Like any person of faith, I read with great interest the recent Pew Forum study showing that a rising number of Americans say they have no religious affiliation. In fact, there are more so-called "nones," as in those who respond "none of the above" when asked to designate a religious affiliation, than there are Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination.
The finding that grabbed many of the headlines and has produced a fair amount of handwringing is the statistic showing that Protestants are no longer a majority in the U.S. In fact, there are now more "nones" than there are people who identify themselves with any Protestant religion—whether Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Church of Christ, or non-denominational Christian.
But a closer look offers some further insights. The statistic that most intrigued me found that a third of those who check off "none" are young—under 30. Unlike Baby Boomers, who may have jettisoned religion in their college years, only to pop up in church again when they married or wanted their babies baptized, today's young adults told Pew researchers they are unlikely to return to church at any time.
It's hardly surprising—rather, it fits with other studies that have shown that so-called "Millennials" are not joiners. It's the reason you usually see only gray-haired people at meetings of the local Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, Shriners, and Young Men's and Young Women's clubs across the country. It's the reason YMCAs and YWCAs have closed in many communities. Can we really expect a spirit of community to reign among a generation used to being able to do most things without interacting with another human being? Millennials forsake the library to sit alone at the computer and find whatever they need. They text over in-person conversation or even phone calls. To send your personal opinions out into the world, you once had to publish them in a newspaper, a journal, or a book, which meant collaborating with an editor or editorial board. Now any individual can speak his or her mind online without joining anyone (including, I suppose, an audience to listen to them).
I don't mean to sound as if this is all bad. It is neither good nor bad, I suppose. It is merely progress. But I can't help feeling that we have lost something essential with all this disembodied interaction and ready individualism. When I was still single, in my twenties and thirties, I couldn't wait for Sunday morning to arrive. That was when I got to spend time with my friends at my wonderful parish in downtown Chicago. Since most of my family lived elsewhere, my friends from Immaculate Conception parish became my surrogate family in Chicago. I spent holidays with them when I couldn't return home. Our pastor, Father Patrick Lee, was a best friend to every person in the parish, and I like to think, we were to him as well. I am sad that the "nones" have not—or cannot—find that kind of faith community.
Leave Yesterday Behind
But here is the good news in the Pew report. A large percentage (68 percent) say they believe somewhat in God or a higher power. And 41 percent say they pray. To my mind, those statistics toss a distinct challenge to leaders and members of organized religions. We have built, but the people are not coming. Why? Since I have been a lifelong Catholic, I feel most comfortable addressing my own faith. But as a journalist who covers the religion beat, I feel I can safely say the issues chasing people out of the pews is largely the same for Protestant churches as well. Churches across the spectrum have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy in the last three decades talking about, deliberating on, arguing over two main issues: abortion and homosexuality. Have you asked a 20-something lately if these are burning issues for their age group? This is a generation that has never known anything but legalized abortion. They have attended high school with kids who openly identify themselves as gay. As for ordination of gays, I remember reporting a story for PBS on young seminarians in mainline Protestant churches. Most told me homosexuality wasn't something they spent much time even thinking about. They could care less if the person being ordained to the clergy alongside them was gay or straight. Imagine too how the near hysteria of the Catholic bishops over the birth control provision in the health care reform act must appear to today's young Catholics? Not only did their mothers likely avail themselves of artificial birth control at some point, but their grandmothers probably did as well.
By and large, the Christian churches (and I certainly include my own Catholic church in that group) have become what I call churches of "no." They have been very attentive to letting people know that they stand against. I don't think they have been nearly as successful in communicating what they for.
The Catholic Church I fell in love with as a twenty-something stood in solidarity with the oppressed throughout the world. It stood for lifting the poor out of poverty. It stood for promoting the dignity of each person. It stood for creating a community out of a disparate group of people. When I slid into one of the pews at Immaculate Conception, I might be sitting next to the CEO of a Chicago corporation or Harry, the homeless man, who sat sleeping through all of our Sunday Masses each week. But when we entered that sacred space, when we approached the altar to receive communion, the size of our bank account meant nothing. We were in that moment equals. As the theologian John Shea once said of church, "Here comes everybody."
It is that sense of community, that message of being part of something larger than ourselves that churches are failing to communicate to our young "nones." I regret not only that our nones are missing out on that sense of community, but also on the rich sacramental life our churches offer. It is still amazing to me decades after my first communion, that I am everyday able to receive into my own body the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist at Mass. It is still a joy to gather with family and friends to celebrate the baptism of a new member into our faith community, or the confirmation of a teenager standing on the edge of spiritual adulthood. And I will never forget exchanging vows with my husband before God, our family and friends, in the sacrament of marriage. I somehow knew in that instant that everything in our relationship had suddenly changed, had become deeper, more meaningful.
This is what I wish for the "nones." This is what they are missing. This is what we have failed to give them. I am not merely challenging the leadership of our churches to better serve this group. The Pew study invites all of us who draw sustenance from organized religion to examine within ourselves how we too can do better at spreading the good news we have heard.