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.