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