Young Adults and the (Australian) Church – Haemorrhaging or Not?
Regardless of what we might believe IN, we are only just beginning to understand HOW we go about believing …anything
Australian eJournal of Theology, Vol 23, No 1, 2006
(The Australian eJournal of Theology (AEJT) is a peer-reviewed, open access journal (i.e., free to read!) published three times a year. It provides a scholarly forum for interdisciplinary, ecumenical and interfaith exploration appropriate to Australian regional connections with Asia and the Pacific, and with the wider international theological community.)
Haemorrhage. Exodus. Lost.
They are all quite evocative terms, and often used in relation to young adults and their engagement with church and faith. And to be sure this is not just an evocative ‘topic’ but a very difficult experience for many young people.
Previously we have considered whether we are in fact witnessing an ‘exodus’ or whether it is more helpful to understand this phenomenon through the lens of ‘exile’. That is to say, are we seeing young people ‘escaping’ the church (and jettisoning their faith), or are we seeing young people disconnected and embattled in a foreign land wanting to get back home but unsure how to do so.
Recently, we contributed to a peer reviewed article which explored these dynamics further in a more formal setting. Here we continue the conversation by critically reviewing research undertaken by Canadians into the incidence of church disengagement and faith disidentification and comparing it with the evidence relating to the Australian experience.
There are a number of different avenues that the article explores, but I just want to highlight one for you here – what happens when we approach the faith of young people in traditional (fixed/binary) terms instead of dynamic (changing) ones. (I should say, that the examples and conversation that follows below flow on from the article and summarise where my thinking has gone subsequently. It is not a summary of the article – so you’ll just have to read it too!)
Fixed vs Dynamic Faith
Understanding faith as either fixed of dynamic, I think, makes all the difference in the world when you are accompanying young people in their faith. Let me explain.
A fixed approach to faith is the more traditional view and tends to approach faith in binary terms – something that you have or don’t have. You can hear it in the language we regularly use to describe faith all the time. “I once was lost but now am found”, “I came to faith in Jesus when …”, “And when it happened, I came so close to losing my faith”. Such language highlights that we have an understanding of faith that is either present or absent, found or lost, here today and gone tomorrow. Faith, in this sense, is something that we can lose or find, have or do not have. But whatever we find or have, it is the same thing forever. It is the thing that unites us and makes us Christian. The task of discipleship, therefore, is simply to ‘deepen’ your faith – to send down deep roots and become the solid and wise tree of Psalm 1.
My point is, we are only just beginning to understand the process, the dynamism of the journey of faith that would lead two siblings toward such alternative approaches to practicing the Christian faith.
What this approach to faith lacks is an appreciation of the way faith changes over time. Faith in this sense is not just something that you grow older within, it is something that itself needs to “grow up.” Again, this is not simply about moving from simplistic to more complicated versions of faith. Equally, this is not just about knowing increasingly more theology and stuff about the bible. It is about the fact that two people, perhaps even two siblings raised in the same family, can wind up still identifying with the Christian faith, and yet wind up approaching that faith from within completely different worldviews, mindsets and ways of knowing.
They may both hold to the authority of the Bible, but one from a literal ‘dictated by God’ point of view, and another from a ‘God’s spirit interacting with human personality’ point of view
They may both hold to the veracity of Prayer, but one from an interventionist perspective that asks God for certain things in faith and keeps a record of answered prayer; while the other seeks to commune with God in meditative silence.
They may both see the Christ event as the central axis of God’s redemptive plan, but one because they see Christ as taking our punishment meted out by a just God; while the other sees Christ as a unification of Divinity and humanity and thus overcoming the greatest challenge facing the relationship of God and humans.
Some of you may read the above three points and conclude that these represent the difference between simple and complicated approaches to faith. Some of you may even see these as representing orthodox and heretical positions in faith. But my point is not the different positions of ‘states’ that these two have ended up in. Once again, that approaches faith as from a fixed point of view and that is what so much current research into faith loss focuses upon. My point is, we are only just beginning to understand the process, the dynamism of the journey of faith that would lead two siblings toward such alternative approaches to practicing the Christian faith.
To put it another way, regardless of what one person or another winds up believing IN, we understand very little about HOW people go about believing, how this changes over time, and why two people who have been raised in an identical context can wind up believing so differently. This is the dynamism and mystery of faith.
In decades past, it may be that faith didn’t have to change over time quite so much as it does today. Research undertaken by James Fowler, Pew Research and Barna all highlight that the dominant faith perspectives of those aged 50 and older in the church today are roughly the same as that of when they were teenagers. A particular approach to faith seems to have ‘locked-in’ in the Baby Boomers when they were younger, and the context in which they became adults appears to have not problematised their faith journey.
These days, it appears faith doesn’t ‘lock-in’ in the teen years, but instead gets tested, searched, quested and critiqued for some time, probably not consolidating into the late twenties. Thus the teens and twenties represent an extended period of faith change. As such, we do our young people an enormous disservice when we think only in terms of ‘do they have faith?’ or ‘are they losing faith?’ Instead, I wonder if we can approach the young people to whom we are entrusted, with a sense of mystery, to wonder ‘what has changed today?’, ‘what is different about your faith since the last time we met?’
To understand more about how NEXT works alongside young adults to accompany, nurture and develop their faith as it changes throughout the late teens and twenties, click here.
Australia recently had the opportunity to consider the results of a Canadian research project Hemorrhaging Faith through a series of conferences in capital cities. The conferences sponsored a conversation between those who played an active role initiating the Hemorrhaging Faith research and a number of Australian researchers and practitioners who considered the research findings in the light of our context. This article offers an Australian critical review of the Hemorrhaging Faith report. It will consider whether Australian churches are also hemorrhaging young people in much the same way as Canadian research would suggest, or whether the situation may be conceived more accurately as one of exodus or exile. The article plots a course for the ongoing discussion we believe we need in Australia concerning the interpretation and implications of this story.
To read / download the article, click here