I sat in a local coffee shop across from a 20-something I’ll call Sam, who is part of our church. I listened as he shared excitedly about a string of theological realizations he had stumbled upon recently.
“Did you know how much the Old Testament talks about justice?”
“I’ve been surprised how much the Psalms engage with mental health!”
“Have you ever considered that the seven-year Sabbath cycle could be meant for creation care?”
Every now and again, as a pastor, I have the privilege of walking with people in moments like this when something new about the life of faith begins to click. It might be times when:
- a young person’s eyes are opened afresh to the richness of a life with Christ
- the student in crisis realizes that the God who felt far away is actually intimately present
- a congregant realizes that the Bible speaks to an issue they care deeply about
As we talked through the afternoon on a dreary fall Chicago day, Sam expressed deep wonder as he described that the gap he’d long perceived—between the issues he was passionate about (social justice, mental health, climate change) and the faith he held so dear—was not so wide after all. Sam is representative of many young adults who, especially in their twenties, are working hard to make sense of their faith, the often-challenging world they’re experiencing, and the life they’re constructing.
Perhaps this is the opposite of what you envision concerning young adults and faith. Rhetoric about them leaving the church—or God altogether—eclipses a deeper search many are undertaking. In fact, many are trying to recover from what Dr. Almeda Wright calls “fragmented spirituality.”1
The Gap Emerging Adults Perceive
Wright, a researcher at Yale, leans on the term “fragmented spirituality” to describe what happens when we experience God as engaging meaningfully in our own lives but don’t see him, or his church, as materially engaging within the broad-sphere-level brokenness we care about. “Regardless of whether youth are enamored with a personal Jesus or actively protesting injustices, there appears to be a chasm between these arenas for them, such that neither informs the other and their spiritual lives remain fragmented or compartmentalized,”1 says Wright, based on her interviews with African American teenagers. She observed a community of young people who claim both a meaningful faith and a robust desire for justice but who do not see these spheres as intersecting. There is a perceived chasm between these worlds.“Fragmented spirituality” describes what happens when we experience God as engaging meaningfully in our own lives but don’t see him, or his church, as materially engaging within the broad-sphere-level brokenness we care about. Click To Tweet
While Wright’s “fragmented spirituality” hypothesis is based specifically on work with African American teenagers, the indicators point to a similar chasm in the faith lives of a broader swath of the rising generation of emerging adults. Is fragmentation being formed by a gulf between the faith development resources the American church provides and the pressing questions the rising generation is asking of the world around them? If church teaching is primarily focused on an individualized faith and emerging adults are increasingly seeking meaning to society and broad-sphere-level questions, such a gap might naturally develop between how we see God working in our personal spheres and where we long to see meaningful change at a system level.
The Emerging Adults’ New Outward Focus
So, here’s the first question we must ask: Is it true that today’s emerging adults are more attuned to wider cultural or systems-level concerns than previous generations? In short, yes.
Researcher Sharon Daloz Parks provides helpful context with which to look at the unique meaning-making quests of today’s emerging adults. Parks suggests that there is a natural expansion of an emerging adult’s focus outward. While teenagers are generally content to live in their immediate spheres of engagement, emerging adults look more intentionally outward and question how their established view of their near world applies to the broader spheres they inhabit. Simultaneously, emerging adults long to be a part of bringing meaningful change in the world they are exploring. Parks elaborates: “They long to play a role in forming that world rather than simply fitting into the real world as they presently find it. At the same time they may question whether they have the requisite power to bring their vision into being.”2Emerging adults long to be a part of bringing meaningful change in the world they are exploring. Click To Tweet
Broadly, Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history in every meaningful demographic measure.3 Barna reports that 48% of Gen Z is non-Caucasian, compared to 44% of Millennials.4 Their research also suggests that Gen Z operates with an “assumption about the goodness of diversity” and that they are “more comfortable than older generations with practicing diversity-in-unity now.”5 This broadly diverse generation cares deeply about seeing the same multiplicity and inclusion they’ve experienced in their near circles in the broader world. They’ve never known a world that wasn’t diverse, and as they naturally begin to expand their vision outward (as Parks describes above) they are wondering why the broader world isn’t embracing a similar vision of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender diversity.
Surveys of Gen Z college students indicate:
- 56% of seniors are concerned or very concerned about racism6
- 87% of seniors are concerned about sexism7
- 55% of seniors care or care a great deal about gay rights8
- 82% of freshmen think same-sex couples should be able to get married9
- 60% of Gen Z college students view society’s changing perspectives on gender positively9
Gen Z is the generation with the most widespread access to information in history.10 As young people emerge from adolescence and look outward to the broader spheres of engagement they inhabit, they have wholesale, constant access to the unique challenges facing modern society. This has led to a lower barrier to engagement with systems-level issues, an increased visibility to social division and structural inequalities,11 and a frustration with a perceived inability to influence meaningful change.12 In short, Gen Z has unparalleled access to broad systems-level challenges and inequalities and is uniquely passionate about seeing meaningful change in these spaces.
The Church’s Unwitting Contribution to the Gap
The question that follows is this: Are faith development resources for young adults primarily targeted at the individual? In short, yes.
I sought to begin answering this question as part of a recent research project. I sampled fifty new releases from a leading Christian publishing house that primarily reach the demographic in question. Well over half of their newly released titles intentionally address personal faith, individual spiritual fulfillment, organizational influence, or other personal level—or near sphere of engagement—matters of faith development. A significant minority of their current offerings explore how a believer might engage with wider society or system-level issues of our day.13
While not representative of what is available in the whole church, it does point to a church primarily interested in preparing individuals for a life of personal faith, while perhaps failing to engage fully on wider cultural or societal issues—issues emerging adults are increasingly attuned to.
If the church belabors an individualist faith to a generation uniquely tuned into the community-level issues of our day, we risk contributing to this spiritual fragmentation. If we fail to prepare the young people in our care to think meaningfully about how the Christian faith intersects practically with the broad-sphere issues of our day, we risk increasing the gap they perceive. Worse, we risk inadvertently communicating to the next generation that the God we preach doesn’t care about the systemic injustices or inequality they are increasingly aware of and uniquely passionate about.If the church belabors an individualist faith to a generation uniquely tuned into the community-level issues of our day, we risk contributing to spiritual fragmentation. Click To Tweet
Sam grew up in our church. I’m reasonably confident we never preached that God didn’t care meaningfully about the issues Sam cared about. But I can also look back at my preaching notes from years past and see my own hyperfocus on an individual faith. I fear such a primary focus, coupled with a subsequent failure to adequately share God’s heart for communal and global healing, has led Sam and many of his peers to a fragmented or compartmentalized faith.
How We Close the Chasm
It’s important that we bridge the gap and help our young people see the heart of God for the poor, Christ’s intentionality to draw near to the marginalized, and the Bible’s vision for redemption and reconciliation not just for the individual but for our societies and world as well. But what is the way forward?
Take an audit. We can start where I was forced to begin, by reviewing our preaching history. What has been our major focus? What was the distribution between individual faith topics and those that talk of God’s heart for the restoration of all things? An audit of your teaching materials for teens is also important. Are we helping them wrestle with God’s concerns on a macro-level?
Create better curricula. Wright offers practical suggestions for building church teaching materials that intentionally engage with such issues of corporate redemption, highlighting the “integrated spirituality” of historical figures who have bridged the gap between faith and action, and guiding youth to a new vision of “abundant life.”14
Model and teach the practice of daily Examen. The Examen teaches us to find God in all things and to recognize how he is moving today. I have found the Ignatian prayer of Examen holds unique power to shine a light into the dark areas of our communities, where the hope of Christ feels distant.The Ignatian prayer of Examen holds unique power to shine a light into the dark areas of our communities, where the hope of Christ feels distant. Click To Tweet
Incorporate the historic practice of testimony. Our teens and emerging adults need to hear how God is at work through his people in the broader spheres of life. Invite Christ-followers who are engaging their faith in the public issues of the day to share corporately as part of worship. Talk about your commitment to God’s larger mission in personal conversations, and encourage young people to do the same.
Listen. At the root of these last two practices is the simple, holy, posture of listening. Listening to God. Listening to one another. And listening to emerging adults. If their spirituality seems fragmented, talk about it, learn from it, and seek any changes you and your faith community need to make to close the gap.
May we be diligent to pay attention to the issues our young people care deeply about and faithful to help them see how our God intersects with those same issues. Individual faith matters, but we also need to help emerging adults see God’s heart for the broader issues, social division, and inequalities of our day.
1 Wright, 3
2 Parks, 95
3 Barna, 13
4 Barna, 34
5 Barna, 105
6 Seemiller and Grace, 251
7 Seemiller and Grace, 252
8 Seemiller and Grace, 252
9 Seemiller and Grace, 252-253
10 Jenkins, et al, 98
11 Boyd. 175
12 Twenge, 283
13 For the research in question, I took Thomas Nelson’s 50 most recent new releases (December 18, 2021. https://www.thomasnelson.com/) and mapped how the content of these resources might fall on Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems of human engagement matrix.
Of the 50 books I disqualified 12, as they were clearly not intended to provide theological resources for a young adult audience. These disqualified books were children’s picture books (3), Christian fiction (2), Christian romance (4), and reprints of classic novels (3). Of the remaining 38 books, 50% (19) were targeted toward the individual’s near, micro-level sphere. They included many books looking intentionally into how an individual can grow into the person God made them to be, how to build a meaningful personal faith, and how to build better patterns of spiritual engagement in their own lives. Seven books (18.4%) were intentional Bible studies, thus not mapped on Bronfenbrenner’s matrix. The meso-, exo-, macro-, and chronosystem levels of engagement each had three books. Well over half of Thomas Nelson’s new releases at the time of study were concerned with the personal faith of the individual, how to engage meaningfully within family, and how to lead in an organization. Only six engaged meaningfully with wider macro- or chrono-level questions.
14 Wright, 154ff
Bronfenbrenner, Urie (1977). “Toward an experimental ecology of human development.”
American Psychologist, 32(7), 513-531. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.32.7.513 Barna Group, ed. Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation:
A Barna Report Produced in Partnership with Impact 360 Institute. USA: Barna Group, 2018.
Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2014.
Coe, John. “Spiritual Theology: A Theological-Experiential Methodology for Bridging the Sanctification Gap.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care. Vol. 2. No. 1. Biola University, 2009.
Jenkins, Henry, Mizuko Itō, and Danah Boyd. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.
Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. San Francisco, CA: Augsburg Fortress, 2019.
Seemiller, Corey, and Meghan Grace. Generation Z: A Century in the Making. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.
Twenge, Jean M. IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. New York: Atria Books, 2018.
Wright, Almeda M. The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans. New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press, 2017.