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Generation Y alienated from organised religion, but activist

29 March 2019

New book brings together interviews with young leaders born in the 1980s and 1990s

SOCIAL action is a “spiritual path in itself” for many members of Generation Y, who have been alienated by “the inability of organised religions truly to practise the values preached”.

This is among the observations in a new book, Generation Y, Spirituality and Social Change (Jessica Kingsley), which brings together interviews with young leaders born in the 1980s and 1990s.

The editor, Dr Justine Afra Huxley, the director of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, finds an “exciting evolution in the way we relate to the sacred” in which young people are “dissolving the binary opposition of heaven and earth, spirit and matter. They are bringing the sacred and the everyday together.”

Many of those interviewed are activists, and several are involved in ecology campaigns. Dr Huxley observes that “the core message of the contributors is that no one can afford to see religion or spirituality as a private, individual matter any more. . . For many young adults, it is not so much that they are ‘putting faith into action’, but rather that social action rooted in this new world-view is a spiritual path in itself.”

The relationship is both two-way, she suggests — “Young activists live out their spiritual values in their activism, and also attend to their spiritual lives in order to sustain their activism” — and a response to “inheriting a world that is increasingly bleak, unjust and dystopian”.

Among the contributors is Jesse Israel, raised a Reform Jew, who has established a group meditation initiative in New York, the Big Quiet, and notes that “people are craving human connection”. The founder of the Collective Liberation Project, Camille Barton, designs workshops to teach “compassionate activism”, and explains that “it’s super-important that spirituality and action aren’t separated. My spiritual practice allows me to do the social justice work I do.”

Several passages are critical of religious institutions. “Young people have a hunger for ritual and ceremony,” Dr Huxley says. “Traditional religious rituals are no longer authentic for many people.” The word “God” is rarely used in the contributions, she notes. “Big themes” include authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability.

Among the contributors is Adam Bucko, who is studying to become an Episcopal priest at an Anglo-Catholic seminary, and has set up a charity for homeless young people and an ecumenical “new monastic” fellowship. “Young people are not necessarily rejecting God,” he says, “they simply feel that many religious organisations lost touch with reality and are too concerned with money, power, self-preservation, maintaining the status quo, and ‘having right beliefs’.”

He echoes several contributors in suggesting that, for many young people, “it’s very clear that we see God as present in all of the traditions. . . I try to be less about passing on the tradition and more about guiding people into the sense of God that is already there hidden in the depths of their hearts.”

Several contributors emphasise the importance of inherited traditions. For James Adams, who founded the Cancer Awareness in Teenagers and Young People Society, and a community centre in Stoke-on-Trent, “church is still at the heart” of his faith. He wants to see “Christ’s teachings lived fully and completely in the world”. Another, Sun Kaur, a Sikh activist, describes how “the principles of the Sikh faith are my driving force”.

Among the questions posed by Dr Huxley is: “What if Generations Y and Z are not coming back? Are faith leaders brave enough to examine this sea-change objectively? Where are we protecting traditions and practices that keep us in a living relationship with the Divine, and where are we simply propping up dying infrastructure that no longer serves a true purpose? . . .

“If the emphasis shifted from how to sustain themselves as institutions to how to work side by side with other traditions to make a more radical and dynamic contribution to building a just and sustainable world, maybe numbers would no longer matter.”

This month St Ethelburga’s Centre announced the winners of the inaugural Young Sacred Activist of the Year awards. The two joint-winners were Elizabeth Arif-Fear, co-founder of the interfaith human rights blog Voice of Salaam and Hannah Rose Thomas, for her work using art as advocacy for refugees. The Young Methodist Activist of the Year Award was given to the Revd Dan
Woodhouse for his anti-arms trade activism, and another award was given to Sam Walton, a Quaker, who works closely with him (Features, 6 April 2018);

Read about Generation Z here.

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