In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul writes, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (v. 11). Is it not the heart of every pastor, parent, and leader who works with the next generation to see young people develop a deep and profound faith which weathers life through adulthood? We have been given the wildly important responsibility of walking alongside young people as they make this transition from childhood to adulthood; a transition we know often results in young people abandoning their faith or at least their commitment to a spiritual community.
The intersection between spiritual development and development psychology makes emerging adulthood one of the most critical seasons of life for a young person.
Jeffrey Arnett is a leading psychologist in developmental theories and in 2000 he coined the phrase emerging adulthood to describe the pivotal transition between adolescence and young adulthood. He describes emerging adulthood this way:
Having left the dependency of childhood and adolescence, and having not yet entered the enduring responsibilities that are normative in adulthood, emerging adults often explore a variety of possible life directions in love, work, and world- views. Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.1
The intersection between spiritual development and development psychology makes emerging adulthood one of the most critical seasons of life for a young person. As pastors, parents, and leaders of the next generation, it is our job to better understand how to help young people make faith their own and grow into an adult spirituality that will last.
In order to do this well, we must begin by examining a concept in spiritual development called faithing as developed by Fuller Youth Institute and explored in the book Growing With.2 It’s easy to think about faith as a noun; something we have or do not have. When faith is a noun, it is rigid, can be possessed or lost, and any questions or doubts that come up against it are a threat. But, if we begin exploring faith as a verb—faithing—suddenly there is much more room for the development of questions, doubts, and challenges to our spirituality without it being completely discarded. When we encourage young people in their faithing, we are helping create room for faith to grow and develop alongside the complex doubts, questions, and challenges that surface during the emerging adult years. This creates a much-needed release to the pressure young people are under to arrive somewhere; it encourages them to incorporate their spirituality into their adulthood journey instead of abandoning it when they experience incoherencies.
When we encourage young people in their “faithing,” we create room for faith to grow and develop alongside the complex doubts, questions, and challenges that surface during the emerging adult years.
With “faithing” as a framework, spiritual development becomes a journey we are all on, not a destination we need young people to arrive at. As young people develop in their emerging adult years, there will be questions, doubts, and inconsistencies that occupy the focus of their spiritual formation. This is because in high school, most students are literalist3 in the way they grasp their faith. In this stage of spiritual development there is conflation between God and spiritual authorities; faith is a communal belief; and young people tend to conform to the expectations of their religious community. When a young person enters emerging adulthood, they begin challenging communal assumptions and the status quo, holding others to high accountability, and seeing the incongruencies in their homes and in their faith communities. This spiritual developmental stage is referred to as critic-negative4 and is very important for young people. However, this is the stage that scares their pastors, parents, and leaders the most.
We fear that young people in the critic-negative stage are abandoning their faith because they are wrestling with doubts, questions, and inconsistencies we as adults have come to terms with. But part of faithing is creating space for emerging adults to wrestle faithfully by examining their own beliefs, naming the duality of experiencing positive and negative things at the same time, and taking responsibility for their own thinking and knowing. This is called the critic-positive stage5 and often represents the final stage of spiritual development before moving into an adult spirituality.
Part of faithing is creating space for emerging adults to wrestle faithfully by examining their own beliefs, naming the duality of experiencing positive and negative things at the same time, and taking responsibility for their own thinking and knowing.
As we seek to help young people grow into an adult spirituality, we will need to show them how to embrace the paradoxes of faith and life, hold a both/and posture more than an either/or posture, and see truth as messy and complex. A hallmark of the emerging adult years is coming to terms with the tension between how we believe life, faith, community, spiritually, and justice should be expressed in the world and how it actually is. Nothing is perfect, but this tension is our opportunity as pastors, parents, and leaders of the next generation to disciple young people and create space for their faithing journey. Making faith their own means learning how to navigate tension without walking away from Jesus, and developmental spirituality tells us that this journey must include space for faith, doubt, fear, hope, nuance, and inconsistencies to coexist.
- Jeffrey Arnett, “Emerging Adulthood,” American Psychologist, May 2000. Accessed at jeffreyarnett.com on April 29, 2023.
- Kara Eckmann Powell and Steven Argue, Growing With: Every Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future (Baker Books, 2019).
- Steven Argue, “Faith. Faithing. Meaning Making.” Lecture: Emerging Adult Spirituality and Ministry, Oct. 2020, Fuller Theological Seminary.
- Argue, “Faith. Faithing. Meaning Making.”
- Argue, “Faith. Faithing. Meaning Making.”