young people I meet today. They are far sharper, more directionalized (a word I've made up), more enthusiastic than anyone I ever knew in my generation. But I must be candid: I sometimes worry about the lower 85 percent.

I see Tom in that 85 percent. I'm not always confident that our hustling-bustling churches with all their programs have what it takes to bring persons like Tom around. I could be wrong about this. But the subject needs more thought.

Now, if there's hope for Tom, who's about to launch into his third decade of life, it's going to come from five people who have taken interest in him. Two couples—one very young, the other much older—and a single older man. For reasons I don't understand, they have decided to like him. I keep wondering what they see that I do not see.

The campus workers

Take the younger couple. Staff-members of a parachurch organization, Verne and Marilyn recently came to the same university that is threatening to kick Tom out. For reasons never explained, they are fond of Tom, and they regularly welcome him into their lives. I suspected they'd dump him as soon as they caught on to his immaturity. But they haven't.

Verne and Marilyn let Tom hang out with them whenever he was free. That led to—can you believe this?—his dropping by their apartment at lunchtime almost every day. They're aware by now that his "showing up" is largely due to the fact that he has no job and little money, and the lunch they serve him is his best chance for a decent meal. I said as much to Verne one day, but he blew me off.

Tom seems to enjoy only one topic of conversation: himself. Whenever he is with Verne and Marilyn, he pours out his problems or talks about whatever interests him. He rarely asks them anything about themselves. He almost never says thank you. And it's clear that it doesn't occur to him that he often intrudes on their privacy and drains what little money they have.

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Summer 2003: Emerging Leaders  | Posted
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