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  • Apr12Fri

    Renegotiating Faith

    How do we help young people make the transition into adulthood with their beliefs intact? April 12, 2019 by Rick Hiemstra
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    Evangelical churches in Canada are losing one-third of their young adults—that was the bottom line of a 2011 report called Hemorrhaging Faith. The study found that major life transitions, such as graduating from high school and going to college or university, are exit points from the church. So how can we help teens negotiate this transition and maintain a vibrant Christian faith?

    This question is the focus of new research by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, in partnership with several Christian campus ministries. Renegotiating Faith: The Delay in Young Adult Identity Formation and What It Means for the Church in Canada is based on two national surveys of close to 2,000 young adults who attended church as teens and more than 1,500 ministry experts.

    The report finds that although many young adults don’t stay in church after they have moved out of their parents’ homes for school or work, there are simple, effective ways we can encourage them in their Christian faith and practice.

    Emerging Adulthood

    Moving out of your parents’ home, leaving school, getting full-time work and starting a family are all ways that Statistics Canada measures entry into adulthood. On average, young adults are reaching these milestones five to seven years later than those who grew up just a few decades earlier.

    Renegotiating Faith uses a theory of development by psychologist Erik Erikson, who said that people move through eight psychosocial stages over the course of their lives. According to Erikson, forming your identity and gaining the capacity to commit to a group are two sides of the same coin. This identity formation and taking on of responsibility happens as young adults negotiate roles within groups, including church groups. This is the fifth stage of development, which is taking place later for current young adults.

    When Erikson developed his theory in the late 1960s, he assumed most people would be wrapping up stage five and becoming an adult in their late teens. This is part of the reason the age of majority is 18, and it also relates to the church practice of youth and young adult ministries that force a transition between ministry programs around the age of 18.

    Even in the late 1960s, however, Erikson noticed that some young adults were getting stuck forming their adult identities because it was getting harder to target careers and get the necessary education. Erikson called this stuck-place a moratorium. More recently, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has developed Erikson’s idea of a moratorium into what he calls emerging adulthood. Arnett says emerging adulthood is marked by exploring identity, instability, self-focus, a feeling of being in-between and a focus on possibilities/optimism.

    Emerging adulthood delays entry into adulthood because emerging adults lack the capacity to achieve the kind of milestones that Statistics Canada measures, such as moving out and getting a place of one’s own.

    As youth grow up, they have always found ways to differentiate themselves from their parents and their family of origin. “This is my place, not my parents’ house; this is my career, which lets me provide for myself; this is my family, where I’m the dad.” These kinds of differentiation are normal and healthy. Today’s emerging adults lack the capacity to achieve these normal, healthy differentiation markers due to factors outside their control, such as the economy and the job market, as well as internal factors.
    There are simple, effective ways we can encourage young adults in their Christian faith and practice.
    What is left for young adults to show they are different and independent from their parents? For many emerging adults, it is adopting beliefs different from their parents’ faith. Faith is an important part of their parents’ identity, and it’s within an emerging adult’s capacity to reject their parents’ faith. Emerging adulthood changes the differentiation options available to young adults. This is a big deal.


    What can we do? I’m going to highlight just two things from the report: mentors and the power of introductions.

    What is a mentor? We define a mentor as someone who helps young adults negotiate an adult role within a community. We want our young adults to join the society of adults in our churches. To do this, they’re going to have to renegotiate their childhood roles in our communities. If they can’t, they will likely leave, because few people want an 11-yearold’s role in a church community when they’re 21.

    • call out what God has placed inside
    • are re-introducers
    • are negotiation advisors
    • provide continuity.

    First, mentors call out what God has placed inside. Many of the young adults we interviewed would say things like “I don’t know what I want to do,” or “I don’t know what I’m good at.” We believe that what they mean, in many cases, is “Even though I know what I’m good at, I don’t know where someone will give me a chance to negotiate a meaningful role that makes use of this gifting.” The result is they discount their giftings. When mentors identify these giftings, they are not just providing information. When mentors notice a gifting, this reassures young adults that others may also notice and give them the opening they need to negotiate a role using that gifting.

    Second, mentors re-introduce young adults to the society of adults. A young woman from our study named Johanna told us that she left her home church because she was always associated with her last name, never her first. She meant that role-wise, she was thought of as her parents’ little girl. Mentors help reintroduce the young person to the society of adults, pointing out their gifts and talents and prompting others to see the possibilities in a young person.

    Third, mentors are negotiation advisors. In any community, there are conflicts and disappointments. These are normal, but they become insurmountable problems when you don’t know how to effectively deal with them. Mentors help young adults process what they experience, and help them re-engage with the church after disappointments or conflict.

    Finally, mentors provide continuity. So many of our great ministry programs, such as youth group, come to an end. The meaningful roles and connections our youth have made in the church can be suddenly taken away from them. We effectively, if unintentionally, break their connections within our churches, which forces young adults to try to forge a new way back into our congregations. Mentoring relationships don’t end when the program ends, and this means there is still a meaningful, personal connection back into the church.

    The Power of Introductions

    Mentors and other Christian relationships are also important for another reason. They make it less likely that young adults will use their parents’ Christian faith as a differentiation marker. If a young adult’s only connection to the church is through their parents, then rejecting their parents’ faith is solely about differentiating from them. If a young adult has many other strong Christian relationships, then rejecting the Christian faith is so much bigger and broader than their parents. Christian community is vital for Christian faith.

    Many of our young adults will move away either for school or work. At the time of their move, they will still be emerging adults who have not yet made adult faith commitments. Having a Christian community in their lives is crucial for negotiating a Christian identity.

    Our research found that three to four times as many young adults will connect with either a local church or a Christian campus group when someone from their local church makes an introduction for them. Few of us would easily join a new church where we don’t know anyone, but for some reason we expect young adults to find their way into churches and campus groups where they are strangers. A simple introduction makes a big difference, and this is something any congregation can do.

    The timing of introductions is also important. About three-quarters of young adults who go on to connect with a new church or a Christian campus group do so within four weeks of a move or the start of a new college or university program. This means we need to be intentional about making our introductions early.

    Emerging adults lack the capacity to move into adulthood, but this will come. The question is, will they have a Christian community in their lives where they can negotiate a Christian identity once they are in a place to make adult choices? Being mentors and making simple, thoughtful introductions are within our reach, and these things have huge, eternal significance.

    You can read more about this research or download a free PDF of the report at

    Rick Hiemstra is the director of research at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and was the lead researcher for the Young Adult Transition Research (YATR) study.

    Photo: © Samara Heisz/

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