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Stop Being Spiritual Consumers, Author Tells Millennials


Jeffrey Bruno

Mark Stricherz - published on 09/26/14

Naomi Schaefer Riley urges young Catholics to start being spiritual producers

WASHINGTON — In the lobby of the Catholic Information Center, surrounded by large shelves of books, two dozen 20- and 30-somethings consumed a light meal and drinks. They ate ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches, snacked on chips, and drank from darkened bottles of beer and transparent cups of soda and hard alcohol. It was a quarter to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and they had arrived for a young professionals’ happy hour with Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the new book "Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back."

They filed in to the chapel 15 minutes later. There they consumed Schaefer Riley’s talk. They clapped lightly after Riley was introduced, and they clapped lightly after Riley finished her speech and question-and-answer session less than one hour later.  Each time, the clapping, more of an echo than a clatter, lasted no more than eight seconds.

The members of the group were no freeloaders. They paid $15 for the event; they traveled to downtown DC on a weeknight; and they may have produced social capital by talking with one another.

Yet they shared at least as many similarities as differences from the subject of Riley’s talk: “millennial” Americans more accustomed to consuming religion and spirituality than producing either.

The habit of consuming spirituality begins in college, Schaefer said. “It’s very easy. It’s across the street. You’re part of the same (age and social) demographic. You celebrate happy occasions like Easter and Christmas rather than funerals. It’s a gourmet liturgy. There’s not a multi-generational component. You don’t have to worry about children. It’s a crowd of singles. Everything is provided for you,” Schaefer said.

If houses of worship don’t intervene after commencement, the habit of consuming spirituality continues, Schaefer said. Many college graduates drift away from practicing their faith and unlike previous generations who returned after they got married and had kids, they don’t get married at all. “We have a generation that is putting marriage to unheard of ages. Twenty-nine is the average for males to get married and 27 is for women. The ages are older for the college educated,” Schaefer Riley said. “To think that ten years from graduation people are going to go back to church after they have gotten married and had kids, after forming this habit of not going to church, is a very problematic assumption.”

Schaefer Riley said those words standing in the middle of two nearly life-like bronze statues. To her left was a statue of St. Joseph the Worker, to her right a statue of St. Josemaria Escriva. Like the two Catholic icons, Schaefer Riley, too, has a reputation as a spiritual producer.

At the ripe age of 37, Schaefer Riley is a married mother of three.  Her talk was peppered with references to the conservative Jewish congregation she belongs to in New York’s Westchester County. Her latest book is her fifth. Her previous book, "Till Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America," received laudatory reviews in Christianity Today, The New York Times and The Economist.

And like her attire, a white sweater over a patterned blue shirt and a black skirt, she conveyed an impression of reasonableness and sobriety more similar to PBS NewsHour co-host Judy Woodruff than the sensationalism of Ann Coulter.

Schaefer Riley’s book shows seven examples of successful religious programs for Americans in their 20s or “millennials,” a group born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s. She described one Catholic example. The Alliance for Catholic Education matches recent college graduates with Catholic elementary schools in need of teachers. “They serve as representatives of Catholicism in their communities. They’ve been asked to own their faith at each stage in the process. They have meals together at night,” she said. For Riley, the program succeeds on two levels: ACE members serve as teachers and after they graduate from the program, often attend Mass together at alumni events.

Schaefer Riley suggested that ACE changes its teachers from spiritual consumers into spiritual producers by making them part of a community that lives together, accountable for their performance in and out of the classroom, and feel as if they are local representatives of the Catholic Church.

Transforming millennials into spiritual producers is no easy task, Schaefer Riley said. For one thing, choosing not to go to church or synagogue is socially acceptable. For another, churches invest heavily in technology to reach young people with little success; she could not find a single example of a church that uses computers or smart phones to lure young people back to church. “Technology is not a replacement for community,” she said.

Finally, adopting the mega-church model is problematic, Schaefer Riley said. Church members travel great distances not only to go to church but also to put their children in daycare and participate in job-seekers workshops. Schaefer Riley said that although Catholic parishes too have sought to provide multiple services to their members, the churches have not succeeded in building a true community. “You don’t see the people during the week. You see them only on Sundays. There’s a certain lack of accountability. You could be a different person Monday through Saturday than on Sunday. You have social capital on Sunday but it doesn’t transfer to the rest of the week,” she said.

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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