This week we’ve had another glimpse into the ever-changing dynamics of the Christian faith in our society and what the future could well look like. It’s common knowledge that the majority of church-goers are in the later years of their lives and as this older generation eventually dies away we can expect to see a very different looking church in this country. This stark reality has been highlighted in a new YouGov poll, which has revealed some of the attitudes and beliefs of young adults (18-24 year olds) in this country towards a whole range of things including Christianity and church attendance. At first some of the numbers might appear quite shocking. 56 per cent have described themselves as having no religion at all and exactly the same number say that they have never attended a church except maybe for events like weddings and funerals. 28% described their religion as Christian. This compares to the 2011 census where the 25% of the general population self-identified as having no religion and 59 per cent said they were Christian.
These YouGov figures might seem high, but they are broadly in line with last year’s British Social Attitudes survey which found that 65% of 18-24 year old professed to have no religion and 58 per cent never attend a church. This makes this age group the most irreligious of all. On several occasions I’ve heard this age group being described as a lost generation and when it comes to religious belief, that label sticks. Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation – those born roughly between 1980 and 2000 – is the first group in our country in centuries where the majority have next to no comprehension of the Christian faith. They could be described as the first atheist generation, but this could be unfair given that so few understand who God is. This is not a case of young adults who have been to church and drifted away or actively rejected it; they have simply had no experience of church or Christianity in any meaningful way. For those who hold onto the belief that this is a Christian country, this data provides another reminder of the reality of the situation. This trend is only likely to continue as fewer and fewer children grow up in households with any religious knowledge and involvement.
Two questions come out of this. One is whether a lack of religious belief is something as a society we should be worried about and the second is how the Church should approach this issue.
The Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, recently went on the offensive arguing that the West is suffering for its loss of faith and unless we rediscover religion, our civilisation is in peril:
‘The costs are beginning to mount up. Levels of trust have plummeted throughout the West as one group after another — bankers, CEOs, media personalities, parliamentarians, the press — has been hit by scandal. Marriage has all but collapsed as an institution, with 40 per cent of children born outside it and 50 per cent of marriages ending in divorce. Rates of depressive illness and stress-related syndromes have rocketed especially among the young. A recent survey showed that the average 18- to 35-year-old has 237 Facebook friends. When asked how many they could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.
‘None of this should surprise us. This is what a society built on materialism, individualism and moral relativism looks like. It maximises personal freedom but at a cost.
‘Religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. [I don’t] believe that you have to be religious to be moral… I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other.’
In response to Lord Sacks and the YouGov data, Nelson Jones at Heresy Corner gave this appraisal:
‘Has this absence of religious faith produced a generation of shallow hedonists or depressed, angst-ridden nihilists, as the Chief Rabbi would presumably expect? Not a bit of it. For the survey confirmed that young people today are in most respects more levelheaded and conventional (if somewhat more selfish) than their predecessors. Two thirds looked forward to marriage and children. No fewer than 70% expected (perhaps over-optimistically) to one day own their own home. Slightly more than half thought that “the traditional role of the family” had declined in modern Britain. 30% thought this was a bad thing, but almost a quarter disagreed that the family was in trouble at all. In other words, a clear majority expressed approval for traditional family structures.’
As it stands we are in something of a no-man’s-land as we try to predict the consequences of this mass loss of faith. This generation of young adults is fairly easy-going and liberal in a live-and-let-live sort of way, but it still holds on to some traditionally ‘Christian’ values including marriage and stable families as ideals. Whilst it remain mainly apathetic towards religion we should all be able to carry on without too much difficulty even though a lack of religious faith in a society does have its consequences as Lord Sacks identifies. However, it could prove to be a fragile peace if more aggressive secularism and atheism is allowed to take hold and religious belief is actively marginalised as we hear about occasionally in the news. There is also a hint of concern that tolerance towards religion may not last indefinitely. In the YouGov poll 41 per cent of young adults thought that religion is more often the cause of evil in the world with only 14 per cent thinking on balance that it is a force for good. There is a real potential for attitudes towards religion in general to become hostile over time through events such as the Woolwich murder of lee Rigby as religious illiteracy increases. If it is kicked onto the sidelines and a spiritual and moral void increasingly takes hold, what will fill it? Will we be heading down the lines of eighteenth century England where Thomas Carlyle described the country’s condition as “Stomach well alive, soul extinct.” Bishop Berkeley wrote of that time that morality and religion in Britain had collapsed “to a degree that was never known in any Christian country.”
The man credited for dragging England out of this sorry mess was John Wesley. The religious revival in which Wesley played such a key role swept through the country altering the course of English history and bringing people back to God in great numbers. In 1928 Archbishop Davidson wrote that “Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation.”
Looking at the spiritual direction in which this country is travelling, the Church could well hope and pray that God would do something similar and send another revival. It would seem that only a major move of the Holy Spirit will cause a fundamental shift in belief and if Christians want to see a significant restoration of the Christian faith, they should be praying earnestly for just this.
What the Church does need to get its head round urgently though, is that Britain in the 21st century is incredibly different to how it was in the 18th century. This may seem obvious, but Wesley’s England, though morally bankrupt still had a firm attachment to the Christian faith, albeit in a nominal way. Now we have children and young adults who don’t even know what the cross they are wearing around their neck represents. If the Church is going to reach out effectively to young adults, it needs to treat them as if they are a foreign mission field. Church is so alien to many of them now that according to a Christian Research survey the vast majority of 16-24 year olds have no desire to attend a church service.
There has been a lot of talk this week about how church services could be made more appealing by being more interactive, but if more and more adults aren’t interested in going near a church, altering with service structures is just tinkering at the edges whilst the fundamental problem is left unaddressed. Wesley did something that the Church of England establishment at the time refused to do – he went and preached the Gospel in the open air away from the churches. In the same way this lost Generation Y is only going to discover the real Jesus if he is taken to them, where they are, away from the church buildings. If you know where to look, you will see that this is already happening in many places and there are many churches that are reaching young adults effectively. What often marks this success out is that the focus is on both ‘church’ and ‘mission’ because there is an acknowledgement that without mission the Church is going to die on its wobbly feet no matter how it dresses itself up. In some ways our churches would do well to return to the model of the New Testament church with its outward drive and reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Even though the future of Christianity might look bleak to some observers, there are significant signs of hope. In my experience those young adults who are Christians are some of the most adventurous, dynamic and enthusiastic people when it comes to their faith. Their radical (I mean this in an entirely positive way) commitment to their beliefs and desire to follow Jesus show beyond any doubt that Christianity is utterly relevant for their generation. It’s just that most of their contemporaries haven’t realised it yet.