This past week, I set aside the Trump revelation books for a while to explore a book about the religious behavior and attitudes of young USA “emerging adults.” They are currently very important AND they will still be here when DT is just an old memory…..

More than fifteen years ago, a group of researchers — directed by Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and Lisa Pearce, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — began to study the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers in what was called “The National Study of Youth and Religion.” They carefully observed these young people and reported on their findings in a series of books, beginning with Soul Searching (2005). Now, with Back-Pocket God, this extensive research project comes to its conclusion.

Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults by Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory (Oxford University Press) explores the continuity and change among young people from their teenage years through the latter stages of “emerging adulthood.” Denton and Flory have discovered and documented that the story of young adult religious behavior is one of an overall decline in commitment and affiliation, and in general, a moving away from organized religion. A great many young people are not so much anti-organized religion. They are simply disinterested.

Although the young people in this book – about a quarter of the current US population and already outnumbering the Baby Boomers– are considered within the age range of what is often called the “millennial” generation, the authors do not refer to them as “millennials.” They prefer the term “emerging adults.” The book is a thorough and balanced analysis of their spiritual and religious lives: what they currently think and believe about religion, their religious practices and affiliations, and how these have changed over the course of their development from adolescence to emerging adulthood.

God for emerging adults, the study behind this book confirms, has become increasingly remote from their everyday concerns and rarely enters into their thinking or occupies an important place in their lives. In a way, the authors say, God functions like an app on their phones. God is just one thing among many other things in their lives. One could say that God is really “more of the comfortable feeling that emerging adults have, when they know their Pocket God is with them, close at hand but safely stowed out of sight.”

The top three ranked items that emerging adults identified as very or extremely important in their lives are: (1) to have a good family life (92 percent), (2) a close set of friends (89 percent), and (3) a fulfilling romantic relationship (80 percent). Less than one-half of emerging adults (49 percent) said that having a close relationship with God is very important for them and only 23 percent said that having a close relationship with God was most important.

Perhaps the most dramatic change among the emerging adults in this study concerns attendance at religious services. Attending religious services weekly or more often has dropped to 19 percent of respondents.

Clearly, emerging adults’ views about organized religion are less than positive, with an increasingly negative view of organized religion mirrored across every religious tradition. Many express their dissatisfaction and disagreement with religious institutions, usually around issues like LGBTQ identity and rights, abortion, and gay marriage. Many view the leaders of organized religions as more interested in building their own empires than in serving others. Those who were raised Catholic showed the biggest declines in positive feelings about the religion they grew up in, followed by Mainline and Conservative Protestants. Emerging adults, overall, are moving away from formal religious beliefs, practices, and participation in religious institutions. Even for those who maintain a place in their lives for religion, it tends to be treated as just one part of their lives and not more important than other things they are involved in.

Do I find this book upsetting or depressing? Not really. After researching and teaching about theology and religion for more than fifty years, I find it realistic and challenging. The scope of this book speaks to a great pastoral void. A friend observed that maybe these young adults have not left the church but that the church has left them….What one could call an ecclesiastical failure. Emerging adults are not in general antagonistic toward organized religion. Most just don’t find it all that important. Certainly if the current trends of disaffiliation and lack of interest and participation continue, religious institutions of all types will have a seriously declining membership pool and a big void in their bank accounts. One strong assertion in this book is that – unlike earlier generations — this generation will NOT be returning to church when they start having children.

The future of communities of faith depends on religious leadership observing and listening to young people without judgment and with patience and openness. I still remember, with dismay, the observations of an American bishop acquaintance. He yelled at me that “those young people need to be educated, formed, and forced to obey and observe the teachings of their Holy Mother the  Church.” I told him, much to HIS dismay, that those days are over and that “Holy Mother the Church has to start truly LISTENING to young people.”

These young people – our emerging adults – are neither racists nor xenophobic. They are already multi-racial. They are not anti-gay. They are not motivated by hatred or self-aggrandizement. They are attentive to the environment. They will indeed shape the future. We can help them by encouraging them to love, to search, to ask questions, and to find satisfying answers…..In the process they will indeed reform society and, indeed, reform the shape and focus of organized religion.


8 thoughts on “Back-Pocket God

  1. Dear Jack,
    Wow! This is the best analysis I have seen about the sociological change in USA Christianity! The Church is not relevant to today’s youth because it has maintained “tradition” as the main focus. Our church is graying and offering no assistance to negotiate the complexities of today’s world except to, using the old phrase, “pray, pay, and obey.” Our clergy is aging and not daring, imaginative, or wise enough to offer spiritual guidance other than to avoid sexual sins and abortion. When you and I were young seminarians we were called to engage in the world and we had vibrant role models like the Berrigans who showed that spirituality called for participation in affecting the world around us through social justice. Our clergy is completely silent in the face of all the upheaval in society. The Nuns on the Bus are the shining example of faith in action. Young people need role models and a reason to believe. Until and unless that happens, formal “religion” will mean very little in their lives.

  2. Hear, Hear, Jack and Frank! One addition to what Frank said . . . Today’s Church isn’t even relevant to me, (a 70 year old flower child) so I can totally understand how young adults are feeling. The only things that keep me in the Church today are my wonderful, loving compadres, and, most importantly, the Eucharist.

    God Bless,

  3. I believe we have lost young people because of the growing inflexibility and doctrinal fundamentalism in our clergy. I too remember the Berrigans and was lucky enough to take a course on the psalms with, and be challenged by, Daniel. Where do young adults in the Catholic Church fund such inspiration and motivation to act for justice? Not among Catholics.

  4. Jack

    I found the major concerns of the young people really significant and hopeful. They seem to be focused on the very aspects of our lives from which our experience of grace emerges. There is not cause of grace outside of human intimacy. How else are we touched by God? This group of young people seem very aware of family and community. Why is the Church unable to help them recognize that God is not in their back pocket but in their cherished activities? They seem to be clearly abiding in God according to this study. My only hope would be that they had a sense of community that embraces social justice. From their acceptance of others, I think we can assume that they do have a social sense.

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