Souls in Transition – Six Types of Emerging Adults

Saying things like “most emerging adults are leaving religion” or “many emerging adults are spiritual” are dangerous generalizations in their vagueness. The truth is that all emerging adults, all people, are unique. Therefore, while Smith and Snell in the sixth chapter of Souls in Transition illustrate six major religious types of emerging adults, they do so in full recognition that not every person falls neatly into one category. These generalizations are helpful to explain the broad distribution of emerging adults, but don’t be surprised if actual emerging adults transcend categories.

1. “Committed Traditionalists embrace a strong religious faith, whose beliefs they can well articulate and which they actively practice” (166). They are likely to say, “I am really committed” and they make up no more than 15% of emerging adults.

2. “Selective Adherents believe and perform certain aspects of their religious traditions but neglect and ignore others…they compartmentalize their experiences more than Committed Traditionalists do, partitioning them into religious and various nonreligious segments that tend to keep them separated” (167). They are likely to say, “I do some of what I can” and make up a large minority, about 30% of emerging adults.

3. “Spiritually open emerging adults are not personally very committed to a religious faith but are nonetheless receptive to and at least mildly interested in some spiritual and religious matters” (167). They say things like, “There’s probably something out there” and are probably around 15% of all emerging adults.

4. “Religiously indifferent emerging adults neither care to practice religion nor oppose it. They are simply not invested in religion either way; it really doesn’t count for that much” (168). They account for at least 25% of all emerging adults and their motto is, “It just doesn’t matter much.”

5. “Religiously Disconnected emerging adults have little to no exposure or connection to religious people, ideas, or organizations. They are neither interested in nor opposed to religion” (168). When asked about religion, they will say, “I really don’t know what you are talking about.” This is a small group as most Americans interact with others who are religious, perhaps 5%.

6. “Irreligious emerging adults hold skeptical attitudes and make critical arguments against religion generally, rejecting the idea of personal faith” (168). Their motto could be “Religion just makes no sense.” This group is small, around 10% of all emerging adults.

As far as campus ministry goes, most students involved in campus ministries are from the first category, Committed Traditionalists. These are students who grew up in the church and have a desire to continue being involved in a spiritual community.

It seems that young people raised in Christian homes end up in one of the first two categories when they go to college (haha, how about that for a vague generalization!). Some get involved in church or campus ministry, others leave that behind though they may still attend church occasionally, such as when they visit home. Selective Adherents may be those most likely to join a campus ministry.

Christians on campus may think their biggest challenge comes from the irreligious, those who firmly stand opposed to God, faith and religion, but I think the biggest challenge are those who are indifferent. The spiritually open are interested in discussing spiritual things and may even be quite receptive to Jesus Christ. Irreligious students are often very intelligent and enjoy dialogue on the deep issues of life such as religion. Discussions with either of those groups are fun. Indifferent students just don’t care, and that can be frustrating!

This is the challenge: how do you even begin to get indifferent people to care? We know how (I think) to approach Selective Adherents, Spiritually Open and the Irreligious. But those who don’t care, and perhaps we could include the Religiously Disconnected here, are a huge challenge. Part of the challenge is that we do not speak the same language. The language we used and the words we speak is foreign, uninteresting, or incomprehensible. Maybe the first step is learning a new language. If so, then perhaps campus ministry is, along with foreign missions, truly a cross-cultural ministry!

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4 thoughts on “Souls in Transition – Six Types of Emerging Adults

  1. Nice thoughts, Dave. I think you have a talent for blogging.

    I agree on the whole with a lot of what you say. I agree that there are many who are indifferent. But this indifference is also I think in many cases a shield to avoid what they will feel is an uncomfortable conversation. If they can just keep saying they do not care, then hopefully people will stop talking to them. If they can put up a wall of indifference to the eternal, then hopefully they can snuff out conversations of the fate of their souls. True indifference will often lead (even if it is rather gradual) to a willingness (either out of curiousity or acquiescence) to have an honest heart to heart dialogue about Jesus Christ and the eternal fate of our souls, particularly with a friend.

    But if someone is saying that they are indifferent, yet always refusing even with a friend to have an honest dialogue, that points to an underlying discomfort and/or unwillingness to Jesus Christ, which puts them more decidedly in the irreligious/skeptic/oppositional category.

    I am certain there are some who, no matter what level of conversation, will always appear indifferent. But I do NOT think that, when presented with Jesus, they can be both indifferent and honest in their responses over time, because I do not believe that our spiritual reality allows them that option. They can say whatever they want. But God knows their hearts, even if they are determined to try their hardest not to care.

    I realize my statements may be offensive. And if they are, an honest desire for truth will lead one to reflect on his/her heart attitudes and why they care so much that they can be offended.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jeremy.

    I don’t disagree with what you said. My post was not about why people fall into such categories, so you are just taking the conversation in a different direction, which is fine. There are many observations to make from these six groups and I appreciate your insight.

  3. Yeah, I just got talkative. I think it is the first blog response I have posted for months. One sentence turned into two, then…and here I am on two sentences already.

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