Understanding Emerging Adults


Sean McDowell highlights important trends about the spiritual lives among emerging adults. Given this information, how do we minister to this generation?

In 2005, sociologist Christian Smith released a monumental study of the spiritual lives of American youth. The study—called “The National Study of Youth and Religion”—is detailed in the book Soul Searching and is an insightful and eye-opening account of what students ages 13-17 believe about God and religion. A few months ago, Smith released a follow-up book called Souls In Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2010) that follows these same students as they transition into adulthood.

Like Soul Searching, this book is a must-read for anyone—parents, youth pastors, and teachers—interested in understanding the mindset of this generation. Smith is a careful, thoughtful, and highly respected sociologist from Notre Dame. He writes Souls in Transition to inform about this generation rather than to persuade to a particular form of ministry. Thus, people from various theological backgrounds will appreciate his work.

For sake of clarity, the phrase “emerging adults” has nothing to do with the Emergent Church. Rather, Smith uses it to refer to young adults ages 18-23. According to Smith, “this book intends to provide the most comprehensive and reliable understanding and explanation of the lives of emerging adults in the United States today, particularly their religious and spiritual lives” (p. 9). Smith is careful to emphasize that 24-29 year olds may look very different than age group he has chosen to focus on.

The purpose of this blog post is to highlight some important trends among emerging adults that Smith reveals in his study. Below are some quotes by Smith I found particularly insightful about the spiritual lives of emerging adults from Souls in Transition.

  • Overwhelmed: “Most emerging adults are close to being overwhelmed with all of the skills, tasks, responsibilities, systems, and procedures they are having to learn” (35).
  • Optimistic: “In short, “In short, cynical, weary, jaded, despondent, defeated, and the like are words that describe very few emerging adults in America” (37).
  • No regrets: “Most of the emerging adults who were interviewed explicitly denied feeling any regrets about any of their past decisions…They clearly do not want to see themselves as having regrets” (41).
  • Skeptics and perspectivalists: “Most have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives. In philosophical terms, most emerging adults functionally are soft ontological antirealists and epistemological skeptics and perspectivalists…” (45)
  • Don’t hurt others: “One of the core principles emerging adults seem to presuppose in thinking about moral behavior is the imperative not to hurt others” (47).
  • Everybody’s different: “Nearly any question asked of them about any norm, experience, rule of thumb, expectation, or belief in life is very likely to get an answer beginning with the phrase, ‘Well, everybody’s different, but for me…’” (48).
  • Individualism: “The absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her own sovereign self” (49).
  • Settling down is for later: “But they also want to relish it [young adulthood] as the time to be young, have fun, and avoid major responsibilities…Later, when they settle down they’ll be sober, faithful, and responsible adults. The assumption seems to be, ‘Whatever happens in my early twenties stays in my early twenties’” (57).
  • Relationships are amorphous: “Old clear-cut labels, like ‘just friends,’ dating, courting, and engaged, for instance, are too black-and-white for the way many emerging adults relate today…” (58).
  • Cohabit to avoid divorce: “The vast majority of emerging adults nonetheless believe that cohabiting is a smart if not absolutely necessary experience and phase for moving toward an eventual successful and happy marriage” (62).
  • Consumerism is fine: “The idea of having any questions or doubts about the cycle of shopping, buying, consuming, accumulating, discarding, and shopping appeared to be unthinkable to them” (67).
  • Volunteering and giving are not important: “The emerging adults studied in the interviews are not big on volunteering and voluntary financial giving, at least at this point in their lives” (71).
  • Focus on interpersonal relationships: “Most of them are withdrawn from the public square and instead submerged in interpersonal relationships in their private worlds. Few emerging adults are involved in community organizations or other social change-oriented groups or movements” (73).
  • Universalists: “57 percent believe that many religions may be true” (134)
  • Partying, hooking up and sex are common: “Most of them want to party, to hook up, to have sex in relationships, and to cohabit; or if they do not do these things now, many at least want to keep them as options for the future” (83).
Some of these findings may surprise you while others may seem obvious to those who already work with this generation. Given this information, how do we minister to this generation?
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