Religious Lives of Twentysomethings

Written by Brandon O'Brien on January 3rd, 2012

This semester I assigned the students in the World Religions course I teach a series of writing exercises that (I hoped) would help them personalize and internalize the subject matter we were reading about and discussing in class. There were four total, one every four weeks or so. And each was a little more probing. My goal was simply to get them thinking about their experience with religion, assumptions about religious claims, how they understand the role religion plays in their lives—that sort of thing. The projects were enlightening for many of them. Several told me they’d never thought about these things before, and they’re glad they did. (It’s nice when a plan works out. That was the point, after all.) What I hadn’t expected was how enlightening their responses would be for me.

Discussions about why young folk leave the faith and how to get them back continue to generate a lot of heat. I don’t claim to have anything new to contribute. My observations here are anecdotal, not scientific. But I found it useful to reflect on the general trends that emerged in my students’ reports. They have a lot to say about this ever elusive demographic.

First some trends I did not find surprising.

Spiritual but not religious.

Consistent with the conventional wisdom about young people—and maybe even older people—in America, the vast majority of my students were quick to identify as spiritual—as believing in something out there bigger than themselves—but were hesitant to identify as religious. Growing up, our pastors reminded us frequently that Christianity is “not a religion; it’s a relationship.” That’s not what my students mean. They are hesitant to align themselves with a community that they view as wanting to control their behavior or making them adopt an entire belief system in toto. Many of them wrote something to this effect: “I used to go to church. Now I don’t. I don’t feel any closer to God in a church than I do at home.” They feel they have all the necessary resources for faith—all by themselves.

Happy to believe many things at once.

One reason, I suppose, that these young folks don’t want to identify as religious is because they prefer to draw from different aspects of all religions as they synthesize their spiritual points of view. This isn’t just “I’m okay, you’re okay” relativism—they’re quick to admit when they disagree with a religious teaching. (“That’s stupid,” is a favorite objection.) But they are skeptical that any one belief system has all the answers. They like the forgiveness of Christianity but balk at the Trinity; they admire the nonviolence of Buddhism but find nirvana hard to swallow. This is true even of Christian students. Several of them wrote that they consider themselves followers of Jesus but they believe in reincarnation. Buffet-style religion is alive and well among America’s twentysomethings.

Religion irrelevant

In the first assignment, the students wrote about their experience with religion from their earliest memories to the present. Interestingly, most of them had overwhelmingly positive experiences with religion as young children. Some of them expressed being bored or confused during services—temple, mosque, synagogue, or church. But none of them reported leaving the faith of their youth because they had a traumatic experience or because they ultimately disagreed with the community’s teaching. Rather, most of them just stopped going. One week they went; the next week they didn’t. Services didn’t make any real difference in their life.

In another post, I’ll list a few themes I found surprising. In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone else’s experience confirms or qualifies what I’ve noticed with my students.

Read part 2 and part 3


9 Comments so far ↓

  1. Nancy Harrell says:

    It was interesting in last semester’s class that most students had polar positive experiences as children in the church with people, not programs. It’s not that X program turned the off or on to church attendance, it’s that this particular person pushed them toward or away from church attendance & faith, developed for better or worse their growing understanding of God. One author made a strong claim that the lack of social integration of children in churches (with peers, primarily) results in the irrelevance factor you pointed out. Interesting stuff…!

  2. Nancy Harrell says:

    Oops…polar opposite. :)

  3. Dorothy L. Ivey says:

    This is an interesting study, and your assignments showed a relativity to your students’ lives.
    As an old English teacher,I have always wanted written work to relate to something in the lesson or the life of the student. I do not like “busy work” being required.
    I hope you post some other comments and ideas of the students.

  4. brandon says:

    Thanks to you all.

    Nancy: I’m thankful for your insight. It resonates with a lot of things I’ve been reading lately–that it’s interpersonal connections that keep young people in church.

    Dorothy: I agree with you–both as a student and a teacher I’ve always hated busy work! These short assignments have been a good way to get students to interact personally with the content of class. I hope to find other useful assignments in this vein in the future.

    Julie: I’m surprised by your comment. I would have guessed that–at least culturally–Turkish young people would be more likely to adhere to the faith of their parents. Thanks for this!

  5. Saw this article over at Leadership Journal, a.k.a. Our of Ur (who, BTW, have the audacity to have not updated the link to your blog, but I set them straight :) ). I left a somewhat different answer there, but to sum it up, I wonder if much of the problem is not only are they expected to “adopt an entire belief system in toto” but to do so without questions (theirs) or explanations (the church’s). Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m learning a new job, it helps if I know not only what I’m supposed to do, but why I’m supposed to do it as well. Similarly, I think it’s possible that some young people might get turned off if they’re simply being told what to believe without being given a sufficient reason why to believe it (and, no, “because that’s what the church has always believed” does not count as sufficient).
    Just wondering if you’ve seen some of this in the responses as well and, if so, if this might contribute to the “buffet effect”.

  6. brandon says:


    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I suspect one reason many students find the belief system of their parents hard to swallow is because they don’t understand the connection between the parts. I spend a good deal of time in class explaining the internal consistency of a religion–say Budhhism–to students who grew up Buddhist but don’t understand why they do and don’t do certain things.

    I think Exodus 12:26 is a great example of how things ought to work. Moses tells the people, “When you children ask you, What does this ceremony mean to you? Tell them…” It assumes kids learn by participation in worship, but that they also need things to be spelled out for them. Of course this means adults need to know why as well, or they won’t be able to tell their kids.

  7. I believe we are basically in agreement. Maybe this is what you mean, but I would reserve spelling it out for them as a last resort. Used too often and it just becomes a detailed “telling them what to believe” instead of a general “telling them what to believe”.

  8. Shauna Morrissey says:

    I can actually echo what Julie said for Korea as well. While many parents make their children “follow” thier religion, even if they never go, they tell the kids they can’t go someplace else. However most of the kids here have a hard time accepting the faith of their parents. I think Asian youth are starting to move away from part of the very belief that you do what your family does and don’t question.

  9. Jay Bogardus says:

    Your conclusions completely describe why I had problems with religion for years. Recently I met someone who came from a similar perspective about religion as myself and yet was a youth minister. He hosts open-minded discussions about God in fun neutal places that I enjoy. It was through Frank’s blog that I found this article. You can learn more about the organization at

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