Back in my secondary school days, I was responsible for leading the Christian Union. Each week we would gather – a random collection of ten or so young people from across various school years – to spend a chunk of our lunch break playing games, sharing food and having group discussions.
There were several key events in the CU calendar, including the annual ‘Grill a Christian’ event. I was responsible for designing the poster. And what a poster it was! As I’m sure you can imagine, it featured a ClipArt picture of a barbeque grill set alongside some fetching WordArt and copious question marks. It was hilarious, eye-catching and bold (or so I thought). Whether because of, or in spite of, my design attempts, teenagers came along to pose their difficult questions to the selected Christian speaker, who was ready and willing to be ‘grilled’.
It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario today. Not only have CUs become more difficult to run in schools due to the ever-shortening lunch breaks and increased scrutiny, but many of us who work with young people have a hunch that something even more significant has shifted. Young people are no longer interested in the questions they were asking in the days of grilling Christians.
We recently carried out in-depth interviews to find out what was really important to young people, and where God, faith or religion featured in the grand scheme of their lives (if at all).
No questions asked
We had to work hard to get the young people we spoke to asking questions about faith. There was a general lack of questioning altogether, even when we pushed for it.
Interviewer: Do you have any questions about-- the Bible or prayer or any other, sort of, aspects of your faith?
Mulkina: I don’t know.-- I don’t think I ask myself questions, really.
At the end of the interviews, we asked the young people to rate on a scale of one to ten how often they generally thought about the questions had we discussed, and how important these issues were to them. Although most of the questions we gave them received fours or fives, the accompanying comments didn’t bathe these scores in a particularly pleasant light.
“I feel like religion is not a big worry. It just purely has to do with you and who you believe in; what God to you means.”
There is a sense in which God, faith and religion are neither offensive nor something to be passionate about; in other words, “not a big worry”. This dispassionate approach highlights another factor in the young people’s lack of questioning, as to be engaged and questioning suggests a desire to know the answers. It seems that faith has low salience and limited function in their lives.
We came away from the interviews wondering why the young people we spoke to didn’t seem to have questions. We decided to look through the interview data itself to see if there were any clues as to why this might be the case. The data suggested five main reasons.
Questioning is disrespectful
Some of the religious young people perceived active discouragement from their faith communities or feared what would happen if they aired their questions publicly.
Interviewer: Are you comfortable talking about any of those things that you don’t have answers for at the moment?
Ammir: Not really. It’s just something for me to…
Interviewer: So, it’s just some internal wrestlings there?
Ammir: Yeah. I wouldn’t really talk about it publicly or even privately. It’s just something for me to figure out; something for me to accomplish later.
Interviewer: Yeah, and do you ever talk to God about these things?
Ammir: Not really.
There was a sense in which questioning was seen to be disrespectful or signalled a lack of faith. Several interviewees displayed real caution throughout their interviews, even though they were repeatedly reassured that everything they were saying was anonymous, and that they would not cause any offence.
Religion is seen as a personal issue for individuals to tackle rather than as topics for discussion
We’re all the same
Young people were keen to assert their acceptance of others, with many expressing the sentiment that “we are all the same”. In some cases, this seemed to arise from a confusion around religious beliefs. Others seemed to hold pluralistic understandings of religion. In some cases this seemed to arise from a desire to demonstrate tolerance and acceptance.
“I just feel like everyone is the same. It doesn’t matter what God you believe in. We’re all the same, we’re all people.”
Phrases indicating that everyone was the same appeared to be a positive assertion of how people should be treated. It’s an ethical statement about our common humanity, which in many ways is a highly positive thing. Perhaps because the children interviewed were in Luton, which has a history of religiously motivated violence, these young people were very keen to assert that no one should be treated differently because of their religion.
However, if all religions are understood to be the same, and all people are considered the same regardless of their religion, it’s quite hard to discuss, question or highlight the differences between religions and celebrate the diversity and difference faith brings. Some of the young people seemed to be avoiding distinctiveness so as not to ruffle feathers or raise questions for other people, and they were keen not to stand out as “religious”. In a culture where “we’re all the same”, questioning is flattened and curiosity may not be sparked.
Beliefs are personal
Religion was typically seen as a private, personal thing. ‘Spiritual’ moments were not reflected on or talked about. The lack of conversations around belief and religion even extended to close family members.
“I haven’t really talked to her about it because I never fully found the time to. I never really had the opportunity to bring it up, but I know she considers herself a spiritualist.”
It’s hard to believe that in his 16 years of life this young person has never found the time to talk to their mum about her religion. The more plausible explanation is that religion is seen as a personal issue for individuals to tackle, in some cases privately, rather than as topic for discussion.
Religion is practical, not abstract
When talking about belief, the young people we interviewed highlighted various concrete and practical examples. They were interested in knowing more about the practical outworkings of faith in the everyday, such as why and how their Muslim friends fasted. It’s possible that these young people are interested in asking questions about God, faith and religion, but that the questions they have are primarily practical rather than abstract, like the majority of apologetics-style questions.
What are they asking?
Saying this, we did manage to elicit some interesting questions from the young people. Regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation, everyone we interviewed believed in some sort of higher power. Interestingly, three participants began the interview by saying that they didn’t believe in God, but by the end conceded that something or someone might have created the world. It was almost as if this was the first time they had been given the opportunity to reflect on their past experiences and to really think about what they believed, free from judgement.
“I don’t think anything. I just don’t believe in God. Never thought about that.”
[Later in the interview]
“I know that there may be a God. I mean, look at this planet; it’s beautiful. Like, who created that? Maybe [it’s] created of science, but still. I believe in science, but religion as well a bit. Just a bit.”
One theme that took us by surprise in the interviews, which was brought up by every young person without any prompting from the interviewer, was death. Many of the young people we spoke to had experienced the death of a loved one, and for some it had been a significant moment to reflect spiritually, or even to pray.
“I think it gives people hope. Because if you think when you lose a family member and you think they’re going up to nothing then it literally just becomes another lost life. I think that scares people. I think it scares me, because I’m scared of the unknown. When I lost my nan a few months ago, as much as I wasn’t highly religious – in fact I was probably more angry kind of thing – I was scared at the thought she was going up there to nothing.”
Nearly all the young people we interviewed had experience of prayer, even if they wouldn’t call themselves religious. Many had prayed in the midst of difficult situations, almost as an instinctive response to what was going on around them.
“When my granddad was ill I just always thought about God and I prayed ’cause I wanted him to get better, but obviously he wasn’t gonna get better. I feel like, by praying to God, it helped him stay alive longer.”
There was a sense in which questioning was seen to be disrespectful
So… what now?
Does this mean we should abandon all apologetics-style questioning, as clearly young people aren’t asking questions anymore? No. For some young people, the big abstract questions evidently still resonate. The Reboot conference, run by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), has sold out the past few years, demonstrating that there is clearly a hunger among certain groups of young people for events such as these. However, what this study reveals is that we cannot expect all young people to be asking these questions. Or at least that the ‘big questions’ may not be helpful as a starting point to engage young people in conversations about God, faith or religion.
Create safe spaces
What was fascinating in the interviews was how, when given the space to talk about these topics without judgement, many of the young people gradually become interested and really enjoyed the conversations we had. Many asked afterwards whether we would be back again next year as they would like to take part again. We need to create safe spaces for young people to have these kinds of conversations.
Being different and bold
In a hyper-tolerant society in which the dominant rhetoric is ‘we’re all the same’, it’s harder than ever for young people to stick their heads above the parapet and stand out as different. We need to encourage religious young people that it’s OK to be different and encourage the celebration of diversity.
Prayer and death
Although the young people we spoke to did not have many questions, many had prayed or reflected spiritually at some point in their lives, often in response to the death of a loved one. Many had not had the opportunity to discuss or reflect further on these events since they had happened, and the majority hadn’t felt able to talk to their friends about it. How can we enable young people to process these life events in a safe environment?
Engage with the practical questions
Although many of the young people did not ask abstract questions about faith, they did have practical questions, often provoked by their friends’ religious practices at school. How can we, as Christians, engage young people with practical questions about faith, and invite them into practical experiences?
To see the full No Questions Asked report, visit youthscape.co.uk/research/publications.