If the past decade points to changes in the next, it looks like something in the neighborhood of 15 percent of people raised as Christians will become Nones (people who answer “none” when asked with what religion they identify) as adults. Certain Christian traditions do particularly heavy lifting in the formation of Nones, with Episcopalians and Congregationalists contributing some 20 percent of their children to the Nones cohort.
These are startling numbers, especially when they’re set against the data of the National Youth Religion Survey (NYRS), which has been compellingly interpreted in Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford, 2010). Dean has strong medicine for Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in particular, whose young people come away from all the various catechetical programs that swirl around most churches with a tepid spirituality called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It highlights being nice, feeling good about oneself, and being inoffensive to others of different faiths.
In essence, Mainline Protestant and Catholic formation programs function as ethical finishing schools that teens are, well, finished with once they graduate. Their faith is otherwise not integrated into a deeper life practice that depends on spiritual grounding to address the personal challenges, ethical conflicts, and moral conundrums that make claims on Christians beyond “being nice and doing good.”
Two things contribute to “moral therapeutic deism.” The first is a thinness of faith story, a lack of spiritual language that allows teens to articulate their faith within and outside church settings. This is exacerbated by the second, more significant, force in the formation of Nones: A lack of spiritual role modeling among parents and other primary adults. That is, as kids, Nones don’t see their parents claiming Christian identity outside church or explicitly acting on Christian beliefs in the family, in the community, at work, and in other settings where it might be consequential. At the end of the day, it’s is a failure not so much of formation, but of witness, that makes faith so meaningless to teens.
Now, you may be wondering what all this data, compelling though they surely are, has to do with social media. Well, we now know that social media sites are powerful shapers of teen identity and, increasingly, powerful sources of connection between teens and adults. Fully three-quarters of teens use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, 70 percent visiting daily. What’s more, 69 percent of teens include parents in their networks.
At a time when religious pages are the “most engaging” on Facebook, and religious topics are consistently strong trends on Twitter, social networking communities are remarkable sites for Christian witness in the context of everyday life. I’m not talking here about clergy posting sermons, which (and I know this will offend many preachers who, God bless, love ‘em some digital sermonizing) are about the least genre-appropriate content there is to share on social media sites. Rather, I’m talking about faith as it functions in the minute-by-minute context of daily life—the métier of social media engagement.
Social networking sites are places where parents, adult church members, and clergy can share clearer articulations of religious identity and the concerns to which they point one digital mustard seed at a time. When adults make faith clear, for instance, in the “Religious Views” section of a Facebook profile, teens and young adults see it. More actively, when adults mark birthdays and other celebrations with blessings, ask for and offer prayers, share articles, photos, videos, music, and other content that highlights how we interpret our faith commitments in the context of everyday life, we make visible ways of thinking and behaving on the basis of Christian faith that have for decades been invisible.
Surely, such practices of witness will not “make the church more relevant” or stem the loss of traditionally-identified members. Nadia Bolz-Weber has already exposed the foolhardiness of that project. But it does make faith more present, more widely networked, more relational, and, as we see in data on the relationship between social media participation and social engagement, more incarnational. This makes social media witness critical, then, not for the sake of the church as an institution, but for the sake of the world it serves.
Elizabeth Drescher teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University and is a regular contributor on religion, technology, and culture to Religion Dispatches. She is the author of Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and, with Pastor Keith Anderson, of the forthcoming Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, Spring 2012). She is currently working on a book on the spiritual lives of religious Nones.
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