Christian spiritual formation that cuts against the grain…

Spiritual Formation-Young Adults

Soul Searching has been described as an “illuminating and disturbing exposé of the faith of American youth.”  But, more significantly, for those of us committed to the teachings and practices of orthodox Christianity, Soul Searching is good sociology in search of good theology.  Practical theology, that is. 


In Soul Searching, Christian Smith and his colleagues conclude “that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”  Instead, “The de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States is what we might call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’” 


The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist—he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.


The evolution of this mutant religiosity is closely connected to a complex blending of social events that mark “the journey to adulthood: leaving home, finishing school, landing a job, getting married, and having children.”  Research by Christian Smith and others shows that this new religiosity remains characteristic of these young people well into their twenties and even early thirties.


Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not the only religious option for these young folks.  Many leave the faith altogether, with departure estimates ranging from 35 to well over 50 percent.  Together, these two troubling trends have gotten the attention of pastors, parents, educators, scholars and seminary professors.


Dr. Chris Kiesling is one seminary professor who has taken up the challenge of providing good practical theology in response to the good sociology of Christian Smith and others.  Dr. Kiesling argues for a robust biblical view of spiritual formation—one that gets beyond the evangelistic campaign that presents “salvation [as] a quick and effortless prayer exchange between a person and Jesus, a simple transaction securing eternal life.”


[The] fullness of God’s transformation – i.e., the reordering of our affections to love, obey, and serve God – will always require working out our salvation with fear and trembling, with the help of the Holy Spirit in the company of fellow sojourners. Acts 2, in fact, images four key components of spiritual vitality central to the early practices of Christians: the teaching of the apostles (didache), fellowship (koinonia), worship/breaking bread together (leitourgia), and mission (diakonia). These ancient practices anchored Christians against the countervailing forces of culture, and they may provide the antidote to the loss of ecclesiological vision among twenty-somethings today.


In an article entitled “Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood,” Dr. Kiesling briefly summarizes these important spiritual practices.


Didache: The availability of great sermons, presentations, and music from the internet contributes to the sense that church is superfluous and unnecessary to some emerging adults. However, spiritual formation via this piecemeal, self-education approach aimed solely at meeting one’s own personal preferences has significant limitations. How different this is from receiving the whole counsel of God, delivered by a pastor prayerfully aware of a particular context and empathically sensitive to the spiritual needs of a particular people group. How subversive it is for a young adult, surrounded by messages of autonomy and cultural fluency, to recite and tether themselves to truth expressed in a 2,000-year-old creed anchored against the winds of change. Furthermore, studying in community, as opposed to isolation, protects one against distortions of God’s character that readily emerge when encountering crisis, guilt, or anxiety.


Koinonia: One of the primary characteristics of the young adult stage of life is that it is largely lived in generational homogeneity. Free from care for others and immersed in a college campus environment, students can largely choose who they associate with or admit into their “friendship networks.” But Christians are commanded to love those who are not part of their affinity group and who differ from them in age, social status, ethnicity, or orientation. Christian community calls us to table fellowship specifically with those who are unchosen, personally annoying, uncool, deficient, and broken. Hence, fellowship summons emerging adults to important ecclesiastical ideals like hospitality, love of stranger, truth telling, and thanksgiving. Finding a “church home” in college then comes to mean more than locating a worship center. Instead, it potentially subverts the cultural notion that personal identity is achieved through self-chosen decisions, elevating instead the reality that spiritual identity is bestowed by God and mediated by a Spirit-filled community.


Fellowship within a spiritual community also locates many emerging adults in small group settings where spiritual friendship becomes formative. When one of the cardinal “virtues” of postmodernity is a form of tolerance that resists as an intolerable intrusion any hint of questioning the validity of another person’s lifestyle, it is deeply countercultural to ask in a small group, “How is it with your soul?” Furthermore, fellowship in the faith community is intergenerational, exposing emerging adults to the life trajectories of those who have lived in righteousness and steadfastness, reference points often missing in a generation connected primarily to peer culture.


Leitourgia: Worship counters pathological pressures placed on young adults to distinguish themselves on the basis of academic, athletic, or other performance-based achievements. It also elicits an alternative to image-based entertainment. In worship we stand as we are, acknowledging our failures and proclaiming our indebtedness. We begin in humility and receptivity – confessing that we are not on our own, but sustained by words and promises made by the One who was, and is, and is to come. The sacraments, as gifts of grace, are not something we attain or possess in competition for social standing; we receive them equally as joint heirs of grace in the family of God. Liturgy reframes our perspectives on time, placing emerging adults within a narrative of redemption that liberates them from living solely in the anxiety of the present moment. It involves us in a backward gaze on the story of Israel and the finished work of Christ, while casting a forward gaze to the hope of resurrection and the vindication of this life at the return of Christ for his bride.


Diakonia: Finally, there is the missio dei, summoning emerging adults to join the father’s celebration of welcoming prodigals home to the wedding feast. Mission encourages intentional vocational exploration, joining with God in his redemptive purposes in the world. Mission moves emerging adults beyond over-focus on personal growth, redirecting the meaning of adulthood from self-advancement to action-oriented love of neighbor. Mission encourages twenty-somethings to hear the cry of the oppressed, the orphaned, the fatherless, the widowed, the imprisoned, the sick, and the marginalized. When churches can winsomely connect God’s mission to the practical realities of daily work, they are far more likely to find a ready audience among today’s emerging adults.



Sources & Resources:


Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood” by Dr. Chris Kiesling was published in the online newsletter Catalyst.  It is an excellent introduction to the book he co-authored with David Setran, Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry (2013)


Three important books by Christian Smith and his colleagues on the spiritual lives of emerging adults:

·         Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

·         Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

·         Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults


What Is It About 20-Somethings?” is an excellent New York Times article summarizing Jeffrey Arnett’s work that helps understand the lives of emerging adults.





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