“…we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (I Thessalonians 2:8)
Distracted by demands they finish college, find a job, pay back loans and figure out the future, young adults are the least likely to attend services or get involved with religious communities.
Which is why Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith offers some surprising conclusions on how clergy might better reach this segment of the population.
Those conclusions can be gleaned in his new book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. In it, Smith lays out the results of the third wave of his National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal investigation of 2,500 young people across the United States.
Smith and his team began interviewing the group when they were 13 to 17 years old. They have now entered a new stage of life he calls emerging adulthood. During this stage, from age 18 to 23, emerging adults are taking on some of the responsibilities of adulthood but far less completely than their parents’ generation.
Smith defines emerging adulthood as a new cultural life stage when young people postpone marriage and childbearing, rely on their parents financially, and engage in amorphous relationships that are far less conventional than the dating, courting and engagement of a previous era.
“I was surprised at how challenging the cultural experience of 18-to 23-year-olds is,” said Smith. “It’s much more confused, relativistic, uncertain, open-ended. It’s a difficult time in life to negotiate.”
Young adults are the least religiously committed of any age group in the United States according to the General Social Survey, which goes back to 1972. Smith’s study confirmed earlier data and found that on measures such as daily prayer, religious service attendance and the professed importance of faith in everyday life emerging adults scored low. In addition, the study found steep declines in attendance among some religious groups – notably mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics.
But that doesn’t mean emerging adults are abandoning faith. Overall, Smith’s study found that 56 percent of emerging adults remained fairly stable in their levels of religiousness, 37 percent reported a decline in their faith, and 7 percent saw their faith life grow.
“The biggest story is that there’s not a lot of change,” Smith said. “There’s more religious stability across these age groups than decline.”
Smith found that those who maintained a high degree of religious faith started off as teens with a high degree of religious faith, and those who declined in their level of religiousness started out with lower levels.
And that leads Smith back to an argument he explored in his 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, namely the pervasive influence of parents.
Emerging adults want their parents’ love and are eager to engage them. Yet many parents mistakenly assume they are no longer relevant to their children.
Parents, Smith finds, are the single most important predictor of a young adult’s attitude toward religion. Young adults raised in a religious home where faith is taken seriously and practiced regularly will continue those traditions. Parents with halfhearted attempts at inculcating faith wind up with children who are less religiously committed as adults.
Short of revamping congregations to make them friendlier to young people of this age group, Smith concludes church leaders ought to focus instead on children and especially on parents.
“The best thing they can do is help parents be faith-formers,” said Smith. “However it works to get parents committed and involved, that’s what matters.”