Souls in Transition, The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults

chd-inside.jpg“Emerging Adults” is a label used to describe the 18-30 year olds and in this particular study it will focus on the 18-24 segment of that group. Christian Smith, author of many books including Soul Searching which is to date the largest in-depth study of teenagers 13-17 years of age. We reviewed this book, had Smith to speak to our 2008 Kingdom Discipleship Conference in Atlanta, and we have followed Smith in his research along the way. Souls in Transitionwill take its place alongside Soul Searching and should and could be used alongside it. It carries throughseveral years since the teenage study with what happens as they get older.

More details will follow. Quite a number of college professors have observed that students from strong religious backgrounds often do better in school than their peers who are not from those environments. That should tell us something!

Souls in Transition is an in-depth look at the students in that age bracket (18-24). Following a similar pattern of study, as was done with the teenagers, Smith and his colleagues use a combination of one-on-one interview, telephone interviews, statistics etc. to help examine the lifestyle of the 18-24 year olds. His aim is to describe these emerging adults in their cultural world of today. In doing that he paints a clear picture as to the role that culture plays in shaping their lives, especially their religious orientation-their outlooks and experiences.

Following that extensive study of the America teenager, this book provides valuable information, insights, and carefully executed research. Religious leaders, including pastors, youth workers, teachers, andespecially parents, not to mention the academicians and cultural analysts will benefit significantly from this study. Young people themselves will also find this book unusually accurate and reliable in understanding themselves and their immediate peers.

In the earlier Soul Searching, Smith showed that the average teenager was actually more religious than previously thought; however he described their religion as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” In this study following the next age category he can see how that moralistic therapeutic deism continues to play out in their lives as they get older. In some cases their religion has been strengthened and in other cases challenged and changed.

As we found in the teenage study, there will be some surprises. It remains for example even into emerging adulthood that parents continue to be “the single most important influence on these religious outcomes of these young adults. He further demonstrates that the notion that religiosity declines with them is greatly exaggerated. Those engaged in ministry simply must read this book!

Smith asks the question, “What do the religious and spiritual lives of Americans, 18-30 look like and why? What are the social influences that shape them during this phase of their lives? These and other strategic questions are answered by the research and their conclusions in a clear and challenging manner. As mentioned above, his extensive method of research included 3,290 emerging adults. Personal interviews with 267 of them from 45 states also included 122 of the same people interviewed in the earlier study.

One of the most valuable and helpful things done was to keep some level of continuity between the respondents from their teenage to emerging adult years. The research was seeking to discover and evaluate what happens during the transition time especially to their religious outlook, their lifestyle, including values, beliefs, associations and commitments. Smith asks, “How much do they change?” The book seeks to answer those kinds of questions.

For anyone engaged in discipleship ministry with this age group, this book is a must read. To illustrate: the study and book not only look at the importance or lack of religion in the emerging adults, it examines the importance of religion in their lives. The factors present in people’s lives at younger ages appear to form religious and spiritual outcomes later in life.

While there are several other books dealing with the emerging adults that we have found helpful; such as: Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me and Jeffrey J. Arnett’s Emerging Adulthood, Souls in Transition must be at the top of the list because “it holds a mirror that reflects back to adults a telling picture of the large adult world-their own world into which emerging adults are moving.” This book accomplishes what it has intended to do. And, because the church must be willing to ask tough questions such as: how can we effectively and faithfully attempt to disciple these emerging adults, and the challenge to ask that same question regarding all the younger generation, leaders need this information not only to be better informed but to be better equipped to take its assignment to make kingdom disciples more seriously.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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