Tomorrow’s Church? : The Changing Religious Landscape


A few days ago, while constructing a power-point presentation I will use this autumn as part of an adult faith discussion group, I was struck again by the ages of Jesus’s followers: the young men and women who were his disciples and later apostles.

Most were in their late teens or early twenties: young people (some already young parents) searching for meaning and direction in their lives. Then (serendipity?) I got an email from a young graduate student, writing at the suggestion of his girl friend, who had been in one of my university classes, last semester.

Here, I will call him Walter. He hoped he was not bothering me; but Walter hoped as well that I could give him some guidance. He said he was a non-believer but had been baptized in the Catholic Church and had done “the Holy Communion thing.” He said he could not relate at all to the contemporary Catholic Church and found the local archbishop a pompous ignoramus. (That is actually a pretty good assessment of the fellow.)

Most importantly, however, Walter wrote that he and his girl friend were searching for God and, for reasons they could absolutely not explain, they felt attracted by the historical Jesus and wanted me to guide them through an informed and reflective reading of the New Testament. Would I be willing to listen to their questions? Could I guide them and help them to really discover who Jesus was and who he is for young people like them today?

Yes of course. I replied that I would help them, as long as they understood that ALL of us are on the same journey……exploring together who Jesus is and probing what it means to be his follower today.

Walter and his girl friend are hardly atypical. Young people ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older people, and 25% are unaffiliated with any particular faith. They belong to the Millennial Generation; and their’s is a changing religious landscape.

Millennials, in fact, are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s); and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).

Increasingly, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Nevertheless, as an old Baby Boomer who still spends a lot of his time teaching and listening to “the Millennials,” I like these young men and women; and I am optimistic about them. They are open-minded and eager; and their search is genuine. In their own way, they are searching for an authentic spirituality; and they are also the foundation for tomorrow’s church. It will of course be a very different kind of church!

Todays Millennials make me think of those other young men and women who were followers of Jesus. In Jesus they found someone who respected them, listened to them, and searched and explored with them. Not someone who, like Walter’s pompous archbishop, would have condemned them for their “secularized” lifestyles and values.

In their social and political views, today’s young adults are clearly more accepting of homosexuality and same-sex marriage than older men and women. They are more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation for human life; and they are less prone to see Hollywood as threatening their moral values. At the same time, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Their estrangement from organized religion, however is very real.

Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated and describe their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular.”

I wonder about those young men and women — later disciples and apostles — attracted to the historical Jesus. Were they perhaps Jewish drop-outs or agnostics who felt institutionalized religion had lost its credibility? A hypothetical question of course; but Jesus was indeed highly critical of organized religion in his day.

There are no hypothetical questions about today’s Millennials, however.

Like Walter and his girl friend, they are looking for trustworthy spiritual guides……..

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4 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s Church? : The Changing Religious Landscape

  1. Thanks, Jack. Another inspiring blog. I, too, am impressed by the Milennials sincere searching for, and recognition of, life’s spiritual dimension. I also thought of not only the ages of Jesus’ followers but of Jesus, himself. The only “crucifix” I have in my house is a print of Dali’s painting of the crucifixion. It was the first thing I bought when I moved out of my parents’ house and the only thing I still have left from that period. I keep it because it reminds me that Jesus was a young man in the absolute physical prime of life and so, it makes his self-sacrifice more intense for me.    I also thought as I read about their “secularized” lifestyle how “secularized” Jesus was. No special clothes, rarely preached in a “church,” rarely “theological” in his words, his followers – men and women – had regular jobs and even after Pentecost never dreamed of separating themselves, etc. No wonder so few can find Jesus in many organized religions.    I look forward to their leading us to reformed expressions of Christian faith.   Betty    

    • Thank you Betty! Years ago one of my Louvain professors stressed that Jesus was the great secularizer. It took me too long to understand what he meant but at that time I was very “religious”….

      Jack

  2. Thank you, Jack. I love your work.
    Could you comment on Archbishop Robert Carson of St. Louis, who in his recent testimony abut child sexual abuse cases, replied 193 times that he doesn’t know if he knew in 1984 that sexual contact with a minor was illegal?
    Harry Lenhart, Saginaw, MI

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