Campus Ministry Matters

Wandering in the Wilderness

What is an Emerging Adult?

This is the question I’ve been asked several times over the past few months.  Have you heard the term?  It was coined just a few years ago by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties.

It’s gained attention over the past few years.  there’s even a society for the study of Emerging Adulthood..  Check it out…

This week, I’m going through some of the finer points of a book by Brian Simmons called Wandering in the Wilderness: Changes and Challenges to Emerging Adults’ Christian Faith. It is a compelling followup to Arnett’s work, and is simply a must read for any campus minister.  So pick up the book if you like on amazon and follow along.  Or I’ll try to put together the finer points this week and you all can just provide feedback.

Today’s Idea… What is the Emerging Adult?

Four primary features encompass the groups of students who we are mostly working with.  Yes, there are graduate students that you all work with, but we all understand that we still have a lot of undergraduates, mainly because that is where the most amount of transformation seems to be taking place.  And if Arnett is correct, then we are surrounded by “Emerging Adults” whom he says are anywhere between about 18-27.  Personally, I would shorten that and say about 25 but with the age of marriage or at least settling into a more permanent relationship extended out to about 27, I can see his point.

Anyway, back to the four features.

1.) Identity Exploration- Unlike a graduate student, these emerging adults are trying out different potential ways they may take their life.  This includes anything from classes and clubs to dating and faith.  I always find it interesting how students are becoming more and more interfaith driven (or at least interfaith exploring) while in college even while the church is becoming more denominational.  We have to remind people that his exploration is both important and a natural part of the process.  But we must also find ways to encourage our churches to move toward a more interfaith understanding of this development.  It seems that through the exploration of different faiths, often time students are finding their own faith just as compelling… or at least questioning it in the right ways that lead to transformation.

2.) Time of Instability- This is important to continue to remember as college ministers.  I think we often forget how unstable this life period is because we are (somewhat) stable.  But the students I am working with are from all over the country, traveling to the big city and living away from home.  What’s worse, many of them don’t know if or how they might call this place home because they might be moving to an apartment soon, they might be graduating soon and moving who knows where, they might just not want to let go of where “home” was, and they might just be struggling to move forward into the realization that adolescence is over and the time to claim responsibility is over.  This is important because within that statement and lack of claiming the new world they have been placed in comes the need for this emerging adult age.  They are not yet young adults because they have yet to take full responsibility for themselves.  They will, but they do it over time and some get there before others.  They are constantly “emerging” into young adulthood.

3.) The Age of Self-Focus— I like the way Simmons puts this because often we are told that it is just an age of selfishness.  And it’s truly not, but self-focus is actually the key to this age.  As much as I want them to think about everyone else by doing service and justice work, I also want them to take time to consider for themselves the path they are going to take.  Each student is going to have a unique schedule, a unique life, a unique world through which they have to be happy and spend a few decades.  The things they do in college will define them for their whole life, and it’s time for them to focus upon themselves for a while.  This may mean we also realize they aren’t heavily involved with us for a while because they are simply too busy with other things.  Hopefully though, we find ways to connect with them and integrate what they are doing into their life of faith.

4.) The Age of Possibilities— Perhaps this would be better to say the “age to start over” if needed.  I remember when I walked out of high school and just hoped college would be different.  It was.  But my experience up until I was 18 was dismal and I looked forward to what was next.  As Emerging Adults, students have the opportunity to take those 18 years and begin to redefine them.  You had a bad high school experience: this is where you define yourself.  You always wanted to do something you never had the chance to do when you were younger: now is the time to get started.

This should do it for today.  Please respond.  Tomorrow I’ll be back with more.

Have a great day.




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