When I moved to this part of the country, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of importance placed on youth spirituality. This is not a problem limited to the Midwest; it is no secret that when it comes to religion, a large percentage of millennials and post-millennials categorize themselves as spiritual, but non-religious. And to be honest, I'm not sure I blame them. While I would personally love to see deep, religious convictions and healthy spirituality among millennials and post-millennials, the mass exodus from organized religion was modeled for them by my generation, also known as Generation X.
Today's youth are simply following the example we set. The Gen-X-exodus (say that three times fast) was predicated on a longing for a deeper spirituality instead of formal, organized religion. In fact, it got so mixed up that those seeking more spiritual depth left the church for Buddhism, while those seeking self-help and self-actualization with a religious spin lined up at church doors. Pause and think about that - people left the church because they sought a deeper spirituality.
If we are going to address this issue, then we need to be honest about the fact that millennials and post-millennials have no one guiding them forward in the way of faith; instead, they have previous generations of Christianity asking them to step back in time. As humans, we commonly react to that which is most clear to us. When it comes to explaining why today's youth leave the institutional church, we have to understand that their exit is motivated by a negative clarity - that which informs them away from what they don't want, rather than toward what they do want. In other words, millennials and post-millennials know they don't want to go backwards or remain in a static form of Christianity; that's where they are clear. As a generation, you know they want to progress, but they don't always know what that means. And since we, the institutional church, are more committed to our traditional expressions of Christianity, we are losing our opportunity to lead them through this new threshold of faith development.
Most of the youth programs I observe today are not that different from the youth programs I experienced (as a youth!) more than 20 years ago, and yet so many other societal mores have changed to meet the needs of today's generations. As well, the priority of youth spirituality seems almost non-existent on our cultural radar. Why is this? Through personal study and cultural observation, I present the following possibilities:
Just as with an inheritance, we assume that at some point, our youth will pick up their faith when they need; there's no need to emphasize it early on in life.
Spirituality can't be quantified or monetized - this means that we don't know how "being spiritual" will pay off. The further we travel into modernity guided by enlightenment thought processes, the more we focus on elements that can be quantified. These being academia, sports, extracurricular activities, etc. While these quantifiable elements might pay off in the form of college scholarships, or a good career, faith doesn't hold to that same standard. Using these measurables, faith cannot survive.
Our youth aren't interested, and to this point, there are several possibilities for disinterest. Some have seen the result of the previous generation's idea of Christianity and religion and want nothing to do with it; some see Christianity as a movement opposed to change, progress and exploration, while others have fallen victim to the hypocrisy found in some expressions of Christianity. Regardless of the motivation, the fact remains that today's youth are simply not interested in Christian faith. It is my assertion that the disinterest is a hybrid of these possibilities, and that together, the result is unfortunate.
Bear with me as we go on a journey through time. Many believe that around 13.8 billion years ago, there occurred a point of singularity, in which a big bang happened; something created from nothing, or as the early church fathers called it, "ex nihilo". From that point of singularity, the universe and everything in it has been moving...forward! Not backwards, but progressing forward. Many Christians, self included, believe that the nothing that created the something was not actually nothing, but was ultimate reality, that being God. In this belief, God initiated that point of singularity, and at that point all the necessary elements for a sustainable creative pattern came into being and began to move forward until we arrived at this point. Through God's creative process, humanity came onto the scene. And while you may not believe that this is how creation happened, you don't need to believe it to hear my point. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that Genesis 1-2 are a historical narrative on how the earth was created; this is called young earth theory. This theory states that the earth and everything in it was created within a 7-day or 7-age period. If we start here, and then turn to the back of the Bible, specifically the last two chapters of Revelation, we see that from the point of Creation to the New Heavens and New Earth, creation has been moving...forward! From a garden to a city, from a tribal religion to universal salvation, creation marches on! Regardless of the theory to which you ascribe, we can all agree that the universe and everything in it has been and continues to move forward.
This progression that permeates the universe and everything in it is something that we as humans have both embraced and rejected. What is most unfortunate is that, according to history, forward progression has been rejected the strongest in the areas of religion and spirituality. Whether you believe God set a forward, moving and creative energy in motion over 13.8 billion years ago or that the Divine created the world 10,000 years ago, we all believe that this God created everything with forward motion. In fact, from what we know of ancient civilizations, the people that would become known as the Jews, were the first people, based on their understanding of God, his character and his plans, to understand time in a linear, not cyclical, fashion. In this example, "linear fashion" means that everything progresses forward to a specific end.
God created everything in the universe to move forward. His first chosen people, based on what they knew about God, were the first to understand time as a forward moving reality. The very idea of sanctification is forward movement. The paper you are reading this article in, and the computer I typed these words from, are the result of forward movement. Yet when it comes to religion, spirituality or Christianity, it is common that we fight forward motion. We sing songs written in centuries, and participate in liturgy with antiquated vocabulary. We ask our youth to hold once-great traditions that have calcified into lifeless rituals. We invite them to youth ministry initiatives that failed nearly half of their parent's generation, and then puzzle over why this generation of youth is leaving the church at unprecedented rates. It might be that this generation has a better sense of what God is doing than we do, and they just don't know that's why they have no interest in the institutional church.
I've talked to many mainline denominational leaders and they want to blame the youth for the demise of the church. This is typical for institutions to do when they can't stop the bleeding; it is common to place blame outside of the institution itself, but if we are to engage this subject with integrity, we can't do that. We must focus our attentions within, and ask ourselves, as parents, leaders, teachers and pastors - why? But not why are they leaving, but why are we who believe in a God that instituted the very idea of forward movement, so insistent on asking them to move backwards to a religious expression that, at best, worked a generation ago?
Today's youth don't scare me; the millennials and post-millennials give me hope. I believe God is at work in them, even if they are unaware. They are spiritually hungry and often misguided, but the church is failing to respond to what these youth seem to know intuitively; God is not calling them back into the practices and expressions of their parents and grandparents, but is calling them forward to a faith beyond imagination. We, who have the tradition, history, and experience, have an unprecedented opportunity to guide them into that future rather than hold them in the past. If we persist in our demand, that they move backward into our limited construct of God, when God is calling them forward, they will do what they should and leave us behind.
For me, this is exciting! I love looking into the unknown, and trust that God will move. I trust that the Divine is moving us into expressions of faith that may make us uncomfortable, but will not in the least scare God. And I love, that for now, we as the middle-aged pastors, parents, and leaders have the opportunity to motivate them into a realm yet to be seen!
This post originally appeared in the Thursday, June 1, 2017 edition of the Knoxville Builletin.