“All young people, newly come into an urban environment, and living for the first time outside of the family group and the association of old acquaintances, constitute an element of gravest spiritual and moral dangers as well as one of untold possibilities.”
Is this the latest warning from the Barna Group about the problem of young people leaving the Church? No, these are the words of University of Chicago sociologist H. Paul Douglass in The St. Louis Church Survey published in 1924. Anxiety about the spiritual fate of young adults is evergreen.
And so, it seems, is the solution to the problem: “It is urged that all religious forces keep steadily in sympathetic touch with all these groups,” Douglass went on to write, “and that agencies particularly designed to serve them receive united support.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley concludes Got Religion? with these words in order to remind readers that passing on the faith to the next generation has always been a challenge, even if the contemporary age adds unique twists to that challenge. Her book outlines the strategies some American evangelicals, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, historically black churches, and parachurch organizations are utilizing to attract and retain young people—defined as people born after 1980—within their respective religious communities.
In the Introduction, Riley identifies three reasons why the intergenerational transmission of faith is especially difficult at the present moment: “the trends of family formation, the cultural acceptability of not belonging to a religious institution, and the steady decline of attendance” at religious services. In other words, young adults marry later, if at all, identify themselves as religious nones, and are standoffish to religious institutions—indeed, institutions more generally. Since family, religious identity, and religious participation are crucial to each of the religious groups Riley surveys, a decline in those three factors spells trouble for all of them.
Obviously, there are theological differences between these various religious groups that will color how they reach out to young adults. There are also sociological differences. Historically, the Church has played a much larger role in the African American community than in the Anglo American community, for example. Jews have a unique attachment to the State of Israel. Muslims come to America as immigrants from many countries. And Mormons are concentrated in certain regions of America.
Nonetheless, how these various religious groups reach out to young adults shares much in common too, sociologically speaking. After profiling some of these outreach efforts, Riley concludes her book with this statement:
Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.
Multigenerational community, service opportunities, ethnic diversity, relevant religious instruction, hospitality regardless of marital status, and leadership responsibilities: Religious groups that offer these things to young adults are more likely to attract and retain them than those who don’t. Frankly, as an “older” American, such a church would be more likely to attract and retain me too.
From the standpoint of Christian theology—or Muslim or Jewish theology, for that matter—Riley’s sociological account of young adults’ participation raises questions she neither asks nor answers. As a Christian minister, I want to ask questions such as: What is the role of the Holy Spirit in drawing people into the Church? Are a religious group’s doctrinal claims true or false? Is Jesus Christ the way of salvation? Were I writing a book about Christians attracting and retaining young adults in the faith, I would explore those theological questions alongside Riley’s sociological ones.
Regardless, Riley’s book is a valuable one. Sociology, it turns out, can be a handmaiden to evangelism. A church that preaches the gospel but ignores what attracts and retains young is not likely to accomplish its mission very well.
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