A Challenge for Churches: Adulthood Takes Its Time

Author: Peter Steinfels

At some point during the 20th century, the United States invented adolescence. Where once there had merely been youth, there were now teenagers, with their own dress, music, magazines, books, economy, culture and expected patterns of behavior. It was enough to get organized religion, in the words of the bard,all shook up.

Now, says a leading sociologist of religion, a similarlydistinct and important stage in life, situated between the teenage years and full-fledged adulthood, has emerged.It isreshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships and life commitmentsand religious leaders had better pay attention.

Writing in the November-December issue of Books&Culture, that scholar, Christian Smith, describes what researchers in sociology, psychology and human development are callingemerging adulthood,a time between ages 18 and 30 or so, when marriage and parenthood are often delayed, formal schooling is prolonged, job switching is frequent and parental support is extended.

Half a century ago, many young people were anxious to get out of high school, marry, settle down, have children and start a long-term career,writes Professor Smith, who directs the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Today, many young people spend more than a decade between high school and marriageexploring lifes many options in unprecedented freedom.And, it should be added, in great uncertainty.

Studies agree that the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed and confusing than it was in past decades,Professor Smith writes. It is a transitionmarked by immense autonomy, freedom of choice, lack of obligations and focus on the self,a time also characterized by instability and experimentation, whenhopes and exhilaration recurrently run up against confusion and frustrationand whenties to the social institutions of civil society, including church, are often weak.

He cites research suggesting that emerging adults seem to slough off almost entirely the religious faith of their upbringing or even of their adolescence.

Of course, young people have always tended to drift from religious moorings when they leave home, and then connect with religion again when they marry or have children. But the longer that intervening period becomesand it may now be 15 or 20 yearsthe less likely the return.

Furthermore, Professor Smith says,these are crucial years in the formation of personal identity, behavioral patterns and social relationships.One returns a different person, possibly formed quite independently of any earlier faith, certainly of any participation in a religious community.

Robert Wuthnow, another distinguished sociologist of religion, explores much the same territory inAfter the Baby Boomers(Princeton, 2007), a book subtitledHow Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.He focuses on adults 21 to 45 years old, a group that is not just the harbinger of the future but that already constitutes about half the countrys adult population.

Professor Wuthnow too finds that delayed marriage and parenthood, economic instability and the constant blitz of new information and alternative lifestyles present a new challenge to religious institutions, as did the entry of women into the paid work force.

Among adults in this age group, regular attendance at worship services has declined markedly in the last three decades, while the proportion never attending at all has increased. The change has occurred almost entirely among the growing numbers who have not married.

Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt,warns Professor Wuthnow, who teaches sociology at Princeton.

There are differences between the two accounts. Professor Smiths is a bold, broadly sketched essay proposingemerging adulthoodas a life stage that demands powerful responses from organized religion. Professor Wuthnows is a data-heavy volume filled with caveats about generalizing; the wordjournalistappears repeatedly in his warning against reports, maybe like this one, announcing some remarkable new development on the religion landscape.

The difference manifests itself in how the two scholars deal with sex. Both recognize delay of marriage and child-rearing as a defining feature of the new stage in adulthood. Professor Smith putssex, cohabitation and marriage(in that order) squarely on the table askey dimensionsof the changed situation. Any emerging adults who want to abide by traditional strictures against premarital sex, he says,face a very difficult peer culture in which to live.

Professor Wuthnow has a great deal to say about marriage, weddings, marital happiness and parenting, but only a page and a half on premarital sex, mostly devoted to data concerning which young adults consider it right or wrong and what percentage of the unmarried who consider it wrong nonetheless acknowledge having had sexual relations in the last year (answer: 63 percent). His index does not include the wordcohabitation.

The same difference is evident in the two authorsthoughts about how religious groups might respond. Professor Wuthnow describes modest changes in worship services and programs that might help congregations engage young adults, especially unmarried ones. Professor Smith, writing for a largely evangelical audience, jumps in with the idea that perhaps parents, who already offer their adult offspring considerable financial and caretaking support, should challenge the cultural assumption that marriage ought to await financial independence. Instead, they should provide social and financial support for marriage in the early 20s rather than the late.

Teenage marriage is the best recipe for divorce,he writes,but marriage in the 20s itself is not.He questions whether the current culture of emerging adulthood, withhooking upand serial cohabitation, is helpful preparation either for marriage or for real adulthood rather thanmere rationalization for self-indulgence and, at its worst, sheer narcissism.

A good argument can be made that true, authentic selves are made more than found,he writes.It is arguably as much or more by making and keeping promises than by dabbling and deferring that we come to know who we as persons really are and are called to become.

Where the authors converge is on the contrast between the institutional resources that both society and religious bodies have poured into the first two decades of preparing young people for adulthood and the absence of any parallel support once these young adults are launched out on their own. It is high time, they agree, to conceptualize emerging adulthood as a distinct transitional life stage, to understand the social forces generating it and to grapple with its typical characteristics and consequences.


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