Hemorrhaging faith, or just changing?

There have been many studies conducted recently on young adults and faith. In Canada, one recent study is Hemorrhaging Faith, which examines current trends in 18-34 year-olds who were “raised Christian.”

The results aren’t particularly surprising. In a society of immense diversity with very little social pressure for formal religious involvement (in fact, the opposite is likely the case in my opinion), it makes sense that young adults don’t remain involved in the church beyond their childhood years.

I had the opportunity of hearing from two of the study’s researchers this week as they made a series of presentations at Columbia Bible College - Rachel Harder and James Penner. I’ll admit, particularly based on the study’s title, I was expecting a pessimistic, “doom and gloom” reflection on the state of youth and religion in Canada today. After all, "hemorrhaging” isn’t exactly the term a pastor or a parent (of which I am both) likes to hear about the people he or she leads. And yes, the statistics themselves reveal trends away from the church involvement of people’s childhood (about 2/3 of respondents). The numbers themselves could make one think the demise of the church is upon us!

Yet throughout the presentation, Harder and Penner shared an optimism and understanding of our culture that was far from negative. In fact, the changing nature of church culture, Penner reminded us, may in fact be a sign of vibrancy in the spirituality of today’s youth. Penner referred to a little-known book by Eugene Peterson, in which Peterson addresses this “‘youth’ problem”:

"Yet another person is beginning to sense the personal dimensions of a relationship with God and realize that the saying no is the first step in discovering how to say yes...Parents [and I would add Christians in general] can hardly prefer that a child blandly and impersonally continue in a stream of institutional religion, inheriting faith thirdhand: they will want a free, adult relationship with Christ." (Like Dew Your Youth)

I get that “Hemorrhaging Faith” describes the oftentimes “uncontrollable loss or outflow” of young adults from churches - it is an apt description of a social reality. I can’t help but think, however, that the negative connotations of such a label can distract from the great hope that exists for the future of the church within this “next generation” - hope that emerges from a generation desiring authenticity, honesty, depth, hospitality, flexibility, and meaning that engages the world around us. Sociologically, Christianity is a changing faith which in part includes declining formal involvement. But such change should not require a default pessimism or despair at the future of Christianity. Growth doesn’t always mean more. In fact, perhaps the “mustard seed” of engaged young adults, enabled by the Spirit of God, is the precise hope we need in this time of changing faith.

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