“Emerging adults” and religion

Christianity Today’s Katelyn Beaty interviewed sociologist Christian Smith for the current issue.  Smith’s new book, Souls in Transition,  looks at the religious attitudes and practices of 18-29 year-olds.  The idea that this phase of life is now a prelude to married life has come out in several things that I’ve read.  Some good examples are an article about twentysomething “child-men” from the City Journal (warning: some crude descriptions of a crude young male culture), Joel’s post dissecting the attitudes of “Our Mad World,” and Christianity Today’s recent article “The Case for Early Marriage.”  Here is Smith’s explanation of this development:

Much social transformation since the 1960s and ’70s has created it. A higher proportion of American youth are spending more years in higher education. They are waiting a lot longer before they get married and have kids. That’s partly related to wanting to stay in school longer. It’s partly related to wanting to be “free” longer. It’s also associated with things like the availability of artificial contraception.

Another factor is changes in the global economy that make jobs more fluid and unpredictable. You no longer settle into a job that you’ll have the rest of your life. You may be transferred, you may lose your job, you may need retraining, you may need specialized education. All of this puts young people on edge, wanting to keep their options open when it comes to work.

All this has also created cultural changes that perpetuate an interest in being wild and free, sexually hopping around, for a time. As they exit the teenage years, young people basically understand they have up to 12 years before having a family and settling into their “real job.” And those are very important years.

A chart that accompanies the print edition of the article notes Smith and Snell’s findings that the two most prominent religious categories among emerging adults are “selective adherents” (30 percent) and “religiously indifferent” (25 percent), with “committed traditionalists” and “spiritually open” at 15 percent each.  “Irreligious” (10 percent) and “religiously disconnected” (5 perscent) make up the rest.

According to the article, Smith found that “Moral Therapeutic Deism” (a belief in a general God who helps you in life and wants you to be good) is the belief system of American teenagers in his previous book, Soul Searching.  This view is still prevalent when teens become emerging adults, but although some wonder if it really works as life gets tougher.  Some turn against religion.

Smith argues that churches are not really set up to reach emerging adults.  Churches tend to be set up for parents and children, but not the people in the new in-between phase.  Plus, emerging adults who do go to church tend to be age-segregated from older adults.  The key, Smith believes, is that churches need to develop relationships with emerging adults.  Don’t just focus on programs.  Lately, I’ve been hearing more people say that the church needs to be intergenerational, and indeed can be countercultural in that way.  This goes right along with Smith’s suggestion.

Finally, there was a similarity between Smith’s description of parenting’s impact on children’s perseverance in faith and Kevin DeYoung’s description that I posted yesterday.  From Smith:

What are the traits of religious American teenagers who retain a high faith commitment as emerging adults?

The most important factor is parents. For better or worse, parents are tremendously important in shaping their children’s faith trajectories. That’s the story that came out in Soul Searching. It’s also the story that comes out here.

Another factor is youth having established devotional lives—that is, praying, reading Scripture—during the teenage years. Those who do so as teenagers are much more likely than those who don’t to continue doing so into emerging adulthood. In some cases, having other adults in a congregation who you have relationships with, and who are supportive and provide modeling, also matters.

Some readers are going to be disappointed that going on mission trips doesn’t appear to amount to a hill of beans, at least for emerging adults as a whole. For some it’s important, but not for most. But again, we emphasize above everything else the role of parents, not just in telling kids about faith but also in modeling it.

Your research seems to cast doubt on previous studies that concluded higher education corrodes religious belief.

Yes. It’s not that the previous studies were wrong. It’s that the world is actually changing. If anything, college is no different in terms of the faith corrosion outcomes on youth. It may even strengthen the faith of some. We think this is partly about a growing number of evangelical faculty at secular colleges. Another factor is the increasing presence and legitimacy of campus religious groups and ministries [InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade] that provide support systems—not just fellowship, but also intellectual engagement that may have been lacking in past decades.

The culture has also changed: “spirituality” is more acceptable now than in past decades. Most faculty know you cannot say stupidly anti-religious things in the classroom and get away with it.

It’s not that parents should not worry when their kids go to college. But there are factors in place now so that faith communities have figured out ways to support their college-age youth.



  1. I don’t either. Our 20s and 30s groups is largely “structurally disconnected,” as Smith says, from the rest of the church. Segmenting by age is definitely the trend, and probably is somewhat necessary. But there is a lot lost.

    Taking Smith and DeYoung suggests that “programs” don’t cut it — there has to be deep, Christ-honoring relationship-building. I think that people are waking up to this, but we’ll see what happens. The American church is so decentralized both institutionally and intellectually that you never know what are blips on the radar and what are long-term trends.

  2. Good points all around. A service project to help the elderly is good, but I think deeper relationships are formed by common interests rather than sporadic service. Though, one might lead to the other.

    At the same time, events do feel and flow differently when our parents’ or grandparents’ age-group are around. And often, people in our group are looking for that special mate which is a strong motivation to narrow the age range. Still, it’s nice that e.g. my mom was able to join in a couple of TNT (20s and 30s) outings and thus got to know Ryan and Taylor before they left.

    I am in awe of Bill’s periodic participation in our group. I think I’d feel uncomfortable if I were him, but I love having him around and his inviting us to his house for pancakes and evolution debates. He always adds a well thought out and compelling perspective. I felt bad I didn’t participate more when he led TNT, but he just moved so fast with all his references. Kurt kept up, though, which was a sight to behold.

    I spoke to some elderly people at the shrimp boil who were interested in TNT. One elderly guy was interested in visiting. We joked a bit, but I told him seriously that he should stop by. I haven’t seen him again yet.

    I’ve gone to Ascend a few times and a pizza night. We could probably setup some sort of outing with them, but I forecast a very small TNT turnout. For the most part, the people who want to engage with other age groups do. I don’t think the problem is really a lack of opportunity but rather a lack of motivation (or time) to make and maintain relationships — both inter- and intra-TNT.

    • That’s a good point, Kevin. I think that a lack of motivation and time are important factors. I also think that we need to revive our sense of service and mission in TNT. I think that I’ve let that slip once we wrapped up the AIDS caregiver kits.

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