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As Social Issues Drive Young From Church, Leaders Try To Keep Them

On Friday, Morning Edition wraps up its weeklong look at the growing number of people who say they do not identify with a religion. The final conversation in the Losing Our Religion series picks up on a theme made clear throughout the week: Young adults are drifting away from organized religion in unprecedented numbers. In Friday's story, NPR's David Greene talks to two religious leaders about the trend and wonders what they tell young people who are disillusioned with the church.

According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. As Harvard professor Robert Putnam told Greene in the piece that kicked off the series, this trend among young people is tied to religion's association with socially conservative politics.

"I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue."

Take Melissa Adelman, 30, a participant in a roundtable about religion that Greene had with six young adults. Adelman was raised Catholic but does not call herself one today because she cannot embrace the church's core beliefs on social issues.

"To me a church that would be welcoming would be one where there wasn't a male-only hierarchy that made all the rules, and there weren't these rules about who's excluded and who's included and what behavior is acceptable and what's not acceptable," she tells Greene.

In Friday's story, the Rev. Mike Baughman, a United Methodist minister who runs a Christian coffee shop in Dallas, tells Greene that the church is indeed sending the wrong message.

"If the church was known more for our efforts to welcome the stranger than keep them out, I think the church would have greater credibility with rising generations," says Baughman. "For example, on immigration policies, we've taken the wrong stance on that, and they know. The thing is they're smart enough. A lot of them have grown up in the church and then rejected it. They've read the scriptures that talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger, they've read the scriptures about the importance of caring for the poor, and when they see that no longer on the lips of those who are in religious authority, they see that the God we present is bankrupt, and that we're theologically thin in our ability to even speak our own story."

For Father Mike Surufka, a Catholic priest in the Franciscan order in Chicago, there are indeed issues that are fundamental to the church, but what seems to really matter is more granular: that the parishioner's spiritual needs are being met. For example, he says, he has counseled women in his congregation who have had abortions.

"I knew their pain, and I was not going to bring that to the pulpit," he says. His approach, he says, is to listen to them. "That has more transformative power than just about anything."

Despite the trend among young adults to reject organized religion, both Surufka and Baughman tell Greene that they are hopeful about the future of religions in America.

"I'm full of hope indeed," says Surufka. "There was a theologian from the mid-1900s who kind of described hope as an attitude toward the future that we cannot see, but we trust that somehow it's held by God and that there are possibilities beyond what we can even imagine."

Indeed, some of these so-called nones — dubbed this because they answer "none" when asked for their religious affiliation — have embarked on a quest to see if there's a place for some sort of organized religion in their lives. Writer and lifelong none Corinna Nicolaou, for example, admits she knows little about organized religions and wants to know more, so she has begun chronicling her visits to local places of worship. And in a recent Boston Magazine piece, Katherine Ozment describes her effort to find an organized secular and nonsecular community that makes sense now that she had kids.

Although the series winds down Friday, Morning Edition is likely to revisit the topic. Chuck Holmes, the show's supervising editor, says that as his team was planning the series, there were a lot of conversations about other aspects of religion that didn't end up getting airtime.

"So naturally that leads to more coverage," he says.

The Losing Our Religion series is here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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