Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood

Chris Kiesling

Emerging Adulthood as a Distinct Stage of Life

Pastors, scholars, and educators have often viewed the years between age 18 and 30 as among the most formative period in the life course – a critical stage where gateway decisions about vocation, marriage, and worldview shape the meaning and direction of the rest of life’s journey. However, in the past fifty years, dramatic changes have occurred in the sequencing and meaning of marker events, significantly altering the way young adults think about and engage spiritual formation, identity, morality, vocation, sexuality and how they relate to a faith community.

Sociologists have historically monitored five key social events that marked the journey to adulthood: leaving home, finishing school, landing a job, getting married, and having children. In 1960, over two-thirds of young adults had attained all five of these markers by the age of 30; by the year 2000, this was true of less than half of females and less than a third of males. A number of social and cultural factors have contributed to delaying these traditional adult markers. The cultural message that the college years are fundamentally a time for exploration and self-development, coupled with a global economy requiring prolonged education and transience in the workplace, compels many young adults to delay marriage. Such demands diminish the stability and funding usually desired for starting a family (cf. Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Changing the Face of American Religion [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007]). Having witnessed their parent’s divorce, many twenty-somethings carry a residual fear of marital failure that makes cohabitation seem a viable option. With easy and reliable birth control, marriage is no longer viewed as a necessary precursor to sexual intimacy.

Sociologist Jeffrey Arnett posits that these changes constitute a new stage in the life course that he terms “emerging adulthood.” Situated between adolescence and full adulthood, emerging adulthood is characterized by: (1) identity exploration, (2) instability and transience, (3) self-focus – free from both parental oversight and from significant responsibilities for others, (4) a feeling of being “in between,” and (5) an expansion of possibilities that promotes optimism about one’s personal future and a desire to keep all options open (Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009]).

For those who enter emerging adulthood with a fund of familial, psychological and financial resources, the emerging adult years can be exhilarating. However, since the journey to adulthood is far less scripted by cultural and generational norms, many feel an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility. Such anxiety tends to promote the fear, depression, emotional paralysis, and various forms of addiction and escapism witnessed all too often in these years (cf., e.g., Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties [New York: Putnam, 2001]).

A Form of Faith

How do these changes affect a young person’s spiritual formation and involvement in God’s mission? On most measures of belief and practice, emerging adults score lower than any other age category, signaling a lack of purposeful engagement with Christian formation. Disrupted by transitions and distractions, many diminish faith commitments and practices acquired in earlier years and become untethered to supportive Christian community at the gateway to their adult life (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009]). Whereas the church might remain hopeful that emerging adults will return once they settle down and start a family, the prolonged hiatus of a decade or more between youth group and parenthood and the affiliations and influences forged while away from Christian community may be increasingly difficult to overcome.

Furthermore, while Christian belief may not be altogether jettisoned during these years, the form of faith that comes to be embraced may be rather innocuous, devoid of the transformation that alters the affections of the heart. Many, it seems, fail to embrace the narrative of God’s redemptive action in the world or to cultivate an individual and corporate identity with the people of God. Christian Smith has called the majority posture of faith among emerging adults “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD), otherwise known as “divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness” (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [New York: Oxford University Press, 2006], 124.) Influenced by MTD, a majority of emerging adults view God as a distant creator who desires humans to be nice, fair, and fully tolerant of each other, intervening in human affairs only when called upon to bestow blessings or resolve problems. The purpose of life, forged under the influence of MTD, is to secure personal happiness, self-fulfillment, and a degree of goodness sufficient to earn entrance to heaven upon death.

Far too often, churches have been complicit in promoting MTD, resulting in a guiding ethic that is impoverished morally, vocationally, and relationally. Emerging adults have often been described as “morally adrift,” void of clear boundaries for right and wrong outside of personal opinion (Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood [New York: Oxford University Press, 2011], 19). Many come to rely on moral intuition gained in childhood, making moral decisions purely on the basis of avoiding negative consequences. Enamored by their chance to attain the “American Dream,” faith often becomes simply instrumental to the pursuit of personal happiness or therapeutic consolation. The sovereign self becomes the vocational reference point that guides commitment for the future, and the decade of the twenties becomes a time set apart as “my time,” often establishing a pervasive pattern of individualism.

Ecclesiological Revisioning

Despite these troubling signs, there are indications that some emerging adults are reaching for meaning that transcends personal advancement and self-interest. Many exemplify a renewed passion for social justice and compassion for the downtrodden, a yearning to bring the redemptive power of the gospel to bear on a broader range of personal and social issues. Others appear to be reconnecting with ancient liturgical forms and adopting stricter moral and doctrinal creeds to counter the diffuse permissiveness of contemporary American culture (C. Carroll, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy [Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002]). Still others recognize that their high idealism, eager creativity, and freedom to exercise their voice need the guidance of mentors and communities of truth to nourish their visions for the future. These intergenerational alliances, bolstered by the energy of young adults and the growing connections they have to the global world, hold great promise for revitalizing churches, spawning revivals, and energizing missionary movements.

However, if this energy is to be fully harnessed for the furtherance of the kingdom, the church will have to convince emerging adults of its relevance and provide a more credible witness to the gospel. Fearing the exodus of so many you people from the pews, the church has grown frantic in asking how to get more people to come to church. Our multiple proposals may betray a neglect of a deeper, underlying theological question: Why should people come to church? What does the church have to offer? (cf. Jason Vickers, Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011]).

Often the message communicated to college students through evangelistic campaigns is that salvation involves a quick and effortless prayer exchange between a person and Jesus, a simple transaction securing eternal life. However, the fullness of God’s transformation – i.e., the reordering of our affections to love, obey, and serve God – will always require working out our salvation with fear and trembling, with the help of the Holy Spirit in the company of fellow sojourners. Acts 2, in fact, images four key components of spiritual vitality central to the early practices of Christians: the teaching of the apostles (didache), fellowship (koinonia), worship/breaking bread together (leitourgia), and mission (diakonia). These ancient practices anchored Christians against the countervailing forces of culture, and they may provide the antidote to the loss of ecclesiological vision among twenty-somethings today.

Didache: The availability of great sermons, presentations, and music from the internet contributes to the sense that church is superfluous and unnecessary to some emerging adults. However, spiritual formation via this piecemeal, self-education approach aimed solely at meeting one’s own personal preferences has significant limitations. How different this is from receiving the whole counsel of God, delivered by a pastor prayerfully aware of a particular context and empathically sensitive to the spiritual needs of a particular people group. How subversive it is for a young adult, surrounded by messages of autonomy and cultural fluency, to recite and tether themselves to truth expressed in a 2,000-year-old creed anchored against the winds of change. Furthermore, studying in community, as opposed to isolation, protects one against distortions of God’s character that readily emerge when encountering crisis, guilt, or anxiety.

Koinonia: One of the primary characteristics of the young adult stage of life is that it is largely lived in generational homogeneity. Free from care for others and immersed in a college campus environment, students can largely choose who they associate with or admit into their “friendship networks.” But Christians are commanded to love those who are not part of their affinity group and who differ from them in age, social status, ethnicity, or orientation. Christian community calls us to table fellowship specifically with those who are unchosen, personally annoying, uncool, deficient, and broken. Hence, fellowship summons emerging adults to important ecclesiastical ideals like hospitality, love of stranger, truth telling, and thanksgiving. Finding a “church home” in college then comes to mean more than locating a worship center. Instead, it potentially subverts the cultural notion that personal identity is achieved through self-chosen decisions, elevating instead the reality that spiritual identity is bestowed by God and mediated by a Spirit-filled community.

Fellowship within a spiritual community also locates many emerging adults in small group settings where spiritual friendship becomes formative. When one of the cardinal “virtues” of postmodernity is a form of tolerance that resists as an intolerable intrusion any hint of questioning the validity of another person’s lifestyle, it is deeply countercultural to ask in a small group, “How is it with your soul?” Furthermore, fellowship in the faith community is intergenerational, exposing emerging adults to the life trajectories of those who have lived in righteousness and steadfastness, reference points often missing in a generation connected primarily to peer culture.

Leitourgia: Worship counters pathological pressures placed on young adults to distinguish themselves on the basis of academic, athletic, or other performance-based achievements. It also elicits an alternative to image-based entertainment. In worship we stand as we are, acknowledging our failures and proclaiming our indebtedness. We begin in humility and receptivity – confessing that we are not on our own, but sustained by words and promises made by the One who was, and is, and is to come. The sacraments, as gifts of grace, are not something we attain or possess in competition for social standing; we receive them equally as joint heirs of grace in the family of God. Liturgy reframes our perspectives on time, placing emerging adults within a narrative of redemption that liberates them from living solely in the anxiety of the present moment. It involves us in a backward gaze on the story of Israel and the finished work of Christ, while casting a forward gaze to the hope of resurrection and the vindication of this life at the return of Christ for his bride.

Diakonia: Finally, there is the missio dei, summoning emerging adults to join the father’s celebration of welcoming prodigals home to the wedding feast. Mission encourages intentional vocational exploration, joining with God in his redemptive purposes in the world. Mission moves emerging adults beyond over-focus on personal growth, redirecting the meaning of adulthood from self-advancement to action-oriented love of neighbor. Mission encourages twenty-somethings to hear the cry of the oppressed, the orphaned, the fatherless, the widowed, the imprisoned, the sick, and the marginalized. When churches can winsomely connect God’s mission to the practical realities of daily work, they are far more likely to find a ready audience among today’s emerging adults.

Concluding Thoughts

In America and in many other industrialized nations, the journey to adulthood now unfolds in a prolonged context complicated by the absence of clear boundaries, scripts, and expectations. Encountering this, a host of emerging adults “go it alone,” becoming susceptible to the pervasive influence of entertainment, media, and consumer industries. Many emerging adult Christians settle for a “good enough” version of discipleship, acclimated to the moralistic therapeutic deism dominating both popular culture and reinforced in many churches.

Throughout our book (David P. Setran and Chris A. Kiesling, Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013]), we trace two inadequate pathways out of adolescence that tend to threaten faithful Christian adulthood. The first is a self-absorbed posture that views adulthood as freedom, self-fulfillment, and unbounded exploration. The outcome of this posturing is typically a nominal pursuit of spiritual formation, a consumeristic engagement with church (if embraced at all), instrumental use of romantic relationships, and an avoidance of responsibility for one’s own commitments and for the needs of the larger world.

A second inadequate pathway out of adolescence is self-sufficient adulthood. Focused solely on taking responsibility for oneself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent, this image embraces autonomy as the key to adult status, elevating the self-made individual as the model. However, when the source of power and identity is located within oneself, humble trust, playfulness, and wonder can easily become displaced by arrogance, sophistication, and even cynicism. Spiritual formation can morph into a performance-based project. Previous authorities may be belittled or rejected, distancing twenty-somethings from the broader faith community. Church itself may be perceived as irrelevant or even a hindrance to “standing on one’s own.” With regard to vocation, many move forward in light of personal talents, rejecting the need for humble listening to God’s directing voice. They make moral decisions disconnected from others and devoid of a reference point outside of the self. Romantic and mentoring relationships become more easily discarded to vouchsafe a sense of autonomy.

Both of these postures are increasingly normalized in emerging adult culture, buttressed often, sometimes inadvertently, by messages given by the church. We believe there is a third way, exemplified by Jesus and still alive in many college and young adult ministries across the world. Christian spiritual formation cuts against the grain of self-absorption, pointing instead to a life of costly discipleship marked by personal and cultural investment. At the same time, such formation also cuts against the grain of the autonomous, self-sufficient adulthood that “stands on its own,” pointing instead to a life of dependence on God and interdependence with others. The growing competence, identity, and responsibility of adulthood becomes a place of wonder and gratitude for God’s provision, continued reliance on his grace, and loving stewardship of his gifts for others’ good and for his glory. The emerging adult must move beyond childishness while simultaneously sustaining the childlike qualities of humility, trust, and wonder. We call this pathway self-surrender (cf. E. Stanley Jones, Victory through Surrender: Self-Realization through Self-Surrender [Nashville: Abingdon, 1966]), a posture that redefines the meaning of adulthood as the ever-deepening discovery of the love of God and joyful engagement of loving one’s neighbor as we love ourselves. What a privilege to accompany emerging adults through this exciting journey.

Posted Feb 26, 2014