As Social Issues Drive Young From Church, Leaders Try To Keep Them
On Friday, Morning Edition wraps up its weeklong look at the growing number of people who say they do not identify with a religion. The final conversation in the Losing Our Religion series picks up on a theme made clear throughout the week: Young adults are drifting away from organized religion in unprecedented numbers. In Friday's story, NPR's David Greene talks to two religious leaders about the trend and wonders what they tell young people who are disillusioned with the church.
According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. As Harvard professor Robert Putnam told Greene in the piece that kicked off the series, this trend among young people is tied to religion's association with socially conservative politics.
"I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue."
Take Melissa Adelman, 30, a participant in a roundtable about religion that Greene had with six young adults. Adelman was raised Catholic but does not call herself one today because she cannot embrace the church's core beliefs on social issues.
"To me a church that would be welcoming would be one where there wasn't a male-only hierarchy that made all the rules, and there weren't these rules about who's excluded and who's included and what behavior is acceptable and what's not acceptable," she tells Greene.
In Friday's story, the Rev. Mike Baughman, a United Methodist minister who runs a Christian coffee shop in Dallas, tells Greene that the church is indeed sending the wrong message.
"If the church was known more for our efforts to welcome the stranger than keep them out, I think the church would have greater credibility with rising generations," says Baughman. "For example, on immigration policies, we've taken the wrong stance on that, and they know. The thing is they're smart enough. A lot of them have grown up in the church and then rejected it. They've read the scriptures that talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger, they've read the scriptures about the importance of caring for the poor, and when they see that no longer on the lips of those who are in religious authority, they see that the God we present is bankrupt, and that we're theologically thin in our ability to even speak our own story."
For Father Mike Surufka, a Catholic priest in the Franciscan order in Chicago, there are indeed issues that are fundamental to the church, but what seems to really matter is more granular: that the parishioner's spiritual needs are being met. For example, he says, he has counseled women in his congregation who have had abortions.
"I knew their pain, and I was not going to bring that to the pulpit," he says. His approach, he says, is to listen to them. "That has more transformative power than just about anything."
Despite the trend among young adults to reject organized religion, both Surufka and Baughman tell Greene that they are hopeful about the future of religions in America.
"I'm full of hope indeed," says Surufka. "There was a theologian from the mid-1900s who kind of described hope as an attitude toward the future that we cannot see, but we trust that somehow it's held by God and that there are possibilities beyond what we can even imagine."
Indeed, some of these so-called nones — dubbed this because they answer "none" when asked for their religious affiliation — have embarked on a quest to see if there's a place for some sort of organized religion in their lives. Writer and lifelong none Corinna Nicolaou, for example, admits she knows little about organized religions and wants to know more, so she has begun chronicling her visits to local places of worship. And in a recent Boston Magazine piece, Katherine Ozment describes her effort to find an organized secular and nonsecular community that makes sense now that she had kids.
Although the series winds down Friday, Morning Edition is likely to revisit the topic. Chuck Holmes, the show's supervising editor, says that as his team was planning the series, there were a lot of conversations about other aspects of religion that didn't end up getting airtime.
"So naturally that leads to more coverage," he says.
The Losing Our Religion series is here.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All this week, we've been hearing how more and more Americans, especially younger Americans, are moving away from organized religion. In a recent study from the Pew Research Center - found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religion. When it comes to young people, that number goes up to one in three. And one of the people we've heard from this week is Melissa Adelman. She grew up Catholic, and was taught by nuns in school.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, Melissa is 30 years old, and she no longer calls herself Catholic. She disagrees with the church on homosexuality, and she doesn't think the church gives women an equal role. We wondered what, if anything, would bring Melissa back.
MELISSA ADELMAN: To me, a church that would be welcoming would be one where there wasn't male-only hierarchy that made all the rules; and there weren't these rules about who's excluded and who's included, and what behavior is acceptable and what's not acceptable.
GREENE: She was speaking to us for our series "Losing Our Religion." Now, after hearing from Melissa and other young people, we reached out to two religious leaders. Reverend Mike Baughman is a United Methodist minister who runs a Christian coffee shop in Dallas. Father Mike Surufka is a Catholic priest in the Franciscan order, in Chicago. I asked Father Surufka what he could do to make someone like Melissa feel welcome again.
THE REV. MIKE SURUFKA: Well, I know there's some things I can't do. (LAUGHTER) There are some things that are simply, at this point, not changeable.
GREENE: Like what?
SURUFKA: I, personally, am not able to ordain women, for example. That's not within my realm. I think if Melissa were to come to me pastorally and want a conversation, I would begin by asking her what it is that she's seeking. We already know what her stumbling blocks are, but underneath that is a journey that keeps her moving. You can only stumble if you're moving. All of us are sort of like chipped pieces of porcelain, working our way through this. And if she can feel that I can accept her as she is, and I can invite her to accept me as I am, and our church as it is; if we can come to that point, then I think we have a different way of constructing the dialogue than simply saying, I have an objection to the church on this point. It's just not a helpful starting point.
GREENE: Let me ask you, Reverend Baughman - in speaking to a lot of these younger people, a lot of them spoke about just in general, feeling like politics and social issues have just made them not feel good about any organized religion today. I wonder if you have some of those conversations with people in your community, and what you tell them.
REV. MIKE BAUGHMAN: What I find is that the young folks I have conversations with, don't actually want the church not to take a stand on issues. They believe that the church has taken a stand on the wrong issues; that we've chosen the wrong priorities in figuring out what is our message, and how is it that we're trying to speak to the world around us. If the church was known more for our efforts to welcome the stranger than keep them out, I think the church would have greater credibility with rising generations.
For example, on immigration policies, we've taken the wrong stance on that. And they know. The thing is, they're smart enough. They - a lot of them have grown up in the church, and then rejected it. They've read the Scriptures that talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger. They've read the Scriptures about the importance of caring for the poor. And when they see that no longer on the lips of those who are in religious authority, they see that the God we present is bankrupt, and that we're theologically thin in our ability to even speak our own story.
GREENE: That the God that you present is bankrupt - I mean, it sounds like you have some real criticisms of how your religion has presented itself recently.
BAUGHMAN: Yeah, I think I do. See, I don't know where it is along the way, but I think we really abdicated some of our core responsibilities as a church; not only to speak on matters of justice but also, on simply being neighbors. I think we've shifted from caring for the well-being of the people around us, to caring for the spiritual well-being of the people who show up on any given Sunday.
SURUFKA: If what we're doing is creating a whole congregation of people who think just like us, then there's the danger we actually narrow our experience. I think one thing that makes Christian community Christian, is not so much everybody's all like each other but precisely when people are not an awful lot like each other, but find some sort of common story that unites them, that's beyond what makes them different.
GREENE: You know, hearing you say that - bring up the idea of creating a place where people all think alike - I mean, that's one of the criticisms about the Catholic church; that on many issues - abortion, gay marriage - you know, you can only think one way. You know, it's a place where I think differently, I can't be there. I can't be part of it.
SURUFKA: You know, there comes a point where you say, this is really fundamental to what we believe and other things are less fundamental, but this is what we're about. More than seeking people who are like them - I found it most successful when young people found people who were authentic, who were living, truly, what they were preaching. And if that's the starting point of a dialogue, then we can make an awful lot of progress.
GREENE: Did you ever get pressure from people who wanted to hear you talk about some very sensitive subjects - like homosexuality, like abortion - they wondered why they weren't hearing you talk about that on Sunday.
SURUFKA: Absolutely. Every now and then, people would say, well, how come you don't talk more about abortion? And probably the most important thing for me, pastorally, is I counseled and heard the confessions of women in that congregation who had had abortions and were really struggling with that. And I knew their pain, and I was not going to bring that to the pulpit.
GREENE: And what was your approach to - I mean, I don't want you to divulge, obviously, something that's too private - what was your approach to those conversations with those women?
SURUFKA: (Pauses) Um - the first step is always to listen, to see what is actually happening in the life of this person. That has more transformative power than just about anything - for somebody really to know that they were heard at a very deep level. That's all I want to say about that.
GREENE: I just wanted to ask you both - I mean, at this moment, do you feel worried; do you feel hopeful about the future of religious practice in this country?
BAUGHMAN: Yeah. I couldn't be more hopeful. I see springs of renewal coming up out of the ground. I see it in the critical conversations that young people are having about the church. I find hope, honestly, in the desperation of the old guard within the church.
GREENE: Father Surufka?
SURUFKA: Oh, I'm full of hope, indeed. There was a theologian from the mid-1900s, who kind of described hope as this - that it's an attitude toward the future that we cannot see, but we trust that somehow it's held by God, and that there are possibilities beyond what we can even imagine. And St. Paul said...
BAUGHMAN: I like that answer better.
SURUFKA: St. Paul said, you know, we hope in precisely that which we cannot see. Because if we see it, it's not hope. It's already fulfilled. You know, Reverend Baughman and I, I think would agree on this; when we hear sort of the stress fractures of institutional religion, then we know we're making some progress. So I'm very filled with hope, indeed.
GREENE: That's Father Mike Surufka, in Chicago; and Reverend Mike Baughman, in Dallas. And you can learn more about our series "Losing Our Religion" at our website, npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.