"My Devout Child No Longer Believes in God. What Did I Do Wrong?"
For 20 years and in all types of communities throughout the United States, I have heard the stories. Long ago, I was struck by the similarities of these accounts.
The conversation has been raised with me many times, but it still hits me like a dagger in the heart. What story am I talking about? I'm talking about anxious parents, tearfully sharing about their kids who now reject the Christianity they once embraced.
I've heard about young adults who were raised in Christian homes and attended church or an evangelical school—perhaps even youth who made a profession of faith or were confirmed—but now claim to be agnostic, spiritual eclectics, or even atheists. Their loved ones now grapple with the gnawing question: "What did we do wrong?"
Parents, grandparents, and church leaders explain their stories of heartbreak regarding the "spiritual attrition rate". Such interactions can be quite emotional—you're concerned for the young person's relationship with the Lord and grieving for the parent who thinks they've somehow failed.
The Spirituality of "Twenty-somethings"
The Pew Research Center notes that millennials are the least overtly religious American generation. They have stated on record, "One in four are unaffiliated with any religion, far more than the share of older adults when they were ages 18 to 29. Yet not belonging does not necessarily mean not believing. Millennials pray about as often as their elders did in their own youth."
However, The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs report that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Approximately 76 percent of younger millennials say Christianity "has good values and principles" and 63 percent agree that modern-day Christianity "consistently shows love for other people." On the other hand, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials say that "anti-gay" describes today's Christianity somewhat or very well. And more than 6 in 10 (62 percent) millennials also believe that present-day Christianity is "judgmental".
Today, college-aged millennials are more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated. They are less likely to identify as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant. Millennials also hold less traditional religious beliefs. Fewer than one-quarter (23 percent) believe that the Bible is the Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. About 1 in 4 (26 percent) believe the Bible is the Word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Roughly 4 in 10 (37 percent) say that the Bible is a book written by men and is not the Word of God.
According to the Pew Research Center's "Millennials in Adulthood" survey, "This generation's religious views and behaviors are quite different from older-aged groups. Not only are they less likely than older generations to be affiliated with any religion, they are also less likely to say they believe in God. A solid majority still do (86 percent), but only 58 percent say they are 'absolutely certain' that God exists."
Words of Truth and Wisdom from a Veteran
While organizing this statistics, I received a call from Josh McDowell, a veteran of research about the intersections of youth, culture, religion, and evidence for the Christian faith.
A decade ago, some within the Christian community met McDowell's predictions about the eroding moral and spiritual landscape of the 21st century with skepticism. His research, however, sadly proved to be very accurate. McDowell said to me during the phone conversation, "In society today, emotion trumps the Bible, moral truth—even science."
But for those still believing in a Christ who reaches out to the wandering sheep who've strayed farthest away, the spiritual landscape of 2017 is rife with opportunity. Millennials are very open to spiritual discussions when communication is respectful, honest, and devoid of jargon and stereotypes. Millennials can be led to Christ (or led back) and one doesn't have to earn degrees in Postmodernism or Theology to do it. There are twenty-somethings all around us who are spiritual seekers, hungry for a true faith based on a relationship rather than a religion.
The key to ministry today is to focus on relationship building by investing time and personal commitment. Credibility, prayer, and patience will enable you to be heard above the incessant noise of culture. These are keys to ministry that we all need in order to make a difference in any context or generation.