Identity Crisis Part II

So, having put up results from the NSYR study of youth and religion in Part I, I have gotten some interesting responses.  They ranged from “Oh my God, the Church is dying” to “These numbers are really suspect” to “We are Episcopalians, we don’t do Church the way these other denominations do.”

None of these is especially helpful.  The Church is seriously challenged and these numbers absolutely call us to look at what kind of faith we are passing on to our young people.  They have to be looked at in the context of the broader challenges faith and religion face in our culture.  They have to be taken seriously though.  Ignoring them or acting as if they do not tell some sort of story about the Episcopal Church is dangerously myopic. (note: there are some questions worth raising about the sample size of the survey as the number of Episcopal young people surveyed is relatively small at 45 as compared with 311 Evangelical teens – but we are a relatively small Church).

We need to have a careful and thoughtful self-regard – neither panicking and over-reacting nor pretending things will just be alright if we don’t get serious about the faith of our young people – and ours.

These numbers reflect not just who our kids are spiritually but who we are.

Some Lessons from the Study

There are definite lessons to be learned from the various denominations that are surveyed.  For example, when the Assembly of God churches score so high in answering the question, “Will you live your life for God?” our response should not be, as one scoffing reader put it, “Oh yes, that’s our problem, we are not enough like the AG Church!!” Perhaps it is worth thinking about what does it mean for us, as Episcopalians, to ask our young people to live their life for God?

Don’t we already do that?

Question     Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer        I renounce them.

Question     Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer        I do.

Question     Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer        I do.

If we take seriously our baptismal ecclesiology then we are asking our young people to do just this – to live their lives for God.  Our preaching, teaching, service, worship, and prayer need to communicate that our very essence as the Baptized is, at its core, about living our lives for God.  Making this essential point clear and present in all that we do might help our young people to realize that their lives are consecrated, set aside, for God’s holy use already.  They are living their lives for God.  Their Confirmation is just that – they confirm their identity as being of God and for God.

Other Lessons?

Where else might we find useful information about our life as a Church in this study?  One of the interesting things about this information is that it is a direct product of our life.  It is an output that is made up of our inputs.  The kind of preaching, living, teaching, praying, worshipping, and more that we do are directly reflected in the survey results.  It requires a bit of patience and humility to hear the lessons in these survey results.

For example, “There are relatively high levels of uncertainty about God among some of the mainline denominations’ teens…23 percent of the Episcopalian teens.” Our teens reported the highest level of uncertainty about the existence of God.  We are a Church that preaches a healthy self-direction with regard to matters of faith.

Have we, however, lost the ability to preach healthy questioning while seeing that questioning as being in and of God?  It is our role, as the Church, to show that there is Truth.  There is Love.  By not communicating the essential truth of God’s being we are setting young people adrift and pretending that their unguided searching for direction is healthy.

Perhaps it is a prurient comparison but we no longer believe, generally, that the best way for kids to learn about physical relationships is from the media, the culture, or their friends.  How can we think that teaching them the fundamentals of faith, of their spiritual lives and souls, is somehow invasive or too directive?  We are obliged to give them tools to be faithful people.  Our role in the baptismal covenant is to do all that we can to see that they are “brought up in the Christian faith and life.”

It is instructive to note that the number of young people that believe in astrology and reincarnation has climbed.  There is a hunger among young people for spiritual truth.  We do them a profound disservice if we allow them to drift to vague spiritualities rather than offering them the enduring faith of the Church.

Faith is too important a matter for it to be left to the culture to teach.  The dominant form of Christianity in the media right now is either fire-and-brimstone/turn-or-burn fundamentalism or prosperity gospel preaching – both of which invert and mangle the fullness of the Christian tradition.

To allow our young people to grow up without clear teaching means that we cede faith to those who continue to use it for political or personal gain because those are the loudest voices or we risk them drifting aimlessly between self-exploration, astrology, reincarnation and the like without a firm foundation so that when life’s trials come they do not have a spiritual and moral footing that will hold them fast.

The study notes that “The majority of adolescents reported remaining at the same level of religiosity, and when adolescents did report a change in their overall religiosity, a higher proportion of them reported becoming more religious than becoming less religious.” In other words, there are opportunities for us to draw young people deeper into the life of faith.  They are not rejecting the faith so much as having it presented to them in such a slipshod manner that it is irrelevant.

The survey results bear this out.  Read again these results:

  • “…while 93 percent of Presbyterian Church (USA) teens and 91 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America teens report that their churches usually feel warm and welcoming, only 69 percent of teens whose parents are Episcopalian say the same.”
  • “65 percent of Church of God in Christ teens and 57 percent of both Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist teens say that church is a very good place to talk about serious issues…while only 31 percent of Episcopal teens agree that church is a very good place to talk about serious issues.”
  • “less than one-half of Episcopalian teens who attend church more than a few times a year (46 percent) say that church usually makes them think about important things.” (by far lowest and the only group under 50%)

We have the lowest percentage of respondents that say our churches are welcoming to them.  We have the lowest percentage that says that church is a good place to talk about serious issues.  We have the lowest percentage that says church makes them think about important things.  If we are serious about intellectual engagement with the faith then the numbers would bear this out.  We would have young people who felt challenged and believed we talked about serious things and made them think about important things.

My fear is that too many of our churches are talking about things of the culture and not of the faith.  We have too many churches that try not to be too dogmatic and to be “welcoming” and “inclusive” without teaching where that welcome and inclusion comes from – the creeds, the life and death of Jesus Christ, and the Sacraments.

This welcome is not working – we have the lowest percentage of respondents saying our churches are welcoming!  Yet our slogan everywhere is that “the Episcopal Church welcomes you.”  We talk of radical inclusion and hospitality and yet we have the lowest percentage of respondents (46%) saying that teen ministry is a priority in their church.

Perhaps the most unfortunate number is this one:

  • “less than a quarter of Episcopalian teens say they feel close to God.” (at 22% by far the lowest – next lowest was UMC at 38%)

For all of our talk of sharing the love of God, our kids don’t feel it.  We are not challenging them intellectually, we are not sharing a love of the faith (84 percent of Assemblies of God teens say they talk about spiritual things with their families at least once a week, compared to only 27 percent of Episcopal teens – by far the lowest), we are not raising them up to read Scripture (only 8% of our kids – again by far the lowest – do this), and we are not helping them find a sense of God’s presence in their lives.

Without a sense of closeness to God how can we expect our young people to rely on God let alone believe in him?  Can we be surprised when we have the lowest percentage of respondents saying “faith is very or extremely important in shaping their daily lives”?

Finally, many of our churches pride themselves on raising people that are socially conscious and have a firm orientation toward justice-making.  How then do we explain the fact that the percentage of our kids that have reported helping “homeless people, needy neighbors, family friends or other people in need, directly” is among the lowest and is lower than unchurched teens?

As a Church, we say we are opening and welcoming.  We say we encourage intellectual rigor.  We say we engage society.  We say we value justice-making.

We say we value so many things and yet our kids don’t see it.  They are not responding to the message we believe we are sharing!  As a product of our inputs as a Church, our kids are telling us that we are not offering them a sense of God’s closeness, of the value of Scripture, of a sense of serious engagement with the world, nor are we imparting a sense of social responsibility.

We have an identity crisis.  What we think the world and our young people are seeing in us, as a Church, is simply not the case.  In part III of this blog I will begin to offer a bit from our own experience with young adults both in the parish and in our service program as to how we might think differently about imparting a sense of God’s love, presence, and mission.