09/29/2011 10:45 am ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

Youthless Churches and the Arab Spring: A Generation of Ideas, not Ideology

Lately, while engaged in my work as an interfaith activist, I found myself engaging in another type of dialogue: a conversation of generational differences. At times, it seems that religious leaders haven't quite wrapped their heads around the thoughts and actions of religious millennials. Whether discussing the Arab Spring, or the lack of youth in American churches, it comes down to one defining characteristic of millennials: We are not an ideological generation.

I first noticed this trend when visiting friends back home in Portland, Oregon. I often take advantage of these trips to put my thumb on the pulse of young evangelicals, many of whom I went to school with at Portland Christian High School. While visiting my close friend Jeremy and his wife over a pint at a microbrewery (a Portland trademark), I was intrigued by his religious "status." Jeremy, who played guitar in worship services in high school, youth pastored while in college, and waited until marriage to become sexually active, was no longer going to church.

Had he suffered a tragedy that shook his faith? Grown tired of trying to live a pious life? Embracing atheism? As it turns out, none of the above. Jeremy, along with his wife, were still "believers" and living their lives by Jesus' example. They were just done with church.

I was shocked, but probably not for the reasons you'd think. Jeremy had just put words to an
ethos I had been grappling with for years. After moving to New York, I spent several years church-shopping, trying to find a community that defined and embraced me. Some warm communities seemed insular, while more charismatic congregations seemed to hold harsh criticism on the world around them, which inevitably led to hypocrisy. No matter the reason, none felt like a community I could call home.

This troubled me. I had been taught to believe that without a home church and religious community, I would lack the religious instruction to grow in my religious walk, and morally wander without Christian accountability partners. Yet, neither proved to be true. Suddenly in my conversation with Jeremy, it became clearer. Our faiths were not faltering; instead, our churches were failing to engage with young people in a way that is relevant for them. In the Evangelical boom that lasted through the 80's and 90's, the church not only served as a source of community, but it became a source for ideology. Suddenly, my acceptance within the community became contingent on a set group of political opinions, including support for wars, a strict position on Israel and clear perspective on LGBTQ rights. For myself, and now I realize many young people, I felt like I had to hate gays to love God.

Youth rejection of all things ideological becomes clearer when you put it into perspective. Churches, especially evangelical churches, are suddenly facing an aging congregation. Where are the college-aged and youth attendees? According to the Pew Forum, only 18 percent of millennials (ages 18-29) stated that they attended a religious service regularly, weekly or more. That's significantly lower than the 32 percent of the baby boomer generation. This can largely be attributed to the generation shift, where millennials prefer ideas to ideology, clinging to critical thought over defensive rebuttals. This is the Jon Stewart Generation, where honest discourse trumps talking-point apologetics. Yet, religious leaders appear to have missed the societal shift and are seemingly unaware of their own ideological dispositions.

The Arab Spring stands as evidence of the non-ideological youth perspective and how poorly the ruling generation gets it. When young Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, very few were fighting for ideology. Egyptians rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, filled Tahrir Square, but this wasn't about marxism or political Islam. Rather, it was a groundswell of youth advocating for basic freedoms. Yet, the media was incapable of understanding an organic movement for essential political rights. Political analysts, the media and even the Egyptian protesters' own parents fear the Muslim Brotherhood and other ideological sources. However, the young people in the streets worked together cohesively, even though they have varying worldviews and desired outcomes for the protests.

Many of the most complicated conflicts in the world are heavily intertwined with ideology. Whether we are speaking of American culture wars or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so many of these issues seem insolvable when actors only view them in contrary ideologies. Certainly these great challenges won't be solved by a generational shift alone, but the rising generation is producing leaders of a pragmatic nature. This is the non-ideological generation. This is a generation of ideas.