The so-called secularization of youth began in the home and was nurtured in the church. In the end it may be a matter of semantics but the problem involves many things the family and church have done wrong but it also includes a whole lot of things the family and church have failed to do right. Much of it belongs to the idea that catechesis is indoctrination and it is bad whether done in the home or in the church. Parents began to feel guilty about making choices for their children -- from infant baptisms to making them go to church. Parents were lax in raising their children in the faith -- presuming that faith was mainly a private and individual thing and if kids wanted religion they would seek it out. Parents believed the lie that many things were essential to raising their children but the faith and the church were not among those essential things. We are reaping the fruits of our own terrible planting.
You can blame the family and the church for trying to do what they have always done in the past (Who Moved the Cheese), but it is not quite true. The parents in the 1980s and 1990s may have thought they were doing the same as their parents but they were not. The parents of the 1980s and 1990s were divorcing at significantly higher rates than their parents. They surrendered to the screens more than their parents did. They did not counter the increasingly secularized education being given to their children in the public school system. They did not object when the sacred times (Sundays and Wednesday evenings) were claimed by sports leagues and school activities. They scheduled their children for more extracurricular activities and went with them to suggest that these were more important than faith and the church. They began to see the teacher in the classroom and the pastor and youth leaders in the church as ineffectual and even an enemy and their child as the victim. They did not take their children with them to church weekly and when their children showed disinterest in the worship of the congregation, they blamed the church. They had fewer children and spent more money giving the children what they wanted instead of instilling discipline over desire and sacrifice. It is a myth that we did the same things our parents did and they did not work. We did not do what our parents did.
The secularization of youth was actually encouraged in the church. Churches with a formal liturgy sponsored youth events in which the formal was replaced with the casual. What was sung and what was done was remarkably the same as evangelicalism and remarkably different from their church's confession. It happened even among conservatives like Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod youth programming. With a wink and a nod to making kids feel at home and things more youth oriented, we varied the soundtrack from Sunday morning to the sound of playlists and favorite musical styles. We thought we could alter the style without affecting the substance but it did not go as planned. We made confirmation relational rather than instruction both in the doctrine and piety of the faith. We thought that if kids had a relationship with Jesus instead of a faith, it would stop the losses. We lied to them about church being fun as if having a good time were the most important criteria for judging anything and everything. We made youth events more about recreation and less about re-creation and God became a stranger to much of what was called youth programming during that time. We tried all of this over a generation or two or three and now we are reaping the fruits of a failed experiment.
There is virtually no change in religiosity across cohorts for individuals born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s: modest differences in given periods are generally not very significant or durable. For the 1980s birth cohort, there was some decline between early adulthood and ages 28 to 30, but not a great deal. But for the cohort born in the 1990s, they began as adults with a minority confident belief in God. Kids born in the 1990s didn’t lose their faith as adults; they had already lost it in childhood. There is little to no change in belief in God for 1990s kids between ages 18-20 and 28-30. In other words, the decline in religiosity we’ve seen across America in the 2000s and 2010s, and especially among young people, isn’t driven by a loss of faith among adults in that period. It appears to be driven by a failure by parents to pass on the faith in the 1990s and 2000s.
What Lyman Stone said about the family and the home is mirrored in the congregation. The end result is that you cannot lose those you did not have. The take away from this is that what parents do in the home matters and that complacency will work against the faith where we fail to work for it. The take away from this is that catechesis does matter and what happens on Sunday morning matters in the lives of children and their adult family members. Maybe we could improve things if we just started doing what our parents and our churches did. It could not make it worse.