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Exploring the faith crisis experienced by emerging adults

John Marion presenting at the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry’s Australasian conference.


Research from the Salvos’ National Youth and Young Adults Team has been presented at the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry’s Australasian conference.

Developed by James Gallagher and John Marion, the insights were drawn from interviews with young people and explored the reasons so many wrestle with a crisis of faith.

“We interviewed young people in The Salvation Army across Australia,” explains James Gallagher, Resource Coordinator for the National Youth and Young Adults Team. “We explored what helps to nurture their faith development and delivered our findings to the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry.”

The International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry (IASYM) is a global network involved in professional youth ministry research. To further youth ministry research, the network organises conferences and publishes The Journal of Youth and Theology. James and John’s research was delivered as the keynote address of the Australasian Regional Conference at Ridley College in Melbourne in August.

“The paper explored the faith of emerging adults,” James explains. “First, there’s the content of what you believe, the doctrines, the ideas and beliefs. Second, there’s the how you believe it, like the structure of your spiritual practices, service, prayer, reading the Bible. The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of your faith develops your unique faith system, and everyone is different.”

“Faith communities so often shape the faith of young people but don’t always know how to respond when it is challenged.”

People’s faith is shaped by their experiences, their families and their friends. According to the Christian Research Association, 29 per cent of young people aged 18 to 29 indicated that they attended religious services at least once a month in their younger years, but more than 70 per cent of them have dropped out by the end of their 20s. Faith communities so often shape the faith of young people but don’t always know how to respond when it is challenged.

“We all know that churches struggle to engage emerging adults,” says John Marion, Youth and Young Adult Specialist. “But the big takeaway is that at some point in the lives of emerging adults, everything changes. It can be external events, like conflict or COVID. It can be internal, like asking questions and not having answers. Inevitably, something will come along that challenges their faith system. We call this dissonance.”

Key factors

The research highlighted four key factors often causing dissonance, challenging the faith systems of emerging adults – external life events​, doubt​, the church’s attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ matters,​ and interpersonal conflict. Whatever the cause of their dissonance, it can become pressing enough that they can’t ignore it, and faith can fall into crisis.

“Resolving dissonance in faith systems can take different forms,” explains John. “Sometimes it’s to reaffirm their faith, which churches can be good at. Another is to reconsider their faith, to keep it but make some changes. They can revise their faith, asking more critical questions and having the right mentors. Of course, they can reject their faith too, which looks like conversion to a different faith pathway or exiting faith altogether.”

James Gallagher presenting at the conference in Melbourne.

The church’s challenge is that its version of faith is often static. It is presented to emerging adults as already decided, that there is a set model for what you have to believe and do to be a Christian. The church must become more adaptive in engaging emerging adults whose lives are changing and consider dissonance an opportunity.

“Dissonance is not a bad thing,” John says. “It’s the processing of dissonance that helps faith grow. We want emerging adults to develop resilient, personal faith. We need to reframe that struggle and change as actually being necessary because throughout our lives, our faith will be challenged, and we need the tools to respond.”

The research presented at the Australasian Youth Ministry conference will form the foundation of Salvo resources available across 2024, helping churches and faith communities to nurture the faith of emerging adults. The key to supporting emerging adults is to listen to how they describe their dissonance and understand what resolution looks like for them.

“When you can’t treat that dissonance as an opportunity, emerging adults have their faith systems explode, and faith communities continue to decline,” James explains. “The priority here isn’t to stop emerging adults from leaving churches, but about emerging adults thriving with a faith that is deeply meaningful for them and makes sense in their lives.”

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