Why it matters that Christianity has become alien to a lost generation of young people

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.

Categories: Church, Faith in society

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16 replies

  1. Mission must be an integral part of the Gospel – just look at the Welsh Outpouring attracting all ages now at Victory Church. Cwmbran

  2. That’s the mainstream story, but among immigrants it’s different. They’re much more likely to be religious, whatever that religion is – and many are Christians.

  3. Thank you for this helpful article. We can indeed learn from Wesley and the early Methodists, and the chief lesson is that they did not accommodate their message to suit the age, nor did they seek to attract the young by immersing themselves in contemporary culture. They were ‘Scripture alone’ men, and spoke about sin and judgement, as well as God’s love. Their central focus was the need for personal salvation from sin, which has to come first, before anyone can begin to have the right ‘social attitudes’. Wesley engaged in open air preaching, as you rightly pointed out, and this properly done by serious men called of God to preach is should be a vital aspect of the church’s endeavours today.

    • I couldn’t agree more with your comment Pastor Simpson. There are many young people hanging around town centres on a Saturday afternoon it would be good if Church clergy got out and set up a little are either in the malls or on some green parkland outside it and preached out loud. Not in a creepy way that would attract ridicule, sneering comments and people to shun them but in a nice way with maybe a timetable of what is to be preached. Stories from the Bible told over the loudspeakers while one shops instead of awful music etc…

      • I too couldn’t agree more Pastor Simpson. I also can’t help recalling the famous ” Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats” by Archibald Brown, sometimes attributed to his mentor Charles Spurgeon: It includes the words “The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of its mission is to provide entertainment for the people , with a view to winning them.From speaking out as the Puritans did, the church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day…” IT ends: “The need is biblical DOCTRINE, so understood and felt, that it sets men on fire.” http://apprising.org/2012/12/11/feeding-sheep-or-amusing-goats/

    • True, but we need to make sure we use contemporry language to make sure nothing gets lost

  4. Looked at honestly, we are in a frightening scenario, which threatens our nation as never before. It is very serious and I agree with Lord Sacks. Our secular society wants to maximize freedom – but the cost of following our own inclinations, devoid of guidance, will invite disaster.

    Personal freedom is the prize that the world wants, and Jesus did come to set people free (John 8:36) but that comes with repentance and, when it does, it is not freedom to sin.

    However, dire as the situation is, two facts remain. The first is that God has not changed. He is every bit “God of the impossible”! All His promises hold true and nothing in His laws will ever change either. The second is that the basic problems of mankind (call it human nature) have not gone away. For all man’s supposed freedom, making wrong choices makes his problems worse, not better.

    Revival is a gift from God. It is heaven to earth, not earth to heaven. Having said, urgent and persistent prayer always precedes revival and history shows that revival is given to the church. As soon as the church gets right with God, the world will take serious notice, as happened in the Welsh revival of 1904-5. God, the Creator of us all, knows the way through, even to the hearts of the most unlikely.

    Yes, we need to pray, but remembering that revival must begin with us.

  5. There are in fact many ‘significant signs of hope’, as you conclude Gillan, one being the Outpouring Clive mentions. Where the basic Gospel of the cross and blood of Jesus is being preached many are sensing God’s presence and coming to repentance, as well as being healed – even the other way round, as I witnessed in East Yorks.

    [You’ll recall having considered ‘God’s outsiders pointing to a new era for the church’ back in March and I think you may be aware many others have spoken about a ‘new season’. Then in May we discussed the church’s ‘biggest crisis’ and I gave reasons for refuting that viewpoint.]

    Thank you Peter and Richard for solid comments. I’d simply add that, imho, just because we may be in the great apostasy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get back to the post-Pentecost position of Holy Spirit empowered preaching that the Lord endorses with signs and wonders. As scripture states; despite appearances, encouraging and exciting times are ahead!

    Tinkering with services won’t do the trick because too many gain misconceived notions, as evident now and then on this blog – only the straight Gospel counts with God, that’s why it’s his good news for everyone!

  6. That’s an excellent piece. While I’m not at all bothered if a Vicar want to do a “flash-mob” at a wedding. Although frankly as far as modern thought goes it could be just another symptom of the emphasis we put on the wedding rather than the marriage – make the wedding great (fun, off-the-wall, expensive, whatever) and the couple will stay together. Which clearly isn’t working.
    But there’s two things that occur to me about young people and church. First, and coming from a church of 800+ with a large number of young (and 20s, 30s, 40s) people, it’s not all doom and gloom. When I as a kid was dragged to church (by basically unbelieving parents) I hated it. I certainly didn’t believe in it but I would have been one a statistic that said that many more of my fellow teens attended church. I don’t remember one of my church attending friends who actually believed in it. Many of them continued to attend long after I stopped (and decided I was an atheist) – I’m much more impressed by the vibrant faith in many of the young people I see in my church.
    But, that’s not to pretend there’s nothing wrong! How to change things? I think you’re spot on!
    I don’t recall reading jesus, Paul or anyone in the Bible telling us to “go and get them into church”. And although there were some non-believers in the early church gathering (1 Cor 14:24) this seems to have been rare. When we were (at least culturally) a Christian nation, it may have been that you could appeal to that shared culture and invite them to church. But without that it’s much more difficult – the reaction to being invited to church is likely to be “Why bother?”
    And frankly however much “fun” a church is, it’s still got a problem if it’s just one of a whole raft of activities competing for the attention of anyone on a Sunday!
    …Unless there is the witness of our lives (yes and words) so that they say “Yep, you’ve got something, perhaps I’ll take a look”
    We need to have the mind-set that the early Christians must have had as the gospel spread. Today’s youth may not worship Artemis, but they are just as ignorent of Christianity as the inhabitants of 1st century Ephesus were…

  7. Reblogged this on Understanding Alice and commented:
    A thought provoking article about the state of Christianity in the UK

  8. Reblogged this on Your True Christian Journey and commented:
    ALARMING statistics! The Great Apostasy is happening….


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