TCF & “Emerging Adults”
Last week, Rob Barrett, Brian Cole and I had the pleasure of meeting with a number of Chief Academic Officers and Senior Student Development Officers from Christian colleges across the country at a leadership conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The conference speaker was a highly respected sociologist by the name of Christian Smith. Smith has been studying a new but very real phase of American life called “emerging adulthood.” Emerging adults are individuals between the ages 18-29 who are not yet fully “adult” (i.e. married with children and a stable career). There are many reasons for the emergence of this new life-phase (expansion of higher education, delayed marriage, extended parental support, postmodern suspicion of commitment and stability), but one thing is clear – becoming an adult today is a more complex, disjointed, confused and unstable process than it was for previous generations. In his book Lost in Transition, Smith names five disturbing characteristics common to this new life-phase:
1. Morally adrift: moral commitments in a highly pluralistic world are more vulnerable to challenge than ever before.
2. Captive to consumerism: in a highly fluid and unpredictable world, emerging adults tend to highly value prosperity and security.
3. Intoxication’s “False Feeling of Happiness”: emerging adults sense the hollowness of the party culture, yet participation in it seems inescapable.
4. The shadow side of sexual liberation: “hooking-up” is perceived as an acceptable the norm despite awareness of its devastating consequences.
5. Civil and political disengagement: suspicion of institutional power, cynicism toward public life and pre-occupation with individual goals leads to disengagement with public institutions, including the church.
Emerging adults lack the tools they need to navigate a morally pluralist society. They associate moral conflict of any kind with religious fundamentalism and violence – violence we have often embodied. Yet emerging adults sense that the lives they are being caught up into are painfully shallow and unfulfilling. Consumption of entertainment, alcohol and drugs are among their primary coping mechanisms.
Despite these significant challenges, I was deeply encouraged to hear Smith’s proposed response. He argues that believers must work to redefine a strong Christian faith not as violent and close-minded but rather as:
1. Convicted, but charitable, capable of good and constructive arguments.
2. Committed, but interested in reasonable, rigorous, fun conversations.
3. Serious, but not rigid or reactionary.
4. Evangelistic, but interested in other people not just as souls to save but as real people to learn from, as gifts for us to receive.
5. Caring about the right ideas, about truth, but interested in reciprocity.
6. Critical of the world, yet appreciative of the good in it as God’s good creation.
As I listened to Smith’s call to action, I couldn’t help but hear a stunning summary of the mission and vision of The Colossian Forum, urging a confident return to the heart of the Christian faith as the means by which we become the kinds of people that can engage culture’s most difficult questions in ways that increase love of God and love of neighbor. As TCF focuses on the intersection of faith, science and culture, we seek to do so by redefining a strong Christian faith precisely along the lines Smith outlines.
This piece was originally written for TCF’s March prayer e-letter. If you’d like to receive our prayer letter directly, please send your email address to email@example.com to subscribe. Thank you for your partnership!