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Is Our Church A Place for Emerging Adults?
by Tom Goodman
March 26, 2009

"There is a new and important stage in life in American culture, and it is not entirely clear that the Christian church understands or particularly knows what to do with it."

That's how Christian Smith opened an article on "emerging adults," the generation currently between 18-30 years of age.  Smith is a sociology professor at Notre Dame and a celebrated author of national studies on youth and religion.

LeaderLines is designed for church leaders, especially those who lead with me at Hillcrest, so I want to use 2 or 3 editions of the e-newsletter to think through Smith's insights.  Many of you will find this an important issue because...

  • You minister to another age-range in our multi-generational church, but you still want to know what our church is doing to reach all generations.
  • You're a 20-something who cares about your generation and you want other generations in your church to understand the issues your peers face.
  • You're the parent of a 20-something who lives with you, and you'd like to know Hillcrest is a place they'd want to plug into.
  • You're the parent of a 20-something who lives elsewhere.  You're hoping some church can connect with your adult son or daughter in another town, so you're sensitive to parents in other places who have watched their own sons or daughters move away from home to Austin.  There are parents around the state -- around the nation -- who are desperately hoping Hillcrest can connect with their own sons or daughters.  I know:  I've talked with those parents as they've come to visit sons and daughters in Austin.

Many have written and commented on what makes the 20-something experience unique in our day.  You've probably seen the labels in magazine articles: "extended adolescence," "adultolescence," "youthhood," and so on.  Smith prefers to call this new phase of life "emerging adulthood," because "rather than viewing these years as simply the last hurrah of adolescence or an early stage of real adulthood, it recognizes the unique characteristics of this phase of life."

Characteristics of this phase?  "A sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope," Smith writes, mixed with "big doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and disappointment."

He explains why those between 18 and 30 are facing a whole new set of realities that other generations didn't face as they move through their twenties.  Here are four social forces that have given rise to this emerging adulthood:

The growth of higher education.  The opportunities to go to college -- and the expectation of a college degree by employers -- extends the years of being a full-time student and the dependence on family.  And graduate studies in many fields can extend schooling years longer.

The delay of marriage.  "Half a century ago," Smith wrote, "many young people were anxious to get out of high school, marry, settle down, have children, and start a long-term career.  But many youth today, especially but not exclusively men, face almost a decade between high school graduation and marriage to spend exploring life's many options in unprecedented freedom."

The new workplace reality.  The days of finding a steady, life-long career are over.  "Most young people today know they need to approach their careers with a variety of skills, maximal flexibility, and readiness to re-tool as needed," Smith writes.  Because of this, "many youth today spend five to ten years experimenting with different job and career options before finally deciding on a long-term career direction."

Parental participation in young adulthood.  Partly as a sympathetic response to the first three realities, many parents are willing to extend financial aid and other support to their grown children well into their 20s and 30s.  "These resources help to subsidize the freedom that emerging adults enjoy to take a good, long time before settling down into full adulthood, as culturally defined by the end of schooling, financial independence, and new family formation."

Do you want to help Hillcrest connect with those between 18 and 30?  Then understand that the only thing worse than forgetting what it was like to be in your 20s is to assume that what a 20-something faces today is simply no different than what you faced in your 20s.  Smith writes:

These four social transformations together have helped dramatically to alter the experience of American life between the ages of 18 and 30.  Studies agree that the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades.  The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage, and parenthood are simply less well organized and coherent today than they were in generations past.  At the same time, these years are marked by an historically unparalleled freedom to roam, experiment, learn (or not), move on, and try again.

What then are some of the specific issues that we will have to address if we want to serve those in this new life phase?  Stay tuned:  We'll look at a few in the next LeaderLines.


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