Do Emerging Adults Need Their Godparents?
New research shows spiritual mentorship increases life meaning in young adults.
Posted Dec 01, 2020
This post was written by Magdalyn Fiore.
It’s Sunday morning, and you’re standing at the front of the church beside the baptismal font. The air is cool, and the entire building is lit by sunlight shining through stained-glass windows. Everyone in the pews is silent, smiling, and the only sounds you hear are the words coming from the Pastor and the cries of the baby in their careful arms.
“Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” the Pastor asks.
“We are,” you proclaim.
Congratulations! You have just become a godparent. But what does it mean to be a godparent? What role do godparents play throughout the child’s life, particularly as they grow into young adulthood, when godparents may be needed most?
The tradition of godparents, or sponsors, originated in Judaism through the ancient custom of brit milah, a circumcision ceremony after the birth of a baby boy, during which a sandek, or “companion” in Hebrew, would hold the baby. The ceremony of baptism incorporated a similar tradition through godparenting after Christianity emerged. A godparent pledges to act as life-long support for the baptized infant (or adult) to help them live a Christian life and fulfill religious obligations, such as attending church services and receiving other sacraments.
Across different Christian religions, godparents commit to helping raise a child in a religious context, particularly if the child’s parents neglect the responsibility. They vow to be a source of information and guidance throughout their godchild’s entire faith journey, including as the child grows into emerging adulthood.
Emerging adulthood is a period of development roughly between the ages of 18 to 25 years, during which time individuals tend to self-explore and self-reflect about many topics, including religion and spirituality. It’s a ripe time to ask questions about the faith tradition they grew up in and its relevance as they transition into adulthood. But as emerging adults begin to question and explore religion, their relationships with their godparents often don’t live up to their original promise, with godparents frequently abandoning the opportunity and responsibility to spiritually mentor their older godchild.
According to developmental scientist Caitlin Faas, many emerging adults don’t even know who their godparents are, and the relationship is often overshadowed by other roles the godparent plays in the person’s life, such as aunt or uncle. At best, the young person might receive an extra present from a godparent at Christmas or on a birthday, but something deeper and more meaningful rarely emerges.
“Emerging adults are questioning their own religiosity more,” Faas says. In fact, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, 40 percent of young adults experience either a definitive or temporary decline in religiosity between adolescence through young adulthood, while just 10 percent report an increase in their religiosity. “So as that’s happening,” Faas continues, “do they feel like it’s a safe space to talk to their godparent about that?”
She adds that as godchildren grow older, godparents—and older adults in general—don’t have clear societal roles laid out for how to connect with that age group, and that we tend to think 20-year-olds don’t want to talk to their godparents. “They probably do,” she assures. “But are you going out of your way to reach out to them?”
In many cases, this hesitation to reach out to godchildren as they age may reflect something about the godparents’ own religiousness and spirituality, Faas says. “Are godparents able to have those difficult conversations about spirituality with their godchildren who are 20? Will they take the time to figure out what their own spirituality means? Most adults haven’t even figured it out—if you really want to get deep into, ‘Well, why do you go to church?’ Can most adults answer that question?” To truly be prepared for deep spiritual discussions, Faas urges, godparents must be open to hard questions and dig deeper into their own religious and spiritual convictions and behaviors.
Emerging adults don’t always know where to turn for answers to their complex questions, especially when their godparents are not practicing the faith or are not involved in their life. According to a national study conducted by Springtide Research Institute ("The State of Religion & Young People 2020"), more than 1 in 4 individuals aged 13 to 25 know only one or fewer adults they can go to when they need to talk.
Looking even closer, only 50 percent of those who don’t have any adult mentors say their life is meaningful and has purpose; however, when young people have just one mentor, 70 percent say their life has meaning and purpose. This percentage continues to increase overwhelmingly the more mentors a young person has, which reflects the importance of trusted adults in their lives, especially as they seek belonging and navigate questions regarding meaning and identity.
“Our data also reveal that while navigating all these complexities,” Springtide says, “young people root their trust in relationship, not institutional authority. Young people engage and thrive when they encounter trusted adults who care for, listen to, and guide them. Religious leaders [and mentors] are needed to meet young people amid the messiness of the present moment.”
So how can godparents start to form stronger connections with older godchildren? Faas recommends using whatever mode of communication the godchild feels comfortable with, such as a simple text or casual phone call just to catch up. “Start to build a relationship first, and then start checking in about spirituality, keeping the conversation open.”
Making intentional efforts to spend one-on-one time with the godchild, as well as being curious about the young person’s life, following up about their interests and activities, and openly sharing our own experiences, can go a long way in building that connection. Forming a relationship characterized by openness and trust is critical for having important conversations about faith.
Faas also advises that even if the godparent is unsure about their spirituality, sharing their learning process with their emerging adult godchild is productive too. For example, tell your godchild that you think you’ll go to church this Sunday or that you’re joining a Bible study, and see how your godchild responds.
“Anytime we have another adult or person in our lives that we can connect with, to make us feel like we belong, that helps everybody’s mental health. It makes you feel less alone, so when emerging adults are questioning their spirituality, they don’t feel like they’re the first or only person to have ever questioned these things.” Faas adds that even the knowledge that emerging adulthood as a period of development exists and that questioning your faith is common during that time can help people realize it’s OK to ask more questions.
Spiritual mentorship is deeply needed in the lives of young people, says Springtide, and it can’t come soon enough during these uncertain times. “To help them flourish—and to keep them from floundering in isolation, stress, or meaninglessness—young people need trusted adults, now more than ever.”
This guest post was authored by Magdalyn Fiore, M.A. in Science Writing from Johns Hopkins University.