The issue of morality is one that each of us wrestles with throughout our lives. Where does morality come from? Why was it wrong for Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit? Why was it considered evil for Cain to murder Abel? Why is it wrong to steal the Hershey’s bar from the gas station? Why is premarital sex considered to be morally wrong for some, but completely okay for others? Where once there was a system in which people could look to for the basis of morality, now the lines of right and wrong are becoming increasingly blurry.
One of the questions that Christian Smith asks in his book Lost in Transition, is that of where emerging adults (ages 18-23 year olds) find their sense of morality. What makes it so difficult for young Americans to find a basis of morality? Smith writes, “Six out of ten (60 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed expressed a highly individualistic approach to morality. They said that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision. Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion, in their view.” He notes later on that most emerging adults do not go to the extreme of moral relativism but that they still retain an individualistic approach to morality.
Having an individual basis of morality is not bad. Part of maturation is coming to the realization of where one falls on moral issues. However, the problem is when morality does not cross the threshold into community. In my church in Kentucky, one of my deacons frequently used the old adage, “God calls, but the church confirms.” What he meant by this was that the individual call and individual growth is important, but it is ultimately realized in the face of the greater community. In the same way, emerging adults should be empowered to wrestle with moral issues individually while simultaneously testing them against the morality of the greater community. For Christians, this would also entail a discernment through the church, which is is then filtered through the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience.
Theoretically, this should be helpful. But there are other challenges that must be addressed within this sphere. For one, there is the issue of the global nature of the world and the church. Because of social media, it’s easier than ever to post one’s thoughts for the world to see as well as for one to catch a glimpse of where others around the world fall on various topics. The issue of globalism has created a cultural relativism for some that makes it more difficult than ever to find one’s feet on solid ground. Part of this reality is that it is easier to become aware of the teachings of other religions, which has led to the creation of pseudo-religions where one can pick the teachings one likes from different religions and form them into a personal conglomeration.
One of the more striking statements that Smith makes is that “fully one in three (34 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed said that they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong.” While we can fault the education system for this due to its neglect of teaching proper critical thinking skills in favor of standardized testing, the passing of morality and values ultimately finds its deepest foothold at home. Kendra Creasy Dean writes, “Since the religious and spiritual choices of American teenagers echo with astonishing clarity, the religious and spiritual choices of the adults who love them, lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours.” As morality is often tied with religious institutions, we can see the church as a place where moral teaching can occur. However, young people are only at church once (maybe twice) a week; the rest of their time is spent with family and friends. What they are exposed to is what they get.
For young Christians, what can we do? If what Dean says is true, that faith is most consistently built at home, how can we empower parents to model their faith and morality to their children? Is part of the problem that we take for granted the morality that we were raised with and expect others to understand it? How can the dialogue between parents and their children be opened in a space that allows for both sides to wrestle with their questions? If this space isn’t created, there will continue to be a disconnect between the globalized youth and localized adult.
For the church, it is also important that it be a place for young Christians to be able to dialogue about issues. While in retrospect some issues are more black or white than others, it’s in the gray that we find ourselves most often. The gray is where growth happens and it shouldn’t be ignored, but rather embraced.
 Christian Smith, Lost in Transition, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011), 21.
 Ibid., 27.
 The use of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a tool that would be useful in introducing to young Christians who must learn to wrestle with concepts of morality.
 Recently I was talking to a friend who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian tradition who ultimately found it too stifling and rigid. Since leaving that tradition, my friend has become found a more “personal” religion that acknowledges the love of Christ, but mixes it with New Age and Buddhist teachings.
 Smith, Lost in Transition, 35.
 An interesting article on the subject can be found here <https://www.google.com/amp/s/observer.com/2018/01/american-education-system-suppresses-critical-thinking/amp/>
 Kendra Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010), 4.
 By “localized adult” I’m referring to adults who are unaware/indifferent of what is happening in different parts of the world in favor of what is happening in their immediate local contexts.