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Walking Away from Church and the Loss of Faith

Those who can show the younger generation that faith primarily is message-driven rather than issue-driven will find followers.

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In a LA Times article last week, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam and his colleague David Campbell reported that more than ever, people in their twenties and thirties are giving up on church. They write, “Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation—roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.”

Putnam and Campbell’s own observation, which they relay in their new book, American Grace, is that it’s got a lot to do with politics. Religion, at least up until recently, has become so issue related and politically defined that it’s no longer speaking to people’s hearts. For a younger generation—that is, the group that is going through the great questioning process of early adulthood—religion is more than ever an equivalent with the established, set-in-its-ways institutions of our society.

More and more of them are seeing Christianity, for example, as a pawn for creating power and control rather than as a life-saving faith and a revolutionary worldview. Hear about another book that is also saying that the younger generation holds the impression that people who are religious are narrow-minded and angry rather than accepting and graceful. And right now I’m also reading The Next Christians, by Gabe Lyons, which comes from the same vein (stay tuned for a blog entry on that soon). Don’t get them wrong. These authors consider themselves advocates for their faith. What they don’t want to do is deny the problems that exist and instead propose solutions.

Nevertheless, the point I want to pick up on here is that Putnam and Campbell make the distinction that it’s not necessarily a loss of belief in God, but rather a desire to stay away from any religion that’s got little more to offer than political slogans.

Based on my own experience, I would generally agree that, when asked, many of the young people who are staying away from church would profess a belief in God. They might perhaps pray and also some read the Bible. So what we can conclude is that a need to believe in something greater than themselves very much exists for the new generation, but a greater number of this group is not finding effective role models, well-communicated value systems and compelling ways of coming together in church.

I’d disagree, however, if we draw the conclusion, and here I’m going beyond anything Putnam and Campbell comment on, that the younger generation is doing just fine without a faith community. I’d argue that there is a tremendous struggle going on with loss of faith in this generation. An increasing amount of turmoil and stress is building and what we have to ask ourselves is, what will be the inevitable creative solution? Will it be a destructive one, or will church leaders today adapt and help this younger generation usher in a constructive, life-and community- building solution?

Quite astutely, Putnam and Campbell suggest at the end of their article that innovative religious leaders will see this as an opportunity. Those who can show the younger generation that faith primarily is message-driven rather than issue-driven will find followers. I believe this is already happening if you know where to look, and it’s exciting to see.

Photo by Mary and her camera

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