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the child-emerging adult faith gap: is it a sign?

I’ve thought a lot over the past few years of writing a book targeted at “emerging christian parents” - speaking to the parents and also providing resources and tools to help them in the spiritual education of their children.

There have been several things lately that have made me sit up and take notice, but probably none more than this

There are not many people who spend as much time researching young people and faith as Christian Smith, now the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Sociology of Religion, and Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion in the College of Arts & Letters at Notre Dame. In the book he did with Melinda Lundquist Denton Soul Searching, the findings of The National Study of Youth and Religion are reported and analyzed.

Smith has a piece in the Nov/Dec Books & Culture that I’d love to be required reading for anyone over 31 -

Subscribe to Books & Culture
Getting a Life
The challenge of emerging adulthood

Smith reviews recent works from researchers in sociology, psychology, and human development on the time of life between ages 18 and 30, a phase which in recent decades has morphed into a new experience for many.

This section is a sort of of show-stopper for the manner in which faith communities work to form faith:

Jeffrey Arnett explored the religious beliefs and practices of the more than one hundred emerging adults he interviewed in various locations around the country. Here is what he concluded:

The most interesting and surprising feature of emerging adults’ religious beliefs is how little relationship there is between the religious training they received throughout childhood and the religious beliefs they hold at the time they reach emerging adulthood … . In statistical analyses [of interview subjects' answers], there was no relationship between exposure to religious training in childhood and any aspect of their religious beliefs as emerging adults … . This is a different pattern than is found in adolescence [which reflects greater continuity] … . Evidently something changes between adolescence and emerging adulthood that dissolves the link between the religious beliefs of parents and the beliefs of their children.

But writing a book is daunting and scary and wrought with all manner of freak out moments for me so we’ll see if I actually follow through.

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  1. Jonathan Brink — November 5, 2007 #

    This sounds similar to James Fowler and a lot of adolescent research. Most research suggests a leaving process but Fowler said that it is actually a healthy thing. Leaving allows the person to own it. Paul asked a very similar question today on his blog about Deep church.

  2. Mak — November 5, 2007 #

    yeah, and it really makes me think about how this would shape how we teach our young in the ways of faith.

  3. sonja — November 6, 2007 #

    I’ve been having some thoughts that are as yet unformed that center around the idea that spiritual formation in adolescence would be better handled as an apprenticeship than as youth ministry (fun house). But the idea that children can be farmed out to ministries in the church and then just stay there I think is a thing of the past, if it ever really worked.

  4. Bonny — November 6, 2007 #

    YES there is a huge need for this book!

  5. dave wainscott — November 6, 2007 #

    write the book

  6. Maria — November 6, 2007 #

    Definitely write the book. I think we need a whole new model for spiritual formation of children/young adults — and leaving it to sunday school/youth group is not part of it. One place I think the church in general has gone wrong is thinking of the faith as so much information to be taught, much as we teach math or literature in school. I actually had to dig out some basic trig for a project a few years ago, and I can tell you I hadn’t thought about it for 25 years! If we teach Christianity in the same way that we teach trig (unrelated to life), can we be surprised that our students don’t think about it again the minute the bell rings?

  7. Lainie Petersen — November 6, 2007 #

    Interesting post.

    I’d note the following:

    1. It isn’t all that unusual for people to “fall away” from their parent’s faith only to come back to it (in one form or another) when they reach adulthood. This sort of thing tends to be most obivious when two people from different religious backgrounds get married because “they aren’t religious anyway”, only to run into real conflict when their firstborn child shows up. It is at that point that their family religion starts to take real importance: Sometimes it ends up being so important that their marriage breaks up over it.

    2. In the case of Christianity, I guess I’d argue that the falling away of young people might, in fact, prove the importance of discipleship. Parents can and should raise their children within the Christian faith, but it is ultimately an individual decision to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus.

  8. Karl — November 6, 2007 #

    Rob Bell mentions this phenomenon in an aside somewhere. He basically says “I realize that in leaving behind some of the assumptions we grew up with, we may be swinging the pendulum too far the other way. I expect that our children will swing it back the opposite way when they grow up, reacting to our excesses and blind spots.” [loose paraphrase from memory, not a direct quote]

    Have you read David Brooks’ “Bobo’s In Paradise”? In one chapter he speaks of Bobos’ mix’n'match spirituality and then predicts how their children will react to it as adults. Below is a summary I found:

    ‘Bobo’ spirituality and the future of American faith

    Christmas break has given me time to read David Brooks’ four-year-old bestseller “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.” His basic contention is that today’s eduated elite reconciles bourgeois ambition with bohemian impulses to create something new. It’s an interesting look at modern society, and helps explain some of what’s developing today in many Gen-X churches.

    His chapter on spirituality is interesting, exposing the back-to-nature, God-as-we-understood-Him approach to spirituality common in among today’s educated elite.

    The spirit of the age, says Brooks, is “flexidoxy”: a desire to throw off authority and live autonomously, combined with an impulse toward orthodoxy and a desire to “ground spiritual life within tangible reality, ordained rules, and binding connections that are based on deeper ties than rationality and choice.”

    Brooks points to the 1985 work “Habits of the Heart”, in which Robert Bellah and his research team found a nation more interested in self-exploration than in received spiritual authority. This was personified by a young nurse named Sheila Larson, who described her religion as “sheilaism” — the belief in whatever fulfilled her needs at the time.

    Even when Bobos go in for organized religion, they often dabble in several rather than committing to one. An example is the 26-year-old daughter of a Methodist minister who describes herself as a “Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jew.” It’s religion as a mix-and-match buffet based, like “sheilaism,” on whatever meets immediate personal needs.

    Of course, self-exploration can be taken to a ridiculous extreme, and Brooks notes that many Bobos realized that individual spirituality doesn’t offer the sort of “ritual and obligations that give structure to life, and make sense of the great transitions in life: birth, marriage, death. Furthermore, the lack of age-old rituals makes it very hard to pass your belief system on to your children.”

    The Bobo rejection of old religious authority wears thin after a while, Brooks suggests, noting that without surrender to something larger than ourselves, our spiritual pluralism becomes nothing more than “an endless moving about in search of more and more lightly held ideas, none of which solves essential questions.”

    Today’s Bobo, Brooks says, wants to be part of a spiritual community — if only to show that they’re not just self-absorbed narcissists. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to commit themselves. If rules are tiresome, they’re ignored. If a church is dull, it’s left behind. Personal choice trumps commitment. And Bobos are nervous about forceful spirituality and exclusive truth claims. Today’s educated elite spews both hot and cold out of their mouths, preferring the lukewarm. For the Bobo, a good church is one that doesn’t ask much, doesn’t believe it has all the answers, and doesn’t try to “impose” its views on others.

    The result, Brooks notes, is a spiritual life that is “tepid and undemanding.” He predicts a backlash, when a future generation “will grow bored of our reconciliations, our pragmatic ambivalence, our tendency to lead lives half one thing and half another. They may long for a little cleansing purity, a little zeal, demanding orthodoxy in place of our small-scale morality.”

  9. Paul — November 6, 2007 #

    very interesting Mak, i’d love to see some more of the research on this, do you know what an “emerging adult” is?

    I find the process of formation i went through as a child an invaluable resource of knowledge but i guess i’ve experienced a process of discontinuity in order to arrive at where i can appreciate the foundations even if i’ve reconstructed a lot of the blding :)

  10. brad brisco — November 6, 2007 #

    Yes start writing! Great idea and of course a great need as well.

    I agree completely with Sonja and Maria that we must rethink (in some cases just think for the first time!) spiritual formation of our children. Of course there are cognitive aspects of the faith; certain things to “know” about Scripture, biblical background, history, etc., but that which we desire as parents to shape, mold and inform every aspect of the lives of our children (and that we do not want them to move away from in later life) does not come in the Sunday School classroom setting or traditional youth ministry, or as Sonja said in the “fun house.”

  11. Jennifer — November 6, 2007 #


    I think one of the challenges you would have to address is this…

    Emerging communities love to explore ideas, have conversation, look at various perspectives, etc. A lot of us have found great freedom in doing this, especially when compared to the churches we grew up in which seemed SO black and white. But, the problem is that children just cant understand things in the abstract the way adults do. They’re not developmentally ready to do that. They see things in black and white. Their brains are wired to sort, categorize, define. They must go through this stage before they can get to higher order thinking skills (Kholberg and Piaget are very helpful here).

    Right now, I think the best stuff out there for children is Godly Play. http://www.godlyplay.org It’s designed from good developmental research, and it values exploration, play, and imagination without abandoning children’s need for concrete concepts.

  12. Mak — November 6, 2007 #

    yeah, I’ve heard of Godly Play - I’m not sure how I feel about it yet, I need to look into it more in depth.

    Paul - an emerging adult is someone “emerging” into adulthood - the 18-25ish year olds.

    Jennifer, I’m pretty familiar with child development so I know what you’re talking about but I actually think that we dismiss much of children’s abilities to think in the abstract. Progressive education is finally realizing what most parents have known for ages. I agree that children cannot necessarily be treated the same way as adults in regard to spiritual formation.

    as to some of the other comments, I’m not suggesting that we scrap childhood faith education and I’m not even saying that the “separation” from the “faith of our fathers” is bad, what I’m seeing though, is an increasing awareness that we need to adapt to the way our young learn and grow in our existing time and place.

    Just like how the emerging christians are trying to live faith in a post modern context…we’re not saying modernity as a whole was inherently bad, we’re just trying to adapt and grow where we are now - which is not where our fathers were then. It’s the same with the spiritual formation of our children - we have a history within Christianity of thinking we’ve found some golden calf of truth and then holding onto it for dear life and completely missing the fact that things have changed.

    how many sunday schools are still using rote memorization and felt boards?

  13. christy fritz — November 6, 2007 #

    i was wondering if you are familiar with
    Godly Play by Jerome Berrymore.
    i’d love to hear your thoughts. it is a montessori approach to 3-12 yr old religious education…although 4th generation removed from maria montessori herself. ( she was catholic, and his more protestant in tradition, jerome is episcopalian). the method could be applied for any religion really. it has been life changing for my kids and myself. i love wondering together and having an art response with various medium, rather than prescribed craft. and the philosophy behind the work is fascinating.

    the website:

    i’ve taught tradtional sun school and “bible” at 3 different christian elementary schools.
    this is the about the only approach i would say i have ever truly connected with personally. it is the only one i would feel comfortable with at this time.

    let me know if you take a look… you get the idea of the approach from the website, but the book is awesome, and probably would be an easy read for you.

  14. christy fritz — November 6, 2007 #

    i would LOVE to know your thoughts on godly play… let us know:), i take my kids to an episcopal church on wed morns… and we work in their environment which is beautifully set with all the stories, and they’ve allowed us to have some take home sets of stories, that i’ve placed in a peace corner in our home… we use each of the spaces to practice listening and talking to god…some ways we do that..hearing or working with the stories, praying, singing, responding with art medium individually ( no prescribed crafts ),or just sitting silently…at home we add playing music or dancing to it. and i’m sure there will be other things we add as we go.
    my kids and i are having life-changing moments working and wondering together. i’ve discovered connections with stories and sacrements that i never knew existed. and ,the conversations the kids have initiated by being exposed to the process have been a priveledge to be a part of . i do think the concrete conncection with the process of playing with the stories has proven vital for creative thinking (especially about abstract ideas).

    i’ve taught felt-board stories in sun school for over 20 years and clapped out one too many verses for kids to remember. :) i’ve seen nothing better than this approach, and the philosophy behind the work is fascinating. not just the research on child-development, but on how we all internalize faith. it is amazing to watch my kids work with the stories and then respond with individual artwork. it is also wonderful to have an approach that truly values their questions and does NOT offer pat answers. it is the most respectful and engaging (for both child and adult) approach i’ve ever worked with.

  15. Jennifer — November 6, 2007 #


    I would suggest, “Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education” for an understanding of the philosophy behind Godly Play. It’s not a curriculum book, its more a way of thinking about children’s faith formation.


    Another resourece for you could be “Young Children and Worship” I beleive its an early version of Godly Play, and it focuses more on smaller kids (preschool age). But, it includes both a section on the philosophy and a curriculum.


    LOL….can you tell I’m a former Children’s Pastor?

  16. Mak — November 6, 2007 #

    hehe…yeah, me too. Children’s ministry for 10+ years.

  17. MR — November 7, 2007 #

    (Got here via BlogRush)

    Very interesting post. I’m Muslim and I was born Muslim. My parents, like most Muslim parents, lived Islam thus teaching us how to be a Muslim. For example, praying daily, going to the mosque often (especially on Friday’s), etc. I remember when I was small I would see my parents pray, and my father would take me to the mosque and I would see hundreds and thousands of Muslims praying.

    The only thing that my parents really taught me was how to read Arabic so I can read the Quran. I also had to memorize the various chapters of the Quran in order for me to pray.

    It was not until I became a teenager that I started to learn Islam on my own and study it with friends and under Muslim scholars and teachers.

    One thing that many Muslim parents focus on (not mine, though) is for there children to memorize the entire Quran. I know at least a couple of people who know the entire Quran by heart and now they are in university or high school just like any normal American into sports, tv, etc. Except they are looked up by other Muslim youth with respect since they have memorized the Quran.

    To conclude, I think the way Muslim parents generally teach Islam to their children is by action of praying, remembering God, reading the Quran, going to the Mosque, etc.


  18. Mak — November 7, 2007 #

    MR - thank you so much for stopping by and sharing that, I think that we have a lot to learn from how other religions train their young.

  19. Mak — November 8, 2007 #

    thanks everyone else for your comments, I just realized that I missed responding to some of you.

  20. christy fritz — November 9, 2007 #

    i thought my first comment didn’t go through…sorry for the repeat.:)

    the conversation inspired me to check out the website again, and i downloaded from the “download” link… a paper entitled “playful orthodoxy, that i am about half way through. it is a really good summary of his general philosophy. just thought i’d pass it on.

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