Jul 02, 2018


Lost In Transition – A Collegiate Look

Tom Knight takes insights from Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition and applies them to leading in college ministry.

Though most of us in collegiate ministry have heard the term emerging adulthood, not everyone has considered the social cost of delaying the process. In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Dr. Christian Smith uses sociological evidence conducted through surveys and interviews to show us the dark side. And it is dark. Centered around five chapters, the book provides an inside view of the attitudes, thoughts, and actions of emerging adults aged 18-23, roughly the traditional college age.

Emerging adulthood, a term coined first by psychologist Jeffery Arnett, describes a social transition which occurred after World War II.  First, due to the GI Bill and more emphasis on education, students were able to go to college rather than go straight into a job. Secondly, from 1950 to 2006 the median age of first marriage for women rose from 22.8 to 25.9 years. Thirdly, due to global pressure, economic stability changed causing many young adults to not be able to enter into long-term careers right out of high school or college. Fourthly, due to the factors listed so far, many parents made choices to continue to support their children well into their twenties and even early thirties as they attempt to have stable, adult lives. Fifthly, the wide-spread use of birth control made it easy for young adults to have sexual relations apart from marriage and procreation. Finally, according to Dr. Smith, during the 1980s and 1990s American collegiate culture began to promote poststructuralism and postmodernism which eventually moved into the mainstream of the culture where it morphed into individualistic subjectivism and moral relativism.

While emerging adulthood has allowed more access to education, travel, and experimentation in careers, it has also come with a price.  According to Dr. Smith there are five major areas which are taking a toll on these young adults.  The changing social conditions have led to problems that Dr. Smith documents in chapters entitled: Morally Adrift; Captive to Consumerism; Intoxication’s “Fake Feeling of Happiness”; The Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation; and Civic and Political Disengagement.

Though the statistics presented by Dr. Smith most likely aren’t new to you, they do serve as a dire warning to the collegiate zeitgeist which promotes the notion that a student can “be anyone, do anything, and go anywhere” without consequences. As Dr. Smith’s stats show, a stalled adulthood in “liquid modernity” does have its baggage. Rather than help students ground themselves with a comprehensive identity, most colleges create an environment where a fractured experience is promoted as normal. As campus ministers and collegiate leaders, we have a rare opportunity not only to offer grace, healing, and Gospel to the victims of emerging adulthood, but also to create an alternative pathway through emerging adulthood.

First, we need to make sure we acknowledge the real fallout and scars of the dark side of emerging adulthood. Though faith in Christ will heal students spiritually, many may still suffer emotional issues that need counseling. Make sure that students who have addictions have access to professionals who can help with these issues.

Second, don’t be afraid to cite examples from secular literature concerning the pitfalls of emerging adulthood. Meg Jay in her book The Defining Decade offers blunt advice about drifting through one’s twenties with no direction, the downside for couples who live together before marriage, and the cost of delaying having children. She does not present her critiques from a Christian perspective, yet they strike home important truths. Current data on suicide, drug use and binge drinking are sobering. These views from non-Christian sources may especially be useful when speaking to non-Christians and seekers.

Third, bring home the issue of consumerism by critiquing the modern university which caters to the consumer in us all while also having a “hands off” policy concerning crushing debt. Is it worth it to go into debt for climbing walls, gourmet food, and a consumerist life-style which is unsustainable? How does one’s Christian faith integrate at all in the university environment?

Fourth, make sure to preach, teach, and promote a robust understanding of Christian identity. Moving further into a post-Christian culture, we will need to have a better understanding of the doctrine of man (who we are as creatures of God), of Christian suffering, and what it means to live, not as partners of culture, but as prophets of culture.

I hope the work of Dr. Smith and Dr. Arnett will help you address the modern patterns that are channeling many students into destructive lifestyles, while also robbing them of a life centered in Christ.

about the author

Tom Knight

Tom is a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, specializing in international student work. He holds a law degree from Wake Forest and an Mdiv from Princeton. He is the author of No Passport Required: Collegiate Ministry as Global Missions.