The New Faithful | Notes

Posted on July 11, 2003


Colleen Carroll. The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Loyola Press, 2002. (320 pages)


1 The Faithful

An Irresistible Attraction.

There’s something there. In our hearts, we know the truth. And this holds the truth. It’s not fluff. It’s real. – Lori Agnew

Why are young adults who have grown up in a society saturated with relativism — which declares that ethical and religious truths vary according to the people who hold them — touting the truth claims of Christianity with such confidence? Why, in a society brimming with competing belief systems and novel spiritual trends, are young adults attracted to the trappings of tradition that so many of their parents and professors have rejected? Is this simply the reaction of a few throwbacks to a bygone era, a few scattered inheritors of a faith they never critically examined? Is it the erratic behavior of young idealists moving through an inevitably finite religious phase? Or are they the heralds of something new? Could these young adults be proof that the demise of America’s Judeo-Christian tradition has been greatly exaggerated? (3)

Even though they know less history or literature or logic than students [than students ten or twenty years ago] they’re more aware that they’ve been cheated and they need more. They don’t know that what they’re craving is the Holy Spirit. – Peter Kreeft

The grassroots movement they have started bears watching because it has thrived in the most unlikely places, captured the hearts of the most unlikely people, and aims to effect the most unlikely of outcomes: a revitalization of American Christianity and culture. (4)

In Search of Structure. …three core elements of the faith of today’s young Catholics are belief in God’s presence int he sacraments (including the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist), concern for helping the poor, and devotion to Mary as the mother of God — all key tenets of an orthodox Catholic faith. (5)

An embrace of traditional religion and morality often begins with a rejection of relativism. In a culture where young adults are frequently told that no universal moral standards or religious truths exist, many have begun to question that dictum and search for the truth that they believe is knowable. (7)

Purpose and Methodology.

Defining the Faithful. These young adults are not perpetual seekers. They are committed to a religious worldview that grounds their lives and shapes their morality. They are not lukewarm believers or passionate dissenters. When they are embracing a faith tradition or deepening their commitment to it, they want to do so wholeheartedly or not at all. When they are attracted to tradition in worship or in spirituality, they want to understand the underlying reality of that tradition. and use it to transform their lives. That sense of commitment and total acceptance of orthodoxy sets them apart from many of their peers and fellow believers who share their affection for the trappings of religious tradition but reject its theological and moral roots. (11)

Today’s young Americans, regardless of their religious formation, have never had the luxury of accepting orthodoxy without critical reflection. The pluralistic culture they live in will not permit it. (11)

Relativism, as noted above, is the theory that all values or judgments are equal and none are absolute or universal. (14)

An Overview. Once committed to orthodoxy, these young adults do not quarantine their faith. It infuses every aspect of their lives, guides every major decision they make, and affects nearly every interaction they have at home, work, school, church, and in the culture at large. They frequently make their private faith known publicly, and its impact touches every aspect of American religion and culture that they do. (19)

The Cultural Challenge. Are the young adults who embrace organized religion and traditional morality inherently different from their less committed or irreligious peers, or have they simply had different experiences? Is this phenomenon purely a return to tradition, or is it something new? What are its historical roots and parallels? How widespread is it? What is its potential for growth? Will it last? What are its implications for American religion and religious leaders? What are its implications for politics, education, the arts, and the broader secular culture? What are its inherent dangers, tensions, and obstacles? What could derail it? What could fortify it? (19)

…they see the radical personal witness of a believer living his or her faith explicitly and authentically. They investigate that believer’s convictions out of respect or curiosity. They adopt those convictions and embrace that faith. Then they, in turn, bear witness to other young adults. That dynamic — witness to conversion to more witness — allows for the possibility of an exponential increase in these orthodox young Christians in the years to come. (19)

Most of these young believers are committed to transforming the world rather than retreating from it. To do so, they must constantly walk a tightrope to avoid the two extremes they loathe — isolation from the world at one end and capitulation to its relativistic values at the other. That tension, and their sometimes deft, sometimes botched management of it, makes their stories especially compelling and relevant to the larger culture they seek to influence. (24)

2 The Search

The Evidence: A Mixed Bag.

The Seeds of a Search. Do young Christians lack essential knowledge about their faith and resist the teachings and standards that define their churches? Or do they harbor a deep spiritual hunger and curiosity about Christian tradition that makes them inclined to embrace orthodoxy in all of its rigor and particularity? (28)

…four general patterns run through the stories of young adults attracted to orthodox Christianity:

  • They have achieved secular success at a young age, and it leaves them hungry for meaning.
  • They have been exposed to “watered-down” religion, moral relativism, or atheism, and they crave its opposite.
  • They have practiced religion out of a sense of duty but now want a more personal relationship with God and a more intentional way to worship him.
  • They have had personal religious devotion since childhood but long for a more integrated faith that is supported by community. (29)

The early midlife crisis: Success and the call to serve. Mendelsohn Media Research in New York reported that in 2000, nearly a third of millionaire American households were headed by someone between the ages of eighteen and thirty-nine. (31)

They have decided that they do not need to until they are successful, i.e., have lots of money, before they do something significant — i.e., something they are called to or are passionate about. They don’t want to play that game for their first forty years. – Sean Womack

…they want to get off that whole merry-go-round. They really want something that can touch their souls. And a faith culture is the only thing that can respond to that. – Fr. David Burrell

The pendulum swing: In search of substance. …many young adults drawn to orthodoxy had little or no religious formation as children. Their ignorance of the faith left many of them — particularly nominal Catholics — hungry for solid answers. (35)

Embracing orthodoxy “is finding the truth, the light you’re really attracted to.” (38)

Evangelical faith: A Catholic craving.

Faith in action: Integration and community. If young Catholics are mimicking evangelicals in the realm of faith, evangelicals are copying Catholics in the world of works. (45)

Gen Xers got burned out on materialism in the evangelical church. – Sean Womack

How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?

Making It Stick: Keys to Commitment. A spiritual search does not always lead to a faith commitment. (49)

Today’s culture makes it very easy to evangelize and very hard to make disciples – Os Guinness.

Those who have embraced orthodoxy generally cite three factors that made their commitment possible: the grace of God, a supportive faith community, and personal resolve. (50)

The grace of God.

Spiritual support. In a culture that often derides commitment, young adults need support to make faith commitments that last.

Personal resolve. Their longings — for meaning, community, fulfillment — are typical of young Americans, as are their fears about repeating the mistakes of the generation before them. And like many young adults who encounter orthodoxy, they are intrigued by its moral rigor, spiritual depth, and eschatological promises. (56)

Relying on grace, peer support, and personal resolve, they stepped beyond seeker status into the realm of committed believers. They gave their lives to Jesus Christ and embraced the orthodox faith that they believe to be his gift. And they embarked on a journey toward integration that will take them the rest of their lives to complete. (56)

3 The Church and Worship

The Romance of Orthodoxy. “Do you want to worship God in the way he wants to be worshiped or in the way that makes you feel comfortable?” (59)

They’re looking for something that’s stable, but they don’t really know what that stability is. –  F. Antony Hughes

A Hunger for Substance. …many young adults are flocking to churches that preach conventional morality and employ traditional worship. (60)

They want to go to a spirituality that’s rooted in tradition. – Phyllis Tickle

In evangelical circles, young adults often recall many sermons on personal salvation but few discussions of how Christians should treat the poor, engage the culture, or learn from Christian history and tradition. They complain of pastors focused more on winning converts than helping the converted live out their Christian faith and of worship leaders more interested in entertaining the congregation than encouraging reverence for God. (62)

The Hard Gospel. What is bringing some of them back, [Rosalind] Moss said, is the power of the gospel when it is preached with intensity by such figures as Pope John Paul II. (69)

In its explanation of why some congregations thrive and others decline, the survey found a strong correlation between the vitality of a congregation and its commitment to high moral standards. According to the survey, “Two out of three congregations that emphasize personal and public morality also report healthy finances and membership growth. Congregations that place less emphasis on these standards are more likely to report plateaued or declining membership. A large majority of the most vital congregations report that they have a clarity of purpose and explicit member expectations that are strictly enforced.”

I think every Christian knows it deep down — that it’s a life of self-sacrifice. But we never had a place to fall down and die. – Douglas Law

Holy Mysteries.

The Generation Gap. Today’s postmodern young adults are not as concerned with having a purely rational modern faith, she said. Instead, young adults — including many young Baptists she knows who have joined the Episcopal Church — are “rebelling” by embracing traditional worship. | “It’s sexy and exotic,” said [Melody] Knowles, who sees the trend as a backlash against boomers who discarded tradition in favor of rationalism and relativism. “The previous generation wimped out, and you want a challenge. It’s kind of idealistic.” (83)

Contemporary and Conservative. [mention of ALCF]

Seeing the Unseen. Dieter Zander…now believes that youth ministers wold fare better if they addressed the ideological shift between the rationality-oriented modern converts of yesterday and their mystery-craving postmodern children. (85)

4 Faith Communities and Fellowship

A Quest for Community. [Generation X, Americans born between 1965 and 1983] are interested in spirituality, ignorant of tradition, and fearful of both commitment and abandonment. (89)

Ye the portrait of these young adults has another dimension. The same generation known for its struggles with short attention spans and commitment phobias has also shown an impressive desire to serve others, build stable families and communities, and avoid materialism and careerism. (89)

Among this generations’ most celebrated characteristics is its craving for community. Young adults themselves, not to mention the throngs of sociologists seeking to understand them, repeatedly refer to their quest for authentic, intimate communities. They long to come together around something bigger than themselves, something oriented beyond their own selfish desires and media-drenched lives. They exhibit a desire to spend themselves in community service. And sometimes — as in the case of the young men shepherded by Fr. Bill Wack into the flock of Holy Cross priests — they find their deepest longings addressed in Christian community. (89-90)

They seem to be isolated a lot. A lot of young people right now want to belong to something. – Bill Wack

The Power of Personal Witness. Interest in Christian community does not guarantee commitment to it. …What often makes the difference between a flirtation and a commitment is the personal witness of an individual or community that makes Christian virtues seem irresistible — and worth the work. (92)

So there’s a level of intentionality that is definitely unusual. I think for community to be genuine, for it to bear fruit, there is a certain level of commitment and intentionality that has to happen. – John Hart

[Personal witness] is the best tool to bring people into the kingdom. But if the goal is to have a tool, then it probably isn’t going to be very effective. If the goal is to evangelize yourself first and to really live out the Christ-centered life, then you have tools at your disposal. – John Hart

There are these people in our generation, and you can take a relatively small number of them. If they’re committed to loving God, loving their neighbor, following Christ, it’s stronger than the natural forces keeping us apart — alienation, self-centeredness, even religious differences. If we’re able to overcome those things, then it’s revolutionary. – John Hart

Community and Its Counterfeits.

Religious Life: A Radical Sacrifice.

You don’t attract people by lowering the bar, but by raising the bar.  – Mark Coomes

The Call to Serve. They galvanize members around service but never divorce the call to serve from the quest for personal holiness. In so doing, they produce disciples of Christ — not social workers. (105)

People are tired of homogenous, fluffy groups – Lauren Noyes

The young-adult groups at some megachurches stress socializing over service and spiritual growth. They may draw larger crowds, Noyes said, but groups like Kairos at The Falls Church ultimately bear more fruit.

If there’s no depth going with those numbers, then I don’t think they’re successful. I don’t know if Kairos is ever going to be a megachurch kind of group. I’m not sure that it should be. It’s up to God. – Lauren Noyes

There’s a lot of pain in the world, and that’s exactly why Christians are called Christians — so that we can follow Christ and meet that pain. – Bill Haley

The Challenge of Intimacy.

I learned that when we’re really convinced of who God is, we can be totally honest and totally open about who we are. – Pamela Brown-Peterside

Reaching Out with the Gospel. If Christians stick together too much and fail to interact with the broader culture and nonbelievers, [Kara] Kirby asked the group, “are we actually being salt to the community?”

Evangelicalism has tended to try to create its own culture rather than engaging the wider culture. – Andy Crouch

Integrating faith into daily life and sharing that faith with others takes tenacity — and assistance. (117)

The Real Life of Christian Community.

5 Sexuality and Family

The Counterrevolution. …an innate desire for intimacy and answers. (127)

Against the Grain.

The Challenge of Chastity. “There’s just that loneliness of wanting to be with someone…”

Abstinence implies an avoidance of sexual intercourse, but chastity entails much more. It is a Christian virtue associated with purity of mind and body that can be practiced by the married and unmarried alike. Chaste people, in other words, must do more than save sex for marriage. They must also avoid dirty jokes, immodest dress, obscene language and entertainment, and sexual fantasies. They must strive to love others without using them for sexual satisfaction and to remain faithful to God and their current or future spouse in thought, word, and deed. It’s a high bar for young Americans who are steeped in sexually explicit movies, music, and conversations. (133)

It’s not about repression, but about romance without regret, the goodness that comes from knowing you’re using sex according to God’s plan. – Jason Evert

Conversion and Consuming Love. The connection between faith and sex is a powerful one. Pastors often say that transgressions of Christian sexual morality lead young believers away from the faith faster than any other moral lapses. Their explanation: sexual intercourse is an intimate, potent experience, and the desire for sexual activity often clouds moral judgment. Christians who engage in extramarital sex while at the same tie professing to believe it is wrong often feel a tortuous sense of guilt and hypocrisy that eventually estranges them from the church. | Even for those who resist sexual temptations, the strain of sexual self-denial can lead to bitterness or doubts about God. (140)

Marriage and Mutual Support. Many serious believers complain that church events can be as tacky as the bar scene, packed with nominal Christians more interested in securing their next date than glorifying God. The singles scene at churches often attracts not the most ardent young Christians but the most desperate. Because of this, many young orthodox Christians look elsewhere or plead for divine intervention. (141)

How wonderful the bond between two believers, with a single hope, a single desire, a single observance, a single service! They are both brethren and both fellow-servants; there is no separation between them in spirit or flesh; in fact they are truly two in one flesh, and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit. – Tertullian

Being Fruitful. A mutual focus on God — rather than simply on each other — defines the marriages of many young orthodox Christians. (145)

Catholicism teaches that sex has two functions: bonding and babies. (146) The Catholic Church teaches that every part of the human person — mental, spiritual, physical, and sexual — is unified. According to the church, an action that intentionally disables one component of a person, like his fertility, goes against human dignity and God’s will. (149)

Homeschooling to Hand On the Faith.

6 The Campus

Relativism and Revolt.

Faith and Reason.

I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else. – C.S. Lewis

Christian Fellowships: A Refuge from Relativism. How can I know what is true for me is true for everyone else? Is it my place to apply moral absolutes to others? And why do I need Jesus to be a good person? (175)

Catholic Campus Ministry: Evangelizing with Tradition.

The Growing Popularity of Religious Schools.

Inside the Academy.

Instead of being stupid, they’re odd. And odd, in universities, is kind of a good thing to be. I have to believe that God is at work in this generation in universities. I see signs that he really is at work powerfully. – William Stuntz

7 Politics

A Lived Philosophy. They insist on integrating their faith into every aspect of their lives — including their political lives — and they reject claims that they should simply remove themselves from secular culture in order to protect their faith. (202)

A Tale of Two Activists.

Allegiance to God.

Anti-establishment and Anti-abortion.

Faith Meets Politics.

The areas where we agree are so vast compared to the areas of disagreement. Our differences seem small compared to the assault of the humanist worldview. – Bill Wichterman

An Eternal Perspective.

8 The Call

Faith at Work. …a job is never just a job. It is an extension of their faith journey, a way for them to spread the gospel, reverence God, and promote Christian values, which often clash with those of the workplace. (225)

Though service-sector and blue-collar jobs get second billing in society, these young Christians know that Jesus himself was a carpenter who did a humble job in a small town — and changed the world. (226)

Business, finance, and technology.

They get motivated by having ownership in something and seeing the tangible effect. – Abigail Ochs

…the Silicon Valley Fellowship, a parachurch ministry that bills itself as “a forum for young Bay Area business professionals of all Christian denominations to explore issues of faith in the workplace, build God-centered relationships, and find encouragement in personal growth.” (232)

Law. …a place that cultivates the link between our humanity and God’s divnity.

Medicine. …this field, where workaholics are congratulated and Christian medical ethics are routinely challenged.

Not only is faith compatible with medicine, it also makes a practical difference in patient care. (237)

Mass media and publishing.

Arts and entertainment. Protestants — and particularly evangelicals — have historically attempted to use the arts and entertainment more for overt evangelization than subtle symbolism.

The Catholics make better use of allegory in their writing, [Barbara] Nicolosi said:

They believe in the power of symbols because they are surrounded by them.

Protestants, and especially evangelicals, “really believe in the power of truth and in the power of change and redemption. Catholics are very cynical about that.” (253)

Beauty impacts people’s ability to live in peace. … God created everything. He’s created the natural environment and each person. I want to bring life back to God’s landscape, to help mend relationships with one another. I hope that that will eventually impact society at large and the world. – Tashya Leaman

“We have become the moral thought police, telling everyone else to shape up,” [the instructor] said. It’s no wonder, he added, that nonbelievers in Hollywood and elsewhere “think we’re hateful, think we’re judgmental.” (259)

Christians need to resign their suspicion of the physical world and secular culture and become more culturally engaged. (261)

Moving from a “mindless” rejection of the arts and culture to a “mindless” embrace of worldly values is not progress, Ken Meyers said. The better path is to engage culture where appropriate, but with discernment and the knowledge that some media are simply not conducive to the Christian message. (261)

Life in the Balance. …most admit that accommodation to secular culture and its values is a clear and present danger to their faith. (262)

What is unfortunately missing from Roaring Lambs’ vision of cultural transformation is awareness that being in power more often than not transforms one into a bleating lion – Andy Crouch and Nate Barksdale


The pop universe (whether that’s pop music, pop writing, or pop politics) allots power  on its own terms, for its own purposes. This means, among other things, that those “real Christians” who are given the most power and popularity are not likely to be those who directly challenge the society’s dominant values — and in more or less subtle ways (ranging from doctrinal creativity to lifestyle choices) they are likely to reinforce those values, even while imparting a pleasant, positive, religious — but above all tolerant — glow to the proceedings.


The teachings of Jesus suggest that true power can be accessed via a very unlikely source: from being aligned with the truly powerless, from serving those who cannot serve you back. – Andy Crouch and Nate Barksdale

Christians zealous to use their time at a prestigious university for God, or to funnel their talents into a successful career for God, sometimes rely too much on their own “strategic thinking,” Crouch said. They make elaborate plans to gain the most influence and reach the most people, rather than relying on God to gently guide them toward what he wants them to do. Surrounded by other elites in their schools and professions, they can fall into the trap of living for the approval of others and chasing after the “idols” of money, power, and fame. (263)

…the people who are actually the most effective for God are the ones who are most relaxed. (263)

9 The Future

With conservative churches attracting committed Christians, liberal churches hemorrhaging members, and young believers working overtime to spread their faith, the future of orthodoxy in America looks bright. …But these believers know the dangers that lurk in their path, and many are taking thoughtful approaches to defend against them. To succeed in transforming their church and culture, they will need to continue building on two crucial characteristics of their orthodox movement: ecumenism and balance. (265)

The Perils of Orthodoxy. If these young believers continue to embrace opportunities to work together across denominational and even inter-faith lines without airbrushing significant theological differences, they have the potential to transform American religion and culture. If they refuse to do so, recoiling instead into their various subcultures to avoid the ideologically impure, their effects on American culture will be diluted and their obedience to Christ’s gospel imperative of unity will be incomplete. (266)

…supportive faith communities are crucial to the survival of a confessional faith in a pluralistic society. So too are strong families and vibrant churches that hand down the faith with clarity and confidence. (266)

The struggle of today’s culturally engaged orthodox Christians boils down to a search for balance. (267)

Rather than believing that the church needs to be more like the world, these young adults long ago decided that the world needs to be more like the church — at its best. (268)

Most also are more focused on transforming culture for Christ than finding a safe niche where they can hide. (268)

Ultimately, the common enemies of secularism and relativism may lead orthodox Christians beyond mutual admiration and back into unity. (269)

Guarding the Family against the World — and a Backlash. If any realm of life can indicate the direction these young believers are taking and the direct impact they will have on American culture, it is the sphere where they have the most influence: their own homes and families. (269)

Selling Out or Opting Out. …no government will ever be perfect until Jesus returns to restore all things, and even an airtight Christian subculture will suffer from sin so long as its inhabitants are human. (274)

Importing Campus Conversions into the Real World. If these students continue to blend faith and reason without being co-opted by campus relativism, the church and the American academy will be richer for their contributions. (276)

Courage and Charity: Keys to Church Renewal. For those who balance truth and love, courage and charity, their impact on the church will be powerful and lasting. (279)

Sharing the Gospel will Flexibility and Fidelity.

A New Day.