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Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry

David P. Setran & Chris A. Kiesling
Published by Baker Academic in 2013

Reviewed by Stephen L. Woodworth, Spiritual Formation, Toccoa Falls College

In the past decade a number of authors have centered their gaze on attempting to understand the spiritual lives of emerging adults.1 The vast majority of these works have been dedicated almost entirely to the task of raising awareness and educating the larger public about trends related to seismic shifts in the religious views and practices of a new generation of Americans. In addition to sounding the public alarms, many of these works have simultaneously attempted to give ample space to diagnosing the problem by pointing to identifying culprits as far ranging as shallow youth programs to philosophical paradigms of global proportions.

However, despite the seemingly unending conversation, there has been very little work produced that offers concrete support for those in the trenches who are attempting to navigate the rapidly changing spiritual climate. So it is with genuine excitement that authors David Setran and Chris Kiesling offer this bold new work, Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood. In contrast to the plethora of titles already dedicated to the subject, Setran and Kiesling approach the subject from a unique angle that attempts to “fill a gap in the existing literature” by providing “a ‘practical theology’ for college and young adult ministry, one that combines important scholarship, a Christian theological vision, and attentiveness to concrete ministry applications” (7). Their clear purpose is driven by two defining questions: “First, what does the gospel have to offer emerging adults as they are formed through adult transition? Second, what do emerging adults shaped by the gospel have to offer the church and the world” (6)?

With these two questions placed squarely on the table for the reader, the authors begin their work with a theological primer of sorts that traces both the origins and causes of what they refer to as the “religious slump” of emerging adulthood. Supported by academic research and solid statistical data, Setran and Kiesling demonstrate that for many men and women between the ages of eighteen and thirty, life often presents a myriad of distinct obstacles that tend to work against healthy spiritual formation. Among those highlighted by the authors are “new distractions” ranging from financial independence, to the allure of recreational activities (17-21), as well as decreased attentiveness and increased mobility (17-21), each of which fosters a season of life in which less devotion is given to spiritual matters of church and personal piety. Appropriately so, the chapter is bracketed by a presentation and explanation of Christian Smith’s now familiar descriptor of the religion of emerging adults known as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Chapter 2 is dedicated to practical steps one can take when attempting to dismantle this false religion of emerging adults. Beginning with a desire to move “beyond moralism” (30), the authors turn toward philosopher James K. A. Smith, whose work on desires and affections helps to establish the fact that all worship is oriented toward the ultimate longing of our hearts and pursuit of a particular view of the Kingdom.2 With this in view, the authors identify that one of the central tasks for those involved in the spiritual formation of emerging adults is to “help them detect the idols in their hearts” coupled with “the hard work of identifying competing sources of worship” (33). In order for right affections to take root, however, Christ and his promises must be found more captivating than alternative views of beauty. To foster this process, Setran and Kiesling suggest that “pastors, teachers, and mentors must teach with creativity, imagination and narrative power” (36).

In a similar fashion, to counter a “therapeutic” view of God, emerging adults need to be confronted with the depth of sin (37) and the “cost of discipleship” promoted by Dietrich Bonheoffer and demanded by Christ (38-44). Finally, in tackling the pervasive adherence to Deism, the authors promote the disciplines of cultural abstinence and engagement in the pursuit of a robust ability to critique competing theistic worldviews rightly.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the important topic of identity. Especially as it relates to emerging adulthood, this chapter offers a fairly comprehensive yet accessible overview of identity formation as it relates to spiritual formation. Of particular importance is the need for men and women in this age group to build personal convictions and belief systems distinct from those inherited from their family and faith community.

In Chapter 4, the authors turn their gaze on the interesting relationship between emerging adults and the church. Creating a balanced and fair argument, the authors describe not only the reasons emerging adults tend to disengage from the church (82-92), but also how the church is contributing to the problem (92-95). The chapter concludes with a simple outline that delineates both the function and role of the church, which serves as an invitation for emerging adults to “get to know her” and thereby offers an invitation to join “the messy but hope-filled story of the community of faith” (110).

Chapter 5 explores emergent views on vocation, which the authors argue are rooted in a shallow view of personal prosperity and future responsibility completely void of “a kingdom vocational vision” (118). The means to accomplishing this task are given in the form of assisting emerging adults in their pursuit and development of four c’s: communion, community, character, and cultivation, thus providing them “with a picture of vocation that is ‘large enough’ to encompass the kingdom vision of God” (122).

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 logically flow from one another as the discussion on morality moves into an examination of sexuality and then relationships. By pointing out the tension between permissiveness and authoritarianism, Setran and Kiesling rightly surface the common responses to individuals in positions of shepherding those under their care in this season of life. The questions mentors and parents feel about freedom and independence are the very same ones facing emerging adults.

This exploration of morality leads to a lengthy dialogue on sexuality, which opens with a historical view on romance and concludes with a commentary on the sexual ethics found in the book of Corinthians. Of all the chapters in the book, I felt that this one in particular missed an opportunity to engage readers in a practical discussion on a central issue facing emerging adults today. Few topics are causing more pastors, parents and mentors angst today than the sexual climate of this new century and the decisions and temptations facing the adults growing up in it.

While the following chapter on relationships makes valiant efforts in describing healthy boundaries and appropriate intimacy, much remains clouded by the psychology of attachment theory, sexual identity and relational formation (186ff).

In the ninth and final chapter, the authors emphasize the importance of mentoring. Using the imagery of a “hinge” as a working metaphor, emerging adults are described as those living in a “liminal space between adolescence and adulthood” (205). Into this important space mentors emerge as essential partners along the journey of spiritual development for emerging adults. And yet at the same time declining views of elders, growing rifts between parents and children, and structural separation in church, school and social settings remain as formidable challenges to their cause.

In conclusion, while Setran and Kiesling do a fairly adequate job of reaching their intended goal of creating a practical handbook for Christian workers, there remain several shortcomings found amidst these pages as well. First, the authors give far too much space to regurgitating and summarizing much of the work done on the spiritual formation of emerging adults in the last decade. What stands out in particular is the amount of space given to the retelling of experts such as Christian Smith whose “Moralistic Theistic Deism” has become one of the most often quoted and researched mantras of any religious writing about the spiritual lives of emerging adults. Second, while the authors desire to provide pragmatic and practical application, many of their suggestions merely summarize ageless practices already being employed by most evangelicals including preaching the gospel with clarity, doing the work of the church, and mentoring.

Beyond these critiques, the book is a valuable text for anyone engaged in the process of forming the souls of emerging adults. Those seeking an introduction to the subject will find ample references and valuable summarizations of the important discussions taking place for the last decade around the subject. For those already initiated in the topic, one is certain to find much-needed motivation to stay the course in their daily work to raise the next generation of the church and its leaders.

Cite this article
Stephen L. Woodworth, “Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:1 , 101-103


  1. Most notable are the often referenced works produced by Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009); David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011); and Jeffrey Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens to the Twenties (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  2. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

Stephen L. Woodworth

EPC World Outreach
Stephen L. Woodworth is an ordained minister and professor of religion. He works as World Outreach Associate Coordinator of the International Theological Education Network (ITEN) of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).