by Rachelle Kramer
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly cited Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on American’s College Campuses by Donna Freitas. The research used is from the book by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett cited below. The author regrets the error.
Too often today we hear the cries: where are the young people missing from our pews each week? Many answers abound, but the prevalent voice appears to be one of resignation: the young are indifferent, they have no interest in religion and spirituality. They are so inundated with American values of materialism, monetary success, and individualism that that they care only for themselves rather than the common good.
I could not disagree more.
In the book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett categorizes the religious beliefs of the younger generation (in this case, college students) into four groups:
- atheists and agnostics,
- deists—belief in God yet not affiliated with a religious tradition;
- liberals—practicing a particular religious denomination while not accepting all of its creeds; and
- conservatives—those who regularly practice and ascribe to all doctrinal tenets of their faith tradition.
His research revealed that the percentage of young adults belonging to each category is strikingly equal: atheist/agnostic—22%, deist—28%, liberal —27%, and conservative—23%.
What does it all mean? First, it means 78% believe in God (a very good thing); second, one could argue this generation is lost and desperately seeking and trying to find its way amidst a very confusing and complex world. I cannot help but wonder if something even more profound is happening.
One of the definitive characteristics of this generation is its pride in personal autonomy and freedom in decision-making. Gone are the days when one went to church due to external pressures, deeply rooted cultural traditions, or fear of going to hell. Young people do what feeds, nourishes, and supports their personal journey of faith, whether that means attending a weekly Sunday service, practicing yoga, or finding God in creation. Is this necessarily a bad thing?
For most of us involved in the work of the church, this doing “whatever works for me” is troubling. In one sense, I agree. In another, however, I find it to be incredibly positive and even helpful for the Catholic Church and organized religion in general.
Since most young people do not acquiesce to any church teaching without having reflected critically on it—and drawing from their own personal experience—they refuse to accept anything blindly. Therefore, if they subscribe to a particular religious denomination and its practices, it is likely because they have made a thoughtful, careful decision. This challenges the status quo in our church traditions.
Liturgical celebrations lacking quality music, poor presiding, a clear “going through the motions” mentality of the assembly without any interior participation, and an inhospitable atmosphere yield little participation from the younger generation.
The global sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is seen by the young for what it is: a failure of the church hierarchy to hold guilty priests accountable for their actions. Blood being shed in the name of religion all over the world is recognized as the direct contradiction of people’s actions with their religious views, and as hypocrisy.
If young people do not adhere to a particular teaching of any given faith tradition, they often choose not to join—not out of laziness or apathy, but because of their integrity and the desire to hold true to their values and beliefs.
Many young people claim Christians are highly judgmental. Have we ever considered their reason for saying this is because they are right? Is it any wonder why the interest in Eastern religions has so greatly increased among this population? Perhaps it isn’t because young people don’t care or view everything through a subjective lens (though certainly some do). Perhaps it is because they desire quality liturgical experiences and churches that are not mired in conflict, hypocrisy, politics, and fighting. Perhaps they want to discard the dysfunction and get down to what is really important: experiencing the sacred and having a relationship with the divine.
I do not assert there are no negative influences modern culture has inculcated in this generation. There are many. However, this generation has much to teach us.
The Millennials holds us to accountability and higher standards. They call us out when our actions do not match our wordst. In a way, they are our modern day prophets, and I cannot help think that Jesus would be proud.
Rachelle Kramer is a masters study of theology at Saint John’s University School of Theology•Seminary in Collegeville, MN. She is leader of the Youth Section of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.