Wheaton magazine

Volume 22 // Issue 1
Wheaton magazine // Winter 2019

Transitioning Well: Anchoring Life Transitions to a Christian Worldview

Dr. Muhia Karianjahi M.A. '03, HoneyRock's Graduate Program and Global Initiatives Manager

Inevitable times of change characterize the human experience. Sometimes, the changes are preceded by natural processes and life rhythms that cannot be avoided. These agitations recalibrate one’s identity. Organizational change consultant William Bridges famously wrote, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is situational ... transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation.”[1]

In other words, change is inevitable, but transitions can go awry if not handled well.

As a practitioner who facilitates rites of passage, I often argue that transitional times offer golden opportunities for transformational ministry, especially for children and youth.

Historian Mircea Eliade describes rites of passage as “a category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time, from one role or social position to another, integrating the human and cultural experiences with biological destiny.”[2] They are, ideally, facilitated transitional tools that either respond to or anticipate changes in seasons of life within specific socio-cultural contexts.

In my native East African context, people can generally remember how rites of passage were an almost magical key to identity and character formation in pre-industrial tribal communities. Two to three generations of modernization in an increasingly global milieu, however, irreversibly eroded the appropriateness of such rituals. The void left by the loss of traditional rites of passage has increasingly been recognized as a major contributor to contemporary youth challenges such as substance use or initiation of sexual activity early in life, both used as markers of transition into adulthood.

A year ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a workshop hosted by the School of Arts and Social Sciences of Moi University, a public institution in Eldoret, Kenya, in conjunction with a nonprofit, the African Christian Initiation Program (ACIP). The stated purpose of the workshop was to map and network local initiatives reconstructing rites of passage programs for young people in Kenya. I had helped design and roll out church-based rites of passage programs in the Nairobi environs since 1997 as part of a church-owned nonprofit, Tanari Trust. It was extremely exciting to me that the conversation about how to help children transition into responsible adults was now taking place at a national level among academics, religious leaders, and public policymakers. More and more youth-centered institutions and organizations such as churches, schools, and colleges are considering contemporary reconstructions of rites of passage as tools to foster healthy youth development. There is now a willingness to collaborate to benchmark initiatives and promote best practices.

My few years living in the United States have convinced me that rites of passage here tend to be facilitated at the nuclear family level, which is different from other contexts where communities such as churches and schools take charge. Some families make rituals out of transitions such as getting a driver’s license at age 16. High school graduations may be marked by “open house” celebrations with invitations that encourage the community to celebrate the graduate and prepare her for what’s to come.

However, there is little academic literature on the contemporary reconstruction of transitional rites of passage.

Some recent academic studies suggest that rites of passage programs may help adolescents define their identity, make positive life choices, and be contributors, not just consumers, in their communities.[3]  Programming that incorporates significant community members—families, non-parental adults, and peers—shows promise in facilitating transformation and spiritual formation.[4] In the Kenyan context, word-of-mouth testimonies, anecdotal claims, and the proliferation of programs such as those that were represented in the workshop at Moi University in Kenya indicate that rites of passage re-constructions do mediate desired youth developmental outcomes. Perhaps some of these programs can serve as models for similar reconstructions in a Western context.

Popular publications may also provide models for reconstructions in a Western context. One such book, Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood by Robert Lewis[5], encourages families to design a three-tiered rite of passage progression for boys transitioning from childhood to adulthood. More recently, Nathan Oates and Angela Henning, pastors at Emmaus Church Community in Lincoln, California, authored Way-marking: Crafting Rites of Passage, that advocates church-based rites of passage.

Meanwhile, HoneyRock, the Outdoor Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College, utilizes camp programming to punctuate life transitions. The rite of passage aspects of programs at HoneyRock are carefully crafted so that students experience a threefold process of passage similar to one described by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal 1908 work, Les Rites de Passage.[6] Students begin with a facilitated separation from the pre-program status; enter temporary community—a liminal or “in-between” opportunity-laden space at camp; and end with reintegration celebrations that often involve participants’ families or other interpretive representatives of the permanent community as they enter into in their new post-program status.

Three HoneyRock programs especially stand out as transformational rites of passage. During Wheaton Passage, first-year students are invited to capture a vision for their lives in college and beyond, making friends with peers through the shared experience and connecting with upper-level students and Wheaton College faculty. HoneyRock’s Vanguard Gap Year program provides high school graduates with an opportunity to let go of their identities as adolescents, wrestle with questions of life and calling, and embrace new identities as emerging adults over a nine-month gap year. A third HoneyRock program that is an overt rite of passage is Advance Camp, which helps bridge the gap between eighth grade and high school.

I believe that HoneyRock is leading the way in exploring how community-based Christian transitional rites of passage programs might look in an American context. Perhaps such educational innovations as those found at HoneyRock will lead the charge toward recovering community-based rites of passage as a strategic tool to anchor life transitions to an evangelical Christian worldview. 


[1] William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense Of Life’s Changes, 2nd revised & enlarged edition (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 4. [2] Mircea Eliade, quoted in Christian Groff, “Rites of Passage: A Necessary Step Toward Wholeness,” in Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, ed. Louise Carus Mahdi, Nancy Geyer Christophe, and Michael Meade (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1996), 5. [3] Aminifu R. Harvey & Robert B. Hill, “Africentric Youth and Family Rites of Passage Program,” in Social Work, Vol. 49, no. 1 (January 2004): 65-74; Joyce Hafeeza Piert, “Transition into Adulthood: The Experience of a Rite-of-Passage Program at an African Centered High School” in Negro Educational Review Vol. 58, no. 3/4 (Fall 2007):169-186; Steven Venable, “Rites of Passage: A Model for Transformation in Religious Education,” Asbury Theological Journal, Vol. 53, no. 2 (1998): 59-72. [4] Muhia Karianjahi, “Connectedness to Community in a Contemporary Church-Based Adolescent Rites of Passage Program in Nairobi” (Ph.D. diss., Biola University, 2013); Kathleen Moore, Scott Young, John Weir, and Ezra Ochshorn, “An Evaluation of a Holistic Program for At-Risk Teens and Their Parents,” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal Vol. 29, no. 3 (September 2007): 129-145; Kelly Schwartz, “Transformations in Parent and Friend Faith Support Predicting Adolescents’ Religious Faith,” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 16, no. 4 (January 2006): 311-326. [5] Robert Lewis, Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007). [6] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee (New York, NY: Routledge Library Editions, 2004).