Why young people turn their backs on church

by
31 January 2014

It is not the style of worship, the age of the congregation, or the lack of faith that turns young people away, argues Robert Warner

THERE are a number of standard reasons given for the drop-out rate of young people from church. They include: inconvenient times of Sunday services; predictable preaching; an average congregational age of 50-plus; and alienation from church culture, from liturgical verbosity to superficial jollity.

Secularisation theorists have long argued that the cumulative impact of the social processes that marginalise religion is that people simply lose interest. It is not that most have become fervent atheists: they just cannot be bothered to "do God".

Christianity and the University Experience was a three-year study into undergraduates who describe themselves as Christian. We could have imposed a definition of "Christian" that was credal, or emphasised being a regular communicant. Instead, we asked those who chose to describe themselves as Christian to tell us their moral convictions and religious practices.

It turned out that nine out of ten Christian students are not in Christian Unions, and the vast majority rarely or never attend church during term time.

The 1960s moral revolution has had a double impact. First,the traditional moral constraints of the Church were overturned. Then the Church increasingly came under judgement from the new moral consensus. People no longer consider themselves to be behaving "immorally", let alone "living in sin". Instead, they have embraced a new morality, and it is the Church that is now considered immoral.

Our results among students, and Linda Woodhead's parallel studies among adults, suggest that the moral consensus has shifted irrevocably - not just among non-Christians, but among Christians, too. These Christians take it for granted that sex is no longer confined to marriage; contraception and abortion are standard interventions; living together is sensible; and those who are gay should have fully equal rights and the opportunity to marry.

They think it is common sense that there should be women and gay bishops. They also consider voluntary euthanasia infinitely more humane than doctrinaire enforcement of prolonged suffering on the terminally ill.

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ONLY Anglicans and neo-Pentecostals recruit significant numbers of new churchgoers among students. For Anglicans, those recruited are far outnumbered by the drop-outs; but these new Anglicans mostly attend Evangelical and Charismatic churches, and uphold traditional Christian morality. Even here there are signs of change: 60 per cent of today's Evangelical students consider that gay sex is always wrong. That is a solid majority, but not many years ago it would surely have been almost 100 per cent.

The impact of university on Anglicanism is therefore twofold. For the majority of "hidden Christians", Sunday attendance becomes infrequent, and they reject traditional morality, but their Christian identity and spirituality remain important.

For the conservative minority, Sunday attendance is very frequent, their Church should militantly defend traditional morality without any compromise, and many doubt that the "hidden Christians" are really Christian at all.

The Reformation was a paradigm shift, as was the abolition of slavery, and now we have entered another mega-shift of Christian consciousness. Young Christians have embraced a paradigm shift in morality. A new set of moral convictions has become self-evident and compelling.

This is far more important than the crisis of contemporaneity which makes church services seem boring and old-fashioned. From the perspective of the new paradigm, the Church has become a bastion of reactionary attitudes, and moral blindness. The Church has lost its moral authority among Christians, let alone in society, because it has lost its moral credibility, and is seen to defend indefensible prejudice.

 

FOR some clergy and bishops, this new moral consensus is painfully difficult to accept as authentically Christian. The priesthood, however, no longer has moral authority over the laity. Long before David Cameron made gay marriage illegal in Anglican churches, the hidden Christians had made up their minds to the contrary.

This remarkably rapid evolution of Christian morality, mirroring the broader moral revolution in Western society, belies the meta-narrative of dogmatic secularisation theory. Christianity turns out to be more durable than many expected, and more capable of cultural adaptation.

While the hidden Christians have overturned traditional Christian moral teaching, they continue to practise personal spirituality. At university, nearly half of all Christians pray more than weekly. In some universities, this means one in four of all their students are praying regularly. That is an awful lot of praying by a supposedly secular generation.

From the old paradigm, senior clergy want the Church to be more engaging, without softening its traditional moral absolutism. One recently described modern Britain as "floundering amid meaningless anxiety and despair". I find little evidence of this existential angst the other side of the paradigm shift.

New paradigm Christians, unless they are Roman Catholic by birth, will almost always identify to some extent with their national Church. Many pray regularly in private, and affirm confidently their new Christian morality. But they won't often be found in the pews.

In Richard Hooker's terms, these hidden Christians are surely part of the Established Church. But will the Church seek to include them, and give them a voice? Or will the Church alienate them still further, entrenching the absolutist morality of the old Christian paradigm?

 

Dr Robert Warner is Dean of Humanities at the University of Chester, where he is the Head of Theology and Religious Studies, and Professor of Religion, Culture, and Society.

Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding student faith by Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma, and Rob Warner is published by Continuum at £21.99 (CT Bookshop £19.79).

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