College and faith

I know the controversy is so last week. But I finally got around to reading Garry Wills‘ eminently reasonable response to Santorum’s complaint that colleges destroy religious faith:

Minds grow by questioning things, and adolescence is a great period of questions. Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken learned to cross-examine the Bible all on their own, without any help at all from college. An unquestioned faith is not faith but rote recitation. The opposite of such questioning is not deep belief but arrested development.

A report on research by Richard Putnam (Bowling Alone) and David Campbell on young adults, Christianity, and the culture wars: . A free summary of the Putnam and Campbell Foreign Affairs article is here. To quote Putnam, young Americans are saying, “If religion is just about conservative politics, I’m outtahere.”

But it’s not just conservative Christianity that turns college students and young adults away. There are significant cultural factors as well. Christian Piatt cites seven, not one of them connected with conservative politics or the culture wars.  Instead, he mentions:

  • that there’s no natural bridge to church when teens leave home
  • distraction
  • the need to filter out the vast quantities of information (and advertising) that assault young people.

In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Especially in light of Christian Smith’s ongoing research, which I’ve mentioned before. Another take on that is here:

More on young adults and the church

Brandon J. O’Brien explores the religious views of 20-somethings in three posts at Out of Ur. Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

O’Brien was teaching a World Religions course in a community college and gave his students writing assignments that explored their religious commitments, beliefs, and practices. He was sobered by what he read. Among his conclusions:

Very few of my students could identify any way religion might impact their daily lives, specifically their future personal and professional goals. Even the students who consider themselves committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers. They could point to superficial things—like wanting to be married in their church, which meant they had to marry a fellow Christian—but couldn’t go much deeper than that.

Skye Jethani read this posts and reflected, producing: Back to (a Theology of) Work We Go….

Interesting reflections on outreach to young adults, beginning with this premise:

Our religious lives, our communion with God and formation as his people, primarily plays out in two spheres of our lives–family and work. Our closest relationships (marriage, children, parents) are where we experience the joys and pains of life most acutely. They are where we practice, or fail to practice, love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, etc. So it would make sense that we utilize family relationships as a key context for discipleship–learning and applying the teachings of Christ.

The church has focused its efforts on the family, leaving vocation and work to the side. What does this mean for young adults who are delaying marriage? That we have nothing to say to what is the primary sphere in which they live and search for meaning:

We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group offers six reasons why young people leave the church. An interview with him on NPR.

I’ve got no clue on how to solve the problem, how to reach out to young adults, but it seems to me, that authenticity is key. We’ve got to be able to speak to them in a language they understand and relate to, and offer them relationships that are life-giving and transforming. What strikes me at Grace is that we don’t have trouble attracting young adults to our services. We have some difficulty getting them connected, but very often they do, even when we don’t make it particularly easy. Above all, we have to be open and welcoming, and allow them to set the terms for our relationship, not impose expectations on them.


Thinking about “the “nones”

I didn’t get around to thinking about Eric Weiner’s op-ed in the New York Times several weeks ago. In it, he discusses the increased numbers of Americans who identify themselves as “non-religious.” Weiner sees the problem as a result of organized religion. God is not fun, he says and goes on to observe that increased polarization in religion as in politics, leaves growing numbers of people marginalized. He cites his own experience:

In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.

I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don’t wish to return to an age of raw superstition.

We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.

I have no doubt that his experience is shared by many. His proposed solution, though, seems misguided, at best:

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

It’s particularly ironic, given the response to Jobs’ death. It would seem he is already perceived as a spiritual guru, or even a saint.

I wonder whether Weiner actually experienced religious communities that do not deal with “raw superstition.”

Here’s another take on the same question, from an unlikely source, The Mennonite Weekly Review (hat/tip to Brian McLaren).

Lauren Sessions Stepp writes about the growing trend of young adult evangelicals leaving church which she attributes to this:

I’m not surprised. These young dropouts value the sense of community their churches provide but are tired of being told how they should live their lives. They don’t appreciate being condemned for living with a partner, straight or gay, outside of marriage or opting for abortion to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.

Cathy Grossman at USA Today, covers the story as well, profiling the apathetic or “so whats?” as she calls them. She quotes several conservative religious leaders who see the rise in religious apathy as a disaster for Christians. And other scholars see the rise in non-identification as a significant trend.

But I wonder if that’s the case. Certainly there has been a collapse in institutional religion in the last decade, but does the decline in membership actually reflect a decline in religious interest or affiliation. I wonder how many of those regular churchgoers of a previous generation had rich spiritual lives. How many of them went because of custom, or duty, or civic obligation? The difference may be attributable in part that there are no social consequences for non-attendance at religious services as there might have been fifty years ago.

Losing My Religion: Generation Ex-Christian

Drew Dyck is the author of Generation X-Christian. He was interviewed a month ago on Patheos. I skimmed it and marked it for later reading and finally got around to looking at it again. His analysis is on target:

There are three things that make this generation different. First, young adults today are dropping religion at a greater rate than young adults of yesteryear, “five to six times the historic rate,” according to sociologists David Putnam and Robert Campbell. Second, young adulthood is not what it used to be—it’s much longer. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back after more than a decade is considerably more unlikely. Third, there’s been a shift in the culture. Past generations may have rebelled for a season, but they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. For those reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America, the cultural gravity that has pulled previous generations back to the faith has weakened. So I’m not banking on an automatic return. I think it’s a scandal that these young adults are adrift spiritually and missing from our churches.

Nicole Havelka says much the same. The idea that young people will return to regular church-going when they get married and have children is probably a relic of an early generation when such things did happen, even among baby-boomers. We now live in a post-Christian culture in many respects, and churches cannot have the power to attract young people who were never members or participants in the first place.

Havelka writes:

We should acknowledge that young adults are not going to return to church (or visit for the first time) without some effort on the part of our local churches. We can offer substantive programs to help young families and single adults form their new adult faith. We can reach out to college students. We can be sensitive to the needs of our communities and tailor our ministries to meet those needs.


Random links on Young adults and Christianity

From Amy Thompson Sevili who is ordained in the ELCA and serves as Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan DC Synod:

Many young adults I encounter have some childhood connection with church, are open and curious about religion, and even profess to “believe” in God. They visit congregations in an effort to satiate their spiritual appetites. But they report that the food the church provides doesn’t nourish them, and the church seems fairly unwilling to change its menu.

So they try other options. Yoga centers, “spiritual” retreats, “spiritual” books, long conversations at Starbucks — anything they think will satiate them spiritually. More often, however, they just remain famished and empty. I met recently with a woman who said she had tons of questions but no one to talk to about them. Most of the people she knew were either “totally religious” and believed themselves to have all the answers, or they were “totally unreligious” and thought people who asked such questions were stupid. She confessed she “believed in God” and that she had even attended many churches in the area, but nothing clicked. Over and over again this D.C. young professional, who was otherwise upbeat and doing well in the world described herself as spiritually alone.

This doesn’t seem quite right. Young adults are out there asking questions, professing belief in God, and seeking some kind of spiritual community — and church pews are empty.


Meghan O’Gieblyn writes abut her experience with the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) culture, growing up conservative Christian in the 90s:

Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything. It was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that because the church isn’t Viacom: it doesn’t have a Department of Brand Strategy and Planning. Staying relevant in late consumer capitalism requires highly sophisticated resources and the willingness to tailor your values to whatever your audience wants. In trying to compete in this market, the church has forfeited the one advantage it had in the game to attract disillusioned youth: authenticity. When it comes to intransigent values, the profit-driven world has zilch to offer. If Christian leaders weren’t so ashamed of those unvarnished values, they might have something more attractive than anything on today’s bleak moral market. In the meantime, they’ve lost one more kid to the competition.