As mainline Protestant churches age and decline in membership, concern for “what young people think” has become a common reference point in opinions about how the church should change. In my own United Methodist denomination, with our fight-to-the-death controversies especially over sexuality, “what young people think” has become something of a bellwether. The implication of the use of this phrase alway seems to lean in the direction of a proposition of the sort, “We should think and act on X more in accordance with how young people think.”
As I warm to my task, I feel the need to stress from the start that my purpose for this post is most definitely not to engage in rhetorical tit-for-tat. It’s actually more of an appeal, even a cri de coeur. Because my ministry has been among young people for a long time, I care deeply, and take with utmost seriousness, what they think. With that motive stated, let’s take a hard look.
Take, for example, one of the reports on the Pew Study on the nones. What young people think is trending toward not identifying with organized religion, a point that has become well known. Does this fact suggest, following the “what young people think” logic, that the church should dampen the challenge to commit to “organized religion?” It seems absurd, doesn’t it? But, in fact, we have been going along with downplaying commitment to church. Maybe this is one reason young people are deciding that religion is not for them. We’ve managed to communicate in a thousand subtle, but powerful, ways that participation in our church communities is not all that important. Have we unwittingly taught them that they can serve the reign of God and skip all the church’s rules?
Two books, both published in 2010, but corroborated by subsequent research, point out a rather embarrassing fact for mainline Protestants. The majority of the nones are coming from three main sources: mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics and, increasingly, from (already) non-religious families. Here especially the call for careful, informed perspective should be heeded. Evangelical youth/young adults as a percentage of their age cohort have declined. In other words, evangelical youth/young adults make up a smaller percentage of their age cohort than they did, for example, in the late ’80’s and early ’90s. But evangelical youth are not the primary feeders for the nones. See Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace and Bradley Wright’s Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. Both books show that, while young people are the leading edge of those claiming non-religious identity, the groups that are holding their young at a higher rate than either mainline Protestants or Catholics are the evangelical Protestants.*
Here we find two sets of facts that don’t seem to go together and they’re confusing us in the mainline. Fact 1 – young people truly are fed up with controversy, hypocrisy and narrowness. They decry the loud-mouthed posturing of high-profile religious leaders. (See, for example, page 130 of American Grace.)* Fact 2 – as noted, evangelical youth and young adults in more theologically and socially conservative congregations persist in their adherence to the faith of their upbringing at a noticeably higher percentage than do youth in mainline Protestant churches. We mainline Protestants should ask, do we have evangelical youth/young adults in our mix are or we assuming something about our young people?
Let me move a little closer to that agonizingly difficult topic: sexuality. Some research by Jean Twenge and two colleagues, based on the General Social Survey (gathering data since 1972), studies changes in attitudes related to “controversial beliefs and lifestyles,” which includes but is not limited to people’s attitudes toward homosexuality. Two points stand out to me in this article. First, not surprisingly, young people are more tolerant than older people. Second, perhaps surprisingly, higher tolerance among college students coincides with their having lower empathy. (The authors draw this conclusion from the research.) Empathy is the ability to understand and show sensitivity toward the feelings, thoughts and experiences of others. (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) How do these two attitudes go together? How is it that people can be more tolerant, but less empathetic?
Empathy is a practiced trait that takes time to develop. Perhaps in a way analogous to brain development, true tolerance, as distinct from expressed tolerance, is much harder won. (Mirror neurons provide the physical mechanism, but we still have to practice understanding people’s emotional cues.) Maybe what this study shows is that it’s easy for college students to express tolerance for controversial beliefs and lifestyles because to them, those lifestyles “are not that big a deal.” Not real tolerance after all.
Furthermore, the researchers also observe, “Tolerance and low empathy are both linked to high individualism.” Here’s the key. Although belonging is a fundamental human need (we are social animals), young people give voice to highly individualistic values that they had to learn. A strong form of individualism has become a cultural norm. (Remember Habits of the Heart and “Sheilaism?”) Again, we see two forces at odds with one another: the need for belonging and strong individualism. I witness the struggle on a daily basis: young people fiercely protecting their sense of individuality while expressing deep desire to join (and commit to) something bigger than themselves, something meaningful and purposeful, yes, transcendent.
These studies should caution our use of “what young people think” as a reason for adopting any particular response to contemporary social challenges. Our beliefs about what young people think have to be grounded in something far more substantial than platitudes and hearsay. Here, finally, is my deep suspicion. When we talk about “what young people think,” we are, in fact, talking about what we think. And our young people, good learners that they are, have learned from us.
- See pp 122-133 of American Grace and the chart on p. 64 of Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites.