Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood:

A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry

David P. Setran and Chris A. Kiesling
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013
290 Pages 


Cultural and developmental realities (often reinforced through the church) have threatened healthy faith formation by encouraging self-absorption and self-sufficiency in emerging adults. Despite these limitations, emerging adulthood has the potential to be a positive hinge point for spiritual formation as mentors and communities engage in practices that move emerging adults toward grace-filled, costly discipleship.


Setran and Kiesling present this thesis through nine chapters that illuminate challenges for emerging adult faith formation and make calls for theologically based responses. An undergirding of the thesis is evident throughout, but the organization of chapters lacks clear flow. Rather than progressively building the argument, the authors move back and forth between areas of challenge, solutions, and overall analyses.

  • Chapter 1 – Faith: Here, Setran and Kiesling set the stage for the necessity of this discussion. Drawing from Christian Smith and Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, the authors break down the statistics of the “religious slump” of emerging adulthood and examine sources of this spiritual decline.
  • Chapter 2 – Spiritual Formation: In this chapter, a vision is presented for healthy faith. Breaking down Moralistic Therapeutic Deism[1], Setran and Kiesling call instead for reshaping loves, costly sacrifice, and disciplined Spirit-seeking.
  • Chapter 3 – Identity: The process of identity formation is central to the emerging adult experience, and cultural realities have led this process to be highly individualized. Leaders of emerging adults are challenged to help them develop internalized beliefs through practices of refusal and engagement. 
  • Chapter 4 – Church: Here, Setran and Kiesling call for a reenvisioning of the connection between emerging adults and the church. After exploring sources of young adult disengagement from local congregations, the authors demonstrate the benefits and biblically rooted mandate of teaching, fellowship, worship, and outreach in intergenerational faith communities. 
  • Chapter 5 – Vocation: Like identity, vocation is often a central struggle throughout emerging adulthood. Ministry leaders are called to demonstrate Christ-centered vocational discernment through an exploration of kingdom purpose and an acknowledgment of God’s providence.
  • Chapter 6 – Morality: Morality has suffered in the highly individualistic culture of the United States today. Rather than “vacillate between permissiveness and authoritarianism,”[2] a promoting of virtues is suggested. Moral formation of emerging adults can be best formed through stories, exemplars, practices, communities, and conscience catalysts.
  • Chapter 7 – Sexuality: In this chapter, a historical view of love and sex point out the challenges of today’s culture where, once again, individualism seems to rule. Based on First Corinthians, leaders are encouraged to present a sexual ethic to emerging adults that promotes covenant fidelity.
  • Chapter 8 – Relationships: Setran and Kiesling look once again to the challenges of healthy relationships and sexuality in emerging adulthood. Faith-informed responses, they argue, involve tracing past influences, discerning proper paths of relational formation, and understanding the connections between physical intimacy and relational intimacy.”[3]
  • Chapter 9 – Mentoring: In this final chapter, mentors are explicitly named as a central component to healthy spiritual formation of emerging adults. Breaking out of the “monogenerational existence”[4] common to college and young adulthood, intentional mentoring can seek the presence of God through remembering, attentiveness, and envisioning.


David P. Setran (PhD, Indiana University) is associate professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College.[5] His studies have focused on the history and philosophy of education, and he has worked with college and young adult ministries in a church context.[6] Chris A. Kiesling (PhD, Texas Tech University) is professor of human development and Christian discipleship at Asbury Theological Seminary.[7] He has served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and as a campus minister at two universities.[8]

It is evident throughout the book that the authors understand and have firsthand experience working with emerging adults within a Christian context. They say that these experiences “inspired [us] to write this book because of our desire to see emerging adults flourish in Christ.”[9] In light of sociological research (such as the National Survey of Youth and Religion) and their own observations over the past 15 years, Setran and Kiesling saw the need for a theologically grounded, practical reflection and response to trends of spirituality in emerging adulthood. Their work focuses on ministry from an explicitly Christian point of view, and while some elements of outreach are mentioned, the authors are primarily concerned with emerging adults who already have some background or connection with Christianity.


As practical theologian educators, Setran and Kiesling identify and explicitly discuss theological doctrines as they present their argument. One especially strong example is their understanding of eschatology. Emerging adults, the authors argue, must be presented with a vision of what is and what is yet to come. An eschatological framework sets identity, relationships, and vocation in the context of a world that will be renewed by God, and thus, brings a level of spirituality to everything.[10] The kind of costly discipleship that Setran and Kiesling call for is rooted in what they call a “harvest perspective.”[11] This widened view combats the immediate and individualistic temptations of the world and calls emerging adults to see God’s overarching story and look for ways that they can be agents of kingdom restoration. Stemming from this eschatological perspective is an ecclesial theology that sets the church in the middle of God’s restoring work. Setran and Kiesling identify Christian identity as primarily tied to bodies of believers “ultimately bestowed through baptism.”[12] Their emphasis on sacraments and liturgical practices (both within the worship context and through the annual church calendar) identify the church as the central context for spiritual formation.


In their own words, Setran and Kiesling hope “to provide a ‘practical theology’ for college and young adult ministry, one that combines important scholarship, a Christian theological vision, and attentiveness to concrete ministry applications.”[13] Going a step beyond the research of spirituality in emerging adulthood, the authors seek to widen understanding and provide tools for those working in ministry with college students and young adults. While aimed primarily at specialized college and young adult ministry workers, this book could also be helpful for volunteers, professors, general church pastors, and anyone else with an interest in faith formation. Statistical breakdowns of sociological research and well-developed theological arguments secure this book in the academic classification, yet its approachable presentation and clear descriptions give it a wider audience scope than many academic books.

Overall, Setran and Kiesling look to historical movements and recent research to explicitly name the current state of spiritual formation in emerging adults. As the book progresses, they seek to demonstrate the role of church communities and mentors in moving emerging adults into life-long Christian discipleship, especially as they struggle with identity, vocation, morality, and relationships. 


The book largely accomplishes its goal of bridging the gap between sociological research and practical ministry responses. The chapters on the church and mentorship are especially strong as the authors overtly explore contexts where faith formation can flourish. Another strength is the thorough foundation of history and research. Rather than blame emerging adults for the current state of spirituality in America, Setran and Kiesling take a thoughtful look at how society has gotten to this place (often implicating the church along the way). From there, the authors engage scripture faithfully and share an optimistic vision for the future.

As previously mentioned, the overall organization of the book is somewhat confusing. Chapter topics seem to bounce back and forth between struggles and solutions without an overarching progression. Furthermore, there is significant overlap between the chapters on sexuality and relationships, giving the whole section a repetitive feel. Though they sought to provide concrete ministry applications, Setran and Kiesling offer something more akin to emphasized ministry themes. Knowing that ministry contexts with emerging adults vary greatly, the authors do not give specific, concrete examples of how to put these ideas into practice. Rather, they highlight ideas and emphases for ministers to translate into their own context. While this is often more helpful than detailed curriculum or one-size fits all applications, some readers may be disappointed in the abstract nature of the practical advice. 

This book’s combination of statistical research and theological applications make it useful for collegiate ministers working with young adults. Sociological history may help leaders better understand the struggles and situations that emerging adults bring to faith formation today. For those working in primarily monogenerational college or young adult contexts, the call toward intergenerational communities and mentors may be especially challenging. This tension, however, is worth sitting with, even if the ministry context does not seem accommodating. Lastly, collegiate ministers may glean hope from this book, drawing from the Christ-centered perspective of Setran and Kiesling.  

[1] Christian Smith’s term for “the majority posture among emerging adults,” 22.
[2] Setran, D. P., Kiesling, C. A., Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, 149.
[3] Setran, D. P., Kiesling, C. A., Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, 186.
[4] Ibid., 208.
[5] Ibid., back cover.
[6] Wheaton College, http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Faculty/S/David-Setran
[7] Setran, D. P., Kiesling, C. A., Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, back cover.
[8] Asbury Seminary, http://asburyseminary.edu/person/dr-chris-a-kiesling/
[9] Setran, D. “Why We Wrote Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood” in Baker Academic Blog, August 29, 2013. http://blog.bakeracademic.com/david-setran-why-we-wrote-spiritual-formation-in-emerging-adulthood/
[10] Setran, D. P., Kiesling, C. A., Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood, 121.
[11] Ibid., 41.
[12] Ibid., 79.
[13] Ibid., 7.

[Review by Sarah Logemann]