Composting Religion

04/14/2017 12:29 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017
Aaron Burden

As I don my vestments and stole to take part in ritual ceremonies of Holy Week, the most sacred liturgical moment of the Christian calendar, I realize I am not what most people envision when they hear the word “reverend.” – with my youth, brown skin and curves. I wear my clerical collar with skinny jeans. I quote scripture alongside Beyoncé lyrics and feel as at home delivering a sermon on Twitter and Facebook as I do in the pulpit. I am a millennial and a growing body of research shows that millennials are significantly less religious than previous generations of young Americans. Indeed, Millennials are turning away from institutional religion faster than any other age group, raising a sense a palpable panic in religious communities concerned about their future.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of Americans born between 1980 and 1995 are now unaffiliated, meaning, when asked on a survey what religious identity they hold, they answer none of the above. These young adults are providing a snapshot of the state of religion and indeed the search for universal truth in the Western world.

Yet, the numbers only tell part of the story. The overwhelming majority of millennials aren’t necessarily atheists. Two-thirds believe in God or a universal spirit, and one in five pray every day. It’s not that young people hate religion. It is that a growing group feels like religious institutions have no place for them.

To understand our resistance and skepticism toward these institutions is to understand our context. We grew up in the era defined by what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “Truthiness,” a time when pundits replaced professors and priests as the arbiters of facts. As young adults who emerged into adolescence in the post-9/11 era, we are not naïve about the challenges before us. Our social and political identities were shaped against ongoing narratives of war and religious conflict. Information once only available in great libraries of storied academic institutions, we now carry in our pockets.

Amid the crowded landscape of new ideas, the loudest religious voices are those from the most polarized extremes, from pundits declaring any affront to “traditional values” a full out assault on Christianity to New Atheists boldly claiming that religion poisons everything. Even the non-religious financial institutions that we were told to put our faith in because they were “too big to fail” faltered.

At the same time, we observed religious communities zeroing in on singular issues as a litmus test for belonging. From gay marriage to abortion, the role of women’s leadership to religious justifications for armed conflict, many young adults reject the presumption that acceptance into community must be conditional.

It is against this backdrop that the most diverse generation in American history has found a deep sense of moral meaning on the frontlines of movements from climate justice to LGBT equality and the board coalition of organizations and local chapters known as #blacklivesmatter.

We started businesses that value social impact as much as a financial bottom line. We developed technologies that democratize access to knowledge, health care, and energy. Many of the core values, traditionally ascribed to religious communities, remain even as the structures that cultivated them transform. Many of my peer colleagues are discovering new ways to express their deepest moral and ethical convictions, find community, and live into our “faith”—in humanity, in transformation, and yes, for some, in God.

The millennials I know are not seeking to destroy or kill that which came before us but to compost. Composting is nature’s process of recycling decomposed or dying material in rich soil. We know that anything that was once living dies.

Today, millennials are taking that which is best and most nourishing from the institutions dying around us and to cultivate a new vision for what our world can be.

Through their work as researchers at Harvard University Divinity School, my friends Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have begun tracking examples of other millennials creating new forms of community that often fulfill the same functions that a traditional religious group would have as well as evolutions within traditional religious communities. There are people of color led healing spaces being curated by community organizers that leverage pop culture from the science fiction of Octavia Butler to the poetry of Beyonce’s “Lemonade” to open doors to imagining new futures. There are groups such as the Dinner Party, a community of 20- and 30-somethings who’ve each experienced significant loss. In more than 100 cities globally the Dinner Party is creating sacred space for young adults to discuss life after life over shared potluck meals. Arq helps people connect with Jewish life and culture in a more relevant, inclusive, and convenient way.

So, as you drive through your town and notice an empty house of worship, pay attention to the next civic protest or community arts space you see. One of them just may be the new spirit-filled community that you have been looking for.

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