Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood

Article by   October 2013
setranspiritualformation93.jpgDavid P. Setran and Chris A. Kiesling, Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2013. v + 280pp. Paperback $21.99.

According to Setran and Kiesling, the years between 18 and 30 are "the time when the fabric of life is woven together into a discernible - and increasingly solidified - pattern" (p. 2). It is also a time of anxiety, "unprecedented freedom," delayed marriage, sexual license, identity crises, expanded higher education, self-focus, and a lack "of strong social cues and supports" (p. 4). 

They use the phrase "Emerging Adulthood" to refer to college-age and young adults. "In 2000, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett posited a new life stage - 'emerging adulthood' - to describe the growing chasm between adolescence and the completion of traditional adult milestones" (p. 3). They summarize that "Emerging adults tend to be idealistic, energetic, and passionate about their pursuits ... Part of our calling as mentors to young adults is to unleash some of this 'potential energy' into channels through which the kingdom can infiltrate church and world to the glory of God" (p. 5). The results of their research and experience lead them to believe that "emerging adulthood (is) a time of formidable challenge and yet great opportunity" (p. 5).

In this important resource the authors state that they "are prompted to ask two central questions. First, what does the gospel have to offer emerging adults as they are formed through the adult transition? Second, what do emerging adults shaped by the gospel have to offer to the church and the world?" (p. 6). They elaborate on this by summarizing the goal of the book, "We desire 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" (p. 7). I think the book accomplishes this exceptionally well through its solid and helpful research as well as its compelling suggestions.

This is just the sort of book that many who work with "emerging adults" need and should read. The authors' hopes here are that "[B]y providing descriptive, interpretive, normative, and pragmatic insights on these topics, we hope to better equip college and young adult ministers, professors, pastors, student development professionals, parents, and laypeople in their work among emerging adults in this formative life stage" (p. 7). I think the book really accomplishes this goal. I plan to have it outlined and consulted for future reference.

The book is well-conceived and well-ordered. It contains very informative, helpful, and insightful chapters on faith, spiritual formation, identity, church, vocation, morality, sexuality, relationships, and mentoring.

In discussing the "faith" of emerging adults, the authors rely heavily on Christian Smith's work, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: OUP, 2005). They take up his phrase, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" - in which a distant God demands nothing more than niceness, and provides nothing more than self-help. This "imposter religion" has many causes - including the church. Setran and Kiesling write, "this anemic version of Christianity is arising not only because the din of the world has dulled emerging adults' hearing but also because they have been listening so well to the diluted faith we profess" (p. 26). One negative result of this is that "many emerging adults are not formed by the Christian faith into the image of Christ but are rather forming a faith that will shape them into their own image of happiness" (p. 24). The authors recommend that "We must find ways to help emerging adults connect their concepts of salvation and spiritual formation, of justification and sanctification, and of grace for salvation and transformation" (p. 27). 

The chapter on Spiritual Formation aims at reversing the tide of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This calls for a "formational vision" of Christianity that is more compelling, capturing the heart with new loves and desires, shaped by the narrative of scripture. True Christianity both demands and promises more than any substitute, and emerging adults need to know this. They also need instruction in "disciplines of abstinence" and "disciplines of engagement," aimed at spiritual transformation. 

The other chapters are also full of interesting and informative research as well as helpful recommendations on how to address the various problems, issues, and subjects. I especially commend the chapters on Vocation and Mentoring to those working with this age group. In the conclusion the authors summarize well part of the goal of working with emerging adults by stating that "The posture of Christian emerging adulthood is neither self-absorption nor self-sufficiency but self-surrender, an adult capacity to give oneself away" (p.239).

This is really a fantastic resource for those who minister to, and want to understand, the present generation of 18-30 year olds. As a College Chaplain, I found the work full of practical insights that will contribute to how I relate to, communicate with, and preach the gospel to my students. The book is not shallow or filled with common-sense platitudes. It is well-researched, faithful to scripture, and is much-needed. An interesting use of this book would be to read it with a group of students, or young adults, and see how much they resonate or disagree with this analysis of their generation. This would not affect, I don't think, the many contributions of the book or the exhortation to informed, gospel-centered, mentoring.

The world has changed so much even in the last twenty years. Those, like me, who work with this age group cannot afford to rely upon our own memories or experience. We need this practical theology that directly addresses our ministry context. I am thankful for this work and recommend it highly to my colleagues in college ministry.
Jonathan Huggins, Ph.D. Research Associate, Stellenbosch University (South Africa)
Chaplain, Berry College (Rome, GA).

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