Generation Wandering -- Sightings

Many church folk look at the pews and either wonder where the young people are or how to get them back (if ever they were there).  We hear that young people are either rebelling against religion or just ignoring it.  Martin Marty points us to some new information from the Lilly Endowment, plus books by Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean that raise questions for us to ponder as summer begins.

Sightings  6/20/2011

Generation Wandering
-- Martin E. Marty

Backlash against the hyper-institutionalism of religious organizations in the 1950s led first to revolt (“the sixties”) and the birth of a lifestyle summarized in the mantra, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Today some returnees are nervy enough to lash back with an opposite mantra: “I’m not spiritual, but I’m religious.” Neither pole is a bargain. “Spiritual” often comes across as pridefully individualistic. Other believers and seekers don’t live up to their standards. But “religious?” Brought up on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth—who wrote a section on “Religion als Unglaube,” (“Religion as Unbelief”) —newer generations have not tried to acquire bragging rights about “organized religion.” Between and beyond them is another cohort who simply don’t care for either. Most of them tend to be young post-believers, who have the reputation of shrugging a shrug in the apathetic mode.
As the generations come and go, some religious scholars and leaders have tried to discern directions of the younger folk. Now and then we like to forget our weekly sighting of events and trends in the current week, as Sightings goes online, and take a longer look. So this week, instead of drawing on editorials and reports, we reach to—of all things!—a philanthropic foundation’s annual report. This time it is the religion-friendly Lilly Endowment, based in Indianapolis, whose works are felt across the nation and beyond. A section in the Endowment’s 2010 Annual Report caught and held our eye: “Revitalizing Ministry with Youth and Young Adults.” It features creative doings on several fronts, beginning with an ambitious venture at Princeton Theological Seminary.
The Lilly Endowment, which supports numerous experiments, observes the youth themselves through mainly sociological studies. They found some surprises, which they banner in the subheads of the Annual Report. “Originally, what surprised me most is that teenagers are not that different from adults.” “A lot of us thought that churches had it backwards by not devoting more resources to youth.” More: “American teenagers generally do not have negative views of religion; in fact, they have an openness and curiosity about religion,” and they “tend to reflect the religious beliefs and traditions of their parents and are not particularly interested in rebelling or seeking alternative religious paths.” As pews were emptying and the backs of the young turned, youth ministers, for a generation and more, often decided that their main mission to keep the attention and loyalty of the young, was to entertain them, to rely on excitements of the sort that appeal in the secular pop culture of youth.
To read and realize what notable researchers like Christian Smith at Notre Dame find and project is one thing; to find ways to counter the “merely secular” or “merely spiritual” expressions is another. Most researchers, writers, and youth ministers in the various denominations are highly aware that trends among youth cultures rarely make their work easier. They have to be counter-cultural, but not cultishly so, as once they tried to be. As we read the Lilly Annual Report, the work of Smith, and Princeton’s Kenda Creasy Dean, and others, we draw some inspiration. On the nether side, however, if the exodus of the young continues, most of what issues from the “organized religion” of adventurous youth will be not rejection so much as boredom with communities of faith which claim to challenge the young in the midst of limitless distractions, only sometimes succeeding.


Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame

The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR)

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).
 Lisa Pearce and Melinda Lundquist Denton, A Faith of their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents (Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009).
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Faith Formation Learning Exchange, "The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry," Winter 2009.

 Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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