In the past few weeks NPR has aired several interviews with people exploring a dynamic shift in the American religious landscape. Perhaps it’s a sensitivity born of the recent debates about their own threatened funding and government support (sorry Big Bird) but the folks over at NPR have taken note of the measurable decline in religious affiliation and participation for younger generations of Americans.
The numbers of young people who either leave the churches of their childhood or find themselves unaffiliated, uninterested or (saddest of all) unwelcome in a faith community as young adults are significant. They deserve our attention. Not the numbers; the people. The people deserve our attention. When people speak, with their mouths or with their feet – as Americans or Christians or both – we should listen.
Our friend Jim Martin, S.J. was recently interviewed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” about the effect recent Church scandals might have on vocations to the priesthood. I’m glad to hear people talking honestly and intelligently about religious vocation on the radio, however, I think the interview falls into a familiar trap: it’s asking those still in the game to comment on why others might be out of the game. I find this a curious approach. Why not go to the source itself?
I’m happy to report that NPR has their bases covered on this one. The week before their conversation with Jim Martin they aired a two-part segment, “Losing Our Religion” (you can find them here: Part 1 and Part 2). It’s a simple recording of a frank conversation held in a converted synagogue with a series of young adults talking about why they choose not to affiliate themselves with the faiths of their childhood.
If you’re short on time (and with apologies to Jim Martin), I’d recommend listening to the young and disaffiliated first. Listen to these young people in their own words. Listen to these people of various religious backgrounds sharing their own reasons, exploring their own doubts, speaking for themselves about what “they’re really longing for” or (imagine this) not longing for at all.
Once we’ve listened – to the numbers in studies or the voices in interview – then we may find something to say that will hold everyone in conversation. Then we can begin to ask some really interesting questions.