The pews of Protestant churches in North America today are filled with roughly the same percentage of emerging adults (age 18 to 29) as 40 years ago. Surprised? You might be if you have spent any time in a Christian bookstore recently. Titles abound that warn of young people abandoning the faith at unprecedented rates. This story of exodus and decline is the primary narrative that parents, teachers, pastors, priests and even emerging adults themselves are reading and telling.
The goal of Emerging Adulthood and Faith, the first title in the new Calvin Shorts series from the Calvin College Press, is to rethink and retell this story. There is a great deal of data about emerging adults, but two tendencies tend to skew our understanding of it. The first is the overemphasis on generational analysis. It is hard to find a book on young people today that does not focus on the distinctiveness of millennials. The second is the tendency to analyze emerging adult faith through the lens of individual stories. Neither focus is bad in and of itself, but both have the tendency to distort the overall picture if they are not balanced by historical, social and developmental contexts.
Emerging Adulthood and Faith looks at three big issues. First, it re-examines the religious practice and identity of young people. Many books begin with the premise that millennials are abandoning Christian practice and identification. But is this true? What can we tell by taking a longer look at the trends, and what are the factors that are driving the trends? It turns out that the standard exodus narrative is quite flawed.
Second, this book looks at higher education. College has long been thought of as corrosive to faith. The influence of secular faculty, the absence of adult supervision, the religious pluralism of the campus, and the critical stance of liberal education itself have all been targeted as potential sources of conflict with faith. Again, is this true? This book examines trends over time, as well as changes that occur for those who never attend college at all. College ultimately has a complex relationship with student faith, but the story of unilateral religious decline is clearly false.
Third, Emerging Adulthood and Faith turns to science. Two dominant narratives exist about the faith of young people and science. On the one hand, some propose that the reason many young people experience a crisis of faith is because they have comprised their beliefs by succumbing to the secularist assumptions of modern science. Others hold that the rejection of mainstream science by many conservative Protestants has set their children up for a future crisis of faith in college. Both of these positions assume that science is a primary front in the battle for souls of adolescents and emerging adults. But is this true? The potential for conflict between faith and science turns out to be a minor concern for most believers. Further, changing beliefs about science are not associated with major changes in religious faith.
Emerging Adulthood and Faith concludes by exploring why the various decline narratives hold such power and suggests ways the church might care for its adolescents and emerging adults. Most young people engage in a fairly narrow range of options when it comes to their faith and articulate a fairly narrow range of reasons for these behaviors. Many of these reasons echo the culture around them, rather than being rooted in the Christian tradition. Might it be that keeping young people involved in the heart of the worship is the most important way to cast doubt about the dominant narratives they receive from outside the faith? And might home and church be the most significant factors in helping emerging adults to keep the faith?