Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

What Young Adults Really Think about Spiritual Growth

  • Dr. Todd Hall and Dr. Brendon Jones
  • Published May 25, 2016
What Young Adults Really Think about Spiritual Growth

In the last decade, a distinct developmental stage called emerging adulthood (EA) has garnered much attention within the psychological literature. 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.

In Brendon’s dissertation, we sought to gain a more nuanced understanding of Christian EA’s spiritual lives through in-depth interviews. Below is a summary of the six themes Brendon found in his dissertation.

1. A desire for an authentic, honest, and genuine relationship with God.

Participants commonly placed a high value on being authentic, honest, and genuine with God.

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. A desire to mature in spiritual development.

Participants also described being engaged in the process of spiritually developing and maturing.

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 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.”

3. A desire to experience God in the right way.

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.

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?

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.”

4. A desire to be emotionally vulnerable with God.

Many participants described sometimes having difficulty being honest 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).

Mary described:

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. A desire to feel connected with God.

Most participants described experiencing a fluctuating sense of connectedness in their perceived relationship to God. 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.

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. A desire to feel secure with God.

Given such fluctuations in felt connectedness, it is not surprising that most participants experienced emotional insecurity in their perceived relationship to God. Such experiences of insecurity were typically accompanied by negative emotions such as anxiety, worry, fear, inadequacy, guilt, shame, or confusion.

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.

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: authenticity, maturity and growth, and wanting a genuine experience with God.

 [1] This article is 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.

Dr. Todd Hall is professor of psychology at Biola University, and Chief Scientist for E Pluribus Partners.  He developed the Spiritual Transformation Inventory ( and is a leading scholar in spiritual development. Todd also writes on leadership at and his work has been featured in the Human Capital Institute, and Todd holds a PhD in clinical psychology from Biola University and a doctoral specialization in measurement and psychometrics from UCLA.

Dr. Brendon Jones is an active duty Captain and psychologist with the US Air Force, currently stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Northern CA. He completed his PhD in clinical psychology at Biola University. He also holds an MA in philosophy of religion and an MA in spiritual theology from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. His research/practice interests include: various areas in the integration of psychology and spirituality; the historical tradition of Christian spirituality; and Christian formation as it is actually lived and experienced.   

Publication date: May 25, 2016