Religious Lives of Twentysomethings, Part 3

Written by Brandon O'Brien on January 10th, 2012

This past semester my students and I have been educating each other. I’ve been introducing them—at warp speed—to the major world religions. They’ve been candidly expressing their perspectives on faith, religious practice, and what any of that might have to do with their daily lives. In two previous posts, I summarized a few common themes—some surprising, some not—that emerged from their written reflections in the course. Below I comment on how their responses have thinking about ministering to the enigmatic twentysomething.

Know why they’re coming.

Even though we know we shouldn’t, many of us still consider attendance a victory. If they show up at church, we think, it’s because they’re looking for something only the church can offer. Maybe. My students’ responses make me think we need to find out why people come to church. The reasons might surprise us.

For example, many of my students expressed an interest in having their children in church (or temple or synagogue), even though they themselves are not “believers” of any sort. For them, religious service and education are a great means of instilling a sense of tradition and a moral foundation in kids. In other words—and this is the important point—adults may not be attending our churches because they believe they’ll find something of value there for them. They may be attending only for their children’s sake. And not because they want their kids to come to saving faith in Jesus or learn to hear God speak; rather, they want them to be nice people, good citizens. And they figure church isn’t a bad place to start.

I was speaking to a rabbi recently, who expressed this phenomenon in interesting terms. He said his sense was that after World War II the focus of religion in America became pediatric—church is valuable for kids, not grown ups. He suspects many people still feel this way.

Practically, this has a couple of important implications. First, it might be why some people are resistant to volunteering in church programs. Why don’t adults want to serve? Because they aren’t in church to gain anything—much less to invest anything. They just want you to teach their kids a few valuable principles for good living. Second, it might help our ministers who work with children and youth to expect that parents won’t be involved in their children’s spiritual lives. It may be that parents expect their kids to derive all the benefits of church from Sunday morning and midweek programs.

Activism is not the cure.

If we don’t consider church attendance a victory, then we do tend to consider involvement in programs a sign of a vital Christian faith. According to my students: not so. I have several students who actively lead in religious youth programs or education but do not consider themselves religious. Ultimately, they are looking for a way to serve, and the church provides that. But I get the sense they’d be as happy serving through a community agency, if one offered them the same opportunities.

It’s popular to point out that the Millennial generation is activistic. Churches are eager to capitalize on that impulse to get them involved in ministry. I understand the instinct. But we can easily be led to believe that a busy body is indication of a saved soul. This is a big mistake. The question to ask may be, Who are they eager to serve? Christ or the community? These are not, of course, strictly distinct. But if someone wants to serve the community but has no interest in serving Christ, then they aren’t interested in “Christian service.”

Go deep.

Very few of my students could identify any way religion might impact their daily lives, specifically their future personal and professional goals. Even the students who consider themselves committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers. They could point to superficial things—like wanting to be married in their church, which meant they had to marry a fellow Christian—but couldn’t go much deeper than that.

This is troubling. I suspect some will blame preaching and teaching that doesn’t focus on life application. But I’m not so sure. I wonder if the problem is actually too much emphasis on the practical. Evangelicals have had a tendency for the last twenty years or so to distill the Scriptures into five principles for happy marriages and three promises for raising great kids. If we spoke of the Christian life more in terms of the inner life—spoke of the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation, of the pursuit of godly virtue, spiritual gifts and fruit, etc.—if we truly focused on growing Christians, and not just good citizens, maybe our young people would have an easier time identifying how their faith affects the rest of their lives.

Those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I’d love to hear yours.

Read part 1 and part 2


3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Dorothy L. Ivey says:

    I have enjoyed your findings and comments. I think that some of the mega church leaders who preach that you can acquire wealth and success if you are in the church have hurt the overall message of Christ. I have seen folks, including my children, who thought as you say that the church would help them raise their own children. So they have been active in the church. I wish young people could see a connection of their Christian living in the way they work, how they treat people, how they serve and give back to others and how enriched they are on their faith journey — not to mention
    the joy of salvation and being forgiven. I am sure your class was beneficial to them.
    Thanks for sharing their papers.
    Aunt Dorothy

  2. Jennifer (Wilkins) says:

    Brandon – so good to discover your blog (thanks to a link by Julie Shepherd on FB)! You have some great insights here. I will have to go back and read your previous posts. A couple of years ago our church was advertising a new children’s program, and a man called and inquired. He said it was just what he was looking for for his daughter. For the first year, he or his wife brought the little girl, faithfully, but never lingered. They did attend one or two special events when they were invited, but no one was ever at a “regular” service. They only brought the little girl to that one class each week. Eventually the did attend more and more “special” events until they were attending Weds evenings as a family. Praise the Lord the wife and teenage son ended up giving their lives to the Lord and now the whole family attends quite regularly. It amazed me that this father wanted his little girl in church, b/c he grew up in church, but it (originally) wasn’t important for him and his wife or their son. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Your observations help to explain it!

  3. Linda Stoll says:

    Thanks, Brandon. Your posts on Out of Ur led me to your blog.

    I’ve explored the impact of the faith of 20-somethings on their somewhat bewildered parents. The post below may add to the discussion.

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