Is the church losing “emerging adults”?

How can the church help “emerging adults” stay rooted to the faith?

The phenomenon of “emerging adulthood” (sometimes less flatteringly termed “delayed adulthood”) has gotten a fair amount of attention from Christian writers lately. It’s a term used to describe a life phenomenon unique to modern, Western society: the tendency for young people to put off engaging in the activities traditionally associated with adulthood—marriage, stable career, family. And church involvement.

Christianity Today has an interesting interview with sociologist Christian Smith on the implications of “emerging adulthood” on the church. Here’s how Smith describes the effects of this phenomenon on young adults’ spiritual lives:

Most of what happens in emerging adulthood works against serious faith commitments and putting down roots in congregations. Most emerging adults are disconnected from religious institutions and practices. Geographic mobility, social mobility, wanting to have options, thinking this is the time to be crazy and free in ways most religious traditions would frown upon, wanting an identity different from the family of origin—all of these factors reduce serious faith commitments.

When reading about the “delayed adulthood” phenomenon—see also an essay by Al Mohler on the topic—I typically find myself reacting with some defensiveness and irritation. As an adult whose twentysomething years somewhat resemble the “delayed adult” pattern (I married late, had kids much later, played a lot of video games, didn’t buy a house until my mid-thirties, etc.), it’s hard not to feel a certain trace of unintended condescension from Christians lamenting the lack of “maturity” in young adults’ lives. Waiting a few extra years before marrying, or taking extra time to settle into the right career, is not necessarily a sign of immaturity.

But the spiritual drifting-away common to many people during this phase is a problem, and one that the church will simply have to grapple with if it doesn’t want to lose all contact with young adults. During my “emerging adult” phase, I attended church regularly—and sometimes found myself the only young adult in the entire congregation. The problem is real.

Do you see the “delayed adulthood” in your church community? Has your church community taken steps to address it?

4 Responses to “Is the church losing “emerging adults”?”

  • I used part of Smith’s interview on my recent blog post ( in trying to relate to what may be going on theologically when how we think of “church” and perhaps the rumblings of what the Spirit is doing to re-craft the way we think about the “church” as institution.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue.

  • Chris says:

    Allow me to rant for a bit…

    We’re delaying adulthood because the example given to us of adulthood is rather grim:

    The generation before us has a 50% divorce rate. At least two of my friends are already divorced, both married below the median age of 25.

    If they have a job, most adults hate it and chances are good they’ve gone through layoffs at least once. In the companies I’ve worked for, there’s no such thing as job stability.

    For all their careful investing “adults” just lost an excessive amount of money their home and stock market investments.

    In a relentless pursuit over seeker-sensitivity, previous generations made church boring to everyone except seekers.

    Why in the world would anyone want to rush into that lifestyle?

    We’ve seen the mistakes of the future and are reacting with–in my mind–appropriate caution.

    Also, Mohler makes a big point about marriage being the path to maturity. I would argue that the church has some serious problems if it can’t conceive of maturity outside the context of marriage. I seem to remember a few important people in the Bible who remained single their entire lives…

  • Jess says:

    I agree with your “rant” Chris, that the view that emerging adults have seen is not a pleasant one. But, I think that we have as a society some short term memory issues. In reality, it is much newer of a concept to leave home at a young age, pursue housing, marriage, career, and children – while moving across the state, country, or world. It has not been that long since we had families that lived in close proximity and parents, grandparents, great-grandparents along with multiple layers of extended family that were close by.
    I have found that in my own church singleness is not so much looked down on as just a bit awkward at times. It’s not intentional, but so many things are set up for couples.

  • Ruth Bard says:

    Much of the responsibility for this phenomenon has to fall squarely on the shoulders of parents who allow their adult children to continue to live at home, for free, while doing nothing useful.

    As for leaving the church, think: they’ve had 12 years of atheistic, evolutionary indoctrination in the public schools in the name of “science” and the church has failed miserably to give them an intellectual foundation for their Christian beliefs. They need to know for sure that Biblical history – all of it – is actually true, and we need to give them that conviction if we want to keep them.