Study finds most young people have little memory of religion

Young people have not inherited the rebellious hostility to the Church of their parents’ generation, although for many of them religion is irrelevant for day-to-day living. These are two of the findings of an informative new book The Faith of Generation Y,  by Sylvia Collins-Mayo, a sociologist, Bob Mayo, a west London vicar, Sally Nash, Director of the Midlands Centre for Youth Ministry, with the Anglican Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, who has five Generation Y children.

Reporting a study of over 300 young people in England aged between 8 and 23 who attended Christian youth and community work projects in England, The Faith of Generation Y (those born from around 1982 onwards) provides an empirically grounded account of the nature of young people’s faith – looking into where they put their hope and trust in order to make life meaningful. The book goes on to consider whether Christianity has any relevance to young people, and asks whether the youth and community projects in which they participate foster an interest in the Christian faith.  

The findings from the study suggest that for most young people faith is located primarily in family, friends and their selves as individuals,  defined as ‘immanent faith’.

"For the majority, religion and spirituality was irrelevant for day-to-day living; our young people were not looking for answers to ultimate questions and showed little sign of 'pick and mix' spirituality," said Sylvia Collins-Mayo. "On the rare occasions when a religious perspective was required (for example, coping with family illnesses or bereavements) they often ‘made do’ with a very faded, inherited cultural memory of Christianity in the absence of anything else. In this respect they would sometimes pray in their bedrooms. What is salutary for the Church is that generally young people seemed quite content with this situation, happy to get by with what little they knew about the Christian faith."

When asked: ‘Which one of the following statements comes closest to your belief about God?’, infrequent churchgoers in the study answered: 'I believe in a God who is someone I can know personally' (23%), 'I believe in some sort of Higher Power or life force but not in a personal God' (22%), 'I don’t really know what to think' (43%), 'I don’t think there is any sort of God, Higher Power or Life Force' (12%).

Sylvia added: "The Christian youth and community projects were an important source of Christian faith support for the minority of young people who were already actively involved in Church. For the majority, however, the Christian dimension of the projects had little impact on them beyond keeping the plausibility of Christian belief and practices alive."

Although often unfamiliar with formal religion, Generation Y are keenly aware of ethical issues, as Sylvia comments: "Young people today have to grow up quickly and the study showed that they often face a wide range of difficult choices. Consequently they were interested in ethics. The young people drew moral guidance from family as friends, but they also recognised the potential of religion, including Christianity, to provide them with guidelines for living."

When asked: ‘Has being part of the youth group here caused you to think about any of the following’, infrequent churchgoers in the study answered yes to: 'What is the purpose of life?' (28%), 'God' (30%), 'Jesus' (26%), 'What is right and wrong' (54%).

The assumption that teenagers are alienated from their parents and hostile toward religion – a hangover from the 1960s and 70s – is a deep-rooted but flawed stereotype according to the study’s findings.

"Generation Y have less cultural hang ups about the Church than did their predecessors… The challenge to the Church is to provide them with the opportunities to explore and to learn about a narrative of belief of which they know little," say the authors.

The book is divided into two sections: sociological and theological. The sociological perspectives section – which includes chapters on ‘Bedroom Spirituality’, ‘Lost in Transmission’ and ‘A Good Life’ –  presents the empirical findings of the study and examines its implications for the Church’s approach to mission and ministry among young people.

A theological reflection for practitioners is offered via the chapters ‘Love Is Not Enough’ and ‘A Life of Faith’. Final words are provided by Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, in which he reflects on the five-year study from his perspective as a theologian.

The Faith of Generation Y, priced £14.99 (ISBN 978 0 7151 4206 6), is available from bookshops, on Amazon, and on-line here:

Share this story