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How to Be a Church for Emerging Adults
by Tom Goodman
April 2, 2009

"Adultolescence."  "Youthhood."  "Extended adolescence."  You've probably seen all of these labels in magazine articles about those currently between 18 and 30 years old.  Christian Smith prefers to call this new phase of life "emerging adulthood."  Smith is a sociology professor at Notre Dame and a celebrated author of national studies on youth and religion.  In a recent article on "emerging adults," he wrote:

For most American youth, there extends between high school graduation day and the eventual settling down with spouse, career, kids, and house a very long stretch of time in which to have to figure out life.  For many, it is marked by immense autonomy, freedom of choice, lack of obligations, and focus on the self.  It is also normally marked by high instability, experimentation, and uncertainty.  For many, emotions run high and low, as hopes and exhilaration recurrently run up against confusion and frustration.

Last week I introduced some characteristics of this phase of life, and I pointed out four social forces that give rise to the current experience of emerging adulthood.  Now, what should church leaders be ready to address as they serve and challenge 20-somethings?  "The answer is surely not for the church to fall all over itself to quickly reconstruct its message and practices to somehow become more 'relevant' to emerging adults," Smith writes.  "But oblivious disregard for emerging adulthood and the larger meanings and challenges it raises for church and culture surely won't do either."

We want to be a community where people can find and follow Jesus together.  If we are successful in our efforts, those who start to join us in friendship and service and Bible study won't start off sharing our biblically-informed convictions.  They will need sensitivity and patience as we take extra time to commend biblical values to them.

Social and Cultural Issues.  Young adults, Smith writes, "are more likely to have grown up in a broken home, less likely to believe human nature is good, more likely to be distrustful of other people and of social institutions generally, less likely to read the newspaper, more likely to expect a world war, much more likely to have viewed a pornographic movie, and much more liberal about sex, divorce, and other social issues than are older adults."  But that's compared with the current generations of older adults.  When you compare those now in their 20s to the opinions of those in their 20s in 1973 and 1985, you find a different picture:  "Today's emerging adults compared to those of previous decades are... more likely to be in favor of making divorce harder, less in favor of legalizing marijuana, less in favor of teenagers having sex, [and] more in favor of making pornography illegal to all...."

Steps for Church Leaders:  Those who want to impact 20-somethings can't be shocked or defensive about the positions that emerging adults take on social and cultural issues.  Explain the biblical position on these subjects, including the value or benefit that the biblical view adds to life.  At the same time, establish a fellowship environment where persons feel accepted regardless of whether they've come to accept the biblical convictions.

Adherence to Religious Upbringing.  Smith quotes Jeffrey Arnett, who has done his own study of emerging adults and has concluded:  "The most interesting and surprising feature of emerging adults' religious beliefs, is how little relationship there is between the religious training they received throughout childhood and the religious beliefs they hold at the time they reach emerging adulthood....  Evidently something changes between adolescence and emerging adulthood that dissolves the link between the religious beliefs of parents and the beliefs of their children."

Steps for Church Leaders:  Take the time to explain our Christian convictions, don't be threatened by sincere questions, and be sure to include the practical implications for the things we believe.  Also, knowing that 20-somethings enjoy very diverse relationships among their friends a coworkers, they are sensitive to intolerance.  Show them how its possible to be a committed Christian while also being tolerant of those who are not.

Attachment to a church.  Related to the abandonment of the faith they were raised in, 20-somethings have a looser loyalty to a religious community than any other age group.  Of course, most who have left home for college can recall a period where we questioned the religious instruction of our upbringing and showed little or no church involvement.  But for many generations, starting a family was a point where we re-committed ourselves to our faith.  But as today's 20-somethings postpone marriage into their 30s, "churches are now looking at 15-year or even 20-year absences by youth from churches between their leaving as teenagers and returning with toddlers -- if indeed they ever return."  Smith writes:

And these are crucial years in the formation of personal identity, behavioral patterns, and social relationships.  Returning to church as full-fledged young adults with children in tow -- yet having spent a decade or two forming their assumptions, priorities, and perspectives largely outside of church -- they may very well bring to the churches of their choice motives, beliefs, and orientations difficult to make work from the perspective of faithful, orthodox Christianity.

Steps for Church Leaders:  It's essential to connect 20-somethings to a faith community.  Help them see that you're not enlisting them into a club or getting them to support an institution.  You're enlisting them into a community that's on a mission to change the world.

Marriage and Children.  As mentioned in the last paragraph, many 20-somethings are postponing any consideration of marriage until the indefinite future, after the degree is earned or after an expected standard of living is reached.  Because of cohabitation and other sexual choices, Smith writes:

Some emerging adults avoid church precisely because of the tensions all this raises.  Some do attend church, including evangelical churches, but keep their sexual behaviors compartmentalized as their own private business.  In any case, it seems clear that the church will not be able to respond faithfully and effectively to emerging adulthood and emerging adults if it does not seriously grapple with these questions of sex, cohabitation, and approach to marriage.

Steps for Church Leaders:  We need to restore the vision of marriage as a covenant and a mission outpost.  It is a covenant -- a publicly stated covenant -- not just between two people who say they love each other but between two people who say they will continue to learn how to love each other.  Marriage is also a mission outpost, since marriage is meant to be a strategic partnership in making our little part of the world a better place.  Who wants to postpone a vision like that for 10-15 years?  "True, authentic selves are made more than found," Smith writes.  "It is arguably as much or more by making and keeping promises than by dabbling and deferring that we come to know who we as persons really are and are called to become."

Money.  "Setbacks, roadblocks, poor decisions, and bad fortune can turn emerging adults' paths in very bad directions," Smith writes.  "Having money and social capital often helps emerging adults to stop, readjust, and change course in a better direction.  But some simply do not have the financial and social resources on which to draw.  So as their adulthood emerges, they live on the edge, just a few bad breaks or poor decisions away from serious life problems and a compromised future."

Steps for Church Leaders:  Certainly, every generation of adults could use biblical guidance on money management.  But guidance should especially be provided to those who are just now starting to form habits and make decisions with their finances.

Navigating disappointment.  Another place the church can offer help and challenge is when 20-somethings hit the wall of bitter reality:  "Stagnant careers, failed romances, personal insecurities, financial difficulties, and other disappointments and problems often lead to sarcasm, depression, apprehension, loneliness, and self-defeating gambits to force life to turn out the way it was promised to have worked (e.g., quick "rebound" romances, spending sprees, ill-considered job changes)."

Steps for Church Leaders: God's People, God's Spirit, and God's Book can help emerging adults navigate the inevitable disappointments in life.

Be in prayer for the emerging adults in our congregation -- and the emerging adults in our community whom God intends us to reach!


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