Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Their Own Terms

If you follow this blog, you know that I keep track of the research coming out of the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life.  Their most recent report examines the religious beliefs and practices of the generation born after 1980 -- the "Millennial Generation."

By some indicators, the report says, this new generation is less religious than older Americans.  Nearly one-quarter of young people are religiously "unaffiliated", which is a higher rate than the two previous generations at comparable ages.  And overall, young folks tend to pray and attend worship less often than previous generations.  It's remarkable, therefore, that the level of this generation's core religious commitments -- belief in God, miracles, life after death, etc. -- are similar to those of earlier generations.  The difference is that they practice differently than their predecessors.

Some will interpret this study as a call for increased emphasis on denominational outreach, as evidence for a mission field ripe for evangelism.  And I'll be the first to say that my own Methodist tradition has much to offer our current cultural climate.  But I also see a context in which the Millennials -- who are already entering our theological schools, by the way -- are seeking new ways of being religious.  Unfortunately, our schools usually aren't ready for them.

recent blog from a Christian campus minister at USC introduced a new term into my vocabulary.  He says some of his (Millennial) students are identifying themselves as "inter-spiritual," as unaffiliated with any particular tradition (or, possibly, the child of multiple traditions).  He explains:
They want to be between and among, and even within, the spirits of those around them, people from all manner of religious backgrounds, or no religion at all.  They don't see their spirits as existing in isolation.  They feel affiliated with people of many faiths or no particular faith, so they don't feel compelled to officially affiliate with any one religion.  They aren't lonely in their lack of formal religious belonging.  They have found ways to connect deeply with others beyond the bounds of sectarian identity.This reflects the aversion of some young people to institutional and traditional forms of religion. 
This confirms the Pew research about this generation, but it also testifies to the need for new forms of education that can help this generation discern their direction in the world in ways that affirm their core commitments -- their "inter-spirituality" -- in ways that are critical and constructive.  This is not to endorse religious syncretism, an wanton blending of religious traditions.  But it recognizes that new generations are religious in different ways, regardless of how it has been done before.  Even those (still the majority) who do identify as adherents of traditional religions will need to understand their peers in order to be effective ministers, priests, rabbis and imams.

As Claremont moves forward, this is another aspect of our culture to which we will pay attention.  This is yet another important facet of the University Project: preparing a new generation for service to the world ... on their own terms.

1 comment:

jinjan01 said...

Thanks for this blog and bringing this new term “inter-spirituality” to my attention.
We know that one of the characteristics about the Millennial Generation is that they are not “joiners”. I wonder if this new term explains, in part, that tendency? The article you site seems to indicate that those who self-identify with being “inter-spiritual” are open to conversation among people who are part of traditional religions. I think they would feel right at home in Claremont. Here we have the opportunity to interact with people of other faiths as well as those who self-identify as non-Christian.
In that same blog, Jim Burklo writes:
What do they bring to our dinner table…? They bring their own stories of engagement with the ultimate questions: Why am I here? Who am I, really? How shall I live, and for what/whom? They bring their own language and imagery of expression of their souls' journeys. They bring a willingness to try out disciplines of spirituality they've never experienced before. Maybe they are not ready to commit fully to one traditional path. But they aren't afraid to risk that outcome by exploring existing faith traditions.
I was struck by this because aren’t these questions we all ask? Aren’t these questions in which “the church” is called to help identify and provide holy accompaniment? Where are we missing the mark?
As those who are preparing to minister in an increasingly pluralistic society, this is another aspect of culture we will need to engage. Can we create a safe space within the Church for dialogue? More to the point, will we?