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What does your house of worship look like? For many, in the lead up to Christmas, it might be a shopping centre, not a church. While previous generations attended religious services every week, many young people instead pay homage to consumerism and individualism, having abandoned a formal commitment to religion. There could be many reasons for this: the liberal attitudes of young people aren’t often reflected in religious attitudes and the recent Royal Commission into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has done little for the institution’s reputation. But even though young people are stepping out of organised services in droves, they are finding spirituality elsewhere.
The declining presence of youths in church pews isn’t necessarily shocking according to Deakin University Associate Professor Andrew Singleton. ‘Each generation goes to church and practices Christianity less. Generation Y is lower than Generation X and they’re lower than the Baby Boomers,’ he notes. But he says that as numbers dwindle, so does the sense of community that was once an important part of religious life.
‘Church was a place to meet other people and prospective life partners. That tightly knit community evaporated in the 1960s,’ Assoc. Prof. Singleton explains. He describes Christmas as a ‘complex festival’ that is now driven by consumerism. But there is still value to be found in a tradition that brings families and friends together. ‘It’s up to each family to decide on its meaning,’ he suggests.
'Church was a place to meet other people and prospective life partners. That tightly knit community evaporated in the 1960s.'
Associate Professor Andrew Singleton,
Although young people aren’t as committed to formal religion as they once were, they are still seeking out activities that provide an opportunity for spirituality according to Deakin University chaplain Helen Edmonds. ‘I would suggest that faith and spirituality is simply manifesting differently,’ she says, and points out that young people are exploring their own paths to spirituality, with concepts of god or a higher power becoming increasingly unique to each individual.
‘Music festivals, dance, yoga and group meditation can provide powerful and transformative shared experiences,’ Edmonds says, but adds that there is a difference between spirituality and religion: ‘Shared ritual, celebration and mourning through each stage of life is something different again.’
As an on-campus chaplain, Edmonds says she witnesses a great deal of spirit at Deakin. ‘You only have to spend an hour on campus to get a sense of the fantastic energy and the contagious sense of hope for what will be,’ she observes. However she also points out that those in our community without a network that a parish might once have provided can have trouble developing their sense of self.
‘If I see students struggling – perhaps it is in seeking a sense of identity, perhaps in loneliness or understanding their interior emotional landscape – I understand this challenge to be deeply and entirely spiritual,’ Edmonds says. Rather than suggesting a return to formal religious activities, she points out that new communities such as universities can provide the sense of belonging that churches have in the past, and times spent lying on sunny lawns with fellow students are anything but wasted. ‘In the Catholic lexicon, contemplation and formation is important. University is not just about absorbing academic knowledge, it is about discovering who we are,’ she concludes.
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