Two new surveys were released this past week by the Pew Research Center. Pew Research is known for its research in the religious habits and trends of Americans. Last year, Pew released a devastating study that confirmed with numbers what many of us assumed through experience: 23% of all adult Americans self-identify as being either atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Pew Research calls those who in this category “nones” as in none of the above. Nearly one in four adults are none of the above. What was even more jarring, but no less surprising, is that the younger the person, the more likely they are to self-identity as having no religious affiliation whatsoever. 35% of the so-called Millennials (those born between 1981-1996) are “nones.” Pew’s research also showed that the median age for “nones” is 36. This should get our attention. The latest survey builds upon research among the “nones.” Half of the “nones” were raised in religious households. But keep in mind that the “nones” are taken from all adults, half of which were raised in religious households. The younger generations – children of “nones” – won’t even have a religious tradition to reject. Let me be clear, I’m not trying to be Chicken Little making a grand proclamation that the sky is falling. I’m also not inclined to say we have the luxury of still living in the Bible Belt where these issues don’t pertain to us. Both are untrue. The sky is not falling (the lesson from Hebrews this week reminds us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever), but these issues absolutely pertain to us. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve dealt with areligious children in planning the funerals of devout parents. I’ve also seen and heard the lament of many a parent in this parish whose adult children do not practice their faith or have no faith to practice. I have three children of my own who are raised in a religious home but live in a secular world. I, too, wonder and worry about their relationship with Jesus as they grow.
Everything I know and feel tells me that what we are trying to accomplish – in radical fashion – at St Timothy’s is right. I know that is different from a lot of churches and that the traditions and formality may seem to be counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom as to what reaches people, but I would argue that conventional wisdom has failed us. Conventional wisdom assured generations that Christian teaching and values would be reinforced by other facets of society. In reality, those facets challenge the faith we proclaim. Conventional wisdom has said that if we make faith more accessible and convenient, they will come. Yet every year the “nones” increase. When I read the answers that “nones” give for leaving the faith, they nearly all represent a rejection of Christianity that was poorly formed to begin with. Among the responses include the introductions of evolution and rational thought. Neither of these are, nor have ever been, barriers to serious Christian faith. The “nones” cite hypocrisy and money as other reasons why they’ve left. We are all hypocritical from time to time and some Christians, especially on television, have a horrible witness when it comes to money, but honestly, these are straw man arguments that contain more caricature than content.
Among the main objectives in ordering our common life at St Timothy’s is to create a culture of faithful people where there is an expectation of adoration, formation, and transformation. I want our children and youth to know and understand that our faith in Jesus touches everything in our lives. I want them to understand that the really big, important, and interesting questions are only answered through the words of faith. And I want to give them the tools to do this and to stimulate their imagination so that they never grow too cocky that they lose all awareness of things seen and unseen. I want them to know the power of Sacraments and the grace that flows from them. I want them to have spiritual muscle memory that immediately reacts in times of crisis, doubt, and abundance. This is why we do the things we do and this is why I’m convinced of their importance. We preach frequent attendance at church because that it is the fount of adoration, formation, and transformation. Studies show that what keeps youth connected to faith when they become adults is based on how their parents modeled living the faith. That is why we ask parents to read the Bible and sacrifice their time and resources for the sake of the Gospel: it forms and teaches.
When I have young boys and girls fighting in the sacristy over who gets to hold the incense during mass, I am convinced all over again that there is wisdom in the Church’s experience. They want to be a part of something that is holy and mysterious. Everyone else is giving them what they want. We give them what they need. Even when they may be grumpy about it in the moment, they will be grateful later. And they will show their gratitude by practicing their faith all the days of their life.