Young people need to be part of renewing the church

By Sheldon C. Good
Mennonite Weekly Review

I might get in trouble for saying this, but I think religion is failing young people. I believe the church is the living body of Christ, the primary vehicle for extending God’s love. But bad religion, and in some ways the church, is stifling good religion — our ability to more fully join in God’s movement in the world.

Young people can and must be part of renewing the church. There’s a movement of young people right now who are fired up about moral and spiritual issues. We need to tap into this energy.

A bit about people under 30: We’re some of the most educated, technologically savvy, globally connected people ever. But we’re coming of age in turbulent economic times and in a polarized political and religious climate.

Many young people love the church. They may have been baptized in a congregation and may have lots of church friends and mentors. But for many of us, church isn’t working and has been or perhaps still is painful.

So how and why is religion failing young people?

Partly because of increasing polarization, according to Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. In the landmark book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, they show how since the 1990s young people have disavowed religion at unprecedented rates.

Many young people, the authors say, are uneasy with the linkage between religion and conservative politics. The number of religious conservatives and secular liberals is growing, leaving a dwindling few religious moderates.

Pew research shows that more than a quarter of people under 30 say they have no religious affiliation — four times more than in any previous generation when they were young. People tend to become more religious as they age, yet young people today are the least overtly religious generation in modern U.S. history.

Yet those of us under 30 are fairly traditional in our religious beliefs and practices. We pray and believe in God at similar rates as our elders. We are no less convinced than previous generations that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. We believe the best faith is lived out in creative, Christlike love.

For too long, the church has  reflected the polarization and miscommunication of society. Life isn’t about being right or wrong, Democrat or Republican, Cath­olic or Mennonite. Good religion addresses the world’s deepest moral and spiritual questions.

Young people need to be on the vanguard of renewing the church and the world. In fact, we already are.

Young people today are building bridges across faiths. Young people are challenging assumptions of what worship looks and sounds like. Young people are on the front lines, leading protests at military academies and protesting economic injustice and greed in Occupy demonstrations.

Here are two more opportunities for renewal in ourselves, in our churches and in our world.

1. We need to do Christian formation together. Though texting and Facebook are compelling ways of staying connected, young people want and need deep, face-to-face conversations. We need to move from living as individuals in worldwide webs of communication to intimate communities of believers sharing God’s redeeming love.
2. We need to heal our broken world together. Young people are increasingly liberal on social issues. We care less about the culture wars and more about broader social, economic and environmental justice. Rather than allowing our differing viewpoints to hinder conversations, we need to honestly listen rather than jump to defend ourselves.

I don’t think young people want to be less religious. We are plenty spiritual. But our generation will continue losing our religion unless we find ways to live and share the peaceable way of Jesus with a broken world.

Adapted from a chapel presentation given Nov. 30 at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pa.  Reprinted by permission of Mennonite Weekly Review.