November 7, 2008

Pew study offers a glimpse into the faith lives of young adults

By John Shaughnessy

Some studies and statistics offer intriguing insights into the faith of young adults in American society today.

They also provide food for thought about why the Church has to make nurturing their faith a priority—and the challenge of keeping that faith alive and growing.

Young adults are among the 90 percent of Catholics who consider religion to be either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives, according to a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The same poll reports that while 38 percent of Americans attend a church at least once a week, that figure rises to 41 percent for Catholics in the United States. The poll also states that 30 percent of Catholics ages 18-29 attend church at least once a week.

Another part of the young adult picture is shared by Christian Smith, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. In the November-December 2007 issue of Books & Culture, Smith writes about a concept called “emerging adulthood” and its influence on religion.

“There is a new and important stage in life in American culture, and it is not entirely clear that the Christian Church understands or particularly knows what to do with it,” Smith writes.

Smith notes how young adults in the past have sometimes drifted away from their faith for a while only to return to it when they get married and have children. Now, he asserts, there are factors in the lives of the

18-30 age group that are extending the amount of time before that return.

Those factors include a delay of marriage by young adult Americans, an extension of formal schooling “well into their twenties,” a prolonging of parental financial support, and uncertainty involving job and career options.

“When the space between high school graduation and full adulthood was fairly short, as it was 50 years ago, the length of time spent out of church tended to be rather short,” Smith writes. “But with the rise of emerging adulthood in recent decades, Churches are now looking at 15-year or even 20-year absences by youth from churches between their leaving as teenagers and returning with toddlers—if indeed they ever return.” †

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