A few years ago, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton wrote a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In it they detailed their research into the religious beliefs of American teenagers. They summarized their findings by describing the predominant religion of American teenagers as Moralistic Theraputic Deism.

Now Smith has written a new book, this time focused on religious beliefs and practices of “emerging adults” (Americans 18–29 years old), titled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

Katelyn Beaty recently interviewed Smith for Christianity Today, and I found the interview both sobering and stimulating.

Here’s how Beaty summarizes Smith’s findings:

In a new life phase that sociologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett labeled emerging adulthood, Americans ages 18–29 enjoy more options for work, marriage, and location than perhaps any previous generation. They are also one of the most self-focused, confused, and anxious age groups, led into an “adultolescence” that prevents a majority from committing to people and institutions.

Beaty asks Smith about emerging adults’ religious attitudes, and he responds:

Most of what happens in emerging adulthood works against serious faith commitments and putting down roots in congregations. Most emerging adults are disconnected from religious institutions and practices. Geographic mobility, social mobility, wanting to have options, thinking this is the time to be crazy and free in ways most religious traditions would frown upon, wanting an identity different from the family of origin—all of these factors reduce serious faith commitments.

But to me the most striking question and answer is the following:

Q:  What are the traits of religious American teenagers who retain a high faith commitment as emerging adults?

A:  The most important factor is parents. For better or worse, parents are tremendously important in shaping their children’s faith trajectories. That’s the story that came out in Soul Searching. It’s also the story that comes out here.

Another factor is youth having established devotional lives—that is, praying, reading Scripture—during the teenage years. Those who do so as teenagers are much more likely than those who don’t to continue doing so into emerging adulthood. In some cases, having other adults in a congregation who you have relationships with, and who are supportive and provide modeling, also matters.

Some readers are going to be disappointed that going on mission trips doesn’t appear to amount to a hill of beans, at least for emerging adults as a whole. For some it’s important, but not for most. But again, we emphasize above everything else the role of parents, not just in telling kids about faith but also in modeling it.

I would encourage you to read the rest of the article. I’m also curious:

  1. Do you agree that “emerging adults” have difficulties making “faith commitments”? Have you observed this in your church or community?
  2. What is your church doing to address this issue and reach these adults?