To begin to answer this question we can look at the answers of teenagers to questions asked by Kenda Creasy Dean and others in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is telling the American Church. This book was published six years ago in 2010, so what we get is almost a portrait of the faith of many (now) young adults in utero – just as they were entering the early stages of Young Adulthood.
As she mentions in the book, “The good news is that teenagers are not hostile towards religion.” This came as a shock. She confesses, “[We] expected to find teenagers rebelling against religion – arguing with parents, looking for more ‘authentic’ forms of religious expression, trying to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious.'”
Unfortunately, as she goes on to point out, “The bad news is the reason teenagers are not hostile towards religion: they just do not care about it very much. Religion is not a big deal to them. People fight over things that matter to them – but religion barely causes a ripple in the lives of most adolescents.”
And, there is good reason for this.
As she argues, the version of Christianity most Young People have inherited is not a robust, challenging, radical vision of God’s incredible plans for the world – but a tame, harmless, and frankly uninteresting social institution that at its best functions as a kind of social service agency. Of course – this is not always true. But it has too often been true.
And the results are clear.
“If teenagers consider Christianity inconsequential – if American young people consider the church worthy of ‘benign whatever-ism’ and no more – than maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes, and young people are telling the church that we are not who we say we are. If we fail to bear God’s life-altering, world-changing, fear-shattering good news (which, after all, is the reason the church exists in the first place) – if desire for God and devotion to our fellow human beings is replaced by a loveless shell of religiosity – then young people unable to find consequential Christianity in the church absolutely should default to something safer. In fact, that is exactly what they are doing.”
Even though Kenda was putting her finger on this over six years ago, this is not something the church at large has caught onto yet. While we pay lip service and programmatic “tips of the hat” to our youth and young adults, the church for the most part is NOT addressing the serious, significant, and ultimately valid critique that younger generations are making of us.
Young adults today – many of them – have grown up in our churches, been taught by our Sunday School teachers, listened to our pastors’ sermons, and come back to us with the legitimate question, “So, are we really going to live this way?”
In an age when our culture provides such a shallow, artificial version of the human experience – where identity is crafted through the products that we buy, the clothing we wear, and the social circles we live in – what is the bold, challenging vision of the world that the church stands for?
Because – too often – that is what we are missing.
Our young people have heard, learned, and internalized the lessons of the faith that we have taught them for so many years – and they have found us wanting.
There are Young Adults – plenty of them – waiting to sign on to a vision that is as exciting, empowering, life-changing, and bold as the stories they learned in Sunday School all those years ago.
The question is – will we let them?