Last week, I attended an interfaith dinner at a local synagogue. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others broke bread together and listened to presentations on Jewish holidays. I sat next to the Purim presenter—an 11th grade boy in a kippah with a bleach blond curl hanging over one eye. I’ll call him “Jacob.” Jacob told me about his 8-bit music compositions using an old Game Boy, the colleges where he wants to apply, and bassoon composers. We also talked about religion. He said, “I like being Jewish, but I don’t really see myself as religious.” He liked being part of his synagogue, was obviously involved and respected by the adults around him, and gave the most engaging and fun presentation that evening. But as we ate buttered challah before dinner, Jacob shared with me that he probably would not continue to be “religious” when he left for college.
There is no shortage of speculation about why religious institutions are failing young people. Yet, here is a young man who feels welcome, fully engages with his community and its worship, is recognized for his gifts and leadership, and still doesn’t plan to continue being “religious.” (What he might mean by that term would be a whole other blog post.)
If Jacob goes off to college next year and never walks into another synagogue again, it’s not because his synagogue didn’t do enough to nurture faith in young people. He’s proof that they’ve done a great job.
I also felt welcomed and accepted by the church I grew up in. I loved church—the hush and mystery of our formal worship service, the music, the mission trips, the drama program, the adults who engaged with kids. Even so, plenty of kids in my youth group walked away from church anyway and, as far as I know, probably have never looked back. Was it my church’s fault? My pastor’s fault? Their parents’ fault?
I don’t think so.
I think our culture is what’s changing. Institutions—whether churches, schools, municipalities, or nations—locate authority and knowledge in very specific places: a book, a leader, a set of bylaws, a governing structure. But our world is becoming a place where sources of authority and knowledge are disparate and diverse: internet searches, social media, self-produced and self-promoted novels, music, and films. We are becoming a Me and My Smart Phone World. Many of us navigate the world through a narrow portal held in our hands or laps, a portal for personal experience, perspective, and tastes. Self-reflection and expression, at least in the culturally dominant White middle and upper class, are valued more highly than ethnic identity, group membership, or institutional participation. More and more, technology is encouraging us to explore meaning, knowledge, and transcendence as individuals rather than as members of communities or groups.
Jacob told me he saw religion as a cultural practice that makes him feel a part of his family’s heritage and identity. Religion seemed like something he associated with his childhood and his past, but not as much his future. However, as we talked about how religion might look different in the future, he was excited to tell me about a religion that has been officially recognized in Sweden: Kopimism, which he called “a file-sharing religion.” Kopimism, founded by a 19-year old philosophy graduate student, seems more like an activist group than a religion. But its basic premise—that it is a human right to share authority broadly with no strings attached—does, I believe, have something to do with why many young people aren’t attracted to organized religion.
That doesn’t mean religious congregations should give up, or that they’re doomed, or that some young people won’t become passionately religious people. My fear is that congregations will become obsessed with ways to “fix” our churches, believing that we can convince young people not to leave by provocative Tweets, new worship styles, the right youth pastor, a “relevant message,” or some other magical solution. If only our churches were different, we suppose, our teenagers and young adults would be attending regularly and worshipping with gusto. Standing in the midst of a cultural shift like this one, we can’t think that way. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try new things or think of what would benefit our young people. But like Jacob, they may still not feel as though organized religion is a place for them, even if they love their congregation.
Instead, we should have confidence that it is enough to be a faith community with integrity—with great worship, music, traditions, and youth programs, whatever they may be in our tradition and congregation—and to be a faith community that cares about and celebrates kids.
Jacob also asked me about my tradition. He wanted to know where the term “Episcopal” came from and the history of the tradition. He listened to me talk about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Revolutionary War. He said, “Wow, that’s really neat. It sounds like it was all about freedom of conscience, wasn’t it?” It was refreshing to converse with someone—a sixteen-year old, no less—who could talk about religion in a thoughtful and open way.
Religion and spirituality aren’t going to disappear. Historically in the United States, young people are simply less engaged in religion than their elders. The Pew Forum reports that the number of young adults who say they pray on a regular basis is similar to rates reported by other generations when they were the same age. Millennials believe in God “with absolute certainty” at a rate similar to Generation X, ten years before. The world is changing, but perhaps some things will stay the same. Will the church look different in 100 years? Probably. Will people no longer be spiritual or want to gather together in some way? Probably not.
Maybe one day, Jacob will become a Kopimist. Maybe he’ll become agnostic or atheist. Maybe he’ll identify as one of the “nones” and celebrate Passover with his family but not much else. But whatever his spiritual future, for right now, his synagogue is a part of who he is. It’s a place he feels like he can be himself, and he even feels confident enough to welcome a stranger—a young Episcopal priest who doesn’t look much older than he does—and ask her about her religion. It’s a place where he is known and has been given traditions, texts, and practices to approach his questions about God, human beings, ethics, and the purpose of life. How he integrates his religious upbringing, his cultural context, his own hopes and fears, and the promptings and guidance of God within him into his life as an adult, is impossible to predict. But his experience of religion has not been irrelevant or a failure.
Image: silent shot. Church. Available from: Flickr Commons.