A Changing Religious Landscape

By Cameron Nations

A few months ago, a recent study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that the rapid rise of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States has hit an all-time high. The largest percentage of these "nones," as they are so called, are young (under 30 years of age), prompting religious leaders to comment on how this information shapes both the present and the future of their congregations and communities.

Much has been made of the study and its findings. Certainly, the changing religious landscape in the U.S. and abroad has special significance for seminary communities and parishes, especially when the largest demographic of “nones” are those between the ages of 18–29, commonly referred to as the millennial generation.

Some say these numbers don’t matter at all.

For example, another recent study done by Gallup based on over a million interviews seems to indicate levels of religious belief are holding rather steady. Some bloggers and analysts point out that, despite the drop in religious affiliation, the numbers of devoted religious persons still remains so high that most people won’t notice a change. The numbers themselves could support this theory — though the “nones” have certainly grown in number among adults 18–29, religious affiliation remains rather high at more than 67%. Furthermore, data shows that though affiliation with institutionalized religion is dropping, interest in spirituality is growing or remaining strong and many have remarked that millennials remain every bit as religious as their forebears.

Others, however, say that the numbers found in the Pew study matter quite a bit.

The question of how to retain members after adolescence has occupied the thoughts of many a denomination for some time. I remember the aggressive youth programming at the Southern Baptist Church in which I grew up aimed at preventing mass exodus once we all left for college. I also experienced as an undergraduate the numerous campaigns to keep young Catholics on the kneelers at the Newman Center at my alma mater, the University of Illinois. Both approaches met with limited success — a fact demonstrated in the Pew study that showed declining membership across the board.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) has its own particular place in these discussions of church demographics. For one, TEC has for years carried a reputation as a rapidly aging denomination with little or no replenishment to its numbers. Though debates rage as to the root of this problem, the bottom line still stands: for any organization, religious or otherwise, decline in membership with little or no sign of growth doesn’t bode well.

The Millennials and Discernment

So what does this mean for the seminary community in particular — a place where new ministers and leaders of the Church are trained and formed?

I sat down to talk with some of my peers — Sarah Miller, Katie Hargis, Whitney Burton, and Richmond Jones, all millennials and all from the class of 2015 — to find out about the discernment processes that led them to Sewanee. In addition to my peers, I also talked with a couple of alumni of The School of Theology — the Rev. Paul McCabe and the Rev. Josh Bowron — who work as priests in the Diocese of Atlanta and North Carolina, respectively. Both of them have experience engaging with millennials in their ministries. Included in this conversation was Bishop Alexander, dean of The School of Theology, to learn how his plans for the seminary track with developments within the church to address a generation that by some accounts expresses disinterest in religious life.

The Diocese of Atlanta has a robust discernment program for those under 25 called “D.Y.V.E.” or the “Discerning Young Vocations Experience.” The program provides a guided discernment process for younger folks to discover their vocation alongside their peers. A similar program exists for those over 25, which Bowron credits as instrumental in his own discernment. Alexander notes, “The needs and questions of these age groups are very different, and the church needs to acknowledge that.”

Both Whitney Burton and Richmond Jones expressed the vital role D.Y.V.E. played in their own discernment and eventual journey to seminary at Sewanee.

For Jones, D.Y.V.E. helped clarify his call and give him the confidence to pursue it. Interested in emerging forms of ministry, Jones mentioned that his call to the priesthood became clearer as he grew disenchanted with the way he used his gifts in the secular world. “I was in marketing,” he told me. “I studied it in college [at Jacksonville University], but I felt thrown-off by how manipulative it all was, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can use this in service to the Church instead.’” It was while going through D.Y.V.E. that Jones was able to articulate these aspects of himself and his vocation, eventually becoming comfortable with the idea that his future might be spent in a clerical collar.

Burton, however, felt her call around the age of 15 while on pilgrimage in Italy. “We were in the catacombs outside of Rome, and we were on our way to Pisa-Lucca and then to Assisi [during] the summer after my freshman year, 2005,” she told me. “We were doing an evening prayer in the catacombs, and I was reading the lesson and I thought, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’” For her, D.Y.V.E. meant realizing and affirming her vocation not only within herself but also within the Christian community, formally acknowledging a process that had already begun some years before.

Burton’s story also highlights another aspect of millennials’ religious interests: the role of Christian tradition in fashioning and situating their vocation and faith. They are often very appreciative of the riches of the tradition and what it offers, but they also display an interest in innovative and even progressive ways of doing ministry.

Sarah Miller, a postulant from the Diocese of Alabama, found The Episcopal Church when she was 15. Having grown up a Southern Baptist, Miller was attracted both to The Episcopal Church’s approach to theology and spiritual practice, and to the welcoming atmosphere of her parish. Like Burton, Miller felt the first inklings of her vocation while on pilgrimage in Italy. Instead of the catacombs, however, Miller’s backdrop was the Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome. She recalls: “[St. Paul’s] does reconciliation with refugees and ministry and outreach to them, and I just felt like I was halfway around the world and it felt like home — it still felt like home and I felt ‘I love this church and I feel called to this kind of leadership and ministry to the world.’ That was when I really felt called to ordained ministry.”

Unlike Jones’ and Burton’s experiences, however, Miller did not have the benefit of a robust, standard diocesan program for discerning vocations. Instead, her process was more like Katie Hargis’ — a piecemeal process filled with book studies and discussions with her rector. This she enjoyed very much, but like others I spoke to would have preferred a bit more standardization. Miller reflects: “If they had said, ‘You know, we have this process for young people and this is what it has done for other people and here are some things you should think about doing,’ It would have been helpful during that time, because I did feel sort of ‘in the wilderness.’”

This “wilderness,” for Miller, was perhaps a bit more than a metaphor. As part of her discernment, her diocese required her to take two years off in between undergrad and seminary as a part of her discernment. She ended up in New Orleans with the Episcopal Service Corps before heading to Sewanee. Though at the time still unsure about the diocese’s eventual proclamation on her future, she counts this time in New Orleans as invaluable. “I feel really drawn to new forms of social justice work and outreach,” she said. “My experience in New Orleans was really formative in that regard.”

The Millennials and the Church

These desires for exploring faith through discussion and uniting belief with service are also typical of millennials. Millennials like to question, to engage. As McCabe says, “I think young adults like to ask questions and the Episcopal/Anglican tradition (Scripture, reason & tradition) allows room for questions of faith and life choices while also experiencing the holy through fellowship and worship.” 

Yet this proclivity for questioning does not mean that millennials do not hold their convictions. Indeed, wishy-washy theology doesn’t hold much water with them it seems. Rather, the questioning is done in an effort to reach more conclusive understandings of their faith and the multiplicity of ways it has been interpreted throughout history. “They’re not looking for a watered-down version [of the faith],” says Bowron. “They’re looking for authenticity. You don’t have to make it easy for them, you just have to be clear about who you are.” 

Yet intellectual pursuits only go so far. As Bowron also notes, “Millennials have special concerns for social justice. They are interested in being ‘Matthew 25 Christians,’ less so ‘Creedal Christians.’” Faith that doesn’t transform the world loses much — if not all — of its strength; millennials see great potential in the Church now, as a modern yet deeply historical institution that has the capacity to bring about positive social change. In this way, many of those I talked to saw their vocation as a call to use their gifts — such as Richmond’s interest in marketing — in service to the church as a minister of Word and Sacrament.

Potential and Possibilities

As I look to my future ministry not simply as one of my generation but to my generation, I feel it important to consider at all times the things that brought me into The Episcopal Church, and remember that these same things may speak to others like me. In a way, there is a rather interesting hope created by the growth of the “nones” amongst millennials. Bowron sees before us a landscape full of potential and possibility. He says, “I mean, we’re talking about an entire group of people that have never been to church. They provide a fresh perspective and a chance to start over in many ways.” For the Church and the seminary, he says, “We need to change the idea that vocations are only to the priesthood ... Every Christian is called to a ministry, so we need to be thinking bigger, so we need to bring some of these discernment tools we have into the parish. [...] We all need to be talking about a larger discernment here.”

Alexander’s plans for increasing undergraduate involvement and discernment at the college; for removing financial barriers to younger students already shouldering student loans; for expanding distance programs for lay ministers and long-time priests; and breaking ground on new facilities to enhance the residential seminary experience all speak to an attentiveness to developing contexts in American church life. Someone once told me, “All too often you have these older folks dictating what younger folks want, and often they’re wrong.” Alexander understands well how to steer The School of Theology forward to appeal to “younger folks” discerning their vocation. 

If seminaries, and the Church itself, could be better at encouraging all vocations — ordained and lay — it could likely stem the tide of “nones,” especially in the case of millennials who often feel unable to locate their purpose in a world that seems so far beyond their control. But it’s not all about young vocations, as young vocations need the wisdom and understanding of their forebears; all generations need encouragement within the church community to discern and enhance their calling. For it is when all people in the church are living to their utmost that the Church will be strongest.

What do you think? Let us know.