Question. Among all the religious denominations--Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and others--what is the fastest growing segment among young people?
Answer: The “nones.” Not “N-U-N-S” but “N-O-N-E-S.” The fastest growing segment is those who profess no religious affiliation at all.
That’s alarming. So as you'd suspect, there’s been a lot of discussion why this is so. For sure, the recent scandals haven’t helped. But this began long before the scandals broke in the early 2000’s. It’s been a 40-50 year trend.
I’ve heard of two working theories.
One is that Christianity is too hard, and increasingly, we’re part of a soft and lazy culture.
Now there’s no doubt that we’re in a soft and increasingly lazy culture! We now have remote controls for stereo systems in cars—apparently it's too hard for us to lean forward and change the controls on our dashboard! The restaurant business is booming because it takes too long to cook our own food and do the dishes. Now we have fast food because we’re too impatient to wait for it. And now we have drive-through lanes because it’s way too much work to actually get out of the car! I bet you could think of many more examples of how lazy we're becoming.
No doubt our faith has been affected by growing up in a lazy, pampered culture. But not because, as I see it, that our faith is too hard in comparison. It’s because our faith has become just as soft as our culture—that we’ve watered down the more radical claims of the gospel and made being a Christian the equivalent of attending a garden club.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian living in Germany during the rise of Naziism, wrote a book called “The Cost of Discipleship,” which was critical of the religion of many mainline Christian churches because, as he called it, theirs was the religion of “cheap grace,” grace which didn’t cost the Christian anything. We come to Church on Sunday, “fill up our tanks” with cheap grace, then go about our business for the rest of the week, indistinguishable from anyone else. “Costly grace,” by comparison, is the grace that challenges us, that changes us, that exposes us to risk in following the gospel. Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached—he was open critical of the Nazi regime, arrested, put in a concentration camp and was later executed.
My experience of youth—my experience of you—is that you want your faith to mean something, to put demands on you. You’re not interested in a spineless Church—what’s the point? You want to be challenged, just as you positively respond to other challenges in your life. It’s why you join athletic teams, even though that means you will be running suicides in basketball or running 8-10 miles in the middle of the summer on the cross country team. It's why you take A.P. and honors classes. You want your faith to challenge you similarly, to call you to something outside of yourselves. You want your faith to be, in the words of Pope Francis, “counter-cultural.”
So maybe the reason there’s a rise in the “nones” isn’t that our faith is too hard, but that it’s not hard enough.
The second theory is that our faith is boring. Not, so much, that our Masses or Church services are boring—yes, that may be true from time to time, but we understand that's part of any organization. Worse, we fear that WE’D be boring if we practiced our faith. That being Christian is a boring life that makes us boring people.
That strikes me as a much more accurate fear to describe why youth are turning away from the faith.
Is the life of a Christian a boring life?
There are reasons to think so. The Holy Spirit—that animating force of God’s love in our life—his presence to us, is symbolized by a “dove.” Doves are quiet, gentle creatures; we even use the expression “gentle as a dove.” I believe our image of God and the Holy Spirit working in our lives is shaped by that image—a gentle force that quietly coos at us.
But in Celtic Christianity—in Ireland and Scotland—the symbol of the Holy Spirit is not a dove but a wild goose—unpredictable, untamed, free. A wild goose doesn’t coo, it honks. It seems to have its own mind, which may or may not agree with our own. When I took my grand-daughters to the park to feed bread to the geese, one goose the size of my granddaughter came up to her, stared at her a minute, then snatched the bread out of our hand.
The Christian journey is not walk down a tired, well-worn path; rather, we’re on a wild goose chase! In the vernacular, that expression means we’re chasing after something which is elusive. But in terms of faith, it means we don’t know the twists and turns of our life and cannot predict where the Holy Spirit will take us, but if we give our lives over to him, our lives will indeed become an adventure: full of love, disappointment, hope, sorrow and mystery.
We often hear that our lives are a journey, a story. That may be true, but as main characters, we don’t usually understand what's happening to us. It's especially true in the chapters of our life which are entitled "The early years." Typical of novels, each of the early chapters seem unrelated to each other, and it’s only in the later chapters that all these separate strands of our life begin to connect.
There’s part of us, the part that likes to plan things, that wants to know what the future holds for us 20 years out. We’re guilty of making you think that way in schools, too! Seniors, how many times have you been asked "What are you going to major in?” Translation: “What are you going to do for the rest of your life?” No pressure, seniors, just let us know how you intend to live the entirety of your adult life.
The truth is, we may THINK we want to know the future, but in the words of John Dunne, CSC, that would be the “deadly clear path” which would rob our lives of adventure, wonder, awe. Instead, we are like cars driving down a windy road at night, with the headlights only illuminating a patch of darkness before us. The only way to see beyond that patch is to keep driving forward. That’s the excitement of life, the thrill, the journey--no telling where the wild goose may lead us.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.