“Emerging Adults” and the Church

[don’t forget to give me book recommendations]

Awhile back I read a particularly interesting article from Books & Culture called “Getting a Life.” The article discusses the topic of “emerging adulthood” by addressing six books written on the topic within the past few years. In case you’re like I was and have never heard of “emerging adulthood,” basically it encompasses the time of life between ages 18 and 30. Researchers who are studying this life stage are noticing a distinct change in the experience of 18-30 year olds in today’s world. I am interested in these findings both because I am in this stage of life, and because of the implications for the church.

The article’s author, Christian Smith, lists four “social forces that have given rise to this emerging adulthood.”

1. The growth of higher education and the increase in graduate school education. Smith writes:

“…a huge proportion of American youth are no longer stopping school and beginning stable careers at age 18 but are extending their formal schooling well into their twenties…and [others] are continuing…until their thirties.”

2. The delay of marriage.

3. The global economy and end of lifelong careers, resulting in more job insecurity and more frequent changing of jobs. In addition, Smith writes:

“…many youth today spend five to ten years experimenting with different job and career options before finally deciding on a long-term career direction.”

4. Parents are supporting their children longer – into their twenties and even thirties.

Like I said, this is all very interesting to me because I am in this stage of life. But also, I am intrigued because of the possible implications for the church. Smith quotes Jeffrey Arnett who researched the religious beliefs of emerging adults. In short, Arnett found little or no relationship between emerging adults’ religious beliefs and their previous religious training and background. This is startling.

Some people will argue that 18-30 year olds have been leaving church for decades – only to return when they have a family. However, Smith points out that this may look very different in today’s world because of the changing social norms regarding marriage and family. He writes:

“ 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 the 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.”

Well, that’s enough for now. More of my thoughts on all this will come later. But as you can probably guess, I’m not very hopeful that many of these emerging adults who leave the church will ever return – at least to a typical institutional church environment.

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One Response

  1. Chuck Bomar discusses this in great detail from the viewpoint of his success in starting a college-age ministries. He has a lot of support and resources on http://www.collegeleader.org. The identification of this age as a specific life stage has been growing for some time now. He also addresses the needs of 5th & 6th grade students that are different from the pre-K to 4th grade stuff they are usually lumped into. He talks about these being the bookends of youth ministry.
    He looks at high school graduates to about age 25 as one segment. They are now experiencing more freedom than ever before and are making a deliberate effort towards putting together the type of person that they want to be. They are moving away from a mindset that was completly egocentric and choosing elements of their personality and though process rather than the more reactionary development of younger teens. They will still typically refer to themselves as kids.
    During this time of development, if a Christian viewpoint is offered in a cooperative manner, they will integrate as a part of their new decided & chosen makeup.
    At about 25, it’s time to move toward an actual admitted adult lifestyle. Marriage, carrer development, starting a family. If we have done our jobs as leaders, finding a way for them to feel connected to the church in a valid way, they are not coming back as virtual non-Christians.

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