The Table Video
Spirituality in Emerging Adults
The way people become adults has changed over the past 50 years. No longer do we hit 18 and instantly mature to adult status. Instead, psychologists have found that during our years from 18-29, adulthood emerges much slower than it used to, with all sorts of implications about how we grow mentally and spiritually during that period. Here, psychologist Todd Hall (find his website here) shares his research findings based on his study of spirituality in emerging adults.
So 50 years ago, you went to college or got a job right out of high school, right? After college, if you went to college, you got a job, typically stayed with that job your entire career, got married right after college, had a few kids, settled down, and you’re financially independent by the time you’re in your early to mid 20’s, and you’re an adult and that was it. So it was very clear and very structured, and it was a relatively short transition to adulthood. So my dad, his generation is an example of that.
So he went, graduated from college when he was 22 or 23, got a job, had two jobs his entire career, switched one time to a different company, and that was it, so that’s pretty rare today. That’s what happened 50 years ago. Different story today, fast forward 50 years to today, if you’re a typical emerging adult today, and I’ll define that in a minute, most emerging adults go to college. So that’s more of a given now, much higher percentage of people in this age range go to college. It now takes about five to eight years on average for emerging adults to finish their higher education.
If you’re a typical young person now, you will change majors numerous times while you’re in college, you’ll explore several different careers before you finally land on a career, and along the way, you’ll have several McJobs, a term coined by Jeffrey Arnett, who coined this term and this phase emerging adulthood. So short-term, service-oriented types of jobs. Because it will take you until late 20’s or 30’s to settle into a job or career, you won’t be financially independent until then, which means there’s a 50% chance that you’ll move back in with your parents and become one of the boomerang children.
And when you’re living with your parents and you haven’t settled into a job or career and you’re not really financially independent and you can barely afford your car payment, it makes it a little difficult to get married, right? So you probably won’t get married until your late 20’s or even early 30’s. So this is one of the big shifts in our culture that has caused this stage to come about. The average age of marriage has increased from about 21 or 22, 50 years ago, to about 27 now. So you won’t get married until late 20’s, early 30’s.
So we’ve come to a time now where most young adults don’t feel like a full-fledged adult and in some ways don’t function completely as a full-fledged adult until they’re in their late 20’s or early 30’s. And so that means there’s a winding road to get there from basically the end of high school until this full-fledged adulthood, when people are financially independent and kinda settled into a job and maybe starting a family.
And so this stage, as I mentioned, is a new stage that has emerged in the last 50 years or so and is called emerging adulthood. That term was coined by a psychologist named Jeffrey Arnett. So he first wrote about this in an article in the American Psychologist back in the mid ’90s. He later wrote a book if you’re interested on this called Emerging Adulthood, describing this stage. And so roughly lasts from about 18 to 29, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with these experiences and the challenges that go along with this And there’s a lot of reasons for that.
So in our next research, he, what it is, he interviewed several hundred, I think 200 or 300 young people to try to figure out what were the characteristics of this stage, and so he identified five characteristics of emerging adulthood. The first one is identity exploration. So it’s a time when young people are exploring their identities, particularly in love and work, romantic relationships, relationships in general, exploring what kind of people they want to be in a relationship with, who they want to be in a life-long partnership with.
And also in work, exploring vocation, what kinds of work would be a good fit for me, those kinds of things, so a lot of exploration. And it just, it lasts quite a bit longer now than it used to 50 years ago. Secondly, it’s an age of instability. Lots of instability in a lot of different ways.
Living situations for one, in college, students might live in a dorm for awhile then they might move out. After college, they might, before getting married, live with roommates which tends to be a pretty unstable situation, so lots of moving around. And even in terms of what they’re doing, they might finish college, get a job, decide to go to grad school, do that for a little while, but they’re not sure if that’s the field they wanna go into, so they drop outta that program, start working again. Just lots of instability and shifts like that.
Very, very normal and characteristic of this stage. Thirdly, self-focus, it’s a stage where there’s a lot of focus on the self. And Arnett talks about this and says this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a normal part of this developmental stage. Now it can become negative if young adults don’t grow out of this and it continues. But it’s a stage where, it goes along with identity exploration where young people are figuring out who they are, and so there’s kind of a focus on self. And part of that is they’re no longer with their parents, so their lives aren’t as highly structured by their parents, but they’re not quite in a stage where they’re married and have a family and a career which also provides a lot of structure and demands on you and responsibility.
So they get up and aside from maybe going to class and work for a little bit, they have a lot of choices about how they wanna spend their day, where they wanna eat, who they wanna hang out with today, those kinds of things, as some of you know, as you get older, those choices diminish based on choices you made earlier in your life. So when I get up in the morning, my day is pretty structured based on my family and responsibilities and my job. So it’s a different experience. Fourthly, feeling in between, so, And by the way, these are all things that these young people describe about their own experience.
So these are not things that Arnett sort of imposed on them. So emerging adults describe feeling in between. In other words, they feel kind of like an adult but kind of like a kid in some ways. And so because they’re in this gradual, very long, gradual transition of becoming adults, so they’re partially independent, but they’re not usually fully financially independent for example. But they have a lot more independence than when they’re in high school, so they feel just kind of in between, and it can be confusing at times.
Lastly, endless possibilities, it’s a stage, and that’s part of the wonderful thing about this stage where young adults, emerging adults, feel like there are all kinds of possibilities, and in a lot of ways, there are. There’s lots of opportunities on the horizon. They can still make choices to change careers, to move different locations and things like that. And as you know as you get older, it’s not that you can’t do that, but it becomes more difficult to make major changes like that.
One interesting thing that Arnett points out is that again, this is a normal part of development, but one of the things he saw in some of the students in emerging adults they interviewed is that sometimes the possibilities that the students were considering weren’t, didn’t line up too much with reality in terms of their experiences or plans or that kind of thing So I remember one interview, he talked about a young man who’s in college and his goal was to play professional baseball.
And so Arnett starts to probe a little more in the interview and asked about his experience, “Did you play baseball in high school?” “No,” “Okay, that’s interesting, “so you’re not playing in college, “didn’t play baseball in high school, “so how do you plan to get to this “goal of playing professional baseball?” and this young man didn’t really have a plan. But it was a serious intention. So that’s not across the board, but that is a somewhat common experience during this stage. So those are the five characteristics of emerging adulthood.
Along with this come a new set of questions that weren’t asked as much 50 years ago about faith and spirituality, so emerging adults now ask questions like, “Who am I?” Identity, “What kind of work should I be doing?” “What kind of work am I called to do?” Fifty years ago, you did what your parents did. You did what was available, what was the least, path of least resistance in some ways. And sometimes, there are questions about “Do I really believe in this God “that I learned about in my church, growing up, “or that my parents told me about?” because now they have to choose. They leave their parents’ home, and whether they’re in college or living on their own, they don’t have to go to church with their parents every week if their parents did go to church.
So they have to decide and choose. So there’s a lot of wrestling with these types of questions. Do I believe in this God, and if so, why do I sometimes feel distant from God? Why do I sometimes struggle to discern and understand God’s direction for my life? Those kinds of questions become very prominent. So we find ourselves in this kind of cultural moment now where we have this new stage of emerging adulthood that shapes all of life and including spiritual development in ways that we’re just starting to understand.
Now, so that’s part of what I’m exploring in some of my research, but it’s, I think it’s a very important stage for spiritual development and faith development in all areas because as you know, choices are made during this stage that will set the course for a lifetime. And sometimes that’s a career, sometimes that’s a relationship that for good or real will lay down the pathway sometimes.
Sometimes will have consequences for the person’s entire life. So, that’s a background on emerging adulthood and the importance of it for spiritual development. So a quick overview of what I wanna cover in our time remaining and then hopefully we’ll have some time for interaction. I wanna touch briefly on just a big picture of religion and spirituality among this age group, emerging adults, in the United States based on a national representative sort of a, which was a very large study done by a sociologist named Christian Smith, very interested in his work. You can look him up, he’s at the University of Notre Dame.
He’s got several books, this one is called Souls in Transition, it’s on this age group. And then his last two points are, my research team, so two dissertations from two students. This first one, we’re gonna look at six themes of, general themes of Christian spirituality of emerging adults, particularly college, and so that’s the dissertation of my student, Brandon Jones. And the last one there is another study by my student, Kendra Bailey, looking at themes that differentiate spiritual exemplar students from non-exemplar students. So both very interesting pictures of, kind of a more in-depth picture of the spirituality, Christian spirituality in particular. Because this hasn’t really been done.
All we know is from Christian Smith’s study and there’s a few others out there just some general information about the religiosity of emerging adults in the US. And so here’s a picture, so we’ll take a little bit of a look at religion, spirituality in emerging adulthood Religious affiliations in the, in the US. This is again Christian Smith’s work. It’s, one thing I wanna note is that you may see a lot of surveys and statistics like this. And the quality, how meaningful these numbers are depends a lot on how representative the sample is.
So you’ll see a lot of numbers like this thrown out maybe in a book or something like that where it’s not a representative study. It’s some group throughout an email list, got back a couple thousand responses. And they really have no idea where these people come from and it’s not representative, that’s why this is so valuable. This was the largest study of teenage and emerging adult religion ever done that I know of by Christian Smith and his group.
So it’s a very national representative sample. They had a survey company do phone calls across the country and then they actually interviewed about 300 students, or people in this age range all over the country. So as you can see here, just a quick breakdown, about 46% so almost half report being Protestant. About 20% or one-fifth report being Catholic. About 1% or one in 10 say they’re other, some other religion, and then about a quarter of people across the US, emerging adults, say they’re not religious at all. Now, Smith went beyond this. So that’s just religious affiliation. And he identified six religious types. I’ve got the first four here, they’re the most common, and I’ll mention the other two.
So this was based on some of his survey data but also these interviews where they really tried to discern how emerging adults approach their faith. And so it turns out these six types, and four of them being the most common. So the first is what he called the traditionalist. And so, this is the emerging adult who holds, considers himself to hold to a particular religion such as Christianity and to adhere to all the core tenants of that religion based on the authoritative scripture, teachings, that kind of thing.
So you can see in the US sample, about 15% of people would say, “Yeah, I’m a traditional,” or at least the way they talk about their religion. They would say they’re committed to a particular faith. They’re committed to the core tenants of that faith. They’re not just picking and choosing the beliefs, which is the next group that he terms selective adherence. So 30%, three out of 10 emerging adults in the US, Again, we’re not talking Christian, just all over the US. Three out of 10 emerging adults would say, “Yeah, I belong to a particular religious faith,” such as Christianity, maybe it’s a different variant Catholicism, could be something, another faith, “but I don’t hold to all the core tenants of that faith. “I select the ones that I think are relevant to me “and important, and some things that “feel a little bit old or outdated for our culture, “I kind of let those go, I don’t believe those,” so 30%. Another 15% describe themselves as spiritually open.
So they’re not committed to any particular faith or religious tradition, but they’re open to spiritual things, spirituality in general. So they would engage on a conversation with you about it and be interested, they’re not particularly pursuing it, but they’re open. And then another quarter are what you called indifferent. So as it states, they pretty much just don’t really care much about religion one way or the other. They’re not against it, they think it’s fine for other people who wanna be religious or hold to a certain religion, “But it’s not for me.” So about one in four emerging adults.
The last two that I don’t have on there, very small percentage but what you called religiously disconnected, that’s only 5%. And so those are people who have virtually had no exposure to religion. So pretty rare as you might imagine, only 5%. In other words, they probably had never been to church. Their parents didn’t go to church. They don’t know people who go to church or are religious. There’s no family friends, that kind of thing, that are religious, so they really just don’t know much about religion, so a very small percentage. And the last is what you called irreligious which is 10% of the population in emerging adulthoods, which interestingly increased from about 5% of this same group when they were in the 13 to 18 age group.
So he started tracking this group when they were 13 to 18, and he tracked them all the way until they were in the, yeah, 13 to 18, and he tracked them when they were 18 to 23, and that’s his second book, and the percentage of irreligious doubled basically from 5% to 10%. And so that’s, so these are people who really don’t like religious, they’re bothered by it. They don’t think it’s good for society, that kind of thing. So that’s a little deeper perspective on kind of the religion in the US, again not Christian spirituality but just religion in general.
And because Christian Smith is a sociologist, that’s his perspective, he’s looking at the, kind of the big picture of the US. So extremely helpful information, but part of what we wanted to do in our research group was drill down specifically within a Christian perspective, what does spirituality look like for emerging adults. So what do we know about Christian spirituality? Not a whole lot, so we’re starting to take a look at this.
Okay, so I did collect a little data at Biola to compare these religious types that Christian Smith came up with to see how Biola students would compare to the national data And so you can see here a very different picture. 87% of our students, this was from about 300 students. 87% report being traditionalist, which we would expect a pretty high percentage here at Biola, to hold to that, and 13% report being selective adherence. I actually thought that would be higher.
I was surprised that was only 13%. So these people are, they would say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian, “but I don’t necessarily hold to all of the “core beliefs of Christianity, there are some that I, “that I pick and choose and some that I “think are maybe outdated and kinda let go of.” So very different picture here at Biola and probably at many schools like Biola. Okay, so let’s move now into six themes of emerging adult, Christian spirituality.
And so this is the study of my student, Brandon Jones. So I wanna tell you a little about how we conducted these two studies. So we had resident directors who worked closely with students nominate students as spiritual exemplars or non-exemplars, and we asked them to only do that for students they knew well, and so we got a bunch of nominations and then we interviewed these students with a very in-depth interview, on average about two hours, and then also had them fill up some self-report measures.
And then what Brandon did, and our team was involved in synthesizing these findings, but this was Brandon’s project, is he looked at just what are the general themes, how would we describe these students’ spirituality, how do they describe it in their own words basically. So this is a qualitative study, and we used a, a method that’s called grounded theory. And the idea is that we’re trying to develop theories that are grounded in the data. And there was what, how are the participants describing their own spiritual experience?
So that’s Brandon’s project, and then Kendra’s, which I’ll come back to you in a moment, looked at the themes that differentiated the spiritual exemplars from the non-exemplars. We have two angles or windows if you will into this data. So, Brandon identified six themes in these interviews, and I’m gonna give you some example from each of ’em, but here’s an overview, and they kind of break down into pairs that are sort of intentional with each other. So going across here, you can see authentic. So students value authenticity, but that’s kind of intentional. They also report quite a bit of being guarded with their relationship with God.
The next road down there, a lot of students report a maturing process in which they are growing in their relationship with God and spirituality, which is encouraging, but that’s intentional with this next theme of fluctuating. There’s a lot of ups and downs and fluctuating. And then the next road there, they report, many of them, a corrective experience in their relationship with God, that has brought healing or correction in some ways to some, some difficult or negative or painful experiences. Maybe in the church, maybe with their family.
But that’s intentional with, there’re still a lot of students reporting a lot of insecurity in their relationship with God. So, I wanna walk through these and give a few examples from interviews so you can hear in student’s own words. So the first one, authentic, and really it’s valuing authenticity, so we’re not saying these students have arrived at authenticity, but they really talk about their spirituality in the sense that they say authenticity is very important to them and they’re really pursuing this.
And I think you’re probably familiar with that and just all the stuff that’s written about this generation. That’s very important. So here’s one participant, Peter, who described as, he says, “I feel like I can totally go to God with anything.
“That’s one thing the conference,” and he’s referring to a conference here at Biola, really helped him with a lot. “One of the speakers was talking about “how to read those Psalms that seem kind of angry. “It was really cool because he was talking about “how those Psalms demonstrate “how we should take those emotions to God. “We can’t stop having those emotions. “We’re gonna be angry at people, we’re gonna stressed, “we’re gonna be unhappy with things. “The problem comes not when we take those things to God “but when we don’t, when we just keep them inside “and we try to do whatever we can with them on our own. “That’s completely opposed to everything else “that we know about the Christian life. “Since we’re supposed to keep these things, “Since when are we supposed to “keep these things away from God? “We’re supposed to be seeking Him in everything, “and so that includes those emotions “that are angry or negative or whatever. “So the idea is, then, “to fully take those to God in honesty, “not being like, I’m kind of unhappy with this person. “But being honest like, I hate this person right now, “because that’s what you’re feeling. “Why not just be honest because it’s there?”
So that’s Peter, so for Peter, his emerging beliefs about human experience and emotions and what the Bible teaches about this is giving him this growing confidence that he can open up to God and bring everything to God, including negative emotions, so that’s authentic. The second major theme that we found was this experience of being somewhat guarded in their relationship with God. So one example, a participant in, Allison, and by the way, these are all pseudonyms, not real names.
Allison talked about her defensive style of detaching emotionally and how that had a negative impact on her relationship with God. She described her self-protective wall as guarding against authentic experiences with God. So here’s how she put it. “I never felt anything spiritual, so I was kind of like, “Okay, why am I not feeling anything? “But I think it was kind of, now that I look back, “I think it was because I built up that wall. “And because I built up that wall, “I think God couldn’t do anything. “I think as the wall is starting to come down, “little bit by little bit, I think that He will work in me.”
Another participant, David, made an explicit connection between anger he experienced in his relationship with his father and a very cautious relational approach with God. He says, “In high school and before that, “my relationship with my dad, he had a temper. “We would fight and we were too similar, “and so we would just never get along. “With God, I feel like I have to wait and make sure “I’m doing everything perfectly right. “I think to myself, I don’t wanna pray right now “because I’m not really in a place “where I can come and fully be there. “I have to tiptoe around, it’s really related to “how my dad is and how our relationship is. “I’ve seen that over and over with myself and other people.”
Another participant, Rachel described struggling at times with feeling God’s forgiveness. And she explained it in her view, her guardedness against negative emotions cause an inability to feel positive emotions with God.
Here’s how she put it, “I mean obviously I’m forgiven, “and He wants to be forgiving,” referring to God, “But I think there are a lot of walls “and barriers that I’ve created because of disappointment “where I don’t think I deserve the forgiveness. “And so I’m not willing to receive it from Him. “Even as I was driving over here today, “I was thinking, I know I’m forgiven. “He wants me to feel that, but I’m not allowing myself “to feel that yet because I’m so disappointed “with certain things that happened. “Because of my experiences, a lot of the ways “I learned to cope was by turning off my emotional capacity. “Sometimes, it was so painful to feel “that it was easier to not feel at all. “So something God is trying to heal in me “is teaching me how to feel again. “Something I think I probably will always struggle with “is feeling truly loved or feeling forgiven “or feeling those things between us.”
So that is the guarded theme, and so we saw that in a lot of our participants. The next theme was maturing, so there was a sense and you can see how this also reflects this overall instability that Arnett talked about. There’s these tensions with these being guarded but there was an overall sense of growing and maturing in a way as well. So one participant, Allison, talked about how her motivation for reading the Bible had changed from being kind of guilt-based to doing it in order to grow and desiring growth, she says, “Until this year, I read the Bible just because “I felt guilty I wasn’t reading the Bible. “That’s really why I was reading the Bible. “Now I’m going to try to do it so I can grow.”
Another participant, Beth, talked about how her understanding of spirituality and her experience of her spirituality changed from being about obeying rules to being about a relationship. She said, “I’m learning that it’s more of a “relationship process than it is about “follow my commands and you’ll be happy. “For me, it’s not about all His like rules that He set out “and following every single one to the maximum. “It’s about knowing that He’s there “and that you can talk to Him and that He forgives you “and being really close,” so that’s maturing.
Next theme, fluctuating, we saw in many students, a lot of ups and downs in their experience of God and closeness to God on oftentimes a weekly basis, sometimes even a daily basis, and so one participant, Beth for example, described her experience of God’s presence as alternating between close and distant, and she described it as being like a slinky, interesting analogy, she says, “I feel like “experiencing God’s presence is like a slinky. “It goes back and forth and back and forth, “and I feel like that’s on me.”
Another participant, Mary, talked about spiritual motions, sometimes being present and sometimes being totally absent, particularly with the feeling of love. She said, “There will be times when I’ll think, “Okay, I know God loves me, I just don’t question it. “And then there are other times when I’m like, “I wish I could feel Your love, “why can’t I feel Your love?'” so fluctuating. The next theme that we saw in a lot of participants is correcting theme, so emotional experiences with God and spirituality and spiritual community that was healing and correcting of some negative, painful experiences.
So one participant, Mary, talked about a family upbringing that was pretty dysfunctional, a lot of problems, lacked basic communication and emotional connection, she talked about suffering from mental illness growing up, related to a body image disorder and an eating disorder, which led to depression and some suicidal ideation.
Despite all this suffering and her need for help, she talked about the fact that she didn’t tell anybody what she was going through, she explained that her childhood taught her to be extremely self-reliant and independent and deal with problems on her own. Here’s how she put it, “The suicidal ideation “was something I felt no one ever needed to know. “I felt like I had dealt with it, “like I had to deal with it, “which is what I do with everything. “I just work through it, and then Okay, that’s good, “moving on, what’s next,’ that type of thing. “And I’ve always been extremely independent. “I think the way I was raised, “I was forced to be independent “There was no option of dependency. “So it was like you’re on your own.
“My parents took care of me provisional-wise, shelter, “but I would not consider myself “emotionally taken care of when I was little. “My grandma was the one I was around the most, “and she was always drunk. “And their generation is just different. “Even to this day, my mom is like, “Why does your generation wanna talk about everything?’ “So supposedly, you’re supposed to deal with it on your own.”
So she continued in her story with some insights that she gained from going through counseling. And she talks about how this changed her spiritual experiences and relationship with God. She said, “I’ve been going through counseling, “and as I’ve been going through this counseling, “I’ve kind of realized when I was little, “and I had a bad attitude or said something bad “or I did something that was bad, “or I felt an emotion that wasn’t acceptable or accepted, “I was sent to my room until I could deal with that emotion “and come back with an emotion that was acceptable.”
And this next sentence I think is profoundly insightful for a college student. She says, “My mind has been trained “to step back from people, disconnect, “until you can come back with an acceptable emotion, “because that person isn’t going to love you, “doesn’t want to be around you “unless you’re in this type of acceptable mood.”
That is a point and painful statement about how attachment works, that we remember how important people in our lives feel about us not in words or concepts but in our emotions and in our bodies. And so our minds literally are trained, and she’s talking about really outside of conscious awareness, she’s now becoming aware of this through counseling, but this is a subconscious process where our minds our trained to shove certain emotions that are not acceptable to our attachment figures, the people we rely on because the relationship is the most important thing when you’re a child and you rely on a parent, so you protect the relationship at the expense of yourself and your own emotions.
And it happens outside of conscious awareness. It’s an automatic process, and then you no longer have access to those emotions and to parts of yourself. And so she is describing this process. The good news is her relationship with God didn’t remain static, it changed over time.
She talked a little more about that. She says, “I’m realizing I need to take something to God, “taking it to Him no matter what stage I’m in, “whether I figured it out or not. “So prayer lately has looked a lot like, “Okay, God, this is what I went through today. “This is the emotion that I think I’m getting. “I don’t know, help me out here. “This made me a little bit angry “and this made me a little bit this, “I think, so what do I do with this now? “It’s been interesting, I’m venting a lot more “of my frustrations to God, I pray, “so and so pissed me off today. “Help me to please have patience with them tomorrow. “I don’t know if I can handle them anymore. “I know you have a reason for them being in my life, “but if you could either reveal that or help me get over it “or help me to just have patience with them, “that would be great,” so that is the corrective.
So we saw that a lot in these students. A lot of them come with this next theme, characteristics of feelings of insecurity and the fluctuating, but there’s this process of healing and correction that’s going on, which is very encouraging. And so this is the last theme we saw throughout a lot of our participants. Just general feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, anxiety about their relationship with God, and so again, this seems to be a fairly typical experience of emerging adult college students. One participant, Julie, talked about how her feelings of guilt sometimes interfere with her ability to feel forgiven by God.
Here’s how she put it, “And so a lot of times, “I know God forgives me and I don’t necessarily feel it. “I’m not even sure when the I’ve forgiven you part happens. “I’m assuming when I first asked forgiveness, “but I don’t know what it feels like or even “that gut feeling that comes with it later on.” So she went on and added that sometimes she experiences guilt about not being able to experience forgiveness and so her guilt fosters more guilt.
So she says, “Sometimes, it just makes me feel guilty. “I think, Oh, man, now I can’t even let this go. “I need to let this go, and then I feel guilty “about not letting it go,” so for Julie, these feelings of guilt sometimes create this negative self-reinforcing cycle whenever she feels guilty about being guilty and not letting something go and that creates more guilt, and it’s just this kind of downward spiral which is really sad. So, so that’s the last theme, so those are the six themes or characteristics that we have found in looking at college students.
These may look a little different for the older subset of emerging adults, 23 to 29, so that’s the next step we’re hoping to do in our research, but this seems to be fairly typical of Christian college students. So the next part I wanna highlight are the themes that identify or differentiate spiritual exemplars from the non-exemplars, so there were two major themes and there were some, several different aspects of each one.
The first one is taking ownership of faith. So one aspect of this is that the more immature students talked about just beginning to own their faith, whereas the more mature students talked about complete ownership of their faith. It wasn’t even a question, it was just kind of an obvious experience for them. So one participant, Mary, I’ll come back to her. A lot of these students have grown up in religious environments, attended church regularly, that kind of thing, and so going to college and moving away oftentimes was the first prompt to really start to wrestle with owning their faith.
So, this one participant says, “Well, I don’t have “a super strong relationship just because basically “for most of my life, I went to church “because my parents went to church. “And I believe God because my parents believe in God. “It’s only been in the past couple of years “that I’ve been trying to make it my own faith “and make it my own relationship.” So that’s not across the board for people who are raised in Christian homes but a common experience of the students were identified as more immature.
So I’ll contrast that with the students identified as mature and they talked about this complete ownership of their faith So for example, when asked to what extent he thought he’d taken personal ownership of his faith, one participant, Mark, replied, “I guess I could just say complete.” And the assurance in that state was very characteristic of almost all of the students who identified as mature, there’s another response from a participant name Rachel, who is in this mature group. She says, “I think to be honest, in a lot of ways, “I think my whole life, my faith has been my own. “I mean it wasn’t forced on me. “That is something my brother and I “are both really thankful for, “that we’re not Christians because we were told to be “but we’re Christians because we chose to be. “You know, we walked a mile to church “every Sunday and Wednesday. “We read our Bible because we wanted to. “It was always on our own. “It was never something that was forced on us.”
So that’s the first aspect, second aspect of owning faith is the more immature students talked about just starting to engage in spiritual practices and wrestling with what do I want that to look like in my life? Whereas the more mature students talked about being very intentional about their spiritual practices. So they were very focused and very intentional.
So one participant, Allison, on the more immature side, starting to engage in spiritual practices. Here’s her description, she says, “I’ve always had struggles with reading the Bible “or in situations asking why did God do this? “I question or like I don’t know if my relationship with Him “is still, at this point, more connected “to my parents than it is personally, “but from what I’ve witnessed growing up, “who wouldn’t wanna serve God? “Because with Him, nothing can compare. “So I’m hoping to have a good relationship “once I get an actual relationship.”
So her experience is it’s not quite there. It’s not quite her own relationship with God. She says, “This year, I didn’t really read my Bible “a whole lot or pray, I started last spring, “and I’m trying to read my Bible every day and journal “and kind of talking to God through it. “It’s really, really helping me a lot. “But yeah, before, I just read the Bible, “and it would be like a check mark.” Contrast that to more mature students, so one participant name Mary, she says, “I mean there’s different elements “at different times in my life “where my faith has become my own.
“I think in junior high for sure. “I think early high school was when it really started. “I became a lot more serious, you know, “like in regards to evangelism, “like living out my faith in daily practical ways. “Here at Biola, I think the last couple of years “that I was here, I’m starting to develop intimacy with Him. “I think even now too, I’m in a stage of life “where I’m starting to really see a lot of things “coming together, like even spiritual disciplines. “A lot of those things, you know, where I’m starting to take “my faith to a whole new level of ownership even now.”
So Mary’s able to look back and see how she became very serious about her faith, even in junior high, and then some things really crystallized in high school, and that was one we found in a lot of participants, there were, sometimes, struggles or difficulties in high school that caused them to kinda get to a decision point and become serious about their faith. A third aspect of this owning faith is the more immature students talked about struggling with feeling loved by God. whereas the more mature students talked about it’s not that they didn’t struggle, but they talked about choosing to follow God in times of turmoil.
So it’s very different description. So here’s one on a more immature side. A participant named Allison, she says, “Yeah, I’m starting to own my faith. “Obviously God has blessed me. “I’m grateful and thankful to Him for that. “He’s a great God. “I have, because of my issues with friends “and family and stuff, felt not loved. “Just this last year, I didn’t really realize, “it would kind of be like, oh, yeah, “God still loves the world, you know the verse John 3:16. “But I never really personally felt like “God loved me as an individual. “And just through this last year “and through the church I’ve been attending down here, “I’ve kind of been waking up to the fact “of how I kind of built a wall, “and how I’m blocking God out because “of how I was hurt as a kid.”
So I’ll contrast that with a participant, Mary, on the more mature side who talked about again, choosing to follow God during crises or times of turmoil, so Mary reported some pretty significant struggles with her self-image, which she attributed to her mother placing a strong emphasis on dieting and exercise. So she talked, described herself as a perfectionist and strove to “the good student, the good athlete, the good daughter, et cetera.”
And so this led to some depression and some pretty painful experiences. She says, “Once I realized I’d almost committed suicide, “I was like, what am I doing? “At that point in time, I could give you “every spiritual answer that you would want, “as in you know, what do you think about this? “I could give you arguments for everything “because I was very intellectual rather than emotional, “very rational, and so I could rationalize through anything. “I could explain anything spiritually “because that’s what I’d studied in private school. “But this became a time when it was kind of like, “okay, I can’t rely on my parents. “I think I kind of just decided that they weren’t reliable. “I started looking at their spiritual lives “and noticed that their spiritual lives sucked. “I’d never seen them open their Bible. “I’d never seen them answer someone like, “oh, I’ll be praying for you, or encouraging someone.”
So Mary realized that her intellectual answers that she learnt weren’t really transforming her faith and that she wanted a faith that was different than what she was seeing with her parents who often hopped from church to church. And so that’s part of what she talked about in her story was that she really wanted more consistency in her church community as she wanted to grow in her faith.
So she described it this way, she says, “The only time we’ve stayed at a church “is when I was in high school, “and I finally put my foot down “and got involved in a really amazing high school group “which I’ll get into spiritually, but I finally told them,” meaning her parents, “I don’t care where you go. “I have my own car, I’m 16, and I’m staying here. “So you either support me, and if you want us “to go to church as a family, then you’re going here. “If you don’t, you can go to another church. “This is the church family I’m staying at, I’m done.”
That’s pretty strong, choosing to follow God and discerning what she needed for her spiritual life at 16, pretty amazing. So that’s the owning faith, so the last, there’s the second major theme that differentiated the spiritually mature students from the immature, was that they were very intentional about spiritual community, whereas the immature folks talked about spiritual community and their approach would be very passive and just sort of accidental, if it happens, great, if it doesn’t so a couple of quotes there, so on the more immature side, one student said, “I mean in the past, “it was hard for me to say no to my friends. “If people wanted to spend time together, “I would be open to spending and investing “the same amount of time and resources into every friendship “even though some of them were “clearly not willing to give the same. “And so I feel like I’m much more discerning in which, “in which friendships I should be investing in. “I’m an includer, and so I kind of offer “some level of friendship to anyone who’s willing.” Contrast that on a more mature side, students were more purposeful and selective in their approach.
So one student described it this way, “I basically have two main friend groups. “I’ve got a lot of my friends at Biola “and then friends back home. “So I’ve got four really close friends back home “I’m still really close with, then my friends at Biola. “I’ve got four, five guys I’ve been really close with, “super honest with and open and upfront. “I really had to choose my friends after my freshman year. “That’s when I decided I didn’t wanna hang out “with the same people because “it wasn’t going to be beneficial to me. “I basically ended up getting all new friends “during my sophomore year, and it really kind of “did just get the opportunity than to choose “where I wanted to hang out with. “Mainly, I wanted to find some friends “who were seeking the Lord. “I picked my friends based on, I think, “similar understandings about “what it means to follow Christ.” [inspiring music]
Continue the conversation with this discussion between James Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett, and this post from Steven Sandage.