Book Review: Souls in Transition
Book Review: Souls in Transition


Title:  Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults

Author: Christian Smith with Patricia Snell

Year: 2009

Thesis: The main determining factor of how religiously-inclined a young adult is/will be is how religiously-inclined that person was as a teenager. (People are more likely than not to remain the same level of religiosity between their teens years and their emerging adult years, or at least to self-identify that way.)

Ideas to Consider

  • Survey results are based upon an initial study of “a nationally representative telephone survey of 3,290 of them followed by personal interviews with 267 of them in 45 states around the country” (3) and then a follow-up five years later: “in 2007 and 2008 a third wave of survey (N=2,458) and interviews (N=230).” (4)
  • The book does a great job of  exploring the lives of “emerging adults, both the changes and the goals of this time of life.
  • The book asserts that many of emerging adults’ ethical bearings are relative; what is right for one person may not be right for another, and we cannot judge the other.  This influences how young adults see the church and how they evaluate the church.  The church (and all religions) basically teach people to be good and therefore basically teach the same thing, and so the church should not judge other religions.
  • Also, the belief that church teaches us how to be good means that once we’ve learned this, we no longer need the church (149).
  • From religion a person can “take what they need”/pick-and-choose from one or more religions. (157)
  • This creates a situation in which “emerging adults simply don’t know how to think about things, what is right, or what is deserving for the to devote their lives to.  On such matters, they are very often simply paralyzed, wishing they could be more definite, wanting to move forward, but simply not knowing how they might possibly know anything worthy of conviction and dedication.” (293)
  • “Today’s emerging adults are hardly different at all from those of prior decades when it comes to daily prayer, Bible beliefs, and strong religious affiliation.” (95)  Yet, “the proportion of mainline Protestant emerging adults attend church weekly or more often has also declined, from nearly 15 percent in the early 1970’s to below 10 percent by the year 2000.” (96)
  • “One-half or more of all youth every major religious tradition stay in their ‘baseline’ tradition.  Most, in other words, remain as emerging adults in the same religious tradition they occupied as teenagers.  Even so, substantial minorities—and, in the case of mainline Protestantism, up to 50 percent—do switch to other religious traditions.” (111)  Furthermore, “the largest gain in the very and extremely distant [relationship with God] categories was the mainline  Protestant group, with an 11 percent increase.” (121)
  • “Operating at the heart of both personal and religious stability and change are the crucial matter of significant personal relationships—both those that affirm and bind and those that break down and set loose.” (209)
  • This books does a good job of creating understandable categories to explain how emerging adults live vis-à-vis the church: Committed Traditionalists, Selective Adherents, Spiritually Open, Religiously Indifferent, Religiously Disconnected, and Irreligious.  (Chapter 6)

Critiques and Concerns

  • On occasion, the authors take on an overly negative/pessimistic view of emerging adults.
  • The researchers found that many of the teenagers believe in a “moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD)” (154), and that the MTD does not hold up into their emerging adults years (155), but does not spend much time explaining this transition.

Questions Raised

  1. Their research notes that emerging adults leave the church when there is cognitive dissonance, in order to live lives of integrity.  For example, that if someone is reared to believe in a more literal reading of Genesis but then begins to believe in evolution, they may leave the church rather than try and have both “truths” competing in their mind.  Furthermore, in their research, they noted that people leaving because of an incompatibility between science and religion was happening at the same rate within the mainline Protestant church as other denominations.  This is the opposite of what I had previously assumed, so it forces me to reconsider my assumptions.
  2. This book also questioned the level of desire that young adults have for changing the world, and to what level they believe they can do this.  This is in stark contrast to the other books read in this field, which believe that one of the markers of young adults is the belief and the desire to be able to change the world.  This makes me wonder how the question was raised (in all of the research), and how much something like this can be generalized over such a large group of people.

Main Take Away:  Relationships and formation are key, and need to begin early in one’s religious life.  Not only will this help someone to navigate life and encourage them to stay in the church, but more importantly, it will enable them to stay on a path where they grow closer to God throughout life, instead of wandering away.


Martha Korienek is Associate Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Burlingame, CA, and an M.A. student at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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