A summary of research on religious change in emerging adulthood

Editor’s Note: This synopsis was written as part of a Lilly Foundation grant to the Center for Youth Ministry Training.

The Research in a Nutshell

What happens in the midst of transitioning from one phase of life to another? What happens to religious faith and practices? How much change takes place in those transitioning from adolescence to emerging adulthood? These questions and others are the central thrust of Souls in Transition, by authors Christian Smith and Patricia Snell.
Smith and Snell argue that understanding the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults will yield three valuable insights:

  1. It will improve general knowledge about the fairly recently developed stage of life course called emerging adulthood
  2. It will broaden and deepen understanding of American religion itself
  3. It provides a window on the character of contemporary American culture and institutions

The Research in Context

Souls in Transition is a continuation of the research of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) and the first book that emerged from that research, Soul Searching. The original 13- to 17-year-olds from the study have now exited their teenage years and have headed into their twenties. In this book, the authors analyze and interpret data collected in the third wave of the NSYR.

Emerging Adulthood

Four macro social changes are explained as having combined to create a new phase in the American life course (5).

  1. The dramatic growth of higher education
  2. The delay of marriage by American youth over the past few decades
  3. Changes in the American and global economy that undermine stable, lifelong careers
  4. Parents are increasingly willing to extend support, financial and otherwise, to their children

These four social transformations have dramatically altered the experience of American life between the ages of 18 and 30 (6). Many have recognized that something is going on during these years and many have variously labeled this new stage of life. Smith and Snell find persuasive J.J. Arnett’s proposition of emerging adulthood. [1]

What Has Happened to Moralistic Therapuetic Diesm (MTD)?

For the most part, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the belief that we should be good, feel good, and turn to God in emergencies, continues to be the faith of many emerging adults. (For a more technical definition of MTD, see our “Nutshell Summary” on Soul Searching.) While they expressed an MTD very similar to that of their teenage years, it does exhibit greater variety and originality (155). As such, the concentration of MTD among emerging adults has been, according to the authors, somewhat diluted.
Why the shift? First, and perhaps the most obvious factor, emerging adults have had to put MTD to the test. For some, MTD was sufficient for managing the challenges of life; for others it proved too weak. Another factor at work is the partial decoupling from the religiosity of parents. Soul Searching suggested that teenagers learned their MTD from their parents, and Kenda Dean in Almost Christian expands this important reality to the church, as well. (See our Almost Christian “Nutshell Summary” for more on the impact on the church.) Those emerging adults still closely tied to their parents exhibit a strong MTD. Those who have distanced themselves from their parents, however, have begun to articulate their faith with their own voices as they are informed by their developing experiences.

Major Findings

(1) Among American adults, emerging adults are significantly less religious.
According to most measures, emerging adults are the least religious adults in the United States. “Furthermore, Catholic and mainline Protestant emerging adults tend to be less religious than evangelical Protestants…” (102). While this information is really no surprise, what is shocking is their conclusion that since 1972 this age group has not become less religious. The one notable exception is church attendance among mainline Protestant and Catholic emerging adults. Researchers found little sociological evidence of massive secularization over the last quarter century (102).

(2) Generally speaking, the importance and practice of religion declines.

The research shows that most sociological measures of religious practice and belief declined (141). This means that the more objective religious practices, such as attendance, have declined in significant ways. The subjective aspects, however, such as belief in God and the importance of faith, have not declined as dramatically (141). While there may be a slump, emerging adults do not seem to abandon their faith altogether or decide their faith is unimportant. It seems they downplay the more prominent and public parts of their lives.
(3) Six major religious types show up.
The authors believe most emerging adults in America fall into one of the following six religious types:

a. Committed Traditionalists (166-167)
A fairly small minority, with no more than 15% of the total emerging adult population, embrace a strong religious faith. Traditionalists’ religion tends to be grounded in mainstream faith traditions. Their faith is quite privatized, focused on inner piety and personal moral integrity.
b. Selected Adherents (167)
Another significant minority, 30%, tend to customize their faith to fit the rest of their lives. They often have strong religious upbringing but tend to be more discriminating about what they will adopt. Selective Adherents will disagree, neglect, or ignore the official teaching of their faith tradition. They are prone to compartmentalization, partitioning their lives into religious and nonreligious segments.
c. Spiritually Open (167)
A smaller group, about 15%, believe in some higher power but are not sure what that is or means. They are not personally committed to one faith or another but are receptive to and mildly interested in some spiritual matters.
d. Religiously Indifferent (168)
Making up about 25% of the emerging adult population, the Indifferent may claim to be religious or even appreciate religion—but it simply does not matter. They are not particularly interested in religion, and it is not a priority or a commitment in their lives.
e. Religiously Disconnected (168)
This group makes up 5% of all emerging adults. These are adults who have had little to no exposure to religious people, ideas, or organizations. Faith has not been a part of their lives at all. Coming from non-religious backgrounds, the Disconnected do not have the requisite language or knowledge about faith; they simply do not know.
f. Irreligious (168)
The Irreligious make up about 10% of emerging adults. These adults are skeptical of religion and reject the idea of personal faith. They tend to hold critical, derogatory, and antagonistic attitudes towards religion. Some are angry, and some are even mystified that anyone could believe in anything religious. Those who would self identify as atheist or agnostic fall into this group.

(4) The past continues to shape the future.
This is perhaps one of the more encouraging findings of this research. This is extremely important because it means that the “religious commitments, practices and investments made during childhood” by religious institutions, parents, and families do matter (256). The religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not accidental; rather, they flow out of the formative religious experiences of childhood and adolescence.
Further, the research supports something most families intuitively know: relationships matter. Emerging adults are products of the relational forces and environments at work in their lives. This means that parents, families, and religious congregations are not irrelevant. One’s religious past does matter.
(5) Religion does matter—and it makes a difference.
Research presented in Soul Searching that suggested highly religious teens were different from less religious teens is true of emerging adults as well. While the differences are not enormous, they are significant. The research demonstrates that the strength of an emerging adult’s religion is associated with positive life outcomes. This means that high religious commitment can causally reduce alcohol consumption and sexual encounters. Researchers claim these associations are “real, quite consistent, and significant” (276).

Implications for Parents

Parents do matter.
Psychosocial research has demonstrated for some time the importance of parents, yet for some reason parents tend to buy into the myth that they do not matter in the lives of their adolescents. Parents are the most crucial and powerful socializers in the lives of their adolescents.
Adolescent independence does not mean it’s time to check out.
The adolescent years are not the time to disengage as a parent. Growing adolescent independence often necessitates negotiation. Too frequently, parents misinterpret signals of relational renegotiation as demands to “butt out” or get lost. These are times that parents must “dig in,” for it is during these years that questions about what they believe, feel, think, and value come to the surface.
The religious lives of parents matter.
When it comes to religion, parents are extremely important. According to this research, “one of the most powerful factors was the religious lives of their parents—how often they attended religious services, how important religious faith was in their own lives, and so on” (285). For those of faith, this finding supports what is already widely known. Perhaps it will drive home the reality that what an adolescent sees and experiences in the home does shape them for better or worse. Relegating parental instruction to the church will not work.
Parents praying, reading Scripture, and worshipping with their kids are important teenage-era factors that powerfully shape the religious outcomes of emerging adults. However, if adolescents experience parents who are religiously withdrawn and functionally absent, then the faith of an emerging adult likely will also be vacuous, directionless, and empty.

Implications for Youth Ministry and Churches

Now is not the time for adults to withdraw from adolescents. While parents are the greatest determiner of religious outcomes in emerging adults, nonparental adults are also significant. Put simply, the more adults involved in the lives of adolescents, the better off they will be. This will mean that ministries to youth and families must find ways to incorporate loving, agenda-free adults into the lives of the ministry. “Adult engagement with, role modeling for, and formation of youth simply matters a great deal for how they turn out after they leave the teenage years” (285).
Ministries to youth matter.
Ministries to youth matter now more than ever. With the breakdown of the family and the systemic erosion of adult support, congregational youth ministers are more necessary than ever before. When parents shirk their responsibilities, adolescents need a safe place to turn for help and support. Youth pastors, nonparental adults, Sunday school teachers, and pastors (among others) stand in the gap. Churches must reevaluate their ministries to youth and families to determine the best way to put more adults in the lives of their young. Youth ministers cannot and should not do this alone. Churches must do a better job of holistically engaging and discipling youth and empowering adults to step into the lives of adolescents.
Institutional churches matter.
Our rapidly shifting culture needs both organic and institutional churches. In light of the findings of Souls in Transition, it would seem that more traditional/institutional churches are better suited for socializing the religious faith of emerging generations. It does matter if adolescents have participated in adult-taught religious education classes. It does matter if adolescents have been brought up in a religious metanarrative that roots their faiths in the traditions and teachings of the church. These are foundational realities that, through a congregational family, translate into a lived out faith in emerging adulthood. These realities will not matter, however, if congregations do not take seriously the need to understand and come to terms with the cultural realities that govern and shape this phase of life.


Souls in Transition, the follow-up study to Soul Searching, provides a fantastic and sobering glimpse into the religious lives of emerging adults. Smith and Snell have weaved an intricate tapestry of interviews and sociological data that show, in the end, that parents and religious congregations are the two main entities that socialize religious faith in emerging adults. Additionally, these are the “two crucial contexts of youth religious formation in the United States. If formation in faith does not happen there, it will—with rare exceptions—not happen anywhere” (286).
For further study:
Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist. Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. [This is the first major publication that resulted from the NSYR and details the findings of the project through 2004. The book is accessible in style, but can be dry reading because it summarizes the sociological research of the NSYR. Be ready for a lot of charts and tables.]
Smith, Christian, and Patricia Snell. 2009. Souls In Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [This is the second major publication of NSYR research and reports findings from follow-up interviews with teenagers now that they have moved on from high school into college and the workforce. Like its predecessor, it’s a summary of sociological research, so be ready for some dry reading and a lot of charts, tables, and numbers.]
Dean, Kenda Creasy. 2010. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. [This is the first response to the NSYR from the perspective of youth ministry. Dean calls for a change of structure and life for the American church, not merely American youth ministry. This piercing critique is grounded in theological reflection and reasoned consideration of the findings of the NSYR. While it suggests new directions for youth ministry, don’t expect step-by-step instructions. Written with academic rigor for a youth ministry audience, this book will be a challenge for some youth workers to read.]
[1] See J.J. Arnett. Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A conference on Emerging Adulthood has also been started. See www.ssea.org.