David Setran, Why We Wrote Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood

“Why We Wrote Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood

by David Setran

Chris and I were inspired to write this book because of our desire to see emerging adults flourish in Christ. As professors, we work with college and graduate students on a daily basis. We have taught classes related to college and young adult ministry for the past fifteen years, and we have also worked in a variety of college ministry settings. If anything, our sense of the importance of this life stage has only grown. Through the book, we hope to equip those with influence in emerging adults’ lives—college and young adult ministers, professors, pastors, para-church workers, student development professionals, chaplains, parents, relatives, and friends.

Most of us recognize at an intuitive level that the years between 18 and 30 are extremely pivotal. During this era of the lifespan, many select a college, move away from home for the first time, develop a growing sense of giftedness and vocational potential, make independent financial decisions, establish or reject church commitments, forge new friendships, and edge toward singleness, engagement, marriage, and/or parenting. These years also mark a crucial stage for developing a worldview amid a wide array of competing alternatives. Many of the choices made in these areas shape the contours of identity for the rest of the lifespan, serving as gateways to future meaning, lifestyle, and mission.

Cover ArtNot only this, but these tasks are now unfolding in a decidedly different context. Traditional adult milestones of leaving home, completing an education, landing a job, getting married, and having children are all happening at later ages. These changes, according to many psychologists and sociologists, have actually paved the way for a new phase of the lifespan. In 2000, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett posited a new stage—”emerging adulthood”—to describe the growing chasm between adolescence and the completion of these adult markers. The unprecedented freedom of this time is undoubtedly exciting for many, but the absence of clear social and developmental scripts also tends to foster anxiety for those who lack the mentoring so necessary during this time of transition.

Despite the critical importance of these tasks, resources for those working with collegians and young adults are hard to come by. Books related to Christian education and spiritual growth tend to focus on children and youth. Those books that do address this age group typically provide either academic research or practical ministry methods.

With this book, we are hoping to bridge this gap, providing a “practical theology” for college and young adult ministry that combines important scholarship, a Christian theological vision, and attentiveness to concrete application. We provide chapters on some of the most critical issues in emerging adulthood: spiritual formation, identity, church involvement, vocation, morality, relationships and sexuality, and mentoring. In each area, we describe present reality as a starting point for understanding the forces shaping the contemporary transition to adulthood. We also seek to interpret these conditions, specifying some of the key factors underlying these trends. Finally, turning to scripture, theology, and other academic disciplines, we provide Christian perspectives on these issues and delineate key postures and practices to facilitate formation in these areas.

In the end, we are hoping to offer a Christian formational vision for what it means to be formed “into adulthood” at this life stage. So we ask the following questions: What are the unique opportunities and challenges that emerging adulthood provides for the process of spiritual formation? How can emerging adults enter deeply into processes of formation that will serve as gateways to lives of growing faithfulness and conformity to the image of Christ? How can mentors shepherd emerging adults as they construct paths of meaning, purpose, and mission in these formative years?

As we addressed the various emerging adult issues, one thing that became quite clear was that the skewed perspectives adopted by many emerging adults in these areas are often the result of flawed pictures of adulthood reinforced by our culture (and, at times, by local churches as well). For example, some emerging adults see this stage as a self-absorbed search for freedom and self-fulfillment, with unbounded exploration. Finally removed from the strictures imposed by parents and authority figures, they are liberated to do what they please while avoiding the responsibilities that will come later in life. Others view adulthood as a search for self-sufficient independence. Rooted in a growing confidence in their abilities, this image embraces autonomy as the key to adult status, elevating the self-made individual as the model.

In the book, we hope to provide a third way. Christian spiritual formation in emerging adulthood cuts against the grain of self-absorption, pointing instead to a life of costly discipleship marked by personal and cultural investment. At the same time, such formation also cuts against the grain of the autonomous, self-sufficient adulthood that “stands on one’s own,” pointing instead to a life of humble dependence on God and interdependence with others. Such a life resists the childishness of self-absorption and the autonomy of self-sufficiency by seeking a posture of self-surrender, the adult capacity to give oneself away. The growing competence, identity, and responsibility of adulthood become places of wonder and gratitude for God’s provision, continued reliance on his grace, and loving stewardship of his gifts for others’ good and for his glory. We hope the book inspires and equips many as they embrace the joyful privilege of walking alongside emerging adults in this journey!


David P. SetranDavid P. Setran (PhD, Indiana University) is associate professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of The College “Y”: Student Religion in the Era of Secularization.

Chris A. KieslingChris A. Kiesling (PhD, Texas Tech University) is professor of human development and Christian discipleship at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and has served in campus ministry settings.

For more information on Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, click here.