This short article cannot do justice to the over 350 pages of research; consequently, I will focus upon two questions that I believe are crucial to the discussion: 1) How are today’s young adults different from other generations and, 2) What can be done to impact this generation of young adults for God and His Church?
What is different about today’s young adults?
Emerging adults in North America (the phrase Smith uses for young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 years) have undergone a number of macro social changes that have shaped their lives. Let’s briefly address the four he mentions:
First is the growth of higher education. Before the GI bill, securing a college education was a dream for many young adults. After the GI bill (officially titled Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944), every World War II serviceman or woman had the opportunity to go to college or vocational training at government expense. Needless to say, many took advantage of the offer and a college education, not a high school diploma, became the new educational standard for the children of many families.
Instead of being in school for 12 or even 16 years, more and more “emerging adults” are spending a third or more of their lives in educational institutions.
More recently, and in order to differentiate themselves from the crowd of college graduates, college grads have pursued advanced degrees. All of this has resulted in the elongation of the educational process. Instead of being in school for 12 or even 16 years, more and more “emerging adults” are spending a third or more of their lives in educational institutions.
A second factor is the delay of marriage. It is easy to see how extending the educational process can delay marriage. Hours of study at the college or university and a lack of funding for the establishment of families cause many young adults to postpone marriage until after graduation. This change is clearly seen in our national statistic on first marriages. Between 1950 and 2006, the median age of marriage for women rose from 20 to nearly 26, and for men it rose from 23 to 27.5. Smith writes: “Half a century ago, many young people were anxious to get out of high school, marry, settle down, have children, and start a long-term career. But many youth today face almost a decade between high school graduation and marriage to spend exploring life’s many options as singles, in unprecedented freedom.”1
Not too many years ago, children followed in their parents’ vocational footsteps for a lifetime.
The uncertainty of the global marketplace and economy is the third major factor shaping emerging adults. Not too many years ago, children followed in their parents’ vocational footsteps for a lifetime. That vision of a lifelong career with its resulting stability has been replaced with the expectation of more frequent job changes and the need for continuing education. Smith notes that this change in the marketplace pushes youth toward, “a general psychological orientation of maximizing options and postponing commitments. Far from being happy to graduate from high school and take the factory job their father or uncle has arranged for them—a job that actually does not likely exist anymore—many youth today spend 5 to 10 years experimenting with different job and career options before finally deciding on a long-term career direction.”2
The fourth unique factor that shapes today’s youth is the extension of parental support. Today’s parents are critically aware of the educational and financial needs of today’s economy, and they want their children to have every advantage. Therefore, an increasing number of parents are willing to financially support their children into their 20s and even 30s. These supplemental resources help emerging adults take additional time “before settling down into full adulthood, culturally defined as the end of schooling, a stable career job, financial independence, and new family formation.”3
According to Smith, these four factors have dramatically impacted the life journey of the typical American young adult. He writes that transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than in the past. And what has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled “extended adolescence,” “youthhood,” “adultolescence,” “the twixter years,” all which give a unique impression of emerging adults and their life experience.4
What makes a difference in the spiritual lives of emerging adults?
Smith methodically characterizes the world of emerging adults, exploring their culture, perspectives, religious affiliations, practices, beliefs, and trajectories, with significant detail. The research is highlighted with interviews of emerging adults struggling to find their way through their transitional years. Of greatest interest to me were his findings related to spiritual or religious strength in chapter eight. This chapter examines factors in the life of teenagers that tend to promote spiritual growth and the highest level of religious participation. The top five factors are listed below.
Strong Parental Influence
Smith’s research reveals that teenagers with parents who are deeply, religiously engaged are more likely to retain their faith as they move through emerging adulthood. His research states that such emerging adults are more
Bottom-line—parental influence is a key factor in passing on the faith to the next generation.
likely to: 1) internalize their parents’ religious worldview, 2) have the practical know-how to live out their religious views, and 3) embody the identity orientations and behavioral tendencies, which inclines them to continue in their faith. Bottom-line—parental influence is a key factor in passing on the faith to the next generation.
The more relationships that a teenager has with supportive and helpful adults in their church, the more likely they are to retain their faith and grow in participation through their emerging adult years. Smith points out that when a teenager enjoys being a part of a congregation and feels valued by the other adults in the church, the teen is more likely to stay connected to it, as he or she journeys through life. This finding underscores the importance of intergenerational worship, events, and fellowship.
Teenage devotional practice in the form of frequent personal prayer and reading of Scripture was a third key factor. These devotional practices have been internalized: motivated out of a belief and deep emotional need. While parental support may be of value in establishing a habit of prayer and Scripture reading, at some point it must become a personal passion. The emerging adults Smith describes as having a stronger faith have come to that point of passion for personal devotions in their lives as teenagers.
High Importance of Personal Faith
A fourth factor associated with stronger emerging adult religion is “high teenage importance of faith.” When teenagers value their religious faith, they have a vested interest in sustaining it. If their religious beliefs are held loosely, then those beliefs are easily discarded when more desirable options come along. How does the Church help teenagers fortify the importance placed on religious beliefs? Two of the key ways Smith highlights are to: 1) teach children and teenagers clearly what the Church believes and, 2) address their areas of concern and doubt. Of course, both need to be done in a relational, supportive environment.
Many Religious Experiences
The final key factor that Smith mentions in his list is teenagers who have many religious experiences. What teenage experiences help emerging adults strengthen their faith? The list is short: “having specifically committed their lives to God, having had definite answers to prayers,
Personal experiences solidify faith in the life of the teenage believer and support them as they journey into adulthood.
having experienced at least one miracle, and having one or more moving spiritual experiences.”5 Smith points out that in a day in which personal experience trumps all else, such personal experiences solidify faith in the life of the teenage believer and support them as they journey into adulthood.
As I read Souls in Transition, I felt a renewed call to my holiness roots. In many ways, this work reminds me that while every generation brings to the world a different experience and perspective, the path to life fulfillment and faith in God is consistent and straightforward. The most vital faith is one anchored in the eternal God, supported by loving relationships, and integrated into all of life. Today’s emerging adult is no different. They are crying out for what many of us have experienced personally. The question is, will we take the time to invest in them what others have invested in us? I pray we do.
LARRY R. MORRIS serves as Adult Ministries International Director for the Church of the Nazarene
1. Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.
4. Ibid., 6.
5. Ibid., 238.