Blog | Topic: Adolescence

Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: David Setran Interview (Part 1)

Setran_slideshowIs it taking longer for young people to “grow up” in today’s world? I hear this question often. Two of the stated goals for the College Transition Initiative are to provide information on emerging adulthood and resources for developing lasting faith. In order to help young people develop a lasting faith, the church needs to have an understanding of the cultural conditions in which young people live. Examining the “cultural conditions” of young people ages 18-29 has produced a new body of research known as the study of “emerging adulthood.”

A new book by two professors, David P. Setran (Wheaton College) and Chris A. Kiesling (Asbury Theological Seminary) entitled Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry (Baker Academic) explores the spiritual formation of today’s young adults. From their extensive background in college and young adult ministry, the authors were motivated by two questions:

1. What does the gospel have to offer emerging adults as they are formed through the adult transition?

2. What do emerging adults shaped by the gospel have to offer to the church and the world?

Their stated desire for writing the book is “to provide a ‘practical theology’ for college and young adult ministry, one that combines important scholarship, a Christian theological vision, and attentiveness to concrete ministry applications.” I highly recommend this book for church leaders, college ministers and parents who desire to see young people embrace and live-out faith during the formative, young adult years.

What follows is an interview with Dr. David P. Setran of Wheaton College:

Derek: What motivated you and your friend to write this book?

SpiritualFormationSetran: Ultimately, we have a passion to see 18-29 year-olds flourish in Christ, developing as adults who are increasingly able to serve as agents of hope, healing, and renewal in church and world. Chris and I have both worked in a variety of church, parachurch, and campus ministry settings with collegians and young adults. We are convinced, more than ever, that this is a pivotal stage of the life course, a gateway to spiritual formation, vocational commitment, and Christian identity. While a number of books have been written for those working with children and youth, we wanted to help equip those of strategic importance in emerging adults’ lives: college and young adult ministers, professors, pastors, para-church workers, student development professionals, chaplains, parents, relatives, and friends. Hopefully the book will help to awaken interest in this critical life stage!

Derek: Define “emerging adulthood” and briefly describe the social factors that have led to this new phase of life.

Setran: “Emerging adulthood,” a term coined by psychology Jeffrey Arnett, refers to the period in the lifespan between age 18 and the late 20s. In most industrialized nations, typical adult transitions—leaving home, completing education, financial independence, marriage, and parenting—are happening much later. Many careers have expanded educational requirements, forcing those in this age group to pursue advanced degrees. Combined with student loan debt, this delays the financial independence and job stability often desired before pursuing marriage and parenting. In addition, parents seem a bit more willing to help finance these delays, funding educational ventures and providing a place to live for children who return home after college.

Many emerging adults also postpone marriage for personal reasons, wary of commitment in a divorce-ridden culture or happy to pursue sexual intimacy without the relational costs. While those beyond age 18 are quite different from “adolescents,” they are also not quite “adults” in the traditional sense implied by these social markers. Thus, Arnett and others have described this period as “emerging adulthood,” a phase characterized by identity exploration, relational, vocational, and geographical instability, self-focus, an “in-between feeling,” and the exploration of seemingly endless possibilities. While such a time can be exhilarating, it also tends to produce a great deal of anxiety. Few social scripts exist to help emerging adults navigate the major life decisions and personal identity formation that mark this period.

Derek: You describe emerging adulthood as a “formidable challenge” but also a “great opportunity” for the church. What are some of the challenges and opportunities for the church?


Setran: The challenges are obviously great. According to the research, emerging adulthood marks the low point of the life span for key spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible reading, and evangelism. When compared with adolescents, emerging adults are less likely to adhere to key Christian doctrines like the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Moral convictions and boundaries seem to erode during these years as well, leading to increased risk behavior and heartbreaking life decisions. And perhaps the greatest challenge is that many of those in this age group are making decisions about belief, life, morality, and vocation apart from the local church.

Yet there are great opportunities as well! Many emerging adults have demonstrated a growing passion for social action and compassion for the poor. Many cultivate a sense of global awareness and responsibility and are willing to take great risks to bring the hope and healing of the Gospel to locations across the globe. Importantly, many recognize their need for mentors, guides who can help them make sense of life and call out gifts and passions for vocational use. While it is common for older adults to see those in this age group as a “challenge” (read “trial”) to the church, I think it is critical that we also see them as a “challenge” (read “inspiration, motivation, and stimulus”) to contemporary church life.

Download the full interview (.pdf) here

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What is Vocation? Helping Teens Understand Their Calling in Life

According to a recent study conducted by Stanford University, only 1 in 5 (20%) of teenagers “express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish and why.” Many youth workers and parents are concerned with teen apathy and directionlessness. Even Christian teens seem to have a difficult time connecting their faith with their future plans and career aspirations. What is needed in many churches and youth groups today is a robust theology of vocation. Enter Stephen J. Nichols and is very helpful booklet (only 30 pages!) What is Vocation? (P&R Publishing).

While this booklet is useful for everyone in the church, much of the content and concern derives from his work with teens during the formative years as a college professor. He writes, “It’s the goal of this booklet for you to see all of your work, whether you get a paycheck for it or not, whether it’s considered a noble profession or a menial task, as germane to your calling as a child of God and a disciple of Christ… The doctrine of vocation enables us to see our work, all our work, as a means by which we can serve, worship, glorify, and enjoy God.”

Not only does the booklet provide a biblical, theological and historical overview of the doctrine of vocation, but it also makes connections with personal stories and popular culture. This is recommended reading for anyone who desires a deeper understanding of calling. It would be especially helpful to youth workers and parents who want to instill the value of calling and purpose in their teens.

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Finishing Strong: Advice for Parents of High School Seniors

We try to finish strong in almost every area of life. Runners sprint toward the finish line. Sports’ teams make a final push to make the playoffs. Candidates deliver their best speeches right before Election Day. Retirees talk about moving from success to significance. And then there is high school. Many students coast through their final year. Limping toward the finish line has become the norm. There’s even a word for it: “Senioritis.” With 11 years of schooling behind them, some students develop an allergic reaction to institutions of education.

It might be easy for parents to adapt a similar posture and coast through the final year of parenting a high-schooler. Raising teens is hard work. While most students are ready for high school to be over, many parents might be just as ready for their kids to move on. It’s understandable. But that attitude could cause parents to miss a remarkable opportunity to engage their teens in more meaningful conversations. And teens need it.

According to William Damon of Stanford University, only 20 percent of teens “express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish and why.” Many students don’t seem to know why or if they want to go to college, what they want to study or what kind of career they want to pursue. I recently heard one student put it like this: “Going to college would be a waste of my time and my parent’s money. I have no idea what I want to do after high school.”

It’s easy to be frustrated by a young person’s apathy and lack of vision for the future, but have we done enough to equip teens with a better vision for how to make the most of their senior year? In his eye-opening book, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School, sociologist Timothy Clydesdale suggests: “More can be done to encourage those teens who do want to examine the purpose or direction of their lives by engaging them at deeper levels before the first year out of high school.” As your teens get ready to transition to their senior year, here is a “3-D vision” to keep in front of them…

Download the full article (PDF) here.

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Young Adult: Everyone Gets old. Not Everyone Grows Up.

Most of the time I cringe when I hear someone offer this advice: “You have to do what makes you happy.” I’ve seen too many people follow this counsel to its logical conclusion, only to be hurt and lost. Happiness is fleeting. What makes us individually happy is rarely a way to measure a good life. When we offer advice like this, I wonder if we are more concerned that the person needing the advice avoids pain and feels better about him or herself. Are you happy in this relationship? Are you happy in your job? Are you happy in your $50,000 convertible? Is happiness really the issue here?

If we are willing to be sincere, however, taking time to reflect on the meaning of happiness and its connection to a life well lived is often a helpful and healthy exercise. Young Adult is a movie that invites viewers to consider two important, life-shaping questions: What is happiness? What is the essence of a good life? Mavis (Charlize Theron) has been living life based on a script that hasn’t worked. She was the most popular girl in high school, had gone off to college and then moved to the big city to make something of herself. Freedom was Mavis’s dream. Free from the confines of a small town, free from the expectations of her parents, free from the shackles and burden of being married or raising a family. Free to do whatever she wanted. No restrictions. No restraints. Her occupation as a ghost writer for a young adult fiction series gave her the flexibility and presumably enough income to live her dream. But the dream was slowly becoming a nightmare. The story that was supposed to bring liberation began to enslave her.

Mavis learns that her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), had gotten married and had recently had a child. Buddy worked for his father’s business, still lived in the town in which he grew up, and now was producing offspring. It was too much for Mavis to take. How could Buddy live such a boring story? How could he lose control of his life in such a tragic way? There was only one thing for Mavis to do. She had to save him. She devised a plan to seduce Buddy away from his wife and child.

“Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.” The movie’s subtitle says it all. Critics have described Young Adult as “hilariously awkward,” “darkly funny,” “wryly amusing,” and “a cringefest in the best way possible.” My guess is that screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) was hoping for this kind of response.

Young Adult is a movie worth watching, especially for those charged with helping adolescents grow into healthy adulthood. It forces us to think more deeply about the meaning of a good life, the importance of community, and the cultural narratives that shape our desires and imaginations. There is growing concern that young people are taking too long to “grow up.” Social scientists have named it extended adolescence and emerging adulthood. Churches seem to be perplexed about how to “reach” people in their 20s and 30s. Young Adult is a gift to those who wish to better understand our cultural moment and the hopes and fears of our young neighbors. It isn’t an easy movie to watch, to be sure. It is, after all, a cringe-fest. It probably won’t make you happy. But being uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing. Oftentimes it moves us toward empathy and action.

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You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith

David Kinnaman’s most recent book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… And Rethinking Faith (Baker Books) begins with bad news: “Millions of young adults leave active involvement in church as they exit their teen years.” But the good news is that many of the teens who give up on the church, aren’t necessarily walking away from Jesus. Many of them are simply looking for more meaningful ways to follow Jesus in contemporary culture.

The Barna Group has been criticized of late for supposedly being “alarmist” and for using a flawed research methodology. Most of the criticism has come from a few, Christian, social scientists. I think much of the criticism is overstated. What is so refreshing about You Lost Me is that it doesn’t rely solely on Barna statistics. It pulls from a variety of sources and notes the shortcomings of all research. Kinnaman writes: “I want to provide here a nuanced, data-driven assessment of young adults’ faith journeys. In our evidence gathering, interviews, and data analysis, the Barna team’s goal is to construct the most accurate picture we can of cultural reality, because the church is called to be the church in the real world. In this research, we have done our best to uncover the facts and the truth of the dropout problem, and this book is the compilation of our best thinking on the subject thus far—but it is hardly the final answer.”

I have read much of and have benefitted greatly from the recent sociological research on the religious attitudes of late adolescents and emerging adults from leading sociologists such as Jeffrey Arnett, Chap Clark, Tim Clydesdale, Donna Freitas, Christian Smith, and Robert Wuthnow. Kinnaman’s findings affirm and support much of what is found among leading social scientists. My hope is that You Lost Me is received as a welcomed addition to that conversation. It is as good and as thorough as anything else I have read concerning young adult spirituality.

You Lost Me is clear and compelling. It is thoughtful and balanced. It should be read by everyone concerned for the church; pastors, parents, educators, even students will benefit from Kinnaman’s wisdom. He rightly identifies the church “dropout problem” as a “disciple-making” problem, explaining, “The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ in a rapidly changing culture.” You Lost Me not only identifies the reasons why many young adults stop attending church but it also provides disciples-making suggestions for how to get them back. The book also features a collection of fifty “ideas for passing on a flourishing, deep-rooted faith.” CPYU president Walt Mueller and I are among the contributors.

Visit to learn more.

Watch a video about You Lost Me here.

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Worth Reading: Five Articles for Good Discussion

Over the past few months, I have been mulling over five different articles that I have found to be very interesting and worth discussing. The themes of the articles have found their way into countless conversations with friends and family. The articles are not very long and well worth reading. What follows are the title of each article along with a quote that I think summarizes the main point. Enjoy!

Childlike Faith: Are Kids Born with Belief? What developmental science tells us about children’s religious beliefs.” Interview by Holly Catterton Allen for Christianity Today.

“Children have a natural disposition to see the natural world as having purpose. Research has shown that children have a strong inclination to see design in the world around them, but they are left wondering who did it… If a child is exposed to the idea of a god that is immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving, the child doesn’t have to do a lot of work to learn that idea; it fits the child’s intuitions.”

College grads, 30 isn’t the new 20: Our 20s are life’s developmental sweet spot. They matter. A lot,” by Meg Jay for the Los Angeles Times.

“Newly minted college graduates… are living with a staggering, unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty makes people anxious, and distraction is the 21st century opiate of the masses. It’s easy to stay distracted and wait for deliverance at 30. It’s almost a relief to imagine that twentysomething jobs and relationships don’t count. But a career spent studying adult development tells me this isn’t true. And a decade of listening to young adults tells me that, deep down, they want to take their lives seriously. The 30-year-olds who feel betrayed by their 20s almost always ask, ‘Why didn’t someone tell me this sooner — like when I graduated from college?’”

‘The Demise of Guys’: How video games and porn are ruining a generation” by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan for CNN.

“The consequences could be dramatic: The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.”

Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?” by Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker.

“Today’s parents are not just ‘helicopter parents,’… ‘They are a jet-powered turbo attack model.’ Other educators gripe about ‘snowplow parents,’ who try to clear every obstacle from their children’s paths. The products of all this hovering, meanwhile, worry that they may not be able to manage college in the absence of household help. According to research conducted by sociologists at Boston College, today’s incoming freshmen are less likely to be concerned about the rigors of higher education than ‘about how they will handle the logistics of everyday life.’”

When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. We’re all adolescents now” by Thomas E. Bergler for Christianity Today.

“As they listen to years of simplified messages that emphasize an emotional relationship with Jesus over intellectual content, teenagers learn that a well-articulated belief system is unimportant and might even become an obstacle to authentic faith. This feel-good faith works because it appeals to teenage desires for fun and belonging. It casts a wide net by dumbing down Christianity to the lowest common denominator of adolescent cognitive development and religious motivation… I believe one key is to renew our commitment to the church as an intergenerational family… Young people need adults in their lives who are modeling a vibrant spiritual maturity. One reason no one wants to grow up in America is that many adults don’t make their life stage look very attractive.”

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