Young People and the Future Of Religion

Religion is failing young people, not the other way around. Why? It depends who's asked.

According to authors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, it's politics. In "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us", they show how over the past half a century, many Americans have adjusted their politics to fit their religion, rather than the other way around. They write that young people "have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics."

And though youth are increasingly more liberal on social issues, there's nothing inherently wrong with conservative politics. Rather, it's our polarizing tendencies -- specifically our lack of deep conversations -- that are turning young people away from religion. The future of religion rests in our capacity to engage in honest dialogue on the world's biggest moral issues.

Putnam and Campbell determine more than one quarter of 20-somethings today say they have no religious affiliation, about four times higher than in any previous generation. Though people tend to become more religious as they age, Millennials (ages 18-29) are significantly less religious than the past two generations, comparatively.

But young people today are fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. They pray and believe in God at comparatively similar rates as their elders and are no less convinced than previous generations that there are absolute standards of right and wrong.

Putnam and Campbell suggest "religious leaders will concoct more palatable offerings" for young people to reengage in religion. However, religious leaders can "concoct" all they want. What religious leaders -- especially followers of Jesus -- need to do is create space for conversations, especially among people who disagree.

For too long, the church has reflected the miscommunication and polarization of society. Life isn't about being right or wrong, Democrat or Republican, Catholic or Protestant. It's about engaging the world's moral questions.

So why don't we have frequent, honest conversations with young people?

First, there's little time or space for conversations. With overscheduled lives, social media are increasingly the only places young people can be themselves. We need to move from living as connected individuals in world wide webs of communication to intimate communities of believers sharing God's redeeming love with each other.

Second, young people are more liberal on social issues. This is especially true on sexuality. But differing viewpoints, especially across generations, shouldn't limit conversation. Opinions will always vary. We need to relearn how to have conversations where we honestly listen rather than jump to defend ourselves.

Third, we don't know how. For too long, we've only conversed with people like us -- those of similar age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. True conversations are difficult, and they take practice. We need to rediscover principles of communication that allow for safe, two-way dialogue.

The future of religion, specifically the church, hinges on our ability to engage young people and conversations. It's time for a spiritual awakening that makes room for people we disagree with, because it's when we disagree that we learn most about each other and ourselves.

In talking with young people who don't belong to any particular faith, it's clear they don't want to be less religious. Millennials are plenty spiritual. But young people will continue losing their religion unless we engage them in conversations.