Souls in Transition is a study of emerging adults, ages 18-23, and serves as a sequel of sorts to Soul Searching which studied the same group of young people when they were 13-17 years old (and which I have not read). This has allowed the researchers to see how specific people have changed over time and what has caused such change. In chapter seven of Souls in Transition, Christian Smith updates the stories of some of the students he first interviewed for Soul Searching; they were interviewed in 2003, 2005 and again in 2008. Reading stories of real people is always fun, so this narrative chapter is enjoyable as well as thought-provoking.
What Smith deems the most important theme is that the dominant tendency in the lives of these emerging adults is continuity: “most people continue being essentially the same people that their lives growing up have shaped them to be, including their way of relating to religion” (180-1). In other words, as teenagers enter their twenties they very rarely make huge changes in their religious beliefs. Instead, they tend to continue on the same path, becoming more or less religious, that they were on while teenagers. Again, Smith writes, “the default of most people’s lives is to continue being what they have been in the past” (208).
So how does change happen? What causes people to make adjustments?
One thing is certain sociologically: operating at the heart of both personal and religious stability and change are the crucial matter of significant personal relationships – both those that affirm and bind and those that break down and set loose. Rarely do people’s thinking and feeling and behaving change dramatically (or stay the same) without significant social relationships exerting pressures to do so and facilitating these outcomes (209).
The key is personal relationships. The key is getting down in the dirt with people, investing our lives in the lives of others with all of their hurt, pain and sorrow. If we Christians desire to see people come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, then we have to get to know them.
About one year ago I read Billy Graham’s autobiography and it was a moving experience. Billy Graham is the epitome of evangelism; he traveled the world preaching to huge crowds and calling on people to give their lives to Jesus. But Billy would be one of the first to say that walking forward at an altar call is merely the initial step. Billy’s crusades always partnered with churches in the cities to help those who did walk forward at the altar call to get involved in local churches. This was because Billy knew that real life change occurred within personal relationships.
Under the right circumstances, anybody might “make a decision for Jesus” whether walking forward at a Christian gathering or being accosted by a street preacher. But our calling is not simply to get people to make a one time decision. Rather, Jesus said our calling is to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). Disciples are people who experience real life change, who allow the Spirit to transform them from the inside out, and who desire to live more like Jesus each day. Disciples are not perfect, but disciples strive to follow the one who is even while being broken themselves.
Disciples are made in Christian community where they are in deep, honest, real relationship with other Christian disciples.
My prayer is that CSF would be such a community on campus; my prayer is that many such communities will exist in Reading, the United States and throughout the world. My prayer is that within these communities relationships will be created and real life change will occur.