Mere Christianity, Mainstream Science, and Emerging Adults
by Greg Cootsona
For the past twenty years or so, I have committed myself to integrating mere Christianity with mainstream science, especially with ministries that serve emerging adults.
Sometimes, when I articulate that last sentence, I immediately hear this question: “What is an ‘emerging adult’? Why not simply an ‘adult’?” I usually begin by affirming that the term is not meant as a slight, but as a realization that life for eighteen- to thirty-year-olds has changed. It was the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett who first defined this category in 2000 as a stage of life in which a person no longer feels like an adolescent but is not yet fully an adult (1). Though I have some questions (for example, how well it applies universally across the United States), I find the paradigm illuminating. It recognizes the current cultural shift in which individuals are reaching the five milestones of adulthood—leaving home, finishing school, becoming financially independent, getting married, and having children—later than they did in the past (2). A 2009 analysis found that in 1960, two-thirds of young adults had achieved all five of these markers by age thirty, but by 2000, less than fifty percent of women and one-third of men had done so (3). We could simplify this by focusing (with Robert Wuthnow) on two markers: Americans are marrying and having children later (4).
These may sound like five uncomplicated facts, but these markers have an important psychological impact. Many of us used to know where to go when we turned eighteen—we graduated from high school, left home and headed to college, landed a job, got married, bought a house, and had kids. Certainly, some found this path stultifying, but what it lacked in originality, it compensated for with clarity. Arnett portrays an alternative emerging adulthood through five interrelated characteristics: 1. Emerging adults are actively looking for personal meaning and identity. 2. Their lives are marked by instability due to regular relocations, job changes, and revision of life plans. 3. They tend to be self-focused, liberated from parental oversight and significant responsibility for others. 4. They feel—here is the summary phrase—“in between” (my italics)--beyond adolescence, but not yet full adult. 5. Finally, they live in an “age of possibilities,” optimistic about the future and keeping their options open (5)
Of course, this is a generalization, and those at lower socioeconomic levels often develop job skills more quickly. They move out of adolescence and into adult responsibilities earlier than their peers with more resources (6). With that caveat in mind, it is still worth remembering that eighteen- to thirty-year-olds are often markedly uncommitted to church life and to marriage. Since the marrying age is around twenty-eight for men and twenty-six for women (7), most emerging adults’ relationship to faith is not defined by family. Their reality presents a jarring contrast to the organization of most congregational ministries. Simply put, most churches are focused on the family and have no place for emerging adults in their twenties.
At eighteen, I became a Christian in the remarkably non-church-affiliating culture of the San Francisco Bay Area, which makes me feel like today’s emerging adult. I also led college and post-college ministries for two decades, and now I teach undergraduates. So I read these characteristics with empathy, concern, and excitement. I am expectant to see how emerging adults alter the way we receive and live out the gospel. The future ain’t what it used to be (to paraphrase the late Yankees catcher and prophet Yogi Berra… or maybe the French poet Paul Valéry (8). Members of this generation are making great contributions through their creativity, energy, and openness to new ideas. They are, after all, continuing to define what it means to live in a “digital age.” Over my years with this demographic, I have come to treasure their spontaneity, and I believe that they will make a difference despite enormous challenges like rising debt, overpopulation, and global climate change.
How have we, who are older, prepared this generation? Frankly, I think we have often failed, as evidenced by the deep anxiety associated with their “in-betweenness.” And here I can speak from experience—I have been the pastor for hundreds of emerging adults and enjoyed numerous conversations at Peet’s Coffee or in my church office in Manhattan or Chico, CA. We have talked while building houses in Mexico, or chatted casually at Christmas parties or after small group meetings. Consequently, this statement from emerging-adult ministry specialists David Setran and Chris Kiesling brings me pain: “Because many of the stable and scripted road maps of the adult life course have vanished, there is little clear direction on how to proceed through the twenties. In a period of instability, continual change, and new freedom, the weight of personal responsibility can be overwhelming” (9). As a result of this instability, some even talk of a “quarterlife crisis” (10). In fact, the challenges of twenty-something life may be more extreme than those of midlife.
I wanted to understand all this more fully, so I put together a meeting of twelve of the best thought leaders in emerging-adult culture I could find. They described this demographic with some important words and phrases such as lives “marked by instability in relationships, purpose, and faith.” Similarly, we found that the word “anxiety” resonated strongly with our combined years of pastoral ministry. As Setran and Kiesling conclude, “While many of these emerging adult changes can be exhilarating, they also tend to produce a great deal of anxiety” (11).
This openness and a related anxious stress characterize the lives of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds and set the context for their culture. Moreover, these specialists added, emerging adults “are caught in the pastiche of postmodernism. At times, they can display delayed self-awareness.” Someone threw out a somewhat jarring—if also memorable—phrase: eighteen- to thirty-year-olds can be “choice-phobic.” Choice phobia obviously relates to relationships and marriage partners but can also characterize commitment to following Christ and to Christian community.
Nonetheless—lest I sound like this meeting was one huge complaint session—these leaders all affirmed their love for emerging adults and their excitement about the possibilities they bring to the church, including their incredible technological savvy and ability to take in a wide range of ideas.
Are the new realities of emerging adulthood good or bad? For one thing, they simply are, and so we need to adjust. And they are a mix of both beneficial and detrimental. Christian Smith, who tends toward the negative in his assessment, still summarizes well both the positive and negative sides of the emerging adult experience: "The features marking this stage are intense identity exploration, instability, a focus on self, feeling in limbo or in transition or in between, and a sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These, of course, are also often accompanied . . . by large doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, disappointment, and sometimes emotional devastation" (12).
It is worth noting that Smith’s follow-up to his first study highlights the shadow side of emerging adulthood, as the subtitle makes clear: Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (13).
Despair is not ultimately consistent with the Gospel. It is, of course, entirely possible and utterly faithful for emerging adults to transform their experience of being “in between,” with its consequent worry, into a radical openness to what God can do. I have seen plenty of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds do just that. In that light, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Philippians 4:6-7 is brilliant: "Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life." (The Message)
Displacing worry with Christ—now that is a powerful image. My hope for this generation is that it will take the raw material of emerging adulthood, center it on Christ, and let God do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19) in all kinds of areas, including science and faith.
The nature of emerging adulthood also leads us to ponder what it would look like for Christian ministries to engage science and faith in ways that resonate with this demographic. Here are three directions.
First of all, we would address some new topics. Big Bang cosmology and evolution, step aside and make room for technology—for example, the psychological and behavioral effects of screen time, the use of artificial intelligence, the promise of transhumanism. The conversation is not just about pure science anymore. In addition, we would look at new questions about sexuality and gender (not something you would find in many religion and science textbooks). And finally, we would examine the materialistic philosophy often enshrined in the putative “findings of neuroscience” that there is no immaterial soul.
Next, we would understand faith in a new, pluralistic mode. If any one thing characterizes contemporary emerging adult life, it is pluralism—this generation has been formed in an age of dazzling diversity, including worldview, religion, sexual identity, race, and ethnicity. Life is open, holding more possibilities than it ever had for past generations. In a worldview or religious context, this implies that emerging adults often live, in varying degrees, as “spiritual bricoleurs,” to quote Wuthnow (14). (And if his “bricoleur” does not work for you, try “tinkerer”—it means the same thing.) This spiritual tinkering means emerging adults often are uncommitted to religious institutions in general and churches in particular. Thus Smith concludes, “Emerging adults are, on most sociological measures, the least religious adults in the United States today” (15). This gives many congregations pause and, frankly, prevents them from seeing ministry with eighteen- to thirty-year-olds as a worthwhile investment (not to mention that these young people often do not contribute much to the collection plate—partly because they do not carry cash or checks).
This pluralism also means that talking about “religion and science” may seem like a dialogue between two things, but eighteen- to thirty-year-olds see it differently. Emerging adults have grown up in environments saturated with options, seeing religion and science (and technology) as multiform sets of ideas and possibilities. And though pluralism is certainly not new—the apostle Paul referred to the many “gods” in Corinth (1 Cor. 8), and the United States is known as a “melting pot,” religiously and otherwise—the experience of pluralism has increased through the explosion of knowledge on the Internet. Consider that the number of active websites has topped one and half billion (16).
Finally, we would take in that emerging adults see Christian faith not as a vinyl LP but as a Spotify mix, where listeners choose from a variety of artists based on a certain mood or a feel. On this point, I sometimes tell my college students that it is time to take a trip down memory lane. In the old days I used to drive to Tower Records and thumb through aisles of twelve-inch-square cardboard record sleeves, looking for the right “long-play” recording. Afterward, an LP or two tucked under my arm, I would journey home, take musical refuge in my room, place the vinyl LP on a turntable, and listen to side A in the sequence the band had set (not an order that I constructed). Then I would go to side B. One album. One sequence. All determined by the artist.
Today, music is not bound by the sequence set by the artists. We have the ability to mix music based on the algorithmic features of Spotify, Pandora, or Apple Music. The listener, not the musician, determines the sequence of the music today.
And this carries an analogy with our ministries: A college student might take part in a weekly InterVarsity meeting, attend worship at the local Presbyterian Church, participate in a small group put together by Cru, travel a yearly mission trip to Mexico with another church, and then do a little yoga on the side, without any concern. She did not take the Presbyterian denomination’s LP off the shelf and play through our selected sequence of worship service: small group–large group–mission trip. Emerging adults are experimenting with various spiritual inputs both inside and outside congregations and campus ministry groups.
With those three directions in mind, I am not proposing that taking a fresh approach to science and faith will halt the exodus of emerging adults from church affiliation. I do know, however, that that one of the six main reasons emerging adults are walking out the doors of the church is that they see it as “anti-science” (17). So engaging mainstream science with mere Christianity seems like a reasonable plan.
The climate has changed—that is a fact we cannot deny. Instead, I am suggesting we do something about it.
(1) Jeffrey Arnett, Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 469-80.
(2) David Setran and Chris Kiesling, Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 2.
(4) Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 11.
(5) Summarized by Setran and Kiesling, Spiritual Formation, 3-4.
(6) Ibid., 242 n. 12.
(7) Ibid., 165.
(8) See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/12/06/future-not-used, accessed September 24, 2018.
(9) Ibid., 4.
(10) Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001).
(11) Setran and Kiesling, 4.
(12) Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York, Oxford University Press, 2009), 6.
(13) Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
(14) Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 135.
(15) Smith with Snell, Souls in Transition, 281.
(16) See “Total Number of Websites,” Internet Live Stats, www.internetlivestats.com/total-number-of-websites, accessed March 21, 2018.
(17) The quickest way to find this conclusion is on the Barna website, https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church.
Parts of this essay that were taken from Mere Science and Christian Faith by Greg Cootsona (Copyright (c) 2018) were used by permission of InterVarsity Press.
Greg Cootsona studied comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley and theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and the Universities of Tübingen and Heidelberg, and he received his Ph.D from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. He served for 18 years as Associate Pastor for Adult Discipleship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico CA, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York City. Greg is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Humanities at California State University at Chico and directs Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries (or STEAM). His latest book is Mere Science and Christian Faith.