October 22, 2007
— Martin E. Marty
Demographers, statisticians, sociologists, and some theologians serve
the culture and the religious institutions within it by measuring the
stated beliefs and observable religious behavior of citizens. Church attendance
is one of the most conspicuous and measurable of these behaviors. Yes,
we know that counting church members and attendees only measures church
membership and attendance. We know, and the social scientists know, that
in a time when individualized "spirituality" has its vogue,
we are to remember that there are all kinds of ways to be in touch with
the transcendent, to be in tune with the infinite, and to reach for the
We know that, but by observing other cultures, especially those of Western Europe, we also know that the desertion of the Catholic church in former strongholds such as Ireland and Spain, the emptying of Lutheran churches in historic bastions like Scandinavia and eastern Germany, or the bleak attendance at Anglican or almost all other churches in England, even on Easter morning, changes more than church statistics. Such cultures can "coast," for a while, with the memory of a faith that did shape society and culture, for better and for worse. But as generations pass and distance grows, so do the values which issued from the body of believers gathered in communities called, for example, "the church."
"As generations pass." A review in the October 16th Christian Century by Brian D. McLaren, a leader in "the emerging church," of Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow's important new book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion is a potential wake-up signal, an alarm blast. Those who think that Sightings does not frequently enough isolate and treat that generation might conclude after reading McClaren and Wuthnow that one reason we do not treat the topic often enough is because people aged twenty-one to forty-five are hard to find among church members and regular attendees.
Wuthnow writes, "If I were a religious leader, I would be troubled by the facts and figures currently describing the lives of young Americans, their involvement in congregations, and their spiritual practice." He advises: Don't draw conclusions "from where the action is," but on the basis of "a full consideration of where the action is not." He wants religious leaders to do more than strategize how to help congregations survive, but instead to work for their vitality.
Wuthnow's main conclusion is that "young adults are marrying later, having fewer children and having them later, moving more often, going to college in higher numbers, living with more immigrant neighbors and therefore more ethnic and religious diversity, and living in the suburbs even more than their baby boomer parents." Changes like these (more than TV, the Internet, "secular humanism," or "relativism") give rise to the startling trends and statistics that Wuthnow uncovers in interviews. He finds find that this generation talks about religion more than any other, and that their core beliefs remain stable—except beliefs about how the spiritual life and God-talk are to be related to communal life, worship, and common action. Wuthnow's advice? Have babies, and much more. McLaren's advice: "Listen to young adults," and then reform and act.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Please send all inquiries, comments, and submissions to Kristen Tobey, managing editor of Sightings, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription at the Sightings subscription page.