Young Souls in Transition: An Interview with Christian Smith

For the last decade, sociologist Christian Smith has been a leading specialist in tracking the spiritual lives of young people as they move into adulthood.

Three books since 2005, written with research associates, report on the variety of religious attitudes that young people take with them, leave behind, or revise along the way. The books are Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005), Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2009), and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford, 2011).

In Lost in Transition, Smith identifies struggles of many young people today – confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, indifference to civic life – in a pressurized 24/7 world of consumerism and postmodern relativism.

Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame. His latest book is Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (Oxford).

Reflections: You’ve cautioned readers against being alarmist about the problems of emerging adults – and against being complacent too?

Smith: As a sociologist my job is to tell the truth about the world as accurately as possible. I’m not a Chicken Little, but I do see troubling things. I think it’s complacent to sell out totally to the culture and say the kids are all fine. I think Christian tradition can give younger people some measure of distance on the cultural pressures and influences we see.

Reflections: What does religion mean to people these days?

Smith: In the emerging adult years, what many think about “religion” is: It’s just not something that matters to them. Religion is seen as something they might take an interest in later in life, like life insurance. They aren’t angry about it. It’s just given a presupposed dismissal.

Reflections: Wasn’t it always this way with rising generations?

Smith : I’m not a good-old-days sociologist, but I do think former generations were religiously more engaged, more literate. The digital, social media revolution has created a new world. It affects what young people’s eyes are focused on – the world of screens – and what matters to them and how they form community. Technology has consequences for epistemology, the nature of authority and trust.

Reflections: Can churches be a counterforce?

Smith: Yes, churches ought to be able to create an alternative community, an open-handed community where people can encounter each other, network, and hear a different word, but without necessarily being expected to sign up as members for the next 30 years. People are sucked into the dominant culture, but many sense the dominant culture isn’t ultimately fulfilling. They know mass consumer capitalism isn’t enough. Churches are in a position to confirm this hunch.

Young people – teens – are under incredible pressure to perform. Intense expectations are placed on them. As a colleague of mine has suggested, social media appears to be all about social performance, creating a personality that isn’t real, and teens are experiencing a deep unhappiness about this. I think churches are in a position to create a social space where people can be accepted for who they are and not be expected to perform. I’ve seen some congregations that do this.

Reflections: Still, you find apathy about church.

Smith: If there’s one thing I know about younger people, whether they are 13 or 28, nearly every last one of them thinks of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. They aren’t necessarily fighting against that. That’s simply what they think Christianity is – a set of moralisms. The church is a place of moralistic requirements.

And that’s very understandable. Parents want their kids to turn out okay, and they rely on the church for moral guidance so they learn to behave. Parents are trying to cope with a world where lots of things can go wrong. There are lots of threats. But I think it can lead to a form of idolatry to treat the church this way. I feel for pastors. They are faced with this expectation from parents.

Reflections: How does a church stand for the gospel without sounding moralistic?

Smith: I don’t think techniques and practices are going to change the situation. Churches need to attack moralism wherever they see it and show what the gospel really is. Congregations need to have a conversation: What is Christianity? What is God for us? What is the power of the gospel?

Religion might be irrelevant to emerging adults as a group, but that does not mean they are hostile to it. Many are intrigued. They want to talk about it. Many who were raised non-religious feel culturally deprived of this big part of life. Many churches seem to think that non-religious young people are all atheistic like Richard Dawkins, but they aren’t. They’re aware that they don’t know much about religious tradition. Many want a conversation. If churches don’t make an effort to engage, it won’t happen.

Reflections: How did we get to this moment of disconnection from religious institutions?

Smith: I’m against blaming young people. And I don’t think church has failed. In the mid-20th century you could say there was a map in place that helped organize society. It featured well-defined units – family, religion, education, government, the military. Each had boundaries. Each had a role and respected the others. But those boundaries have broken down. The map isn’t in place. All of life is now being ordered by narratives and images that don’t reflect the old boundaries. Churches have something to say about this. They should go back again and again to the drinking well of the gospel and offer a true alternative transcendent story. If they can’t do that, if they remain saddled with moralism, then they better hang it up now.

Reflections: Where does your research take you next?

Smith: I plan to focus on parents. In our work over the years, what has hit us harder than we realized is the role of parents in shaping their children’s spirituality. Despite the arguments today that sideline parents by placing great importance on the influence of peer groups and media, we find that parents are still the most powerful sociological force in transmitting spirituality and religion to their children. So I want to study how parents’ life commitments and priorities affect young people. Many parents feel inadequate and put-upon, but I hope they realize they still matter.