Is Christianity becoming irrelevant to Canadian youth?
That’s a big question, and one that I have been interested in for a long time, particularly in the past 10 years, as I’ve worked for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, an organization dedicated to helping young people think about faith.
If I were to answer the question, based on the conversations I’ve been privileged to have with hundreds of high school, college and university students, the best I could offer is that I wonder.
In my experience, young people are still quite interested in engaging in conversations about faith in God and whether it’s relevant to life on this earth. But are they interested in Christianity, spelled with a capital letter and attached to that other big C word, Church?
Not so much, according to the findings of a new report released this month in Canada called Hemorrhaging Faith: Why Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church.
The report reflects on the responses of more than 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 who were surveyed by the Angus Reid Forum. All of these young adults were raised in the church – either Roman Catholic, mainline or evangelical traditions.
A further 72 young people participated in face-to-face interviews about their faith experience, revealing why they are still committed to church or why they’ve left it behind.
The resulting statistics are not all that surprising, given other Canadian realities about church life these days (for most denominations, it’s in a steady decline).
According to the study, only one in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child, still do so today. And of those young adults who have left the church, about 50 per cent no longer identify with the Christian tradition they were raised in.
With statistics like those, it’s not surprising that the report’s authors, including Canadian sociologist James Penner, gave it the visceral title, Hemorrhaging Faith. Young people are leaving the traditional church. Are those of us still heading inside noticing the bloody trail of footprints?
If we’re interested, if we think those footprints are worth following, Hemorrhaging Faith is valuable reading. It provides insight not just into what is happening among Canadian youth, but into their opinions and perceptions. It tells us what parts of spiritual faith they are interested in considering and what parts drive them even further away.
For example, a majority of the respondents said they weren’t looking for church leaders to answer all their questions. What they want instead is a tough engagement of the questions.
A majority also said that they’d be more likely to remain in church if they were given clear opportunities to exercise leadership and to serve. They want the freedom to bring creativity into the church, but they are also willing to listen to guidance – if those doing the guidance prove themselves trustworthy.
Young adults are a perceptive lot, and it doesn’t take them long to figure out if an adult is trustworthy or not. In fact, according to the study, young people frequently left the church because they experienced the people in it as judgmental, superficial, and exclusive.
Young adults also said they’d chosen to walk away from the church because they were tired of feeling like failures. Living up to the expectations of others – a demand not exclusive to the church – became too tiring in a place where they expected forgiveness and redemption.
But these same young adults are still looking for those things. They do want acceptance, forgiveness, even redemption. They are not opposed to looking for answers to life’s questions in traditional tools of the church.
More than 50 per cent of the young adults who’ve left the church said they’d still be open to studying the Bible – if a friend invited them. Note the word friend — authentic relationship is important to these young Canadians.
When they do go to church, they’re looking for challenging sermons that engage the hardest questions of faith and life. They want, as one interviewee put it: “to argue…to be able to argue with someone, ‘does God really exist?’”
Hemorrhaging Faith offers both bad news and good news. In this respect, its findings ring true to me. Young adults are leaving Capital C Christianity and the Church. But they are still spiritual beings. They still have questions. They are still seeking answers.
Will the Christian Church engage these young adults, welcome them with open arms, regardless of their skepticism, stubbornness and annoying sense of entitlement?
I certainly hope so. Not so much for the sake of the church, but for the sake of young adults.
Lynda MacGibbon’s column appears each Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lyndmacgibbon. Visit www.hemorrhagingfaith.com to obtain a copy of the report.