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Beyond the nones: Exploring the twentysomething soul

When it comes to non-affiliated Americans (or the “nones”), no group has received as much attention and sociological scrutiny as young adults, who have registered the highest rates of disengagement from institutional religion.

There have been a range of explanations as to why this young generation has tuned out religious institutions—from some denominations’ involvement in politics to the growth of social media and the Internet.

But then how does one account for a young Catholic like Maria, a 22-year-old graduate student in Texas?

She is active in her parish’s young adult group and faithfully attends Mass at other churches where she works. She joined the strict Catholic lay order Opus Dei, where she has a spiritual director and attends a catechesis class for women.

Of her practice of daily Communion, Maria says, “If I don’t go to Mass and I don’t receive the Eucharist every day, then it’s an off day, because I know I don’t have the graces that come with it.”

Such young believers who have a strong attachment to their congregations are not as unusual as one might think, according to a recent study by Timothy Clydesdale of the College of New Jersey and Kathleen Garces-Foley of Marymount University.

The researchers find that the numbers of Christian adherents among twentysomethings are larger than the population the state of Texas (at 26.5 million).

Roughly six out of 10 American twenty-somethings affiliate with Catholic and Protestant traditions, while three out of 10 do not affiliate with a religion.

The study results are explored in-depth in their forthcoming book, “The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults.”

The study by Clydesdale and Garces-Foley is based on a national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings in 2013, and 200 in-depth interviews with young adults active in Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant congregations across the country.

Based on their survey, the researchers place Christian twentysomethings in “Active” to “Nominal” to “Estranged” categories, although Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants show different proportions of such tendencies.

Greater percentages of the Protestant and Catholic respondents fit the nominal identity than the active one, meaning that they valued their religious backgrounds and intend to invest more in it in their futures, but only currently participate on occasion.

Evangelicals are clearly the outliers here; 47 percent are active, 50 percent are nominal, and only 3 percent are estranged.

Clydesdale and Garces-Foley note that the proportion of active evangelicals is more than twice the proportion of active mainliners or active Catholics, while the proportion of estranged evangelicals is at least six time smaller than the proportion of estranged mainliners and Catholics. As the authors write, “An estranged evangelical is, apparently, a non-evangelical.”

All of the active Christian young adults value a strong sense of community, an emphasis on spiritual experience, and pastoral leadership (especially good preaching) in their churches. Most of them searched for a “critical mass” of fellow young adults in churches: Seeing their contemporaries filling the pews of these parishes and congregations provided them with a “comfort zone” that encouraged further involvement.

But the differences between these twentysomethings and their churches can be as great as their commonalities. The Catholic young adults put the most stress on the Eucharist, while mainline Protestants valued social justice, and evangelicals put a high premium on good preaching.

The Catholic young adults often struggled to find a compatible parish community, as they sometimes patched together what Clydesdale and Garces-Foley call a “trans-parish,” a network consisting of diocesan-wide events and programs, campus organizations, such as FOCUS, and alumni groups from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

The mainline Protestant twentysomethings also had a difficult time finding a congregation where their unique interests in social justice and spirituality found an outlet and they generally take longer in committing to a congregation.

Take the case of Jeremy, a member of a mainline congregation in New York who didn’t plan on church involvement after lapsing from his own Christian background in college. It was only after an Orthodox Jewish friend invited him to a gospel concert at a liberal church, and after joining its choir, that he eventually became a committed member.

In contrast, evangelicals were more often enmeshed in friendship networks that made locating and committing to a like-minded congregation far less complicated; they viewed their church search as guided by God.

Often twentysomethings are said to be “spiritual but not religious,” but the young adults in Clydesdale and Garces-Foley’s study have managed to combine a spiritual life with religious practice.

Most of the affiliated twentysomethings held traditional Christian understandings of spirituality, but there was also the unusual finding that the active Christian young adults were also the most likely to hold to non-traditional forms of spirituality – even more than their non-affiliated counterparts. The authors explain that the active faith of these twentysomethings extends their spiritualty to everyday life, including nature, art, and music.

The spirituality of these active twentysomethings doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

While it is difficult to know if there is a causal relationship between spiritualty and life outcomes, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley find that the traditional spirituality of young adults is linked with lower cohabitation rates, but also lower rates of being in the labor force, and higher rates of engagement with their communities.

Meanwhile, frequent attendance at worship is positively associated with marriage, employment, college completion, voting, and community engagement.

The authors conclude that while religion and spirituality are not necessary for young adult civic involvement, such religious sources can provide a “tool kit” for finding a “positive, pro-social path – through their third decade.”

Image by CrossWalk Church, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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