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Mattingly: Churches face challenges in reaching young Americans

Published: Thursday, July 10, 2014 8:45 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, July 10, 2014 9:07 p.m. CDT

When leaders of traditional faith groups think about reaching out to Millennials, religious seekers, unaffiliated “Nones” and other postmodern young Americans, this is the voice that many keep hearing in their heads.

“Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it,” said one person interviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion. “You could feel what’s right and wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what’s right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I’m going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I’m going to do it.”

In light of current trends, it’s also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether. This creates strong moral tensions.

“This is the metaphor you keep hearing,” said Riley, in a telephone interview. For an increasing number of young adults, “religion is like a jacket. You have to take it off whenever you are doing something that you know violates the teachings of your church.

“So you throw that jacket in the corner. ... Then you drift further and further away until there is some part of you that just doesn’t fit anymore. In your head, you’re saying, ‘I haven’t been behaving the way that I should, so I shouldn’t go to church, or to Shabbat, or to the mosque.’ Then you say that week after week. ... You lose your religious habits.”

During this “emerging adulthood” stage, stressed Riley, most young people are living in a state of flux, moving to new places, making new friends, adjusting to new jobs, living with new roommates, dating new people and trying to accept new financial responsibilities. Meanwhile, religious leaders are asking them to make commitments and to keep them.

“Religious leaders are really caught in a bind here,” she said. “You want these young people to step forward and maybe even to become leaders.” At the same time, she added, it’s crucial that “the church or the temple or the mosque doesn’t become like almost everything else in their lives – something else that’s just temporary.”

• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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