As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent a week with Penn State Berks students, many of whom could be classified as “nomads.” David Kinnaman defines the nomads in his book You Lost Me:
For these young adults, faith is nomadic, seasonal, or may appear to be an optional or peripheral part of life. At some point during their teen or young adult years, nomads disengage from attending church or significantly distance themselves from the Christian community. They demonstrate an up-and-down, hit-or-miss faith…[they] put their faith on the shelf for a time. Most, however, do not discard it entirely (Kinnaman, David (2011-04-01). You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 946-949). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition).
Kinnaman gives some celebrity examples of nomads, primarily Katy Perry and Stephen Colbert. So if you are a nomad, you’re in good company!
He goes on to list some traits of nomads:
*They still call themselves Christian though they are not part of any faith community now.
*They believe being part of a faith community is optional.
*The importance of faith has faded
*They have no hostility or anger towards faith
*Many experiment spiritually, finding meaning and spiritual experiences in a variety of places.
Kinnaman’s description reminds me of how I think differently about involvement in Christian Student Fellowship then the students who are involved do. I can recall times when certain students in CSF, who are fantastic people and passionate Christians, have gotten frustrated with other members of CSF. Their frustration stems from seeing these other members of CSF as not serious enough in their faith.
From my perspective, the fact that anyone on campus joins a group like CSF is a win. With all the other opportunities on campus, with all the freedom that comes with being in college, I am often amazed that students choose to come to a Bible study every week. It is incredibly encouraging.
Of course, I want all students to grow in their faith! But with so many young people not interested at faith in all, I am happy when anyone shows a glimmer of interest. As I read what Kinnaman said about Nomads, I was honestly surprised there are not more of them (he estimates about 2/5 of emerging adults are nomads). I meet nomads on campus all the time. I see it almost as the default.
Is it an ideal situation? No. We can wish, hope and pray that more nomads get involved in Christian communities while at college.
But it is not the worst possible situation either. I take comfort and hope in that many of these nomads are still interested in truth and spirituality and Jesus and I am confident that eventually, someday, if they are sincere in their search they will find the truth.
What is more interesting is the question: will nomads return to church later on, as previous generations have?
Research from the Gallup organization that stretches back to the 1930s and ’40s shows that young adults first began to look much different religiously from their parents during the 1960s. The data suggest that, prior to then, reported church attendance levels were very similar across age groups. In other words, during pre-1960s years, twenty-five-year-olds were just as likely to report weekly church attendance as were sixty-five-year-olds. In the 1960s, however, the trends diverged and young adults began to show significant disengagement compared to older adults—a trend that has continued to this day. The implication is that the dynamic of church disengagement during young adulthood was crafted by the Baby Boomers. Now their kids and their children’s kids are taking a similarly circuitous route through faith and young adulthood (Kinnaman, David (2011-04-01). You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 673-679). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition).
Beginning with the Boomers, a period of nomadism in young adulthood became a normative experience for twentysomethings; yet the new social and spiritual reality in which Mosaics live makes it less likely that they will follow their predecessors back to church in the same numbers or in the same ways (Kinnaman, David (2011-04-01). You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 1117-1119). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition).
In other words, previous generations of churches could safely assume that after a time of wandering young people would return to church. They would get married, have kids and settle down and then seek out the faith of their youth in the context of Christian community. But to assume this will always be the case is to miss the uniqueness of the situation in which this current generation is growing up.
Will young adults return to church?
Perhaps the better question is, what will churches do to reach out to young adults not interested in returning?