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A Preacher's Perspective on the Book 'Souls in Transition'

Preacher's Perspective is an ongoing review of books of interest to preachers from the Christianity Today book-of-the-year awards.

Never before have I read a book for my preaching that contains over 80 tables and graphs and is written by top-tier sociologists. Recently, though, I finished Christian Smith and Patricia Snell's Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults and was amazed at how useful it is for helping the preachers connect their preaching to those between age 18 and 23.

That age group, which includes over 20 million Americans, is what Smith and Snell term emerging adults. Often churches struggle to connect with these emerging adults, which is understandable since they are "clearly the least religious adults in the United States today" (p. 281). As opposed to all other age groups, "a solid majority of emerging adults are simply not interested in matters religious or spiritual" (p. 295).

Masterfully sifting through an avalanche of data, Smith and Snell illuminate the crucial descriptor of emerging adults: transitory. Because higher education has been extended well into the 20s, marriage has been delayed (by over 5 years since 1950), the job market has been destabilized, and parents are increasingly financing their children after high school ($38,340 per child by the time they are 30), emerging adults are just that—they are emerging. Instead of moving out from home, finishing school, getting married, and finding a career, they are trying to find their footing educationally, socially, professionally, and financially. They are in transition from being teenagers to being adults. The transitional nature of their lives dramatically impacts their spirituality.

The only constant that they hold to is their own selves, which is largely defined by how they feel.

Smith and Snell find that since the world of emerging adults is one of such transition, the only constant that they hold to is their own selves, which is largely defined by how they feel. So, when asked how to evaluate different religious claims, one emerging adult replied, "It's pretty much just my authority." Another said, "I believe that if you believe it's true, then it's true." And another responded to the question about where she finds the grounds of spiritual authority with, "Myself—it really comes down to that" (p. 156). They simply cannot grasp "the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction may exist that may have a significant bearing on their lives" (p. 45).

Two insights for preaching

Christian Smith is one of the most cited sociologists of his generation. As the lead researcher on this project he maintains an academic and professional relationship to his subjects and his data, and yet he's also a man of faith. One of his earlier books won the 2005 Distinguished Book Award from Christianity Today. In Souls in Transition it's not hard to hear Smith's heart for churches to understand more thoroughly and to reach more effectively the emerging adults he studies so exhaustively.

The most significant impact of this book on my own preaching comes from how Smith and Snell articulate the desperate need for emerging adults to find their story within a larger story. The authors put it this way when summarizing a large portion of their data:

Emerging adults are determined to be free. But they do not know what is worth doing with their freedom. They work very hard to stand on their own two feet. But they do not really know where they ought to go and why, once they are standing. They lack larger visions of what is true and real and good, in both the private and the public realms (p. 294).

These days I'm seeing afresh how our culture lost our place in the big story, and emerging adults even more so. Without understanding their place in the great narrative—or any narrative, really—they "fill that normative and moral vacuum [with] mass consumerism, … the amusements of alcohol and drug intoxification, and the temporary thrills of hook-up sex" (p. 294).

This need, articulated by Smith and Snell, has helped me notice how often New Testament sermons capture the larger context in their messages. Jesus' sermon on divorce in Matthew 19 sets it in the context of the creation story; Stephen's sermon before the mob retells Israel's entire history; and Paul in Athens summarizes from the creation to the resurrection. These sermons had specific messages, but each preacher couched them in a larger context, and that grand narrative is one of the essential things Smith and Snell find lacking in emerging adults. What a clarion call for those who preach.

The second big insight for preaching was a surprise to me, mostly because I didn't immediately see the connection to preaching. Smith and Snell's research shows that the single strongest impact on the spiritual lives of emerging adults is not their friends but their parents. "Parental influences, in short, trump peer influences" (p. 285). Spiritually growing parents, statistically, have the most spiritually growing children. And parents who are not involved or not growing—their emerging adult children show a decline in spirituality to levels much lower than their parents.

According the Smith and Snell, parents are discipling their kids one way or the other. "Whether adults—particularly parents—know it or not and like it or not, they are in fact always socializing youth about religion. The question is never whether adults are engaged in religious socialization, but only how" (p. 286).

I've realized if I want to see more spiritually growing kids—even those 18 to 23 years old—then I need to preach in a way that trains the parents how to disciple their children in Christ. That means I'm constantly looking for how a passage speaks to parents, and it also means that I have to work extra hard to find and tell stories from within our congregation of parents who are discipling children well.  

Souls in Transition is not a light read—the bulk of the chapters unpack reams of data, after all—but unlike the fluff delivered by opinion polls, this is a real meal for those who want to deeply understand the spirituality of emerging adults.

Bill White is a church planter in urban Long Beach, California.

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