by Mark Putnam
I think I was born in the church nursery. It seemed anytime the door was open, I was on the inside. I loved every minute of it. My sense of self and identity grew from the experiences I enjoyed through those growing years.
Born in 1960, I was part of a generation that had a foot in the stable “Leave-It-to-Beaver” experience of the post–World War II era and the societal upheaval that would mark much of my journey to adulthood. The small clip-on bowtie I wore to church as a child was eventually traded in for a necklace with a cross. Jesus changed from a still, gentle figure on a flannelgraph board to my “Truckin’ Buddy” as displayed on the buttons and T-shirts I wore.
Despite the fast pace of change during those years, the church was a source of stability in the tumult that surrounded me. Sunday school and church, vacation Bible school, Awana, Bible quizzing, church camp, youth group meetings and retreats, Christian school, and eventually a Christian college placed me in an enclave of continuous Christian experience. It was a warm and comfortable space—a place of familiarity in which I knew everyone who was allowed to be part of my world.
Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), analyze decades of data related to patterns of religious affiliation and levels of church involvement in American society. The subject is complicated and nuanced as various faith traditions are interwoven in a tapestry of religious experience in the United States. As I worked through the analysis, I found it to be personally revelatory. I was insulated as a child during the 1960s from the social revolution that reshaped many aspects of American cultural life. By the time I was coming of age during the 1970s the aftershock of religious conservatism in the 1970s and early 1980s was in full swing. I could have been the poster child for evangelical Protestantism’s best efforts to preserve a generation from the corrupting influences of secularization during that period.
As Putnam and Campbell write, societal change during my early years was informed by the following:
…the most substantial indication of the breadth of change wrought by the Sixties’ earthquake was the rapid decline in religious observance itself. The fraction of all Americans who said that religion was “very important” to them personally fell from 75 percent in 1952 and 70 percent as late as 1965 to 52 percent in 1978, while the fraction who said that “religion can answer today’s problems” dropped from 81 percent in 1957 to 62 percent in 1974. According to the Gallup poll, weekly church attendance nationwide plummeted from 49 percent in 1958 to 42 percent in 1969, by far the largest decline on this measure ever recorded in such a brief period.Such nationwide averages, moreover, drastically understated the rate of change among young people. Among 20-somethings the rate of decline in church attendance was more than twice the national average. Indeed, among those over 50 there was virtually no decline at all, while among those aged 18 to 29, weekly religious attendance was cut nearly in half, from 51 percent in April 1957 to 28 percent in December 1971.
I clearly lived in a bubble. And just when the bubble would naturally burst as my teen years emerged, the neoconservative, Protestant movement was there to catch me.
Putnam and Campbell go on to write:
The first aftershock in American religion during the 1970s and 1980s, however, was not best measured by how often people went to church, but by which church they went to. Just as in politics, many Americans of all ages were deeply troubled by the moral and religious developments of the Sixties. For the next two decades, these people—conservative in both religion and politics—swelled the ranks both of evangelical Protestant denominations and of the rapidly growing evangelical megachurches that disavowed denominations and termed themselves simply “Christian.”
According to this analysis, I was not alone in my journey. The Christian enclave of this period defined the church, religion, and the world by a carefully crafted set of bundled boundary conditions that encompassed a uniform theological, social, and political worldview. It was designed to preserve the culture of a religious movement that spanned denominational affiliation under the broader umbrella of a “loosely coupled” evangelical conservatism.
The key to the success of this preservation concept has rested on a process of intergenerational transfer or, as described by Putnam and Campbell, “inherited religion” as measured by retention rates. They write that “for most of the twentieth century . . . evangelical Protestantism kept about three quarters of its children in the faith. Moreover, among the evangelical cohorts who reached adulthood in the 1970s and 1980s the evangelical retention rate actually rose, at the same time that the retention rate of Catholics and mainline Protestants was falling. Not coincidentally, this was the heyday of neo-evangelicalism.”
It was a time when an alignment of religious, social, cultural, and political life made it possible for the experience of church and religion to be more than a matter of personal or corporate piety. Instead a broader ideology formed that resulted in a devotion to a lifestyle within this well-defined cultural context.
But where are we today? Putnam and Campbell continue: “according to the General Social Survey, the retention rate of evangelical young adults plunged among the cohort who came of age at the turn of the twenty-first century, falling from 75 percent among those who came of age in the 1980s to 62 percent among those who reached adulthood in the 2000s.”
As a college president I spend considerable time observing students; from time to time I am asked to reflect on patterns I see. What I can tell you is that something dramatic has changed when it comes to the church. Like many my age who are now in leadership of churches and related institutions, we are looking to the patterns of the past. In my view, these patterns represent an interesting history but offer us little guidance about the future.
However, I will put forth three insights that may be useful to those seeking to deepen the relationship between the church and the emerging generation of young adults.
- Young adults, even those who profess faith, are questioning the church’s relevance.
- When they do encounter the church, they bring increasing expectations of authenticity.
- Any desire to stay in the church rests on their expanding ideas of community.
First, the issue of relevance is complicated. Those of us from earlier generations find it hard to believe that something as central as the church lacks relevance. Here we need to make a distinction. Ideas related to spirituality and meaning are highly relevant to young adults, but the church as an organization doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you approach the average college student about the history, structure, or functions of the church, few will know how to respond. In general, young adults do not understand organizations and institutions at the level we expect. They are not specifically opposed to them; they simply lack interest in the dynamics of bureaucracies and organizational procedures. Ideas related to governance are particularly challenging.
Those working in higher education are sometimes stunned by how often student governments on our campuses find themselves twisted in knots. The disciplines associated with life in an organization have not been relevant to a generation whose parents managed most bureaucratic mazes for them. Their instincts are highly egalitarian and communal, not hierarchical. For them getting things done begins with a Facebook page and volunteers who will step forward. They endure what is required in organizations, but what matters to them is what works. If something is effective, they care little about efficiency. They are intrinsically motivated to help others, but not extrinsically motivated to conform or respond to the demands or expectations of others.
While they certainly understand authority and forms of official or formal leadership, they are far more responsive to informal sources of leadership. They will contact a peer for advice before they ever try to reach out to an organization. Accordingly, they are warm to the church as a place of gathering with friends, but they are far less interested in being personally invested in the organization. Those of us from earlier generations mistakenly interpret this as apathy. For young adults this is a question of relevance. They are unlikely to invest their time and energy into anything they find to be of peripheral interest. Loyalty alone is generally insufficient to persuade them to be committed to an organization or activity if they perceive their involvement to be a waste of time.
Second, this generation of young adults is highly sensitive to anything they perceive to lack authenticity. College students often are advised to simply be who they say they are. Nothing will lead more quickly to a student’s being ostracized than their pretending to be more than they are or presenting a false front. This sort of thing is simply not tolerated in most student cultures. In general, young adults have a very high tolerance for individual choice and expression, as long as one’s choices do not negatively impact the interests and well-being of others.
The challenge for the church is a heightened sensitivity to hypocrisy. There is a growing skepticism among young adults about the assertions the church is making and the reality of life on the ground. It’s not that there is an intolerance for getting things wrong. I find this generation of young adults to be quite forgiving. They see in earlier generations, however, claims of moral superiority to be compromised by moral failure.
This extends also to the broader society. The current political environment in the United States is a source of great frustration for students. They are not caught up in the ideological divisions plaguing our nation, but they do find the lack of civility and integrity to be annoying. They have tuned out. They have more important things to do with their time.
Third, young adults live in community in a way that previous generations do not. Their lives are open books. They commonly share things in social networking environments that I find amazing. Students do not compartmentalize their social or professional interactions into separate virtual communities and face-tocommunities. For them it is all one world of interaction.
When I was growing up, in order to be admitted to a community of faith, one had to profess faith before coming to community. The reverse is now true. Young adults are highly unlikely to come to faith by way of a proposition. These days, they come to the community first looking for two things: relevance and authenticity. If they do not find them, they will move on. The communities we create in social networks and in settings in churches are all the same for them. They want to know we care about them before they will ever care about what we say.
Young adults are spiritually hungry. Like all generations they are seeking meaning and purpose. Yet the distance from my early days in the church—when faith traditions, denominational loyalties, and predictable patterns were prevalent—is literally a lifetime away. Meeting the spiritual needs of this emerging generation of young adults will require much more than innovative programs and services. They are seeking to be in relationship through communities that are relevant and authentic. In the end they will follow the path that makes the most sense to them. Will the church meet them on the path?