IN 2017, I applied for a research grant to explore young-adult faith.
During the interview, a member of the panel asked me: “Why is it that when they were all raised the same, one of my children has Christian faith and the other two want nothing to do with it?”
It was the question of a father who wondered whether it was somehow his fault: what had gone wrong with how he had modelled faith to his family? It is a question that, whenever I speak on my research, I hear echoed by parents, youth workers, and church leaders. Whose fault is it that young people have walked away from faith? What should we have done differently?
IT IS a good question. The current statistics are bleak: 70 per cent of those under 30 describe themselves as “nones” (”no religion”). Half of those raised in religious homes reject their family’s faith, and only about three per cent of those aged 18-30 attend church on any given Sunday.
I am not a parent, but I recognise the question. After 20 years of student and young-adult ministry, I was perplexed that some of those I had known as devout undergraduates were now faith-filled adults, while others had rejected belief altogether. Was it my fault? Had I done something wrong in the way I had taught and mentored them?
I was confident that I wasn’t getting the grant; so I answered in a slightly flippant tone, “If you give me the money, I’ll try to find out!”
I won’t lie: there have been times when I regretted getting that funding. The past three years of researching and writing on how Christian faith changes as young adults get older has been hard. I have wept, felt my own faith wobble, and found myself apologising to the hurt for their experiences of church. It has been a humbling process.
It has also been fruitful, however. After I spoke at a conference, a woman in her fifties approached me: “I didn’t believe what you said about young adults’ wanting to be friends with older generations; so I put it to the test. I invited my colleague and her husband to dinner, and was shocked when she said they’d be delighted — my husband and I are the age of their parents!
”We had a lovely evening, and, despite the age gap, we have become good friends. When we invited them to church, they said they’d love to. I can’t quite believe it, but they’ve become Christians!”
On the one hand, young adults are losing faith and leaving the Church; others are searching for meaning and belonging, and finding it in Christian communities. What is going on?
MY RESEARCH focuses on millennials, which I define as those born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s: they are now in their mid-twenties to late thirties. Sociologists suggest that this cohort is not particularly hostile to religion: rather, they are the inheritors of a century of religious decline. The mechanisms that reinforced a Christian world-view in the UK have been eroded, leaving most with no understanding of the basic tenets of Christianity.
Professor Grace Davie, of the University of Exeter, is correct: religious belief has become an option rather than an obligation — something that individuals may embrace if they are interested. But most young adults are not. They are also not interested in pretending to be something they are not. Authenticity is highly prized.
Professor David Voas, of the UCL Institute of Education, argues that, on average, people experience little change in their religious beliefs and practices once they reach their early twenties. He writes that “Churchgoers in their twenties will probably continue to attend for the rest of their lives” (Features, 12 January 2018).
My research suggests, however, that millennials and “Generation Z” (those under 25) continue to explore faith for longer. Professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined the phrase “Emerging Adulthood” to describe the lengthening of adult identity-formation among today’s young. Many spend much of their twenties trying to work out who they are and what they believe, and so both convert and reject faith later than in former generations.
Some have unprecedented privilege and opportunity; and yet even they experience pressure and uncertainty as they try to form an adult identity in a society that is experiencing cultural “liquefaction”: change so fast and constant that there is nothing stable to stand on.
Younger generations are disillusioned with all forms of authority — including religious authority. It is a hard time to work out who you are, what you are for, what to believe, and whom or what to trust.
My research examined the churchgoing three per cent, based on interviews with 50 young adults, now in their thirties, who had a Christian faith at the age of 20. The stories of how they navigated the demanding decade of their twenties and their faith journeys in such uncertain times make for challenging reading.
Most, but not all, of the 50 people I interviewed still attended church: in that sample were those who had lost their faith altogether, those who loved Jesus but were profoundly disillusioned with church; and those who continued to be part of congregations.
Space does not permit me to tell all that their stories revealed, but there were four common threads in how they answered the final question that I asked each of them: “What would you like me to tell church leaders on your behalf?”
1. Get real
IT IS well documented that young adults value authenticity. For it to be of value to them, faith needs to be just that — real. Many are not starting with intellectual questions but with experiential ones (though the coherence of Christianity does ultimately matter, too). They want to experience the presence of God, and for faith to help in the turmoil that they experience.
They are also watching to see whether those who call themselves Christian are genuinely living out what they say they believe. Can these people be trusted? Is what they believe truthful? Their trust is hard earned.
One said, “Create a church environment where going deeper and being honest with people can happen.” Several were frustrated with what one called the “I’m fine” culture of their congregation. In a world where so much is superficial, and public images are intentionally constructed, they wanted church to be a place of truthfulness, a place where, as one said, “We stand against the fakeness.”
2. Talk with us
AS GENERATIONS raised with the expectation of contributing (vote, tweet, “like”, etc.), many were seeking inclusivity. “Please respect us and listen to our voice,” was how one put it. They wanted participation, conversation, and collaboration, not to be passive recipients, or to have church “done” to them. This is a challenge, since many live highly mobile lives and struggle to make a commitment. Those who thrived in church congregations, however, were those who felt included, valued, and heard. Younger generations have important insights into our shifting culture. They have a profound contribution to make to the future of the Church — and many want to make it, if we would only listen.
It is also important to realise that many young adults continue to explore their beliefs for much longer than in former generations. It is harder to decide what to believe when there are a myriad options available.
Rather than simply accept doctrine, they told me, they wanted to talk about faith, to wrestle theologically alongside other people — not just to be told “correct doctrine”, but to be allowed to explore ideas and different traditions. Google can provide information; what they wanted was help in how to discern, to develop spiritual wisdom, and work out how to live out their faith practically.
Among those who no longer described themselves as Christians were those who, having grown up largely around other Christians, had some sort of crisis on encountering those who robustly challenged their faith. They had felt unable to talk about these doubts at their churches.
3. A desire for community
MANY were a long way from their biological family, and, despite (or, perhaps, because of) all their technological connectedness, were hungry for deep, honest, respectful relationships. There is much in the popular media about generational wars (”OK, Boomer!”), but my research shows that the story that I quoted above is not unique.
Those whose faith had thrived in their twenties spoke of relationships with older believers rooted in hospitality and generosity. These were not elders who bestowed nuggets of wisdom like largesse, but authentic, mutual friendships with believers of other generations, who helped them to navigate the turmoil of their twenties.
Examples included the colleague who supported them at work; the older single lady whom they popped in to visit each week; the home-group members who cleaned the house when they had tiny children and post-natal depression. Formerly, people found these networks in villages, local communities, and extended biological families. But, as in so many other aspects of their lives, young adults often need to create such support structures themselves. When churches authentically model “loving one another” across generations, it has a huge impact.
4. Something to live for
ONE summed it up: “We want to commit to something bigger than ourselves.” Younger generations are concerned about poverty, the marginalised, and the environment, and are more aware (via their ubiquitous screens) of global issues than perhaps any former generation. They are attracted to a God who shows those concerns, too, and a gospel in which broken hearts are bound up, captives set free, the poor raised up, and there is hope in the darkness.
Several articulated a desire for churches to be more, not less, challenging in the message that they presented. An unapologetically radical, counter-cultural way of living was what they advocated as attractive to their generation. Many want the Church to be more honest, more hospitable, more relational, more radical, more inspiring, and more passionate about Jesus.
OF COURSE, these are just voices from the three per cent. They do not represent the unchurched, the marginalised, or those who have no idea that “Jesus” is more than an expletive.
They do know and care about those of their peers who fit these categories, however, and they have ideas about how to reach out. Some whom I interviewed had tried to do this in their churches, only to meet with strong resistance from older congregations.
To my mind, they carry a prophetic challenge to the British Church about how to be the body of Christ in the mess that is 21st-century Britain — a voice that we would do well to heed.
Dr Ruth Perrin is the Leech Research Fellow at Cranmer Hall, Durham. Changing Shape: The faith lives of millennials is published by SCM Press at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £15.99). discipleshipresearch.com.