by Pastor Doug Kings

A book group member shared with me a recent hopeful sounding article from The Wall Street Journal: “The Surprising Surge of Faith Among Young People.” The article itself nearly contradicts the title, however (confirming that titles are written, not by the piece’s author to summarize what they’ve written, but by an editor to attract attention and get “eyeballs”). What the author, Clare Ansberry, finds is hardly a “surge”, and “faith” is meant in a very broad sense. But something has happened, at least in the short term.

Ansberry reports on some recently published surveys and interviews that she’s conducted. The gist of her story is that the disruptive impact of the pandemic on young people has caused them to look in new places for support and meaning. She begins with a survey showing that belief in a “higher power” among those 18-25 increased from about one-quarter in 2021 to a third in 2023.

That specific language is important, however. Ansberry reports that another survey showed that belief in “God” continues to decline among young adults, as does the importance of or participation in organized religion. The author highlights the ambiguity of these findings:

The Springtide survey uses the term “higher power,” which can include God but isn’t limited to a Christian concept or specific religion, to capture the spectrum of believers. Many young adults say they don’t necessarily believe in a God depicted in images they remember from childhood or described in biblical passages, but do believe there is a higher benevolent deity. 

Others have noted the vagueness of this trend, even as they try to put a positive spin on it. According to Princeton Seminary dean, Abigail Visco Rusert, “We are seeing an openness to transcendence among young people that we haven’t seen for some time.” Hardly the markings of a “surge of faith.” A young man interviewed for the article is one example of the uncertainty of the situation.

Desmond Adel, 27, describes himself as an “agnostic theist,” which is someone who believes in one or more deities but doesn’t know for sure if they exist. He attended church every Sunday as a child, but doesn’t recall “which subset of Christianity” it represented, and quit going as a teen. He says he’s not 100% convinced there is a higher power, but “leans towards” the existence of one that isn’t tied to one denomination. “I don’t think it’s like any gods described by major religions,” says Mr. Adel, of Carmel, Ind.

But even among those with more conventional beliefs in God, participation in religion is hardly an automatic consequence. Worship attendance by young adults declined over the past five years and the importance of religion remains lowest among this group. Ansberry sites this woman as an example.

Alora Nevers, a 29-year-old stay at home mom of four in Sidney, Mont., has always believed in God. She no longer goes to her Catholic church, where, she says, they talked too much about making donations. “I would rather praise God the way I do with my family. We pray every night.”

So, what’s going on? Well, this is certainly confirmation of the continuing growth of those who have been called “spiritual but not religious”, or SNRs as I have abbreviated it. And this is actually not far from the meaning of “sinners” in the gospels, i.e. people who were not necessarily bad but did not follow the Jewish traditions of that time. And significantly, I believe, the gospels report that Jesus had more of an affinity with “sinners” than with those who were conventionally religious.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been an acceleration of the trend away from involvement in traditional religion across the age spectrum. People are voting with their feet. For whatever reason, “church” is of less and less interest to people. Yet churches have great difficulty genuinely responding. As a Baptist pastor and workshop leader said to me nearly forty years ago about the declining religious interest evident even then, most churches’ response is, “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.”

As I’ve long believed, church authorities did us no favor by, in essence, censoring the findings of modern biblical scholarship. For if their discoveries had been shared with the church-at-large, rather than confined to seminary classes and PhD programs, there would be much greater awareness of the diversity of opinion among his own followers, about who Jesus was and what his life was about.

The Gospel of Thomas, for example, still unknow to most Christians, likely dates to the same time as the earliest of the canonical gospels and presents what could be called a spiritual, not religious Jesus. And there are many signs of such a Jesus in the biblical gospels, but only visible if we remove our “orthodox” filters.

Did Jesus come to help us get to someplace called heaven later, or to find the “kingdom of God” here and now, in our midst and within us, as it says in Luke? When Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables, was he attacking the corruption of religion, as the synoptic gospels imply, or was he attacking the whole notion of religious rules and rituals as John’s version indicates?

“Can the leopard change its spots?” seems to be the question Christianity is facing today. Perhaps it can, if it turns out those spots were only painted on by centuries of unquestioned tradition and religious self-serving.

Popular culture is (again) trying to redirect churches to the genuine needs of people and, paradoxically, back to the genuine concerns of Christianity’s own founder. In this Sunday’s Gospel, and in contrast to Christianity’s convoluted doctrines and theology, we will hear Jesus make the simple declaration, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” That’s a message that could appeal to anyone at any time.

Blessings in your life and ministry.