The 2023 survey that was conducted by the Wall Street Journal in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago found that only 39% of the 1000 adults polled deemed religion “very important” to them compared to the 62% from a similar study in 1998.
Within the last decade, those of us who serve the larger Church have had a portfolio of unfavorable statistics shared with us about North American trends in religion. Gallup’s report on the rise of the “nones” (no religious preference) from close to zero percent in the 1950s to over twenty percent in the last five years being the chief document among them. Perhaps more troubling news in the dossier of polling data is the increase in the religiously “unaffiliated” with Gen Z coming in at 34% over the 9% and 18%, respectively, of the Silent and Baby Boomer Generations.
“This ain’t OUR grandparents’ religion, anymore.”
While some of us might say that statistics only tell part of the story, it doesn’t take much to look in many of the pews across the country and wonder where all the “young” people have gone. Given, there are outliers, pockets of youthful churches, campus movements, and vibrant ministries targeting children and adolescents. However, by and large, religious affiliation as we know it is trending downward among our youth and young adults. Is this mere prodigal behavior? I tend to think not.
I’ve wondered at times if part of the problem lies with us. Perhaps the disciples’ attempt to hinder parents from bringing their children to Jesus in Matthew 19:13-15 is indicative of a strained relationship that the Church throughout all periods has had with its offspring. I know that this might be an oversimplification of other complex issues facing the Church, but from my own personal experience, I recognize that the Church has often not welcomed the next generation and especially its questions and involvement. Furthermore, we haven’t always proved the best models of Christian behavior for our impressionable youth.
Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”
O Church, how is our soul?
I was reminded this past week in a sermon about Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, from John 20:24-29, that Jesus meets us where we are in our questions and in our doubt. He is present in our time and place of need.
Have we been that for the next generation? Have we listened attentively to our kids’ questions about the faith? Have we taken the time to explain to them how and why we practice particular rites and rituals in a way that expresses the personal impact on us as parents and more specifically as followers of Jesus? Or, have we dismissed them because we were too busy or disinterested in their probing?
Full disclosure, I am particularly concerned to ask these questions because I have three children that fall squarely into Generation Z. I’m keenly aware that they have a rather tenuous relationship with organized religion. Despite that being the case, I trust that their mother and I have provided them with a connection to the faith in which we reared them that both allows for their questions and encourages their inclusion within the larger Christian communion.
All three of my children were given names that are significant to my wife and me. The two girls are named after great-grandmothers and the boy after a gospel writer. All three of their names are derivatives of Greek and Latin words that essentially mean, “light.” We had all three of them baptized as infants and made promises to God before the congregation. We professed our covenantal faith on behalf of our children in the hope that one day they would personally confirm and profess that same faith and become bearers of Christ’s light in a world of darkness.
When I think back to that time, I am pained to ask myself if we have been faithful as parents to fulfill our promise.
“Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to your child?”
I hope so. I hope we have modeled the presence of Jesus’ in our own lives and been present with our children in those times that they have expressed doubts, like Thomas, or denied Jesus, like Peter, and that we would continue to faithfully love them even if there should come a day when they can not or will not profess what we as parents hold dear. I would hope so. My own tradition makes its argument for infant baptism primarily on the strength of God’s immeasurable grace, a grace which pursues us and stands ready for us even when we are not able to respond, as infants clearly are not capable. May we model that same grace for our children!
Whether we come from a theological tradition that baptizes infants and children on the basis of a parent’s faith or one that dedicates them with the
hope that one day, as adults, they might choose to profess faith in Christ and be baptized, we probably all agree that forming the faith of our children is a daunting, yet worthy pursuit.
For pastors, the baptism and/or dedication of a child can provide an opportunity to speak encouragement into the lives of the parents, to strengthen their faith, and to help them set a course for the spiritual nurture of their children.
Recently, I had a millennial couple, AJ and Carla (the generation whose religiously unaffiliated are at 29%), ask me to baptize their newborn son. They named him Micah, a Hebrew name which means, “Who is as the Lord.” I thought that I would need to educate them on the importance of this significant step. I was wrong. They asked me something I had not encountered before. Would I allow them to share with the community why they had chosen to present their child to be baptized. Below are their words.
Carla and I are excited to have you all here to join us for Micah’s baptism today. It is important to us to have people who will support and pray for Micah throughout his life. You will help encourage us and him to be a follower of Christ and always to show the love for the Lord and for others that he has called us to exhibit.
To us, the meaning of baptism is about participating in the ancient biblical pattern of going through the waters of death and following Jesus out the other side and into the new creation. Micah will undoubtedly have to make this decision for himself when he is older, but the importance of sealing his life with God as a baby is a sign of that commitment from us to help him walk in the right way.
When we got married we wanted to dedicate our marriage to Jesus and our wedding scripture was from Psalm 100. AJ and I are thankful for everything God has given us. We are so thankful for his blessing of a son. God knew Micah before he was born. He made him and loves him and knows his heart. We are so grateful to be his parents. We chose Micah’s name after the prophet Micah in the Bible. Micah was a prophet who outlined God’s promise to the Israelites to restore them. He called out people who were dishonest, who created idols, and called them back to God.
AJ and I promise to raise Micah to know Jesus. We ask our friends and families to pray that Micah will follow Jesus’ path for his life; that like the prophet, he will be kind and loving, and not afraid to do and say what is right as he walks with Jesus.
Someone once said, “Children need models rather than critics.” What kind of faith are we modeling for our children?
I think of the model that my parents displayed for me. They embodied the answer to the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” in the decisions they made for my sister and me, the financial and personal sacrifices which they bore, and the integrity with which they lived for Christ in all circumstances. They proved the answer for us with their day-to-day attitudes and decisions, “that, [they], with body and soul, both in life and in death, [are and will be] not their own, but belong to [their] faithful Savior Jesus Christ…”
I now think of the faith that AJ and Carla are modeling for little Micah.
By God’s grace, may we be the models of Christ for our own children. May we spur the parents of our faith communities to do likewise.
Statistics, indeed, only tell part of the story. We can trust that God will write a different ending.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
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