Souls in Transition: Overview and Backstory

Scot has already begun posting about a book that I’ve read recently and really, really recommend: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.  I used it as a launching pad for my talks at Montreat last week, and I developed some charts that elucidate some of the findings.  Over the next few days, I want to post some of these graphs and provide a little commentary from my perspective.

Here’s a little backstory.  I’ve had the chance to talk with Chris Smith on a couple of occasions.  Chris, late of UNC-Chapel Hill, and now a professor of sociology at Notre Dame has written and co-written highly regarded books on evangelicalism, racism in the church, and his opinion on humans as rational free agents (all of which I’ve read and heartily recommend).

Well, a few years back, Chris won a major grant from the Lily Endowment and conducted the most thorough study ever taken of American teenage religiosity.  The result was the book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, a book that has been very influential in American youth ministry. (Nota bene, Kenda Creasy Dean’s ecclesial and theological interpretation of Soul Searching is coming out this summer: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.)

That book seems to undermine some of my assumptions in Postmodern Youth Ministry, and Chris has confirmed to me in person that, based on the National Survey of Youth and Religion, most American teenagers are not postmodern, not relativists, and not seekers.  Instead, they are religiously conventional.  They basically believe the same watered-down, doctrineless Christianity that their parents believe.  In Soul Searching, he calls it “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”

Back in 2005, my question to him was, “Well, do you think that teenagers get more ‘postmodern’ when they go to college?”

“We’ll see,” he responded, “Because we’re doing a five-years-later follow-up study now.”

Souls in Transition is that follow-up study, and the answer seems to be: Yes, 18-23 year-olds are more “postmodern” than 13-17 year-olds, but only a little more.  Religiosity among emerging adults is more diverse and eclectic than it is among teenagers, but only slightly more.  “A solid majority of emerging adults simply are not that interested in matters religious or spiritual” (295).

The bottom line for me is that, like Soul Searching, Souls in Transition provides statistical verification for what many of us who work with youth know intuitively and anecdotally: While some young adults in America are seriously committed to their faith, the majority are either negligibly religious, indifferent to religion, or have a deep antipathy toward all religion.  When they leave home for college, the military, or the work force, parents gradually become less influential, and peers become more influential.

But, what I think may surprise some readers is that teenagers reared in the evangelical church are no more likely to maintain their faith into young adulthood than teenagers reared in the mainline church.  More on that on Thursday…

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  • Perhaps the most astounding conclusion Smith arrived at was that emerging adults are not less religious today — they are either the same or they are more religious today. That one really took me by surprise.

  • After running across a new report on household demographics that indicates the demographic churches cater to the most (married with kids) is not even close to the dominate household makeup, I’m looking forward to reading this book and your series regarding young adults, Tony. This stuff really, really matters.

  • Jo Ann W. Goodson

    “A solid majority of emerging adults simply are not that interested in matters religious or spiritual” (295).

    This is soooo sad. I also think that many adults, and this includes seniors, are in this same category even those in our churches. It appears that while we are in church “doing” church we are but when we leave the building it is as if we do not take it with us.

  • Jeff Rensch

    I did not understand Scot McK’s comment. “emerging adults… are either the same or they are more religious today”…. more religios then they were before they emerged? before they became adults? Is that what this means?

    Re the comment “a solid majority of emerging adults simply are not that interested in matters religious or spiritual” referred to by Jo Ann G, is it safe to say “give them time!!!” I lived most of my adult life imagining that I was indifferent to religion more or less. Won’t most of us encounter a “foxhole” before we die? thanks for all of this thoughtful stuff.

  • Bob Pearson

    One conclusion I took from reading this book is that the Evangelical church is doing a “good job” for the majority of its members and their children. But many are leaving the evangelical church and many more leave the mainline church. What we need are new kinds of churches for these migrant Christians that is more relevant, more grounded in the real worlds, more consistent in its values and has a bigger impact on their communities and the world. It is not about theology but about values today for these young adults.
    An alternative perspective might be that more mainline churches need to take up the practices and values of the Evangelical church to retain and serve their members “better”. I reject this for many reasons, one major one being that this form of church is clearly being offered and is readily available in the world but the people who leave mainline churches do not go that way, they mostly just leave organized Christianity.

  • Liz

    This doesn’t surprise me as my experience tells me that most young adults (18-23) in recent generations have not been that interested in religion/faith. My observation and experience has been that an interest in religion/faith usually comes later – probably in their 30s. I am interested to see where today’s 18 – 23 year olds (regarding their faith) are at 15 years from now – when they are in their 30s.

    I think a better judge of what is going on in the Evangelical and Mainline religions/churches today and how it is being received in general is to look at what the 30 – 60 year old adults are doing. Are they leaving the established religion they grew up in, leaving one for the other or staying where they are? Is faith important to them or are they indifferent? etc. My impression is that a lot of 30 – 60 year olds are leaving established religion/church behind – usually with no replacement. They still believe and want to live out their beliefs but have lost hope that there is a religion/church that they fit within – so they are on their own or possibly connected to some secular organization that they think does a better job of being the love of Christ in the world than the church they were associated with.

  • I read the book recently too. Really interesting read. And, like you Tony, I was a little surprised by how little young people could really be described as “postmodern”. In retrospect though, perhaps this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. For one, really understanding postmodernism, and really engaging in deconstruction, involves a fairly heavy diet of the right material. How many High Schoolers are exposed to that diet? Secondly, perhaps young people (most anyway) just aren’t at a stage of brain development where they can handle that degree of nuance and complexity. At a time when a basic construct of the world is still being developed, perhaps the last thing on someone’s mind is looking for variation and subtlety around the edges. Painting in broad strokes is probably more common.

    For me, this finding kind of begged a question: Was I merely expecting the next generation to be as, or more, postmodern than me? Or was I, at least partly, just hoping that was the case. Because we always assume the world moves along our train of thought. Hmmm…

  • Jo Ann W. Goodson

    Another thought came to me as I was reading the other comments. In the area that I live in the folks that I know and hear about do a very poor job of having conversations about God and religion in general in their homes. Some may say a prayer at meal times. Some may ask their children to study their Sunday School lesson before Sunday. But I do not hear of the family together or one on one having serious conversations with family members. I think that we should first learn about God in our family. Not just conversations on what to do and not do, what to say and not say, but theological questions and answer times. We are too busy with everything else like homework, TV, ipods, listening to music, participating in sports, etc. to take time for formal devotions/conversations with God and each other. When this is done, I think our young folks have a better chance of it becoming a part of their lives forever. I listen to the children in worship at my church when it is time for their childrens sermon and I know that some are asking some wonderful questions at home and at church. Some of these very small kids are having fantastic experiences with God and openly share them with us adults during this time. The childrens minister asks great questions and they give wonderful answers. If there was a continuation of this in our homes I think the numbers will increase later. I grew up in a home where this was not done. We were in church every Sunday but no conversations, bible reading, etc. in the home. We only prayed at meals. My experiences of God at an early age gave me this thirst for knowledge and a life long relationship with God and my continuing desire to always be learning and experiencing more. My husband would not allow us to have formal devotions in our home but while he was at work my children and I would sing hymns while I played the piano and when they were little I would read to them from children bibles and books. As when went about the day I would watch for ways to bring stories or comments about God into our time together. Only one of my very adult children are in church at this time. They believe and are spiritual but do not enjoy church as it is today in their area. So, I do not have any real answers, wish I did.

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