The Faith of Emerging Adults

An article by the Very Rev. Dr. Justyn Terry

We often hear reports about young people who grow up in the Church and then leave it when they reach adulthood. The lure of worldly pleasures, we are told, frequently proves overwhelming and they embrace the secularism of the prevailing culture. It is a depressing message for Christian parents and for churches who invest so much in them.

But how often does this actually happen? A recent study by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, paints a more complex and encouraging picture. They surveyed over three thousand American young people aged 13-17. They also had more in-depth interviews with over two-hundred of them, and re-interviewed most of them twice more over the following five years to see how their views and practices had changed.

It turns out that there is a high degree of continuity, especially when there is an early commitment to Christ, regular church going, and parental commitment to the faith. There are stages in their development when peers play a significant part in shaping their views, but these have a passing and partial impact. “Parental influence, in short, trumps peer influences” (285). Even when teenagers appear to have no time for their parents, parental views remain powerful. Those are not the moments for parents to simply step back and leave their children to find their own way.

The study also shows that those who are most religiously devoted, referring mainly but not exclusively to Christians, enjoy many benefits. They are more likely to be in contact with both their mother and father, to give generously to organizations and to volunteer for them, to be more law-abiding, to drink in moderation, to be more sexually self-controlled, to be in good physical health, to rarely feel depressed, to have a clear sense of purpose, to feel grateful, to be well-educated, and to be content.

That is not to say we can be complacent about these things. There is plenty of scope for better discipleship and greater holiness in Christian young people. It is also clear that they face many formidable challenges, as we see in the more recent book by Smith, Lost in Transition. But it is to say that the general principle stands:

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Prov 22:6, NIV).

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  • Anonymous

    I am so glad to hear these statistics digested and reported! There have been several books written on the results of the NSYR (National Study on Youth and Religion), some reporting on the initial study and some on the follow-up surveys a decade later. One particularly encouraging stat for me was the following: Among the top reasons for faithful emerging adults still walking with the Lord a decade after their teen years is that they were required to pay a price for their faith during their adolescence. This is good news for anyone discipling the next generation. We may wish to shield them from the demands of discipleship, but, just as Jesus said, taking up one’s cross is actually a good thing! Families in ministry can particularly take heart. Growing up in a ministry family can be challenging, but IF children are helped to see those challenges as part of the family calling, even the burdens can ultimately become blessings.

    [Marcia Lebhar](edit added by admin)