The Lived Spirituality of Emerging Adults: 6 Themes

Brendon Jones and Todd W. Hall

In the last decade, a distinct developmental stage called emerging adulthood (EA) has garnered much attention within the psychological literature (see Jeffrey Arnett, 2004, Emerging Adulthood).  In this stage, individuals are at a spiritual crossroads: they are figuring out what kind of person they want to be, what kind of people they want in their lives, and what role they want spirituality to play in their day-to-day living. Even though there is a growing body of research on the spiritual lives of EAs in general, very little research exists examining the characteristics of EAs within the Christian tradition specifically.  We do have some knowledge from self-report studies, (see my post here for a summary of STI research) but we really need a more in-depth understanding of EA’s spiritual lives from a relational perspective.

In Brendon’s dissertation, we sought to gain a more nuanced understanding of Christian EA’s spiritual lives through in-depth interviews.  While this was a “grounded theory” study which seeks to build a theory based on interview data, we started with a broad concept of spirituality I call "relational spirituality.”  This framework assumes: (a) that relationship with God is central to the Christian’s spirituality; (b) that this relationship with God constitutes an attachment relationship; and (c) that this attachment relationship with God is informed by gut level internal working models, which generally correspond to one’s experience of human attachment figures.  

Below is a summary of the six themes Brendon found in his dissertation. [1]

1.  Pursuing authenticity in perceived relationship to God.

Participants commonly placed a high value on being authentic, honest, and genuine with God (n = 15, 83%). They discussed their everyday experiences with God rather than deal with those experiences independently of God. Such authenticity included sharing honestly with God about difficult or painful emotions such as anger, sadness, hurt, grief, or confusion. Participants described being in the process of learning they can be their real selves with God, rather than an ideal, false self.

Peter, for example, talked about valuing authenticity with God as a result of biblical teaching he received as part of a university-sponsored conference. In Peter’s words:

I feel like I can totally go to God with anything…That’s one thing that [the] conference really helped me with a lot. One of the speakers was talking about how to read those Psalms that seem kind of angry. It was really cool because he was talking about how those Psalms demonstrate how we should take those kinds of emotions to God. We can’t stop having those emotions. We’re gonna be angry at people, we’re gonna be stressed, we’re unhappy with things. The problem comes not when we take those to God but when we don’t, when we just keep them inside and we try to do whatever we can with them on our own…Since when are we supposed to keep these things away from God? We’re supposed to be seeking him in everything and so that includes those emotions that are angry or negative or whatever…Why not just be honest about it because it’s there?

For Peter, his beliefs about human experience and emotional expression in the Bible have given him confidence he can open up to God about his negative emotions and be authentic with him.

2. Maturing in spiritual development.

Participants also described being engaged in the process of spiritually developing and maturing, such that they experienced themselves as evolving from one spiritual state of being to a qualitatively more mature state (n = 16, 89%).  More specifically, they reported developing and maturing spiritually by moving: (a) from an external to an internal spiritual motivation, (b) from a behavioral to a relational intention, (c) from a conceptual to an experiential orientation, (d) from a false self to their real self (Parker & Davis, 2009), (e) from petitionary to contemplative prayer, and (f) from a compartmentalized spirituality to a more comprehensive and well-integrated spirituality.

Julie’s story exemplified this theme. Her spirituality matured from performing Christian behaviors to having a personal relationship with Jesus. She articulated her realization that being a Christian is essentially about pursuing a relationship with God, rather than practicing disciplines:

I realized that going to church, and even reading my Bible sporadically, or memorizing [Bible] memory verses, wasn’t what Christianity was about. And even praying for what I needed. Those were all things that I guess are involved in Christianity, but that’s not what it’s about…One day I just realized being a Christian is about Christ and your relationship with God, how you interact and how he interacts. It’s a real relationship. I decided one day I was going to treat it like a real relationship and just start praying as if I was talking.

Julie also explained how her emergent relational orientation impacted her prayers. She learned to approach prayer as a “real conversation” in which she could share “what I was really feeling about what was going on, like a friendship.” Her spiritual growth didn’t mean ceasing her spiritual practices, but rather coming to view them as a means to an end of relationship to God.

3. Having corrective relational experiences with God.

Participants often described experiencing God in ways similar to how they experienced their own parents, particularly when it came to having the same problematic patterns relating to God as they had relating to their parents in their family of origin. These negative relational patterns were typically formed in early childhood and transferred onto their perceived relationship to God.

However, those parallel relational patterns were not the entire story, in that some participants described having corrective relational experiences in their perceived relationship to God (n = 5, 28%).  In other words, such participants often described experiencing God in positive ways that differed qualitatively from how they experienced their parents in childhood. In fact, these corrective emotional experiences in perceived relationship to God commonly led to positive changes in participants’ mental models of themselves, others, and relationships more broadly.  Mary’s story illustrates this corrective relational experience with God.

Mary realized her learned response in childhood to unpleasant emotions was to keep these out of relationship with others and to deal with them entirely on her own. In her words:

I’ve kind of realized, when I was little, and I had a bad attitude or I said something [bad], or I did something that was bad, or [I felt] an emotion that wasn’t accepted, I was sent to my room until I could deal with that emotion and come back with an emotion that was acceptable…My mind has been trained to step back from people, disconnect, until you can come back with an acceptable emotion. Because that person isn’t going to love you, doesn’t want to be around you, unless you’re in this type of acceptable mood.

Mary also talked about how her learned independence and avoidance of bringing her real self into relationship with others extended to her relationship with God:

If I’m struggling with something, it’s really hard to take it to God, because I feel like I need to fix it before I get to him. [For example,] I’m struggling with self-image. [I say to myself,] “Alright, I’m going to diet, I’m going to do this, then I’ll take it to God.” Which rationally doesn’t make sense, because isn’t that the whole point in taking it to God?

Mary’s relational pattern with God of fixing problems on her own before connecting with God corresponded to her patterns of self-reliance and independence learned in her family of origin.

Fortunately for Mary, however, this has not been the whole story. She has gradually experienced God in new ways, different from her family of origin. She has been slowly learning to be her real self with God and to bring her problems to God. Here is her account:

[I’m] realizing I need to take something to God, taking it to him no matter what stage I’m in, whether I’ve figured it out or not…So prayer lately has looked a lot like, “Ok God, this is what I went through today. This is the emotion that I think I’m getting, I don’t know, help me out here. This made me a little bit angry, this made me a little bit this, I think, so what do I do with those now?” It’s been interesting. I’m venting a lot more of my frustrations. [I pray,] “So and so pissed me off today, help me to please have patience with them tomorrow. I don’t know if I can handle them anymore. I know you have a reason for them being in my life, if you could either reveal that or help me get over it, or help me to have patience with them, that would be great.” [I am] very casual with God.

Mary described a process in relationship with God of bringing her authentic emotions to God, and asking him to help her identify, interpret, and respond to her emotions. When viewed against the backdrop of Mary’s childhood patterns, these new emotional experiences with God seem to represent profoundly new relational movements for her.

4.  Guarding against emotional vulnerability with God.

Many participants described sometimes having difficulty being honest with God (n = 11, 61%). Specifically, they conveyed feeling guarded against emotional vulnerability with God. They commonly experienced an emotional dialectic in which they longed to be open and authentic with God and yet also wanted to protect themselves from expected hurt (e.g., from God’s perceived rejection, disappointment, anger, or judgment). Here participants often used or implied a metaphor of building a wall around themselves as protection against feeling unwanted emotions such as shame or sadness.  Such emotional detachment was typically framed as a way to defend against the recurrence of painful childhood experiences. Even so, participants often discussed their guardedness with God as an unwanted barrier in their intimacy with God.

Mary described guardedness at times in her experience of God. She discussed times of not experiencing positive feelings in relationship with God, such as feeling loved. She attributed this lack of positive emotional experiencing to a self-constructed wall that sometimes blocked her experiencing of God’s love:

There will be times when [I think], “Ok, I know God loves me.” I just don’t question it. And then there are times where I’m like “I wish I could feel your love, why can’t I feel your love?” And I always end up putting it back on myself. It’s because I’m not allowing it. What can I do? What action can I take to not stop myself? To me, it’s me who’s built the wall between me and God, so it’s my job to break down that wall.

Mary described her defensive wall, which sometimes prevents her from feeling loved by God, as a wall that is her responsibility and desire to break down.

5.  Fluctuating in feeling connected to God.

Most participants described experiencing a fluctuating sense of connectedness in their perceived relationship to God (n = 14, 78%). Sometimes they experienced God as close but other times they experienced God as distant. Sometimes they felt loved by God, while at other times they felt nothing from God. These fluctuations occurred with regular frequency, often on a weekly or even daily basis. Participants had varying interpretations of what caused these fluctuating experiences, including postulating these fluctuations were a result of God’s actions, one’s own actions, or simply part of the normal rhythms of spiritual life. They also had various strategies for responding during times of perceived disconnectedness from God. For example, some participants engaged in more spiritual activities and tried vigorously to restore a sense of felt connection to God, whereas others engaged in fewer spiritual practices and adopted a more passive or resigned stance. Regardless, participants commonly reported experiencing negative emotions in response to feeling disconnected from God (e.g., discouragement, disappointment, sadness, anger, and doubt).

Beth was one participant who spoke of fluctuations in her felt connection to God. She described her experience of God’s presence as alternating between closeness and distance. Her metaphor of a slinky was perhaps the most apt description for this theme: “I feel like [God’s presence] is like a slinky. It goes back and forth and back and forth. I feel like that’s on me.”

6.  Experiencing frequent emotional insecurity in perceived relationship to God.

Given such fluctuations in felt connectedness, it is not surprising that most participants experienced emotional insecurity in their perceived relationship to God (n = 16, 89%). Such experiences of insecurity were typically accompanied by negative emotions such as anxiety, worry, fear, inadequacy, guilt, shame, or confusion. It is noteworthy that even though participants often felt insecure with God, they concurrently tended to feel secure enough to express this insecurity. In other words, participants were frequently willing to be honest with God about their negative emotions and religious/spiritual struggles. For them, their perceived relationship to God was a space in which they felt safe enough to express and experience negative emotions.

For example, Sarah’s discussion of her spiritual life was filled with descriptions of questioning her own adequacy. Here is how she described it in her own words:

I often have that feeling I’m not doing enough, I’m not doing enough. “What more do I need to do?” And I was kind of basing that off of not feeling a change in my life based on the things I was doing. So I was definitely like, “Am I growing enough? Am I doing the right thing? What more do I need to do?” More, more, more. And then coming to the realization that that’s not a good view to take.

Sarah appears to have chronically questioned her self-adequacy in her relationship with God. In fact, when asked how often she has these feelings, she admitted they have dominated her spiritual life: “I would say the majority of the time, at least in the past. And I don’t know what is to come [in the future,] but probably most of my life I’ve felt like that.” Sarah spoke of her feelings of anxious inadequacy as core emotional experiences in her relationship with God.

Summary: A grounded theory of relational spirituality in Christian emerging adults.

Overall, we found six general characteristics of Christian EAs' spirituality that suggesting it is quite complex and encompasses a mixture of both positive and negative spiritual experiences. On the upside, many Christian EAs are experiencing a positive spiritual relationship, in areas such as: (a) pursuing authenticity in perceived relationship to God, (b) maturing in spiritual development, and (c) having corrective relational experiences with God. On the downside, many Christian EAs are experiencing negative spiritual struggles, in areas such as: (a) guarding against emotional vulnerability with God, (b) fluctuating in feeling connected to God, and (c) experiencing frequent emotional insecurity in perceived relationship to God. Based on participants’ firsthand accounts, these six themes taken together represent an empirically grounded theory of attachment to God and relational spirituality, as it is lived and experienced by Christian EAs.

[1] Adapted from: Bailey, K.L., Jones, B., Hall, T.W., Wang, D.C., & McMartin, J.M. (2016).  Spirituality at a Crossroads: A Grounded Theory of Christian Emerging Adults.  Journal of Psychology of Religion & Spirituality, 8(2), 99-109.

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