The Word Among Us

July/August 2016 Issue

I Want to Believe

What do young people think about the faith?

I Want to Believe: What do young people think about the faith?

Some studies say it’s 60 percent; others say it’s 70 percent. Whatever the exact number, it’s not very encouraging: many young adults have stopped attending church.

Some of the reasons that the study gave are more demographic in nature: taking a job away from home or marrying someone of a different faith background. But it’s the more interior reasons that shed light on the real issues that concern young people.

According to these studies, some young adults say that they stopped going to church because they felt that the church members, often including the pastor, had become too judgmental and too politically oriented. For example, they objected to the way different political parties were being labeled, not only as misguided, but also as anti-Christian.

Another major hurdle is what they call a repeated criticism and rejection of their culture. One survey reported that fully 25 percent of those contacted felt that the Church looks down on the music, movies, and technology that define their generation.

Finally, many young adults are put off by the way they perceive Church leaders as intolerant of their way of life. They object to an overemphasis on conformity, both in terms of morality and religious practice. They complain that rather than accepting that there are “many ways” to live a fulfilling life, the Church continues to impose its ways on the world.

While many Church members think that the exodus of young adults is just a phase that most will grow out of in time, the studies suggest a different conclusion: many who leave will not return. Of course, not all of these assessments are accurate. But they show that we need to understand the way young people think if we are going to engage them and help them embrace their faith. This is something we want to try to do in this article.

Modern vs. Postmodern. We all know that it’s next to impossible to place every young adult in the same category. There are too many variables, and every one is in a unique situation. But one distinction worth looking at is the difference in worldview between the generations. Whereas many older generations might fit a “Modernist” approach to the world, many young adults are more postmodern in their thinking.

For the past three hundred years or so, until the 1950s and 1960s, Modernism was the predominant ideology in the world. It was ushered in by the Renaissance, strengthened during the French Revolution, and solidified during the Industrial Revolution and the era of modern inventions. A simple way of looking at Modernism is to think of the term the “Age of Reason.” Modernism holds fast to scientific analysis, absolute truth, and the value of authority. When it comes to Christianity, Modernism emphasizes systematic theology, which is an organized, almost step-by-step formulation of the faith; and apologetics, which focuses on explaining and defending the truths of the faith.

In many ways, postmodernism is a rejection of the Modernist approach. Rather than focusing on unchanging truths, postmodernism is concerned with results. It focuses on things as they are in the world right now. So people with a postmodern bent would look at a rapidly deteriorating environment, a century marked by bloody wars, global poverty, and famine, and call into question the security that Modernism was supposed to bring. They might ask, “What good are unchanging truths if there is so much evil and dysfunction in the world?”

Crumbling Foundations? There is also a suspicion of the traditional centers of authority. Young adults have grown up with reports of our beloved Church being involved in sex abuse and cover-up scandals that have harmed many innocent young people. They are more tuned into the way that presidents, prime ministers, and other world leaders have been caught in webs of deception and greed. And they see traditional institutions and political parties virtually collapse under the weight of their own corruption and misdeeds.

On a personal level, it is often the case that young adults have become more self-reliant than those who came before them—and at an earlier age. The breakdown of family life and the lack of community support make it hard for them to feel grounded and secure. Nothing is firm or reliable; nothing is completely trustworthy.

It’s not surprising, then, that many young adults feel lost and alone, aimless and adrift. The experience of being let down by their parents, by government, and by spiritual leaders has left many young adults skeptical. It has made it harder for them to believe in something or to do something simply because that’s what their elders did. It has made it hard for them to develop a set of philosophies or principles for their lives.

I Want to Believe. Because of this postmodern mind-set, many young adults don’t feel the need to return to the “fundamentals.” They question absolute truth. To them, all things, even the way to God, are relative. Morality is no longer based on Scripture; it’s based instead on each individual’s interpretation of what is right and wrong. This is the basis for their emphasis on tolerance. There is no one right way, so we have to embrace the different views that people have. Sex before marriage is just as acceptable as the Church’s call to chastity. Sunday Mass is optional because people can be “spiritual” without going to church. And repentance is unnecessary because sin is minimal.

So instead of emphasizing a creed or specific articles of faith, young people tend to emphasize personal experience and the journey of life. They don’t appreciate being told what they should think or how they should act. They appreciate instead the discoveries they have made for themselves along the way.

A popular television show from the 1990s that resurfaced this year offers a sort of contrast between the Modern mind and the postmodern mind. The two main characters of The X-Files, Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, embody this contrast. The Modernist FBI agent, Dr. Scully, employs a scientific approach to her work. She bases her beliefs primarily on what is already known and what can be proven. The postmodernist agent, Fox Mulder, doesn’t trust anyone who is in authority. In his eyes, everyone is capable of doing wrong.

Mulder believes that “the truth is out there” and that it can be discovered through a journey—even if that journey involves alien abductions and vast government conspiracies. The show draws most of its drama from this contrast as Mulder, who trusts experience more than analysis, keeps trying to convince Scully, who relies on facts. Mulder wants to believe in something solid and substantial in the way that Scully does, but he won’t allow himself to take that leap without more evidence.

A Postmodern Pope? Pope Francis is keenly aware of this shift from Modernism to postmodernism. When he comes to Kraków to celebrate World Youth Day, he will speak, and listen, to hundreds of thousands of young, “postmodern” people. Judging from his letter to them in preparation for this event, we can surmise some of what the Holy Father will likely say to them.

First, he will likely tell them what he told one Italian newspaper editor: “We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good.” Rather than lecturing them on what they need to believe, he will honor their desire for goodness, confident that any quest for “the good” will ultimately lead to the Lord. Of course, he will encourage them to consider Jesus as the ultimate good, but he won’t force Jesus on them. He will urge them to ask their questions and voice their doubts so that they can start conversations and dialogues with people in the Church who are sincerely trying to understand where they are coming from.

Second, it’s likely that the pope will share his own personal experience of Jesus when he was a young adult and encourage them to invite Jesus to join them on their journey. Third, he will likely appeal to their idealism. He will talk about the poverty, the loneliness, and the lack of charity in the world. He’ll encourage them to get out and do works of mercy to help make the world a better place—for that is where they can meet Jesus. After all, Pope Francis is the one who said, “Go, and make a mess.”

Experience, Not Absolutes. Telling young adults what to do and how to think can be effective to some degree. This is especially true if the person doing the talking displays a willingness to listen to conflicting views without becoming defensive.

The key is to know that young adults are eager to understand God, but they respond much more positively to stories, open dialogue, and community than to apologetics and dogmatic theology. They want to hear about other people’s journeys and discoveries about God, not a set of claims and propositions about him.

In the final analysis, parents and pastors who understand where their children are coming from will have a better chance of reaching them and building up their faith.

(For more information on young adults leaving the Church see, for example, the Barna Survey on Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church, 2011, or the Pew Research Center study, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, May 2015.)