Nearly all the people who ask me questions are past the age of fifty. They are trying to deepen their spiritual life, and they aren’t finding ways to do that in their lifelong Christian beliefs and practices. Often they have been seeking for years, trying out different spiritual options like meditation, yoga, New Age, and various Eastern religions, but never feeling satisfied. By the time they reach out to me, many of these people are frustrated and even angry. Some have come to think that good answers to their spiritual questions will never be found.
Fortunately, I think the spiritual questions that are being asked by cradle Christians have satisfying answers, but that is primarily because they have a grounding in traditional Christianity. As is true of a bush that has become overgrown, if we can prune away the misshapen branches that are based in fear and negativity, we often can help them get back to their childhood Gospel roots. But this sort of fix will not be possible for the so-called Millennials, close to half of whom claim to have no religious affiliation. And for Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2015, present trends suggest that when they are adults few of them will have any spiritual roots at all.
Western Europe is at least a generation ahead of the United States in losing its Christian grounding. The ultimate result of this spiritual falling-away in Europe cannot yet be assessed, but even in the United States we are seeing some pretty appalling results as the religiously affiliated percentage of this nation continues to decline toward 50%. Since Christianity is based in fear, this result seems to be counterintuitive; but fear and negativity are rising here exponentially! Whether it is political warfare, violent entertainments, or panic that every weather event will soon make this planet uninhabitable: the fact is that the United States has become dramatically more fearful and angry. It is time to step back a bit from the fray and try to understand what has gone so wrong and how we might begin to repair it.
We talked here a couple of weeks ago about the reasons that most lapsed Christians give for outright leaving the faith:
As was said above, we can address these issues for people who grew up in Christianity. But in a couple of decades the number of American adults who are not cradle Christians easily will pass fifty percent! And there is probably nothing we can do at this point to change that result. What we can do, though, is to think about how we might best replace the highly problematic Christianity of Constantine, Calvin, and Torquemada with the gentle Christian Way based in universal Gospel truths that Jesus came to earth to begin.
Recent surveys suggest that for younger Millennials, the first and fourth of the reasons for leaving Christianity that their elders give are the primary reasons why so many young American adults are not religious. They find many Christian teachings to be intolerable, both unloving and hard to believe, which indeed they are! But understandably, most Christian leaders are not prepared to consider the fact that the religion’s decline is a direct result of the unpleasant and antiquated ideas at its core. The Wall Street Journal has just run an article by Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western University, who reports that in the youngest Millennial cohort (those who are 18 to 29 years old), 44% are so-called “Nones,” those who choose to declare no religious affiliation. He speculates that “Maybe it’s because their idea of faith is too narrow.”
Dr. Beal believes the young are leaving Christianity because of secular social pressures, because many of their parents are in mixed marriages or are otherwise less religious, and because more traditionally religious functions are being performed by “alt-religious” communities, many of which are online. But he admits that the answers that young people themselves give for having abandoned Christianity suggest that, just like their elders, they are turned off by the religion itself. According to a 2018 Pew poll, young Millennials “question a lot of religious teachings” (60%) and “don’t like the positions churches take on political/social issues” (49%).
Dr. Beal’s proposal for addressing the fact that almost half of the youngest Millennials reject the very idea of religion is to engage them in discussions. He says, “I find that when my students, including the majority Nones, are given access to religion not as a set of teachings and positions but as a space for active engagement with enduring questions, they lean in. Indeed, they find this way of thinking about religion a refreshing change from their generally polarized political interactions and personalized newsfeeds.” He adds, “What we need is sustained conversation in a context that allows and even welcomes different experiences and points of view. What do you mean when you self-define as religiously None? What is the story behind that box you checked? What are the teachings and positions that you question? Did you always question them, or did something in your life lead you to think differently?…When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.”
A thoughtful Catholic layperson wrote a lengthy article on the religious website Patheos.com in which she refuted every Catholic talking-point given by the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, who is considered to be “one of the hip bishops that has a better understanding of the plight of young people.” Her article is full of zingers, my favorite of which is this: “Our teaching is hard. But don’t you see the irony in insisting that married lay couples never use a condom and that homosexually oriented lay men and women remain celibate for life, when priests and bishops acted like libertines, predators and pimps?” And not to be outdone in the sinning department, Evangelical churches nationwide are being roiled by sex scandals of their own. To quote an excellent Patheos article about sexual abuse in the fundamentalist Evangelical community, “Billy Graham’s grandson Boz Tchividjian … has been ringing a similar alarm. … He’s been telling Christians for at least five years that they need to quit being so ‘very arrogant when pointing to Catholics’ because what they’re facing is ‘worse’.” An appalling number of Christian leaders have used their positions of power to sexually abuse the very people they claim they have been called by God to serve. To the unpalatable nature of Christian dogmas and the cruelty of some Christian social teachings, we might add as a reason why many of the young are leaving Christianity the moral hypocrisy of so many Christian leaders.
This rapid falling-away from spiritual pursuits by the very young might be seen to be a crisis. It is happening more slowly in some places than in others, but fear-based religions are losing their hold worldwide; and while getting rid of the fear is a good thing, for young people to be abandoning the very idea of spirituality is not. I don’t have a pat answer to this problem, although it preoccupies me more and more: the thought that in a century or less most children may be growing up without a glimmer of a spiritual grounding seems tragic! But it also gives us some wonderful opportunities, if we can take advantage of them. As the great French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin so brilliantly said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The urge to be a spiritual seeker is at the very core of each newborn child, and the fact that for more and more such children that urge will not be filled by Christian dogmas gives us the wonderful opportunity to fill their needs with the Lord’s true words and the urge to follow His genuine Way.
I have been thinking through how we might begin to offer the Lord’s Way to everyone, with an emphasis on the very young. If we focus on the young, their elders will follow! We should welcome everyone’s ideas, but for now it seems to me that the Lord’s true movement should be:
And above all, we must forever grant to God the right to give us new revelation!
As we prepare to share the teachings of Jesus with the young in entirely spiritual ways, my second children’s picture book (about the death of a pet) will be out next year. Meanwhile, I am hearing from parents who tell me how much their little ones are enjoying The Fun of Meeting Jesus. I bless the lovely artist who created these books’ beautiful illustrations!