In 2000, a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pitched an idea to the Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship Program. Colleen Carroll wanted to examine the attraction of young adults to Christian orthodoxy and their efforts to transform the culture. She won a $50,000 grant, took a year off from the newsroom, and delved into her research, meeting with over 500 "new faithful," young people devoted to orthodoxy. What she found turned out to be more widespread than she had expected.
Christianity Today associate editor Agnieszka Tennant talked with Carroll about her findings, which will be published in September in The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press).
When did you first become aware of the intense interest that many young people express in Christianity?
I saw signs of it for years. I was noticing things that ran counter to the conventional wisdom about Generation X when I was at Marquette University in Milwaukee. I was there between 1992 and 1996. A lot of what I heard and saw in the media didn't jibe with what I was seeing among my peers. Some of it did, and some of it still does. But I felt that a lot was being left out in the analysis of Generation X and, even later, Generation Y.
What surprised you most in your research?
I was surprised by just how widespread this trend was, how deep it runs in the culture. It wasn't spotty. I had so many stories and sources that I constantly had to turn down people who wanted to tell me their story, which is pretty rare. People were thrilled that someone was noticing something that they were living day after day.
What do you mean by orthodox Christianity?
I use a definition offered by G.K. Chesterton, who said that orthodox Christianity is "the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who heed such a creed." He wrote that in 1908, but it still holds true. One Generation Xer, Andy Crouch, editor of re:generation and a ct columnist, defined orthodox Christians pretty succinctly as people who can say that creed without crossing their fingers behind their backs.
What about orthodoxy particularly is appealing to Generations X and Y?
You can look at it in two ways. One is sociological. These young adults are reacting in large part against a lot of what they grew up in or what they've seen around them—not only in the media and popular culture but even in their churches. Among Protestants, there is a swing against mainline Protestantism in some cases. Some young evangelicals might be moving into mainline churches looking for liturgy, but they're still committed to the central tenets of evangelicalism and very concerned about being in a church where the Word is preached and not compromised by other concerns.
For Catholics, there is a similar reaction. A lot of Catholics today grew up when the Baltimore Catechism was out and "God is love" was in. They learned a lot about love but they often didn't learn much of anything about the faith. And a lot of them left for a time and came back or rolled along with it until they had a reconversion experience and really looked into the faith. Now they're very committed to unabashedly proclaiming what Catholicism is and rejecting versions of Catholicism they think aren't true to the pope or to the teaching of the church or to Scripture.
In general, there is a reaction against the larger culture—a feeling of being saturated by greed, sex, and all the decadent forces in our culture. But sociology is not the full explanation here. There is a deep spiritual hunger that transcends sociology.
Where does this hunger come from?
The hunger comes from a lot of different places. If you feel like you weren't fed growing up, then you're going to have intense hunger. So some of it is just I didn't get what I needed from my church. Some of it is I didn't get what I needed from my family. Rising divorce rates affected this generation—leading to a breakup of family, breakup of community, a sense of feeling isolated. So all of that has contributed.
Yet, some of this trend, I believe, is just the work of the Holy Spirit, and that's what the young believers will tell you. They'll refuse to chalk it up to sociology or rebellion. The gospel is timeless and the attraction is timeless.
How does the path of these young believers differ from that of their parents' and grandparents'?
For one thing, this may be one of the first generations where faith is such a conscious choice. It's not something embedded in their family anymore. I searched far and wide, and I didn't find too many people—even among the ones who had been raised in strict Catholicism or in the evangelical subculture who had never questioned their faith. They just don't have that luxury anymore. The culture questions them every day. I quote Os Guinness saying that on the one hand this situation is great because faith is a conscious choice, and on the other hand that can lead to problems, because if something can be consciously chosen it can be consciously rejected when it becomes inconvenient.
What do the new faithful struggle with in orthodoxy?
The crux of their struggle is how they live the orthodox faith in a culture that is not orthodox. Some struggle with isolation. They want to preserve their beliefs, they want to stay safe, and they want to keep their children safe. But they risk winding up with only friends who think exactly like they do and taking only jobs where their beliefs will never be confronted. Faith can suffer if your full concentration is on yourself and on just preserving what you've got rather than spreading your talents outward.
The flip side is assimilation, another struggle that the new faithful face. A lot of them are zealous about evangelism, so intent on transforming culture with this gospel that has changed their lives. But they can sometimes become naïve about where and how to do that. They sometimes can see Christian themes and truths in places where they don't exist because they want to see them and want to reach out to the world. That's a great instinct, but there are some media through which the gospel doesn't flow well. There are some song or film genres, for instance, that don't work to spread the Christian message. Sometimes, in their eagerness to spread the gospel, the new faithful can see their own faith get weakened or compromised.
Could you give an example of such zealousness gone awry?
Some young Christian artists incorporate gospel messages into heavy-metal rock songs and horror films. They often have thoughtful reasons for doing so. But in some of these cases, such as a discordant, angry song with Christian lyrics or a grizzly, despairing film with an underlying moral theme, the medium overpowers the message. I think movies and music that show glimpses of the true, the good, and the beautiful, even when they are not overtly evangelistic, are more powerful vehicles for transforming culture.
Which writers or books are these young adults most influenced by?
They seem to be attracted to modern classics. For example, they read C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. A lot of the Catholics have discovered the earlier writings—those of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine.
How can these committed young believers actually transform our culture without falling into the pitfalls you've mentioned—overzealousness and choosing the wrong media?
They're transforming culture through every career they find themselves in. I focused on those young adults who were in positions of some cultural influence, whether through their jobs or their presence at top universities. That's where I found this trend the strongest. This is counterintuitive, because a lot of secular analysts of religion assume faith is for those who have fallen on hard times and didn't really have a lot of other options. At least in the case of the young adults I wrote about, it's exactly the opposite. They're the best and brightest.
I can think of one young woman, Mary Naber. She wrote an article on ethical investing for ct ["Christ's Returns," Sept. 3, 2001]. She's a Harvard graduate with a double major in religion and economics. I relate the story in the book how she marched into her pastor's office at an evangelical Presbyterian church in California and told him she wanted to serve the Lord and yet she really was interested in business. She asked him what she was to do with that.
She said, "So I'll probably just go work in a church or be a missionary, right?"
He told her, "No, exactly the opposite. You go into business and you bring the gospel with you." She is aware that she's blessed to have a pastor who would say that.
So she went to Harvard, which is a struggle in itself. There's a strong evangelical community there, but it's Harvard. It's very secular. When she announced to her professors at business school that she wanted to also have a major in religion and somehow combine religion and economics, it didn't go over so well. They pretty much told her it couldn't be done. And like a lot of the young adults I interviewed, that energized her.
She studied ethical investing. She did a regression analysis of the returns of investors who took ethical concerns to heart versus those who invested purely for monetary gain and found that there was no net loss among those who were doing ethical investing. Like Mary, these new faithful relish the opportunity to take all the tools of the secular world and use them for God's glory.
In the culture that has created Temptation Island and Sex in the City, did you find that the new faithful buck against sexual immorality and instead find fulfillment in traditional families?
Yes. That was among the most surprising discoveries for me. Sexuality is where ideals meet reality in terms of religious commitment, especially for single young adults. If they want to live their faith, those who are committed to Christian orthodoxy believe they need to save sex for marriage. They believe they need to live in a way that is very different from the way the media portray their peers as living. And that's tough, I think, for single Christians who don't always get a lot of support from the pulpit. Sometimes they may hear the message, but it can be hard to meet other Christians with similar values.
There is an element of rebellion against the culture, and it's strong in the area of sexuality. A lot of them have not always been following this path. A lot have gone with the culture and just found it empty and depressing. In many cases, sexuality got them to turn back to God because things had gone so badly when they followed the world's advice in that area. They started to question everything they were hearing from the popular culture.
Is there one style of worship that these young believers tend to embrace?
Definitely not. They want the hard gospel. They want a preacher or a priest to tell it like it is, to give them morality that they believe is sound and doesn't simply cater to their whims. But when it comes to worship styles, they're more flexible. A lot of them are attracted to contemporary worship that is similar to what you'd see in young adult or Generation X services at larger churches.
Another surprise was how many I found attracted to more traditional or liturgical worship—often the ones who weren't raised with it. I found a surprising number of young evangelicals seeking liturgical worship. Sometimes that led them to a more liturgical church, like an evangelical Episcopal church. Some converted to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in search of, among other things, liturgical worship. They're attracted to what came before.
One keen observation in the book is that young evangelicals seem to have learned something from Catholics and vice versa. What religious lessons have we swapped?
On the part of Catholics, there's a real attraction to evangelicalism. In the past, and still today, this has resulted in Catholics leaving the Catholic Church to go to evangelical churches where they feel the gospel is being preached with more vigor or clarity.
But in the group that I interviewed, I came across a larger number of young Catholics who saw what they liked about evangelicalism and then brought it into their own parishes. Then you have this fascinating combination of Catholic tradition with an evangelical flair.
One thing that's becoming more and more popular on Catholic college campuses has been student-initiated Eucharistic adoration, which is obviously about as Catholic as you can get. They adore what they believe is the presence of Christ in the Eucharist—but while doing it, they sing evangelical songs. There is a charismatic flair to the worship, raising of hands. Some sit on the floor; it's casual. You hear evangelical favorites such as "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High."
Another example is a zeal among younger Catholics to spread the gospel. The zeal is also a direct result of Pope John Paul's exhortations to young Catholics to spread the faith. He's a real hero of theirs, and when he stresses evangelism, that's something they really pick up on.
How does the zeal manifest itself? Catholics aren't known for going door to door.
Surprisingly enough, some young Catholics do go door to door! Actually, I've seen a couple of groups that are starting to do that. So when I say that young Catholics are "copying" evangelicals, they really are. A lot of them are doing things that even, I think, the older generation of Catholics is pretty surprised by, delighted by, and sometimes just confused by.
What are younger evangelicals learning from Catholics?
They sometimes incorporate liturgy into their worship. They look to Catholic social teaching, particularly the teaching of Pope John Paul II, when they're trying to address issues that maybe aren't addressed as much in their churches, issues like cloning or stem-cell research. The emphasis on serving the poor is of real interest to younger evangelicals. I met one young evangelical woman whose husband is a pastor at a Protestant church. When it comes to serving the poor, she just didn't hear enough about that in her church growing up. It wasn't until she started discovering some Catholic social teaching that she began learning about it. Now she works in an ecumenical setting with Catholics and Lutherans and evangelicals. They're all working together to serve the poor, and she has quotes from Mother Teresa on her desk.
Are the new faithful the new ecumenists?
Definitely. In Washington, D.C., there's a vibrant community of young orthodox Christians, many of whom are rising leaders. One evangelical—chief of staff for a congressman on Capitol Hill—told me that Christians can't afford to fight each other there because "our differences seem small compared to the assault of the humanist worldview." And there's the same attitude in Hollywood. I spent some time there and noticed a lot of ecumenism going on between evangelicals and Catholics who are seeking to break into screenwriting or into acting.
How do the new faithful compare to their unbelieving peers?
In many cases, they are the people to whom their peers look to set trends. They are often quite successful. They're sometimes coming from the best schools. A lot of them are in places like Hollywood or on Capitol Hill. So they are not a fringe minority. They are in a minority, but it's a disproportionately influential one.
Also, while they're in the minority, a lot of what they express is what you'll hear from many young adults. I found that the refrains were similar. There is a lot of disdain—for media, marketing, some baby boomer values, even materialism.
For Christians interested in evangelism, that's an important thing to think about. If a lot of these young adults had the same formative experiences and a minority of them were introduced to orthodoxy and fell in love with Christ, then that suggests that there's obviously a hunger that is not found only in this small group.
All in all, isn't orthodoxy an attraction to some in every generation?
You're right. The gospel is always exciting; so is orthodoxy, which is a full expression of the gospel. That's why I hesitate to label the trend simply as something that happened to the children of the hippies who have rebelled by becoming conservative. That's way too simplistic.
Do you have a way of knowing how statistically significant this trend toward orthodoxy is among younger people today?
These things—sexual values, philosophical perspectives, eternal hopes—are difficult to quantify with one overarching number. So I tried to break down the question and address it using a variety of statistics related to the many realms of young adult experience—sexual values, political activism, attitudes on college campuses.
In many of those realms, the statistics indicated that young, orthodox Christians are fighting an uphill battle against the culture and, often, the church. But many statistics also suggest that trends are moving in their favor. In the "Sexuality and Family" chapter, for instance, I cited such studies as the annual ucla survey of college freshmen, which in 1998 found approval of promiscuity at a 25-year low. Nearly 40 percent of students said they approved of casual sex in 1998, down from a record high approval rate of about 52 percent in 1987. Support for legal abortion also dropped for the sixth straight year in that survey.
I think statistics can give important indications of which way the cultural currents are moving, but I would not attempt to argue that the statistics are uniformly or even predominantly on the side of these young orthodox Christians. But I do argue that they have the potential to make up in influence and zeal what they lack in numbers. I believe their influence on statistical indicators will be reflected in the future.
Many statistics suggest that the dissatisfaction these young adults have with secularism and materialism is shared by many of their peers, Christian or not. That suggests that many more in this generation may join this trek toward orthodoxy in years to come.
Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today and one of "the new faithful."
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The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy is available at Amazon.com.
Past Christianity Today articles on Generation X and Y include:
Generation MisinformationForget the latest PowerPoint seminars on Generations X-Z. (May 16, 2001)
Decoding GenerationsTwo books are optimistic about the coming generations but for different, and sometimes contradictory, reasons. (April 4, 2001)
Gen-X ApologeticsPassing on the faith to those raised on Star Wars spirituality. (April 26, 1999)
A Generation of DebtorsA Gen-Xer reflects on the deficits bequeathed to his generation and on its fear of redemption. (November 11, 1996)
Pastor XIn sneakers and jeans, Southern Baptist Chris Seay is getting his generation to go to church—at least we think it's a church. (November 11, 1996)
The Spring 1999 issue of Leadership journal, Christianity Today's sister publication for pastors, included the debate, "Should the Church Target Generations?"
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