In mid-May the Pew Research Center released the finding from its 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The results themselves were not surprising: fewer Americans are identifying with religious groups, particularly Christianity and the “nones” (that is, people with no religious affiliation) are increasing. What made headlines was the rate at which Americans seem to be losing faith. In the seven years since the Pew Center’s previous study, Christian affiliation in America has dropped by 7.8% and the “nones” have increased by 6.7%. Non-Christian faiths have increased by 1.2%. Doing the math, that means, essentially, that 6.7% of the American population has lost faith in religion generally and Christianity specifically over the past 7 years. A bit more than 1% have turned to other faiths.
Now, this does not necessarily reflect the stories of individuals. Older Americans who identified as Christians have died and younger Americans 35% of whom are unaffiliated with religion now make up a larger percentage of the population. That said, many Christians have severed ties with their Christian faith. Pew reports that “Former Christians represent 19.2% of U.S. adults overall.”
Why is it that Americans are turning from Christian faith and young people are less interested in Christian faith than previous generations? CNN asked L. Gregory Jones (the Senior Strategist for Leadership Education and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School) this very question.
According to CNN’s report, Jones explains that “Christianity in the United States hasn’t done a good job of engaging serious Christian reflection with young people, in ways that would be relevant to their lives.” He also cites one study that “nearly 70% of full-time youth ministers have no theological education.” As a result, young people are “bored by church.” Moreover, according to Jones, millennials are tired of “endless debates of sexual morality.” The solution, “serious engagements with Christian social innovation, and … deep intellectual reflection.”
Jones’ advise sounds easy, right? Only hire educated youth pastors, raise the bar in terms of intellectual engagement and lived, embodied faith (i.e. social action). In other words, treat Christian faith as a serious, worthwhile, robust tradition worthy of shaping human life and then actually let it shape the hearts, minds and strength of its adherents.
In America, as in other countries, taking Christian faith this seriously is far more challenging than it would seem. Youth pastors might want to foster a deep engagement with the Christian faith for their high school and university aged students but serious faith is disruptive. Serious faith is often dangerous to our comfortable lives and material ambitions.
How does one actually live Jesus teachings, when he tells the crowds “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Or, “go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me”? Implementing these teachings might just offer the social innovation millennials (justly) crave. But it might also lead to some unsavory dinner guests and housemates. And it will certainly undermine the political status quo that continues to align the American political right with Christian faith.
The real obstacle to the intellectually and socially engaged faith young people seek may not be “the world” or inherent human “sinfulness” (both of which are always good candidates to for explaining failure in the Christian tradition). Social innovation and intellectual reflection frequently sits uneasily easily with the defining battles of “Christian America” in the past 25 years or so. A vibrant intellectual faith may very well embrace evolution, accept the human role in climate change, and believe that the Bible is “true” in different terms than traditional infallibility. A vibrant lived faith might insist upon clean air and water as human rights, view marriage equality differently in the civil and religious spheres, and insist that caring for those on the margins of society is best done both systemically and through person-to-person action.
I’m by no means the first person to say this…numerous articles and blogs have appeared over the past couple years charting this exact shift in American culture and religion. So, what do I want to add to the conversation here at WonderingF air? I want to ask you, dear reader, what do “serious engagements with Christian social innovation, and … deep intellectual reflection” look like? And, what stands in way of an engaged, transformative Christian faith?