Tuesday's online edition of USA Today carried a story that finds the number of people who do not identify themselves with a religion is on the rise. The study, released by Trinity College, revealed that 22% of adults 18-29 hold to no particular religious group, which comes to 15% of all adults. If the projections are sound that percentage will increase to 20% in twenty years.
None of this is really a surprise, what I did find quite interesting, however, is the makeup of the "Nones." Researcher Barry Kosmin states, "There are so many misconceptions about who the Nones are. They're not New Age searchers or spiritual or even hardened atheists."
Kosmin continues: "They're a stew of agnostics, deists, and rationalists. They sound more like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Their very interesting enlightenment approach is like the Founding Fathers kind: Skeptical about organized religion and clerics while still holding to an idea of God."
Ten years ago, my District Superintendent at the time asked me to go to different Church Conferences to give a PowerPoint presentation on generational differences and their implications for ministry. I had spent a great deal of time on the matter and felt that it was important to make the church folk sensitive to the truth that Millennials were not Boomers and Gen-Xers were not Builders. I still believe it is important that we recognize such differences, but the more I have continued to think about it over these ten years, the more I have come to believe that we have over analyzed and over interpreted those distinctives.
We are in a postmodern era. That may indeed be true, but that does not mean modernism is dead. In fact, if this survey published in USA Today is accurate, it demonstrates that it is far from a state of rigor mortis. There are still plenty of people in American culture who think about God and religion and faith in quite modern terms, including young so-called "postmoderns."
In reference to postmoderns we say that they like Jesus but not the church, when in my experience it is more true to say that they could care less about Jesus and think the church is simply irrelevant. Both claims are true because people are very different and their views on religion are different. I always chuckle to myself when someone says, "Well, Boomers believe morality is relative." I know Boomers who are clearly not moral relativists. Or, when someone states, "Gen-Xers insist upon transparency." I know Gen-Xers who hide a lot of things from themselves and others. I have also met Gen-Xers who I suspect have taken on all the general "characteristics" of their generation because they have read on how they are supposed to be. Moreover, how often the generational analysis is positive or negative depending on who is giving the analysis. The analyzers tend to highlight the positive qualities of their generation at the expense of the others. This lends veracity to what I have been saying for some time (tongue-in-cheek, of course, but with an obvious element of truth)-- Each generation believes that all of human history has been waiting centuries for their generation to be born in order to show everyone else how to live. Every generation before has fallen short and no generation after will measure up.
What all of this means for the church and its ministry, I am not sure. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should cease our analysis of generational differences, and what it means to be postmodern as opposed to modern. It is indeed helpful. What I am considering, however, is that in the midst of our analysis perhaps we have made too much of our ability to figure this all out and to peg the differing generational groups as "this" or "that." Perhaps while reading Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, we should at the same time delve back into Locke, Descartes, and Paine.
Perhaps a little more humility in our analysis is appropriate as it seems to me that we are often guilty of being too clever by half.