The Faith of Emerging Adults

The Faith of Emerging Adults

Implications for the church

Note: This article has been excerpted from Meaningful Groups for Emerging Adults.

What are some of the specific issues that this new life phase might raise for church and culture? First, we might consider the content and texture of the religious faith of emerging adults. Having grown up in whatever religious traditions, congregations, and families of faith they have, and having participated in whatever youth groups and Sunday School and catechism classes they have, what then becomes of the religious faith of youth ages 18 to 30? Some have referred to this life stage as a mysterious "black hole" in the life of the American church. Quite a dramatic idea. Does research bear it out?

Jeffrey Arnett explored the religious beliefs and practices of more than 100 emerging adults in various locations around the country. Here is what he concluded:

The most interesting and surprising feature of emerging adults' religious beliefs is how little relationship there is between the religious training they received throughout childhood and the religious beliefs they hold at the time they reach emerging adulthood. In statistical analyses [of interview subjects' answers], there was no relationship between exposure to religious training in childhood and any aspect of their religious beliefs as emerging adults.

Arnett finds this observation startling. He writes, "How could it be that childhood religious training makes no difference in the kinds of religious beliefs and practices people have by the time they reach emerging adulthood? It doesn't seem to make sense." Need I say that these findings raise serious questions? It should make Christians sit up and notice.

In his chapter in On the Frontier of Adulthood, Tom Smith analyzes religious differences across age cohorts and across time. He finds that young adults today attend church less, pray less, are less likely to believe the Bible is the Word of God, less likely to be Protestant, more likely to identify as non-religious, and have less confidence in organized religion than older adults. At the same time, they are more likely than older adults to believe in life after death.

Young adults are also, for the record, more likely to have grown up in a broken home, less likely to believe human nature is good, more likely to be distrustful of other people and of social institutions generally, less likely to read the newspaper, more likely to expect a world war, much more likely to have viewed a pornographic movie, and much more liberal about sex, divorce, and other social issues than are older adults.

A matter related to religious and other beliefs worth pondering concerns emerging adults' social attachments to churches. We have long known that, for a variety of reasons, religious participation for many young people declines significantly when they leave home. Going away to college seems especially likely to kill regular church attendance for most. Historically, marriage and parenthood have then marked the return for many to church and more active faith. When the space between high school graduation and full adulthood was fairly short, as it was 50 years ago, the length of time spent out of church tended to be rather short. But with the rise of emerging adulthood in recent decades, churches are now looking at 15-year or even 20-year absences by youth from churches between their leaving as teenagers and returning with toddlers—if indeed they ever return.

Key dimensions in this are sex, cohabitation, and marriage. According to research findings, the majority of emerging adults consider serial monogamy, if not outright promiscuity, entirely normal. Cohabitation as a way to try to experiment with (allegedly) marriage-like relationships is far from uncommon among emerging adults. For many, marriage itself is seen as a distant event, to be postponed until all degrees are earned, identity and career issues are settled, and the biological clock starts clanging, or one's girlfriend will not wait any longer and gives the ultimatum. With the average age of the onset of puberty dropping significantly over the 20th century, youth now traverse many years of life as sexually capable and interested persons, and emerging adulthood only extends that time. The minority of emerging adults who may believe in sexual chastity before marriage—"active abstainers," as the literature calls them—face a very difficult peer culture in which to live. Some emerging adults avoid church precisely because of the tensions all this raises. Some do attend church, including evangelical churches, but keep their sexual behaviors compartmentalized as their own private business. In any case, it seems clear that the church will not be able to respond faithfully and effectively to emerging adulthood and emerging adults if it does not seriously grapple with these questions of sex, cohabitation, and approach to marriage.

The story of Jean Twenge's Generation Me is ironic. Young adult Americans are free, confident, tolerant, open-minded, and self-asserting—but they are also cynical, depressed, lonely, and anxious. How did they get into such a state? According to Twenge, multiple mainstream institutions in our culture have taught them their entire lives "to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves," encouraging them to believe that they can be whatever they want to be, that self-esteem is everything, conformity to rules is ridiculous, easy sexual fulfillment is waiting to be had, and life is all about consumption and gratification. These messages come, says Twenge, not only from mass-consumer advertising but from the best-intentioned school success programs. Having actually believed such confident messages, young adults then find it hard to cope when real life often turns out differently. Stagnant careers, failed romances, personal insecurities, financial difficulties, and other disappointments and problems often lead to sarcasm, depression, apprehension, loneliness, and self-defeating gambits to force life to turn out the way it was promised to have worked (e.g., quick "rebound" romances, spending sprees, ill-considered job changes). The church has an opportunity to help emerging adults work through these issues, but only if it is willing to listen to young adults and help them process their experiences.

James Heft's edited volume, Passing on the Faith, is particularly helpful for those of us who are trying to think through the meaning of emerging adulthood for communities of faith. Passing on the Faith offers exploratory case studies of specific Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities that are attempting to work well with emerging adults. The book also provides plenty of broad reflection on and interpretations of the larger cultural situation that emerging adulthood presents for religious traditions and congregations. This is not a how-to book. It offers few definite conclusions or specific recommendations. But it is a good start on the kind of big picture assessments of emerging adulthood and faith that the church needs to be undertaking.

How should American Christianity speak to emerging adults? The answer is surely not for the church to fall all over itself to quickly reconstruct its message and practices to somehow become more "relevant" to emerging adults. But oblivious disregard for emerging adulthood and the larger meanings and challenges it raises for church and culture surely won't do either. For starters, American Christians—parents, pastors, seminary professors, counselors, educators, small-group leaders, and more—can simply become better informed about the emerging adulthood phenomenon. Most people probably have at least a vague sense that something has changed on the road to full adulthood. But more clearly grasping the social forces generating emerging adulthood, its typical characteristics and concerns, and their implications for a faithful church will require sustained effort.

Finally, in considering the challenge of emerging adulthood, another approach that will not do is to project sole blame onto emerging adults themselves or "the culture" as some amorphous Other. If anything, the challenge of emerging adulthood raises hard questions about the extent to which American Christians have bought into the values and commitments of the larger world. It is worth remembering that a church that is not much different from the larger culture is going to have little distinctive or helpful to offer that culture when it comes to issues such as those posed by emerging adulthood. By grappling with emerging adulthood, then, we face the opportunity not so much for criticizing and lamenting others as for some good, hard, self-critical reflection and discussion.

—Christian Smith is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, and the co-author of Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Excerpted from our sister publication Books & Culture; copyright 2007 by Christianity Today.


  1. What characteristics discussed surprise you?
  2. Have you experienced the "black hole" in your church? What, if anything, has your church done to appeal to emerging adults?
  3. What steps can you take to make your small group a safe place for emerging adults to process their experiences?

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