Speaking Our Faith

Speaking Our Faith

by Kit Carlson

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Overview

• Ways to help Episcopalians articulate and feel comfortable about speaking of their faith with others
• Builds upon the Jesus Movement and evangelism initiatives in the Episcopal Church

Today, in a rapidly changing religious landscape, the structures of Christendom—which once almost automatically instilled faith in generation after generation of believers—are gone. For faithful Episcopalians, it has become essential to learn how to “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” This is especially important for those generations born after the Baby Boom, which are experiencing the rapid rise of the “nones”—people who have lost their faith, or who have no faith at all.

The time to speak, to share our faith, is now. Kit Carlson offers a road map for those who want to learn to speak about the faith that lives within them. Speaking Our Faith will help them put words to their own experiences of God, create their own statements of belief, and to begin to have compassionate, caring conversations with other people about spirituality, belief, and Jesus Christ.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640650275
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/01/2018
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,049,074
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

KIT CARLSON is rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Michigan.
A passionate commitment to the future of the Church and the future of the faith in the changing landscape of 21st century Christianity led her to research how post-Boomers speak about their faith, as part of her doctor of ministry degree. She is author of The Leopard Son, Bringing Up Baby: Wild Animal Families, and Working Dogs: Tales from the K9-5 World. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and writes at Pastor in the Pasture of Life (http://pastorkit.weebly.com).

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

A Whole New World — The Rising of the "Nones"

Not long ago, at a party in my neighborhood, I fell into conversation with a couple in their late sixties, members of a large, historic, mainline denomination church in the heart of the city. They have loved their church for more than forty years, been faithful contributors, and have grown in their own faith and commitment to Christ. And yet, "Our church is struggling," they told me. "We don't know if we can stay open. Our membership is shrinking, and our utilities alone are $80,000 a year. We don't want to close, but we don't know what is going to happen next."

What they are experiencing in their own unique church setting is a phenomenon going on across America; as church attendance declines, church membership drops, and many churches struggle to remain open or even eventually close. "The Rise of the Nones," Time magazine named it in 2012, as data poured in from Pew Research, Barna Group, the Public Religion Research Institute, and others. Religious affiliation among Americans is declining rapidly. And that decline is particularly pronounced in the post-Baby Boom generations, those adults under fifty years old from Generation X and the Millennial generation.

Anxiety about these trends abounds in every denomination and in most congregations. Whether that anxiety is fueled by tense congregational meetings, as once-prosperous churches struggle with insufficient budgets, or whether that anxiety is ramped up by bitter blog posts and self-replicating angst across social media, American Christians are wondering what to do about the "nones" and also the "dones" (those once-faithful church members who have simply walked away), and what the future holds for their congregations in particular, and American Christianity in general.

I, too, have watched these trends, and wondered how they would play out in my own context. As the rector of a midsize church in a university community in the Midwest, my long-stated goal had always been to help this congregation proclaim the gospel with its life and witness in such a way that it would be able to hand on this parish — its work, worship, witness, and ministry — to the next generation of leaders. But when I shared my goal with a colleague one day, she turned to me and asked boldly, "What if they don't want it? Seriously. What if this parish, as wonderful as it may be, is not what they want? What will you do then?"

I took her question seriously. Would they want it, those upcoming generations? Did they want it, even now? So I began to study this phenomenon, starting with my own congregation. I began by taking a close read through our membership database. As I counted each family — adults and children — I began to notice how many of the "young adult members" were absent. Most of the young adult children of the congregation's active members no longer attend my parish or any other church.

Then I looked back through the parochial reports for the whole life of my more-than-sixty-year-old parish. Parochial reports record congregational membership, baptisms, monetary giving and the like, and provide the data used by the Episcopal Church as a whole to chart its membership and giving trends. As I looked at the decades from 1956 forward to today, I did see an uptick of growth late in the twentieth century. My parish's highest peak of membership since the early 1960s was during the "baby boomlet" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the years when these now-young-adults were in Sunday school. That boomlet ended in the mid-1990s, which means that the last children of that cohort have moved beyond even college age. They are now officially adults.

These boomlet children, also called "Millennials," are more unaffiliated from religion than any generation before them — at the same age. The 2015 Pew Research Center demographic study, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," reported that 36 percent of young Millennials (born between 1991 and 1997) were unaffiliated, as were 34 percent of older Millennials (born between 1982 and 1990). And the number of "nones" among the older Millennials had grown by nine percentage points since 2007. Those who had grown up with no religious upbringing were remaining unbelievers, and many who had been brought up in a religious tradition were abandoning it.

In 2010, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that "the large proportion of young adults who are unaffiliated with a religion is a result, in part, of the decision by many young people to leave the religion of their upbringing without becoming involved with a new faith." And the rise of the unaffiliated will have a cumulative effect, because the more religiously unaffiliated people there are, the more religiously unaffiliated people there will be. In 2014, Pew Research Center noted that two-thirds of Millennials raised unaffiliated remain that way into adulthood. "Unaffiliated" has a better retention rate than any religion in America.

But will the wandering younger adults who were raised in a religious tradition stay away for good? Won't they come back when they begin to pair up, get married, and have children? This is a commonplace argument among church leaders and older Christians — the belief that if we just wait it out, the young families will return to church when they settle down, just as their parents and grandparents did. Unfortunately, the data does not support that hope. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow did a sweeping demographic review of the place of religion and faith among younger adults in his book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. And part of that demographic review outlines the role that marriage and childbearing play in religious participation. Wuthnow discovered that marriage is an especially strong corollary for church attendance — along with having children. And the likelihood of attending church does increase with each child added to a family. However, fewer people are marrying at all any more, and those who do, marry much later.

Life events and societal forces will tend to draw young people back to church as they settle into adult life. But, as Wuthnow points out, the forces in play for these young adults are much weaker than they were for their parents' and grandparents' generations. The current trend to postpone marriage and child rearing can delay church participation until these adults are at least in their early forties. By then, many of them have been out of church for twenty years or more, adding inertia as another hurdle to be overcome in the return to religious practice and church membership. "For many, the proverbial lessons of faith learned at their mother's knee may be powerful enough to sustain their interest in religion until the circumstances of their lives again make it convenient to participate," Wuthnow writes. But for those who have wandered from church and then go through decades of life outside a church community, finding it easy to live unconnected to faith, he warns that, "religious organizations will simply be less relevant for many than was true in the past."

Why do so many younger adults walk away from church in the first place? It may be born in the rebellious spirit of the years following high school, when students relish a chance to sleep late on Sunday mornings, even as they start to test the family values they learned at home. It may be exacerbated by a long "emerging adulthood" period, in which post-Boomers push-off marriage and parenthood until they are well into their thirties. But sociologist Michael Hout also believes something deeper is affecting the faith of the post-Boomers — the "think for yourself" attitude of their Baby Boomer parents. "Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers, and Boomers expressed to their children that it's important to think for themselves — that they find their own moral compass," he told Pew Research Center. "Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid. That's at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, Millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a 'do-it-yourself' attitude toward religion."

I hear this commitment to independent choice and this hesitation about faith, even in the voices of the post-Boomer parents in my parish. I rarely hear — in fact, I may never have heard — a young parent say to me, "I hope my child grows up to love Jesus and to love the Episcopal Church like I do." Across the board, the parents of children in my congregation say, "I want my children to choose their faith for themselves. I don't want to tell them what to believe. I just want them to have a grounding so that they can make up their own minds about religion."

Those now-grown children have done just what their parents intended. They made up their own minds about faith. And all the data surrounding those decisions supported what I was observing in my own parish. The Millennial children of still-active Baby Boom members were walking away from church. And few of them held out any hope to their questioning parents and clergy that they were planning to come back.

What Happened? Where Did Our Children Go?

But opposite the place of the cavern They wrote the story on a column, And on the great church-window painted The same, to make the world acquainted How their children were stolen away And there it stands to this very day.

— from "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Robert Browning

Robert Browning's poem tells the story of a medieval village overrun by rats. One day a mysterious piper appears, and for a great fee of a thousand guilders, agrees to rid the town of rats. He plays, the rats follow, fall into the river, and drown. But then the mayor of the village refuses to pay the fee, so the piper takes his revenge. He starts playing a new tune, and all the village children start following him. He leads them up the hillside, where a giant cavern appears in the rock. They all enter the cave, the mouth of the cave closes behind them, and the children of the village are never seen again.

For Baby Boomer parents entering their senior years, and for the older generations ahead of them who still faithfully fill the pews, it can seem like a piper has passed through our churches and charmed our adult children away. And in the local congregation, it's usually not clear — to their clergy or their parents — where they have gone and why. But those researching the "rise of the 'nones'" have been eager to explore the reasons young adults are turning away from faith and from the church. After all, the research shows that these younger adults' belief in life after death, heaven, hell, and miracles is as strong as their elders', and their level of prayer is the same as young adults' of previous generations at the same age. Clearly, their interest in spiritual matters has not dwindled.

Why do they leave? The raw data draws a general picture: in 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 23 percent — the largest percentage of people who have abandoned the faith of their childhood — left because they stopped believing in God and church teachings. Another 16 percent left because they had problems with organized religion, and 11 percent had a bad personal experience with church or said they just "grew out of it."

But other social scientists have tried to draw more rounded portraits from the data and from their own research. Christian Smith has followed young people's faith journeys from adolescence into young adulthood, using the longitudinal data from the National Study of Youth and Religion. He has sorted the young adults from that study into six religious types. Forty percent of them fell into the first three types: indifferent to religion, disconnected from religion, or actively hostile toward faith. Of the remainder, only 15 percent were committed to a particular faith. The other 45 percent were either selective adherents — who customized faith to fit their lives — or were spiritually open, not professing any faith, but who were mildly receptive to spirituality.

David Kinnaman of the Barna Group looked at "spiritually homeless" young adults. These were people eighteen to twenty-nine years old who were raised in the Christian faith but who had either walked away or who were struggling with faith. In his "You Lost Me" project, he sorted them into three types. Nomads have walked away from church, but they still consider themselves Christian. They see themselves as personally connected to God or Jesus, but they don't feel the need to belong to a church or even to have Christian friends. Prodigals have lost their faith. They no longer describe themselves as Christian. Either the beliefs of Christianity no longer make sense to them, or else they had a bad experience that turned them off church for good. Exiles still feel invested in faith and church, and they still attend church. But they don't find that church or faith makes much of a connection to their daily lives. They feel stuck or lost between church and the wider culture. These three types of "spiritually homeless" young adults describe those who have grown up in all sorts of Christian churches — evangelical, Catholic, and even mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopal Church.

The "Spiritually Homeless" Tell Their Stories

Hearing younger adults' stories can help us understand why those who were raised in the church as children left the church as adults. One of the most meaningful things that church leaders can do — or that faithful, aging parents of post-Boomers can do — to connect with these younger adults is simply to listen. Ask them what is happening in their spiritual journeys. What did they learn growing up in the church about Jesus and faith? What factors are contributing to their relationship (or lack of relationship) with God and the church right now? What do they imagine their relationship with religion and religious practice will be in the future? Sacred listening begins with an approach like this — letting younger adults speak for themselves about God and Jesus, and hearing them out without judgment or debate. The spiritual journeys of three "spiritually homeless" post-Boomers embody the kind of stories we might hear, if we ask.

The Nomad. Allison grew up in the Episcopal Church. Her mother was a part-time church secretary who also taught Sunday school, faithfully, week after week, year after year, throughout Allison's childhood and teenage years. And that meant that Allison was also at church, actively participating, as often as her mother. "I literally grew up in the halls of my childhood church," she said. "I was in the choir before I could even read the words on the page. I was an acolyte. I was in the youth group all the way through high school." But all that singing, all that acolyting, all those mission trips and lockins and group games didn't make the connection to God that her mother intended. During all those years, during all that activity, Allison never related her life in church to her relationship with God. It was "something I had to do to make my mother happy, rather than something that I did because it brought me closer to God," she confessed. "I never really felt close to God until I was out of college."

With no authentic faith of her own, when Allison graduated from high school, she was not motivated to find a faith community. So she didn't. She went to college, and then on to physical therapy school. She came home on holidays and turned up with her family for Christmas Eve services, and sometimes on Mother's Day. But she didn't show up when she was home for the summer, and she did not get involved with a church or campus ministry at school.

Now at age thirty-one, Allison is married with an infant son. She did get married in the church of her childhood, and she brought her son to be baptized there. But when she is back home with her husband and baby, Allison struggles to find a reason to go to church. She is busy with her work at a teaching hospital, and she is exhausted from the lack of sleep all new mothers know. Still, her faith in God and her relationship with Jesus feel stronger than they ever were in her growing-up years in church.

"I can't trace my 'spiritual awakening' to any one event in particular," she said. "I just decided that I wanted a deeper relationship with God. Today, I feel as though my relationship with God has never been better. I could make a boatload of excuses as to why I don't go to church on a consistent basis. I just don't. I haven't found a church that I like as much as I like my childhood church. I'm picky. And it's hard for me to say whether this affects my faith. Do I need to go to church to strengthen my relationship with God? My mother would probably say yes, but I'm not entirely sure it would change me much."

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Speaking Our Faith"
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Copyright © 2018 Kit Carlson.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 11

Chapter 1 A Whole New World-The Rising of the "Nones" 19

Chapter 2 Why Is It So Hard to Talk about Faith? 43

Chapter 3 Where Is God in My Story? The First Steps in Speaking about Faith 67

Chapter 4 How Firm a Foundation: Building a Faith That Will Stand 89

Chapter 5 Making a Statement about Faith 113

Chapter 6 Reclaiming Evangelism: Learning to Listen, Learning to Speak 135

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