Spiritual Orphans

“Ancient youth like Jacob and Esau grew up at a time when questions like ‘Who are my people? Why am I here? What gives my life meaning and coherence?’ were answered, literally, by the faith of their fathers, not by theories of ego development. Yet these questions of belonging, purpose, and ideology remain at the core of human identity; while we have learned to think of them as psychological issues, such questions have historically fallen to religion to answer, ritualized in the traditions and practices of communities that seek to embody a particular story of identity.” (Kendra Creasy Dean)

I suggest our world is full of spiritual orphans.

Orphans are left to fend for themselves; to pick up whatever sustenance and shelter they can find. Orphans, unless adopted, are not nurtured and struggle to thrive. They don’t know who they are or where they belong.

Religious communities have traditionally provided a spiritual home for young people; providing the stories, metaphors, rituals and extended families that foster healthy spiritual development. In the Western world, this role has been fulfilled by churches.

But for many children in the West, the rituals of church life are absent from their experience. The narrative of the God who creates us, loves us, invites us into community, and gifts us for service, has been replaced by competing narratives. Perhaps the most dominant contemporary narrative is of the consumer: our purpose in life is to make money and buy stuff to give us significance. (Billions of advertising dollars are spent promoting this narrative). We obsess over the economy, we envy the rich, we may fall into debt. Another competing narrative is that of the celebrity: significance achieved via fame (or perhaps, “likes”, retweets and so on). Perhaps we can achieve significance via beauty or sporting prowess or academic achievement or sexual satisfaction? Or is life about family and children?

As sources of existential meaning and purpose, these narratives are thin at best. So spiritual orphans pick at what other scraps they can find: mindfulness apps, fortune tellers, horoscopes, cults, yoga classes, therapy, advocacy, philanthropy...

But they turn to the church less and less.

The statistics on declining church attendance cause many church leaders and members to fret. But perhaps it is time for society more broadly to raise concerns about a generation of spiritual orphans.

The rapid rise in serious anxiety and depression in youth can be correlated with the decline of church attendance. I suggest the traditional role of religious communities in answering deep personal questions on meaning and belonging is not being adequately replaced by schools, sports clubs, or counsellors, and a number of studies support my thesis. To quote but a smattering of studies:

“The evidence shows a positive association between church attendance and lower levels of depression amongst adults, children and young people. It also shows that belief in a transcendent being is associated with reduced depressive symptoms. Similar research has examined the relationship between spirituality and anxiety or stress. Quantitative research demonstrates reduced levels of anxiety in a number of populations” See here.

"A study of depression among older Europeans has found that joining a religious organisation is more beneficial than charity work, sport or education in improving their mental health. The surprising findings from a study by the Erasmus MC and the London School of Economics and Political Science also reveal that political and community organisations actually have a detrimental impact on the mental health of older Europeans on a long term basis." See here.

"Adolescents whose mothers attended church regularly had greater overall satisfaction with their lives, more involvement with their families, and better skills in solving health-related problems and felt greater support from friends." See here.

Metastudies indicate spirituality is linked to not only better mental health but to better physical health also. See here.

The church has a gift to offer young people; a gift it has sustained for generations. Indeed, a gift for all ages; a narrative of meaning and a community of love that can foster human thriving.

What would it take to share this gift with more people, in a way that is understood, trusted, and embraced?

I wonder about that.

What do you think?

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