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Learnings from the Conference on Emerging Adulthood

by Elizabeth L. Windsor

I spent most of last week in Providence, Rhode Island attending the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood.  I had the opportunity to meet and talk with psychologists developing the field and to share information with those who are studying the formation of religious identity from the late teens through the late twenties.

There were several studies presented about how religious identity is formed in Emerging Adulthood.  We looked at formation in conservative Muslim, Mormon, Evangelical and Roman Catholic communities of faith.  Yet, all of the emerging adults studied for these presentations self-identified as “devout” or “religiously committed.”  Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s seminal work in the field indicates that while 56% of Emerging Adults strongly believe that there is a God who watches over them, only 30% see those beliefs as important in the living of their daily lives and a whopping 42% believe it is not important at all to attend religious services (Arnett, Emerging Adulthood, 168).  I have been pondering what this might mean for those of us entrusted with the formation of Christians over the course of the life cycle.

In materials presented at the Conference, the fourth time I heard myself described as “other religions” as opposed to Evangelical or Roman Catholic Christians, I spoke up.  Identifying myself as a religious professional in a liberal mainstream Christian denomination, I began asking questions about what religious identity might look like among the Emerging Adults in mainstream Protestant traditions which are most definitely “Christian.”  It did not come as a surprise that there has not been much study of our Emerging Adults because they do not self-identify as “devout” or “religious” – rather, if they identify at all with religious beliefs they name themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”

I don’t think this comes as news to those of us who work with teens and then try to reach out the Emerging Adults who are connected to our communities of faith.  The question is what do we do about it?  I was particularly struck by the reactions to the paper I presented.  The United Methodist logo was on my materials.  And many of the folks attending this conference were graduate students – Emerging Adults by definition.  After my presentation, there was a line of these Emerging Adults who, in one form or another, told me that they had been active in their Youth Groups and faith communities as adolescents, but did not feel safe admitting to being Christian in the academic world because they did not want to be labeled “Conservative” or Evangelical.”  Two of the young women I spoke with were United Methodists who had come from congregations who were socially active and politically liberal and they expressed sorrow that they could not find meaningful religious community and dialogue at their graduate schools or in the surrounding area.  There were a few Episcopalians and one Presbyterian who told me much the same stories.

My first response as a “faith former” was that if these young people were representative, then our colleges and universities are unexplored mission fields.  I know many of our denominations have had to cut back on college chaplaincies.  But those church communities in areas where there are colleges and universities have the opportunity to be great witnesses and places of meaning-making for those who want to practice “Christianity for the rest of us” to quote Diana Butler Bass.

I have written to our District Superintendent bringing this learning to his attention – and I wonder if across our many Christian faith traditions those of us who advocate for Christian formation might raise this issue with our adjudicatory bodies, conferences and conventions.  And for those of us who serve God’s people in congregations located near community colleges, colleges, universities and graduate schools, we might want to gather our faith communities into discussions as to how we can make our congregations welcoming and nurturing for those Emerging Adult Christians holding their tongues to join us in worship and service.

How do you welcome and include Emerging Adults in your congregation?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Windsor is the Director of Christian Education at Sudbury United Methodist Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Christian formation throughout the life cycle is both her profession and her passion. She recently shared an article on Building Faith (Got Boomerangs?) that was a summary of the paper she presented at the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood.  She is happy to share the full paper with anyone in Building Faith’s readership. E-mail Elizabeth at drelizabeth AT sudbury-umc.org to request a copy electronically.

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