According to research, many emerging adults (those between the ages of 18 and 29) experience a spiritual slump in the years after high school. When comparing 18 to 23-year-olds with the teenagers below them, the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) reported significant declines in the number of emerging adults viewing their faith as “very or extremely important” in shaping daily life.
In addition, only 35 percent of conservative Protestant emerging adults indicated that they felt “extremely or very close” to God, down from 48 percent among teenagers in this same group.
A recent LifeWay Research survey demonstrated that, among young adults between the ages of 23 and 30 who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school, only 39 percent considered themselves to be “devout Christians with a strong faith in God.”
At the very time when emerging adults are making some of the most important decisions of their lives—decisions about identity, worldview, vocation, relationships, and faith—the spiritual life seems to fade into the background.
Perhaps not surprisingly, spiritual practices also reflect this downward trend. In addition to widely publicized drops in church attendance, a host of other spiritual disciplines become less prominent in the emerging adult years, including daily prayer, Bible reading, Sabbath observance, religious singing, reading of devotional materials, and personal evangelism.
Interestingly, the research does not point to a strong hostility among emerging adults toward matters of faith.
Instead, it points to a growing indifference.
Sociologist Tim Clydesdale has indicated that for those just out of high school, faith is rarely abandoned, but it is also rarely pursued. Instead, it is often stowed away in a “lockbox” for safe keeping, to be opened (presumably) when emerging adults reach adult milestones such as marriage and parenting.
What is behind the slump? For some, it is about life transitions, the constant instability of emerging adults’ lives, and the separation from parents, church communities, pastors, and mentors who had nurtured their adolescent faith.
Others fall prey to the distractions of life that come with new relationships, responsibilities, social activities, and technology habits that gradually crowd out spiritual practices.
And, of course, some stray from a strong faith because of the kind of faith they embraced as teenagers. If emerging adults enter into the years after high school with a faith characterized by Christian Smith as moralistic (a call to be nice and kind), therapeutic (a belief that the purpose of faith is to improve my happiness and sense of well-being), and deistic (a view of God as a distant deity who only intervenes if one wants him to solve personal problems), a life of spiritual engagement can seem optional at best.
But there is another factor.
With a clear sense that adult responsibilities are coming, emerging adulthood is often perceived as a limited window of fun, freedom, and personal exploration prior to “settling down.”
Of course, this is quite true—it is a unique stage defined by significant freedom and reduced responsibility to and for others. Yet within this framework, the pursuit of faith can often be viewed as something for “later,” coordinated in time with other adult tasks such as marriage, parenting, and career.
Such delays, of course, mask the reality that one cannot simply “flip a switch” to spiritual maturity upon entering into a new stage of life. Emerging adults’ futures are being shaped by the decisions, commitments, and practices of their present lives.
In the church and in other settings, therefore, we must help emerging adults develop a harvest mentality, one in which they recognize the importance of sowing the story of the gospel into their lives so that they will reap an adult harvest of righteousness.
As emerging adults are beginning to think hard about the trajectories of their own life stories, we want the gospel story to make its mark, solidifying a deep Christian identity moving into adulthood. In the church and in other settings, we want to see them participate in practices that form them into people defined by this larger story.
We want to see them assume roles within the story, using their emerging gifts and passions for kingdom purposes. We want to see them develop relationships with peers and mentors whose lives reflect the story. These gospel-storied emerging adults can then go forward into adulthood poised to bring the healing, power, and hope of that gospel to a broken world.
Formed in Christ’s image, they can then respond to his call to be “on mission.”
How can pastors and mentors better facilitate this “sowing” process in the lives of emerging adults?
“This is the theme of our upcoming Wheaton Mission and Ministry conference at Wheaton College: “Emerging Adults: Formation for Mission.” We want to think together about the ways in which we can nurture the faith of twenty-somethings as they make life-altering decisions regarding identity, church participation, vocation, morality, sexuality, and relationships.
Come and join uson April 23-24 as we learn better how to participate in God’s transformational work in emerging adults’ lives, shaping spaces in which they can be equipped to be difference makers in this world.
Dr. David Setran is Price-LeBar Chair of Christian Formation & Ministry at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.
Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 114, 119.
In addition to the NSYR, see the College Student Beliefs and Values (CSBV) survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute. For more information on the CSBV, see James L. Heft, Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims(New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).
The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 50.