Book notes: Twentysomethings, more spiritual interest than meets the eye

Book notes: Twentysomethings, more spiritual interest than meets the eye

By Father Mark Mossa S.J.


PERHAPS THE FIRST TAKEAWAY that ought to be highlighted from the book, The Twenty-Something Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults (Oxford University Press, 2019), is that it challenges the long-articulated trope, that youth and young adults today identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Perhaps this was the case of teenagers or twentysomethings 20 years ago, but the findings of the National Study of American Twenty-Somethings (NSAT), which this book distills, clearly don’t support this conclusion with regard to the vast majority of them today. The book bases its conclusions on the study, which began in 2008 and sought a sense of where most American twentysomethings fell in terms of choices regarding religious affiliation (or not), and how they might vary even within a given denomination. The study included only those who identify as: Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Christian, or “None.” (Jews, Muslims, and young people of other faiths were not part of the study, meaning that most—91 percent—but not all were represented.)   

The authors frame their presentation of the study in the context of the demands of what is now commonly referred to as “emerging adulthood,” which presumes that adulthood for many young Americans is deferred by extended adolescence until the mid-to-late-20s. As such, the authors observe: “To rightly understand twentysomethings requires seeing the world that twentysomethings have inherited: a place where global economic and macro-cultural changes have made secure careers elusive, where family life is often unstable, where marriage and parenthood have become lifestyle options, where the path to financial and personal independence is littered with a hundred obstructions, and where spiritual growth is promoted outside organized religions as well as inside.” Within this context, they found evidence to support three categories of adherents among those who identify as Catholic, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical Christian. They are: active, nominal, or estranged. More broadly, the authors also identify four main strategies that all the twentysomethings employed in engaging a religious or spiritual life: prioritizing it, rejecting it, sidelining it, or practicing an eclectic approach.

That they found the “eclectic approach” to be rarest also seems to exclude “spiritual but not religious” as a useful category. Indeed, pointing to the endurance of American pragmatism, they suggest that a period of “sidelining” is common, during which twentysomethings prioritize the shifting demands of young adult life, postponing decisions about religious commitment to a time when things are more stable.

More strong commitment today than in the 1980s

The good news of this study is that the decline in religious and spiritual practice presumed in this generation is not as steep as often thought. And, despite the fact that an increasing number of twentysomethings identify as “Nones,” “strongly committed twentysomethings are, moreover, as prevalent now as they were four decades ago.” It’s not so much that young adults aren’t committed but that they are committed differently than in the past. They also tend to worship at churches with significant twentysomething populations, such as university campus ministries and “young-adult-friendly” churches.

This means that for Catholics in their 20s an ideal setting is a university parish, or a parish frequented by people of the same age, socioeconomic and educational status. The three most important factors Catholics said they considered when selecting a parish “were community, spiritual experiences and church leadership.” The parish should be a place that allows them to connect with other young adults both at and outside the parish. Spiritual experiences that active Catholics were drawn to often focused on the Eucharist, Eucharistic Adoration and Confession.

Prayer and retreats were also considered important, especially if experienced with young adults like them. Still, while a focus on the Eucharist was common to many, this didn’t necessarily determine what they expected of parish leadership. (Young people were split on what content they looked for in a homily, some looking for orthodoxy, others for openness, and some hoping to be challenged.) While they don’t fit neatly into “traditional” or “progressive” categories, “they have strong opinions about what it means to be a Catholic, and are looking for a priest whose teachings align with their core convictions.” Those with such strong core convictions, no matter where they fall on a spectrum, may be among the most promising candidates for religious life, and they may or may not be in church, especially if the leadership offends their convictions.

While these young people with strong convictions would be those that tend to prioritize their religious and spiritual lives, they are not the only twentysomethings that you’ll see at church on Sunday. “Nominal” twentysomething Catholics would be present at least occasionally, even if spiritual growth is not a priority for them. Still, both groups, the authors conclude, demonstrate “durability.” “Young adult Catholics as a population possess a remarkably stable proportion of actively committed adherents who had important experiences in the faith as children that they wish to replicate for their children.” A surprising finding of this study is that some who identify themselves as Nones might also be found in the pews on Sunday (one in four of them attend worship occasionally). Indeed, if pressed, Nones might have more in common with nominal or estranged Catholics than they care to admit, especially if their occasional worship or spiritual activities take place at a Catholic parish, or among Catholic peers.

Though this review is far from a thorough summary, the implications of these findings for vocation ministry might be somewhat daunting. It’s clear that the “harvest is plenty” across a wide swath of Catholics (all three categories), and Nones. “In short,” explain the authors, “religion and spirituality make a difference in the lives of young adults, and not just among those who prioritize these matters, but also among those who reject religion, postpone their decisions about it, or pursue a spiritual path of their own.” It’s not clear what to make of certain observations. For instance: among the groups that were studied, Catholics were the second most likely to be parents and most likely to graduate from college. Also, across the board, those who prioritize their religious and spiritual life are more inclined toward marriage, parenthood, and social responsibility. Since marriage was the only vocation choice explicitly considered in the study, does this make active Catholics more or less likely to consider priesthood or religious life rather than marriage? We don’t know.

Certainly, the finding that twentysomethings are less commitment-averse than frequently thought, even if postponement is common, suggests that across the spectrum they might be open to discerning a life vocation. This means that for Catholic vocation ministers, the “target audience” is broad, and some of the target demographic may rarely be in church. Those who have sidelined or postponed religious commitment will often be those who have had positive religious experiences they want to pass on; they just haven’t got around to it yet.

Finding ways to make fruitful connections with this group, before they have made a commitment for or against religion, might lead to more success in attracting diverse new members than merely focusing on those who have found a young adult parish. So, despite the fact that The Twenty-Something Soul does not consider religious life vocations specifically, it is worthwhile. It provides a broad overview of the vocational landscape of young adulthood—the context within which religious communities reach out today.

Father Mark Mossa, S.J. is the director of campus ministry for St. Mary Student Parish at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He discovered his own vocation in his late 20s, while working in youth ministry.  As a Jesuit, he has led numerous retreats for young adults, and has taught and worked in campus ministry at Spring Hill College, Fordham University, and Loyola University, New Orleans.  He is the author of Already There: Letting God Find You, and Saint Ignatius Loyola—The Spiritual Writings.

Related reading

“Book notes: In celebration of youthful noise and mess,” HORIZON, Summer 2018, by Edward P. Hahnenberg.



Published on: 2020-08-01

Edition: 2020 HORIZON No. 3 Summer


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