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Youth, spirituality, church

Living in a world of choice

By Philip Hughes

Much has been made about the rise of spirituality in the Australian scene, in contrast to the decline in religiosity. However, the size and importance of this movement has been considerably over-emphasised. The actual proportion of the population who consider themselves to be highly spiritual, but do not consider themselves religious is quite low: about 2.5 percent of the total population (one person in 40). One may compare that 2.5 per cent with the 18 per cent of the population who attend a church at least once a month. Nevertheless, the spiritual but non-religious do make up part of the scene in Australia.

The militant forms of secularism and atheism, which occasionally make their face shown in the mass media, are rarely found in the population. In in-depth interviews with more than 200 young people over the last eighteen months in a study of youth spirituality, I have found few signs of it. The phrase coined by Christian Smith in a study of youth in the USA, 'whateverism', applies well to most Australian young people. Pursue religion or spirituality if it is your thing! Whatever turns you on! To that extent, many people are open to spirituality. Many believe that there is “something” that transcends human existence and there is an inner-being which can be discovered and nurtured. Most young people are not keen on religious organisations or on formal rituals, or even on communal and committed forms of religious expression.

The Wellbeing and Security Survey (2002) asked people the importance of a range of values as principles for guiding their lives. As has been found in other surveys, enjoying life, defined as enjoying food, sex and leisure, comes up as most important to most Australians, followed by broadmindedness, social justice, success, helpfulness, excitement and wealth. Spirituality is at the bottom of the list and of considerably less importance than all the other values. While few are antagonistic to it, for comparatively few Australians is it even on the radar - despite the small and enthusiastic numbers who fill classes in some university courses on spirituality.

Young Australians are very aware that they have choices in every part of their lives. Young people exploring university are confronted by a huge range of options. There is a greater range of occupations and career paths from which they can choose. They must choose the nature of their relationships with others, and partnership can take a bewildering range of forms. Even in the most basic aspects of life, such as what shall I eat tonight, the range in our society is almost endless. Some young people thrive on this world of options. Others are confused by it and feel very insecure in relation to it. One young person said to me in a recent interview how she dreaded leaving school and taking responsibility for the choices that she would have to make. Many young people come to the end of school and have not a clue how they will deal with the choices that face them.

Young people are very aware that they will choose their own spiritual and religious paths too. Only recent immigrants expect that they will simply take up the traditions of their parents. Most engage with religion if they think of it as helpful. Recent interviews, asked if they will go to church in future. Several young people said to me said they would go if they need to. One told me of how his mother had gone at a difficult time in her life. I will go too, he said, if I meet some bad times. On the other hand, many are put off religious services because they find them boring and irrelevant. More than one third of the population are discouraged by the boring nature of most religious services. Similar proportions are discouraged by the beliefs of Christians and another third are discouraged by the moral views that Christians hold – primarily in relation to issues of sexuality.

Religion has become a personal choice. Denomination is not a matter of heritage but also of choice. People choose what works for them and what they enjoy. Their choices also reflect their values and the extent to which they see their values as being in line with those of the religious organisations.

Many younger people attend church partly because they find within the churches affirmation of their value-system centred on their families, and on their roles as parents. While many parts of society have little time for family relationships, the dedication to family life is valued deeply in the churches, and many facilities are provided for family activities and for re-affirming the family as a unit. Along with these family-oriented people are others whose lives revolve around human wellbeing, including many people-oriented professionals, including teachers, community workers and health workers.

Some other people find in religious faith a set of answers to the questions of life, a place where they are accepted and their importance as individuals is affirmed. Some people who have not found affirmation in the wider society appreciate the affirmation that they find in religious organisations. Those who join religion often do so because their current lifestyles are not working. They feel in a mess. Religion offers them a realistic alternative. Yet, one in six of all young people say 'life sucks' and nothing seems to help, including God. Among older people in the 45 to 60 age group, the statistics are even more disturbing: one in four Australians saying they are hurting deep inside and nothing seems to help.

The church will not disappear. But there will be an increasing variety of forms as Christians seek to make contact with others at a variety of points of need and interest. The focus for mission will not be conversion from one faith or philosophy to others, but on convincing people to take the spiritual dimension of life seriously. The dominance of 'this worldly' concerns, of making a living, creating a nice home, enjoying leisure leave little room for concerns about the spirit. People live in a world of individual interest, consumerist attitudes and technological solutions. There is little room for religion, except, perhaps, as techniques to calm the nerves and enthuse the will.

A major focus of mission will be convincing people that the spiritual dimension should be taken seriously. It should be given a higher priority than most people give it. The spirit does affect every other dimension of life. People will continue to find faith that makes sense of their lives, that affirms their values and gives them strength and guidance for daily life.

Philip Hughes is senior research officer with the Christian Research Association. This is an extract from a paper on Religious trends in Australia he gave to a Mission conference last month.

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