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Five Myths about Emerging Adult Faith
New research on 20-somethings gets past the hype and offers a reason to hope.
If you want to rile up church leaders, drag out dubious statistics about how many Christians fall away from the faith after high school. We fear for our youth, that they'll rebel against what their parents and churches taught when they leave home and the youth group.
But what if we're wrong? What if our particular fears about "emerging adulthood," the period between the ages of 18 and 29, are unfounded? The National Study of Youth and Religion provides us with a treasure trove of valuable information based on interviews with thousands of emerging American adults. Noted sociologist Christian Smith has teamed with Patricia Snell to analyze the data and publish Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, a follow up to the groundbreaking 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
Emerging adults serve out of concern for the common good.
College campuses are wallpapered with fliers promoting service opportunities. Churches send their youth on local and foreign mission projects. Political analysts credit youth volunteers and voters with helping to elect President Obama in 2008.
It's mostly a mirage.
According to Smith and Snell, emerging adults are far less likely than their parents or grandparents to volunteer or contribute to charitable causes. They share no qualms about materialism and long to someday live the American dream with a large salary and large home.
"Few emerging adults are involved in community organizations or other social change-oriented groups or movements," Smith and Snell observe. "Not many care to know much of substance about political issues and world events. Few are intellectually engaged in any of the major cultural and ethical debates and challenges facing U.S. society. Almost none have any vision of a common good."
Emerging adults reject their parents' religious influence.
As children approach the teenage years, their parents anticipate conflict. Because many parents worry about dragging their teens to church against their will, many resign themselves to parental irrelevance. Yet Smith and Snell find that most emerging adults fall into their parents' religious patterns one way or another. Still, parents are slow to realize they need to change how they relate to foster maturity and independence.
"So just at the time when teenagers most need engaged parents to help them work out a whole series of big questions about what they believe, think, value, feel, are committed to, and want to be and become, in many cases, their parents are withdrawing from them," Smith and Snell lament.
Emerging adults behave similarly whether religious or not.
Actually, emerging adults devoted to religion are significantly more likely to give money, volunteer for community service, decline alcohol and drugs, and abstain from pornography and premarital sex. For example, 35 percent of non-married emerging adults who are devoted to religion have had sexual intercourse, compared to 67 percent of emerging adults only regularly involved.
Trouble is, only 5 percent of emerging adults are so devoted to their faith that they attend religious services weekly or read Scripture as much as once or twice per month. And that group includes Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and all Christian denominations. Another 14 percent regularly attend religious services a few times per month. But their behavior often resembles the irreligious more than the devoted. They practice a different creed: so long as you don't hurt others, almost anything goes. And since every single person is different, different rules apply, depending on the situation.
"This, it seems, is not merely basic American individualism," write Smith and Snell. "It is individualism raised on heavy doses of multiculturalism and pumped up on the steroids of the postmodern insistence on disjuncture, difference, and differences 'going all the way down.'"
Emerging adults have abandoned liberal Protestantism.
Some evangelicals enjoy pointing out rapidly declining attendance at liberal churches. But Smith and Snell temper that enthusiasm. Even those who check the right boxes on Jesus and heaven do not heed God's call on their lives. No matter their professed beliefs, emerging adults tend to live for jobs, money, fun, and friends. At the gut level, liberal values trump biblical doctrine.
Smith and Snell observe: "Individual autonomy, unbounded tolerance, freedom from authorities, the affirmation of pluralism, the centrality of human self-consciousness, the practical value of moral religion, epistemological skepticism, and an instinctive aversion to anything 'dogmatic' or committed to particulars were routinely taken for granted by respondents."
Emerging adults tend to fall away from faith in college.
Many parents fear their children's going off to college, where peers and professors deconstruct everything they learned growing up. But Smith and Snell echo other studies that show emerging adults who do not attend college are more likely to fall away from faith. Why? There are a greater number of evangelical faculty members who support like-minded students. The modernist enterprise with its secularizing agenda has all but collapsed. And evangelical campus groups flourish.
Yet there is cause for caution. Smith and Snell found that 85 percent of emerging adults who have committed their lives to God did so before they turned 14. No matter how much campus groups try to evangelize, they tend to offer safe haven for students who grow up in Christian homes. Like so much else revealed by Souls in Transition, there is much cause for both congratulations and consternation.
Collin Hansen is a Christianity Today editor at large and co-author of the forthcoming book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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