Emerging Adults:

The Coming New “Youth Ministry?”



It is no secret by now that there is a completely new stage of development among American adulthood—“extended adolescence” or what is coming to be known more respectfully as “emerging adulthood.”  In the 20th century we saw the new stage “adolescence” or “teenager” emerge—an extended period between childhood and adulthood, roughly from age 13 through 18.  In 1950 we expected adolescence to be a time of turmoil and self-doubt as a child moved toward graduating from high school, getting married, then taking a job while settling down as an adult—often by age 22. Even half way through the 20th century the average age of marriage in 1950 was 20 for women and 22 for men.  Adolescence ended by age 22. In those days the majority of young folk did not go to college—they finished high school and entered adult life. There was a time of transition but it was short—maybe ten years at most.


Today the new transition stage is between teenager and adulthood –and it is much longer, bringing us a new stage—“emerging adulthood.”  The majority of young people now expect to attend college—the old factory jobs-out-of-high school have moved out of the country and a college education is now required for even entry-level jobs. Marriage is increasingly delayed: by end of the 20th century the average age of marriage had risen from 20 to 25 for women and 22 to 27 for men. For college educated women it is getting closer to age 30. These young folk have discovered they probably won’t have one job all their life like their parents did. They “keep their options open” and are slower to commit to marriage and career—and even to God. Many young folk today don’t even expect to “settle down” until about age 30 or even 32. The result is a new stage of development that is strange to older parents and church leaders—the decade-long new stage of “emerging adulthood.”


How should Christian parents and church leaders respond to this new developmental stage? As a college professor I see this shift every week. Parents complain “Why doesn’t my kid get with it and move on in life—by their age I was a parent and pastoring my second church, for goodness sake.” I frequently see seniors who are about to graduate with a ministry degree say, “Well, I’m not sure what I will wind up doing eventually—I’m thinking of traveling a few years or spending a few years overseas, or maybe moving home for a couple years and paying down debt.”  Many of my generation were already ordained by age 23—and these young folk expect to settle their calling and career decisions by age 30 or 32, reserving their entire decade of the 20’s to “work it out.”  So what are the implications for parents, pastors and church leaders of this new stage of adult development?  I suggest these—inviting you to ponder them, discuss them and add other implications:


1. Don’t decry this new stage.

Our parents told us, “Hey, when I was your age I….” This didn’t help us and this won’t help emerging adults either. This new stage is here to stay. Making fun of young adults or deriding them for the slowness with which they “get going” won’t help and more than it helped us when our parents said “grow up” to us when we were teenagers.  They will grow up—somewhere around age 30. Until then we’ve got to work with this new cultural stage. Remember, many of these young folk will live until they are 95 and most won’t retire until 75-79. Even if they “get going” at 30 they will still have more than 45 active career years left. Forget decrying this new stage—it is here to stay.


2. Be prepared for the Boomerangs.

If your college senior asks you this April, “What would you think if I moved home for a little while?” stay open to the idea. (I can hear all the empty nest fathers groan;-). The job market this summer is extremely tight. Many graduates are so scared they aren’t even sending out resumes. Others have more doubts now about their life calling than they did when they were freshmen. Let them come home for a while. It might be better to have them close during this period of uncertainty than have them move to Denver and live Friends-style or Seinfeld-style with a group of people their own age who will peer-mentor them through their 20’s


3. Expect to financially support your kids longer.

When my dad sent me off to college I was on my own. I became self-supporting at age 17. However things were easier then. At a minimum wage hospital job I could pay my entire college bill and buy a car to boot. If a student in my University today could get a job, and they worked full-time-year-round for minimum wage, their after-tax income would total less than $13,000—every year of college they’d fall short $10,000 just to pay for their education, with nothing left over for toothpaste or gasoline.  When this student graduates with $40,000 debt (not uncommon for a private education) their monthly payments will be about $444 for the first ten years of their life. The fiscal world has changed. The new model will be for parents to pass more of an inheritance to their kids in the 20’s instead of when their children are approaching 60.


4. Recognize Faith issues aren’t settled in college any more.

The old model expected kids to go through a period of questioning and doubt during college. That’s why we sent them to Christian colleges—so they would do their doubting among other Christians and under the tutelage of Christian professors and mentors. The new model is for kids to go through this questioning and doubt after college often while unconnected with Christian mentors and on their own or among other doubting (or disbelieving) peers.

This provides a new exit from the faith where nobody is around to support or mentor them through the quagmire. This is the single greatest challenge facing the church in passing on the faith to the next generation. And we need to adopt a new model for it.


5. Grasp the Changing role of Christian colleges.

The best Christian college is no longer the one where professors and staff guide uncertain young adults through the troubled waters of doubt and questioning. The best Christian college of the future is one where the professors and staff create decade-long relationships with students and email, facebook and text them for the following ten years as they go through the 20’s. The old question when visiting colleges was, “How much time do you spend directly with students?” The new question is, “Tell me how much contact you have with graduates from the last ten years?”  Parents can seldom guide their own children through a faith crisis—they need other mentors and the four years of college is where they can build these lasting trusting relationships.


6. Be ready for a longer Young Adult “Dropout era.”

It has been true for a long time. Young adults tend to drop out of church for a period then come back. We don’t want this or like it but it has been happening for a century. Young adults have tended to return to church when they have little ones. What is changing is the length of the drop out period.  Delayed adulthood, delayed marriage and delayed birth of the first child now means that we may face a dropout period of more than a decade. When these dropouts do return they have had a full decade of life-altering churchless living which will tremendously alter the kind of church members they’ll become at age 35. Many will be so secularized by age 30 they may never return. Many Christian parents will experience a decade of prayer for their young adults “who haven’t quite found a church yet.” The 20s are now the most dangerous period to faith, not the teen years.


7. Delay the expected age of ordination.

As for denominational leaders, we’ve got to bring our ordination procedures into the 21st century. Most ordination procedures are constructed on the notion that you go off to college, get married, serve a year or two in the church then get ordained.  Some still can follow this pattern but for many graduates they will not settle “their call” for sure until closer to age 30. Rushing them into ordination too quickly will only eventually fill up the category of “unstationed ministers.” There is nothing wrong with today’s young adult who wishes to work in the church as a not-yet-ordained minister through their entire 20s until they are sure that this is their life’s calling. Ignoring this massive shift in adult development and insisting young adults “get ordained or get out” by 25 is a grave error. Denominations and ordination board must launch a new aggressive “care program” for these young adults that shepherd them through their 20s or at least until they are sure that they are called for life into the ministry. My own denomination doesn’t even have a “holding tank provision” for someone to minister for 6, 7 or 10 years without being ordained. We expect you to ante up or fold.


8. Help young adults deal with sex.

Obviously this new stage has brought enormous challenges in sexuality. With puberty arriving earlier and marriage later most young adults must now content with 17-20 years of singleness-while-dating. While the church spends huge efforts to help teens avoid premarital sex it has little to say to help 26 year olds. The secular culture has solved this with sequential sex—one partner at a time and cohabitation until settling on the “right” marriage partner. The church has other ideas—“contain yourself until marriage.” Very quietly many Christian couples have made their own compromises. They have come to exclude as “having sex” as “anything but” and chosen all kinds of sexual behaviors including oral sex and mutual masturbation. Their youth pastor is now a dim memory and few ministers have anything to say to these 20somethings about sex. Haring little they decide for themselves.


9. Launch new local church young adult ministries.

This is why the article is titled the way it is. I think the coming new “youth ministry” will be increasingly about young adults—not just teenagers.  Like we launched youth ministries in the 60’s we’ll launch a massive young adult ministry in the coming decade. Parents who once were willing to cough up $35,000 a year for a youth pastor to guide their kids through the turbulent years of high school, then ante up thousands for their kids to attend a Christian college will increasingly hope the church respond now to this new challenge—the period of emerging adulthood. The trouble is, in most cases their own kids won’t be in the same town as their own church. So this will have to be a response of the church at large. Parents in Michigan will have to hire young adult pastors for the young adults of parents in Georgia. Parents in California will have to pony up for a young adult minister to young adults of people from Atlanta who kids have moved to Sacramento. Parents had selfish reasons to support youth ministry—they were paying to save their own kids. Now we have to all unite to save each others’ young adults—to save an entire generation.  I believe in ten years we will have as many ministers focusing on emerging adults as we now have focusing on teens. We either do that… or simply leave them alone.



There are exceptions to all this of course. I have some seniors who are already “middle aged.” They are sure of their call, already married and plan to launch their life-long ministerial career this summer. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. The majority expect their 20’s to be a time of exploration, transience, and “working through” what they will do with their life. The new stage of emerging adulthood has been coming since the late 1990s but it is now firmly in place.  These young adults aren’t going to adapt to the old 1950’s systems. We must adapt our 1950’s systems to new realities. So, how else must we adapt? What other books would you suggest? What do you think?


So what do you think?

During the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   March 17, 2009




GOOD BOOKS & ARTICLES on this subject


Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Then Ever Before by Jean Twenge (Free Press, 2006)


Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through The Twenties by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett (Oxford University Press, 2004)


Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity by James Cote, NYU Press (2000)


Getting a life, article by Christian Smith in Books and Culture November-December, 2007.