MUCH has been made of recent survey snapshots of the religious and spiritual lives of young people outside of the Church (News, 23 June). Young people are open to asking spiritual questions, and a majority believe in prayer. A substantive number have more liberal values than their parents on marriage, on same-sex relationships, and the recreational use of alcohol and drugs.
Recent NHS data shows, however, that their actual behaviour is likely to be more conservative than that of previous generations. Within this contradictory picture, one statistic remains fairly constant: disaffiliation from church continues apace, producing generational decline.
Further, the tacit nominal connection to faith — ticking the “C of E” box by default — and the “spiritual but not religious” descriptor are both being replaced by an increased confidence in describing oneself as a “None”. Younger people today are happy to find their world-view and values in a “midi-narrative”. This is neither a grand, all-encompassing meta-narrative nor purely individualistic. It is formed through the influence and importance of friends, family, and popular culture.
Still further research suggests that those who do identify with a historic faith prefer to think of themselves as “flexible adherents”. Young people who hold to traditional beliefs are, in this research at least, happy to do so as long as this is compatible with an openness to, and acceptance of, the varied views held by others.
Reflecting on this complex picture reminds me of the fable from the Indian sub-continent of the blind-folded men trying to identify an elephant by touch: a cautionary tale about the limits of our knowing, and the dangers of making bold judgements based on partial knowledge. Young people’s beliefs and practices are more complex than any survey snapshot can convey. As we ponder what might seem to be conflicting insights, we should consider the possibility that we are being told something about our own blind spots.
I HAVE been involved in work with young people outside of the Church for more than 20 years, latterly as a researcher rather than youth worker. As you may suspect, I have a great deal of respect for the intelligence and insight with which your average young person approaches the deep questions and difficult issues of life. I also believe that it is incredibly encouraging to see that the Church, represented in our communities of faith and schools, is beginning to take seriously the challenge of responding to what must now be considered a “post-Christian” and “post-secular” generation of young people. It is these two descriptors that frame the difficulty of this challenge.
As in every age group in Britain, among young people personal identification with Christianity is in decline. This is a trend that began more than a century ago, and has been a cause of institutional concern for much of this period. The emergence of the Sunday-school movement, the re-configuration of religious education in school, and the rise of youth ministry are among the Church’s responses.
And yet disaffiliation continues. Sunday church attendance and involvement in church-based mid-week groups by young people aged 11-18 have remained at less than five per cent now for nearly half a century. Most young people are now from families that have either never had familial ties with the Church, or have a tie through their grandparents. Even allowing for contact in school, our connection with the majority of young people in this country is at an all-time low. Young people in the UK acquire their spiritual values and beliefs in a post-Christian context.
Yet the cultural worlds of our Millennials have not become areligious spaces, as the secularisation thesis of the 1960s once predicted. Contemporary Western culture, as experienced in the UK and Europe, is better considered as being post-secular. Religion has not disappeared, and belief in things that are sacred in life remains. Young people outside the Church are trying to make sense of their lives in this context.
This reality is not necessarily a negative prospect for the Church, but it requires further consideration. First, the current generation carry none of the baggage of earlier ones. They are open to talking about and exploring faith. They are interested and sometimes intrigued by Christianity. Yet a lack of religious literacy can mean that young people’s understanding of and opinions about Christianity, or any other faith, can be patchy and open to misinterpretation.
For people of faith, what is held as sacred often tends towards the eternal or transcendent. In the Secular Age, the sacred — that which cannot be reduced — is more often associated with aspects of life which are material and immanent. For most young people, identity and significance is found in family, friends, material things, and cultural pursuits. The markers for what might be held as sacred and the signposts that point to practices such as prayer are in transition. These shifts challenge many of the concepts and practices that frame faith. They require deeper consideration of how the “word is made flesh” in such a world.
The sociologist Professor Abby Day argues for an understanding of young people’s spirituality and religiosity as “organic and multidimensional”. Her research identifies how expressing spiritual feelings or reflecting on beliefs is no longer tethered to historic or institutional markers. In fact, beliefs in themselves are perhaps less important than the meaning generated by belonging.
For young people today, believing is belonging. The work of Professor Day and others shows that the formation of key values and world-views is set within the close ties of family and friends. The capacity to identify as Christian is connected to the ability to participate and find one’s identity in Christian community. This highlights the main problem for the Church: we lack the capacity to make such connections and form such communities.
Re-establishing these relationships with young people is vital if we are to understand better the many dimensions of spiritual questioning. As an institution, the Church in its understanding of young people’s religiosity and spirituality is heavily influenced by a wider cultural tendency to “problematise” the young. We seem surprised when we see markers of morality among young people. Decline in Christian values does not lead to decline in moral standards, after all. We need to move away from seeing morality as a proxy for Christian belief. It is not. What it shows is that young people are active moral agents capable of making good choices about life.
Young people’s cultural lives are also shaped by a “buried spirituality”. This term was coined by Phillip Rankin, who spent three years interviewing people in nightclubs and pubs, and on street corners, all over the UK. We are perhaps moving into a time where there is a more appreciative inquiry into the ways in which young people make meaning through music, art, TV, films and social media.
Seeing young people as active agents who can draw positively on their cultural resources to shape their spiritual understanding challenges a strong tendency to respond to our secular age as a matter of “subtraction”. In this narrative, “secularism” means that the “God bits” are sucked out of our society, and our task is to help people to see what is missing in their lives. We see this in the categorisation of people as “spiritual but not religious” and “believing but not belonging”. But these categories say as much about us and our desires as they do about people who are not active in church or decline to affiliate to a religion.
Our work with young people, in schools and churches, needs to begin from a place where we are not looking to add back, but add to. We have the opportunity to offer young people the resources and wisdom of the Christian tradition and ask them what they can make of them.
Where this is done well, you will see clear opportunities for participation, whether this is through prayer space in schools or church ministry in a youth-work style. In both contexts, young people are in charge of making sense of what is offered. Such interpretative work does, however, need to be an continuing conversation within a community of faith, or at least where testimony of personal experience and impact is possible. If we make such connections, young people do respond.
Dr Nick Shepherd is the programme director for Setting God’s People Free, at the Church of England, and a former CEO of the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission. His book Faith Generation: How to retain young people and grow your church is published by SPCK at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £12.99).