There is a pretty little chapel in a college town, right near campus. It belongs to a mainline protestant denomination. It is has everything going for it. It has a well-funded ministry, a competent staff, a great location, a great organ, and plenty of programs for students who have always been the main attendees. But there is a problem. People are not showing up. The trend started perhaps 10 years ago and it is accelerating. Now it is not uncommon for services to be near empty. The future is not bright.
Some people say it is easy to explain. In the past, only about 5% of the population professed no religious attachments. But new polls show that among people under 30 years of age some 30 to 40 percent have no interest in religion at all. They believe in nothing and associate with no local worship community. This is a titanic shift, one that seems not to have sunk in yet. For the first time on record, the new generation has just lost interest. This chapel is a victim of such trends.
That’s what one might first suppose. However, there are other churches in town that are not experiencing such problems. Their programs are full. They are expanding. The parking lot is packed for services, social events, Bible studies, everything. These other churches do not have to take recourse to national polls as a way of making excuses for themselves. They see with their own eyes that what they are doing is working.
Why is one case so sad and the other is so happy? There is a one major difference between the two cases. Those with full and active programs profess a robust faith. The dying chapel does not.
In the case of the chapel, the brand of Christianity they are selling is what one might call fashionable in an academic sense. Every effort is made to avoid what might be called Christian orthodoxy. Homilies are community conversations in which every expression of any idea is considered right. People who suggest the truth of basic points of the Nicene Creed are looked upon with suspicion. The social activities revolve around political issues like the environment, racial justice, and LGBT concerns. If you believe something approximating what Christians have always believed, you have to prepared to be schooled in the ways of the modern world.
The other churches provide what you might expect from religious institutions: actual belief. People pray. There is teaching. There is liturgical form. There are Bible studies and people seek truth in the Scriptures. Christians are not looked upon as the bad guys of all human history. Reverence and seriousness dominates the services. Social activities presume a faith commitment. They celebrate the joyfulness of Christian life rather than sit around grousing about social and political problems like racism, inequality, and environmental decay. To be sure, these active Churches all have different doctrines and traditions, but whatever they are, each is proclaimed and practiced with conviction.
I highlight the two cases in order to illustrate that the polls alone do not necessarily determine specific results. It is true that young people are losing faith. The data are absolutely overwhelming. But are they surprising? Not really. This generation has unprecedented access to everything. Entertainment is immediate. Every show and movie is right there. Video games are more incredible than ever. Opportunities for social engagement in the digital realm are amazing. Political activism is now an online activity. Competition for our time is intensifying by the day.
The influences hitting young people are vast and varied, and the rise of atheism is everywhere on display. The message from everywhere is clear: Christianity is bogus.
Why should they bother with religion? The opportunity costs are high for practicing any faith at all. Everything else is just more cool and interesting. Truly, times have changed. Religion has to be pretty impressive to compete with what’s out there. Even on the rare case when kids get to Church, it is hard to get them to put down their smartphones even for one hour.
They are fully aware that they are the first generation to enjoy such unprecedented access. Tradition does not hold them as a matter of habit. In this sense, they are unlike their parents or grandparents. This is a generation ready to break from the past. The sacred spaces that attract people out of their digital universes have to be pretty impressive.
At the very least, the places that attract them have to have something real to offer. Churches can’t compete in same sectors where the digital world excels. But it can offer something different and wonderful. The sacred space with real belief and conviction is such an offering. In fact, it is the primary thing that the Church can offer. The social and cultural experience follows from that.
I’ve seen enough anecdotal evidence to support this, and probably you have too. If not, just think about it why it makes sense. The college ministries that break ranks from the cultural fashion are doing well. Those that attempt to draw people in by saying the same things that you can get everywhere else in the world are not doing well.
And kids are sophisticated enough to know the difference. If someone is curious about what Christianity has to offer and ends up in some touchy-feeling session in which anything goes and outright nonbelief is given equal status to orthodoxy, that kid will leave. What’s the point? If you want politics, there are millions of options. If you want rampant skepticism, any one of thousands of sites and social groups are suitable.
What is the Church’s comparative advantage in this environment? It can provide a solid ground for truth, for belief rooted in enduring tradition, and a physical space for the instantiation of holiness. Within this framework, but not without it, good and healthy social relationships can form, and a vibrant culture can take root.
Trends in the Catholic Church today seem to be on the right side of history. The new English Missal takes the faith seriously. We are slowing backing away from the trends of the past decades to ignore the liturgical music tradition and replace it with fashionable pop songs. Parishes are realizing that Catholicism itself has a certain cultural cache because it, nearly alone, has stuck by truth and stood up to the powers that be, even in the face of relentless persecution. There is a certain heroism about professing the Catholic faith today.
And even within the Catholic framework, differences are emerging between the flimsy faith of the contemporary past and the new traditionalism. Among the traditional orders, we are seeing expansion but among those who bought into the temporary mushheadedness, we see faltering and decay. Publishers like Ignatius Press are booming while others are not. The programs of the Church Music Association of America are packed to capacity but not so with others.
A Christianity that doesn’t believe in itself lives for a while on momentum of the past but doesn’t have much of a future. A Christianity that is authentic renews itself regardless of the changing times precisely because it makes its foundation the eternal truths that transcend the passage of time.