Recently, the discussion of “spiritual seekers” came up amongst some religious professionals I kibitz with from time to time. I mentioned casually that Christian Smith the great sociologist from Notre Dame had given a talk and I was asked to respond to his thoughts.
One of the things that stuck out for me from his research was the fact that his research shows that young people are not “seeking” religion. If I’m hearing him right I would say that at best, young people are “tolerant of but indifferent to” religion as a whole.
“It’s probably fine.” was an oft heard refrain from many of Smith’s subjects but it wasn’t something that was for them as a whole.
I think that’s pretty accurate. Amongst the students here at UB, I don’t often see too many people interested in religion. The ones that are interested are very interested. But those who haven’t made a practice out of going to a faith community aren’t about to start now.
But these same folks aren’t indifferent to God. Many do believe in at least some kind of higher power. It’s religion that seems to be the fly in the ointment for them–or perhaps better stated—there’s a widespread assumption that “I don’t need church” or “I’m just fine by myself believing in God.”
The vertical relationship between God and self even takes precedence for those that are strong adherents in my view. There are plenty of young people that will show up for Eucharistic Adoration services but fewer that show up for Sunday mass, even fewer for a social justice project and almost none for social activities (with the possible exception of a free meal–and even then–it’s not a guarantee of anything. A few med students told me that they can get free meals anywhere. Why should I take YOUR free meal?)
As I mentioned in my response to Dr. Smith,
So if young people aren’t seeking, then what are our objectives as ministry professionals?
I would say that our mission is to light up their world with our passion and make them take notice. And we need to do this in a positive way, rather than the usual way that religion gets into the headlines. 75% of our work should be outward looking, rather than inward looking.
Can we be passionate about the needs of the poor and include others in the neighborhood or campus in our pursuits? What projects can we work on together with joy?
Can we be of assistance to those in need? I know I try to find new colleagues on the campus all the time. What do we have to offer those OUTSIDE the church walls?
What gets us excited and how do we communicate that to others? Do we write for newspapers and blogs about what we’re doing? Do we post our events on facebook for others to share for us? Do we try something odd and innovative instead of the same old ways things have been done? What’s something that folks can’t not want to be part of?
We’re often very careful about our public personas, especially in the climate that we’re in now with the sexual abuse scandal. But the truth is that the more open we are, the more open others will be and the easier it will be for us to root out those that are unhealthy.
Lastly, are we inviting? Do we ever offer an invitation for someone to come our way and just find out what we are all about? Do we seek out others in a “non-creepy” way by going to like-minded groups in the areas that concern us? Do we join associations and groups to meet new people in the hope that they might be interested in us a bit as well?
Are we seeking? Because it is actually OUR seeking that can change the world? We need to bring people to Christ and to conversion of heart. That doesn’t happen by osmosis.
That happens because people are inspired.
How might we be inspiring today? How might we think a bit differently about sharing our message? The more we do that, the more people will make an effort to show up once in awhile.
An old friend, now deceased, once looked at someone that they felt was a peaceful and serene person and got jealous. They started to hang around just to see what made this person so happy, calm and joyful. They began to do some of the things that they did and participate in activities and discussions with this person’s colleagues.
When asked about this he said, “That guy is the most serene person I have ever seen. I want what he has.”
Not bragging here, but I was that serene person. And honestly, I don’t find myself to be all that peaceful. There are things that I don’t have figured out and that continue to trouble me. But there was something in the practice of my faith that inspired my friend. And it helped him come to terms with who he was and dare I say, I think it helped him die a bit more peacefully and with much more dignity.
All I did was let him see who I am.
Can we all have the courage to drop our own insecurities, masks and fears about being Catholic or even religious. There will always be some who call us fools for our beliefs.
But won’t there be many more who just might find us inspiring?
It’s time for us to be the seekers, the inspirers of faith in the world.
And until we begin to look outward, we should have no expectations of finding young people flocking our way anytime soon.