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The other month, I attended a conference thick with members of the clergy. It had everything you would expect: bad bagels for breakfast, a hurried nondenominational prayer to kick things off, and meeting rooms stacked with priests, rabbis, and imams grateful for a day off from the pulpit. I didn’t need to read the day’s agenda to know what was coming, though; I had but to wait a few minutes before someone was sure to get up and wax poetic about The Young.

And, sure enough, someone did, a lovely pastor with a sonorous voice and sincere demeanor. It was all well and good for us graybeards to huddle together and talk about what needed to be done in our houses of worship, he said, but none of that was particularly relevant because, if you looked around the room, you’d see no one younger than thirty. How, the man concluded his impromptu sermon, are we to attract new generations of believers unless we court them, hear them out, and welcome them in with offerings they value and desire?

As one of the few people in the room without pastoral duties, I felt called to offer a robust counterpoint. Rising to my feet, I delivered my pronouncement clearly, loudly, and succinctly: The young suck.

A few murmuring voices demanded an elaboration, which I gladly delivered. First, I said, it is a truth universally acknowledged that young people are, to borrow a term of art, rather dumb. It’s why we don’t leave children alone in the house when they’re nine years old, say, and why even when they are nineteen we feel more confident knowing that a Residential Adviser is right down the hallway should some collegian make particularly regrettable choices. Second, it is precisely this innate stupidity—wonderful, natural, magical—that is a major driver of spiritual pursuit. It’s why the young have traditionally sought the counsel of their parents and teachers, and why a very wise man, reflecting on this manner, once said, “ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder,” as pithy a description as any of the essence of religious instruction. We enter the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque, milk-lipped and impertinent; we leave it humbled by the wisdom of those who are old enough to know better. And third, while this wisdom is true always, it is especially pressing for a generation whose minds, hearts, and souls are ravaged by a technological torrent that thrusts upon them more audiovisual stimuli per minute than the human brain can possibly process.

That, replied another well-meaning attendant, was all well and good, but the problem at hand was marketing, not metaphysics. Church attendance, the man continued, quoting the gospel of Gallup, was now a full 10 percent lower than it had been just twelve years ago, a decline that showed no sign of stopping. And things were even grimmer among Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine, less than a fifth of whom attended services with any regularity. Crow all you want about the young, the man concluded, but unless they walk through the door and plop themselves down in the pews, there won’t be reason for members of the clergy to convene for much longer. 

It’s an argument you hear everywhere these days. It’s heartfelt, evocative—and entirely wrong.

To understand why, imagine, for a moment, that you are young and, hallelujah, inclined to give the word of the Lord a fair shake. You seek a friendly neighborhood place to congregate with the rest of the faithful, and you stumble upon the following: a screening of a popular 1990s comedy, followed by a conversation with a local comedian; a singles mixer, featuring a local DJ; and a lecture from a local professor about the perils of climate change.

These offerings aren’t the inventions of a muddled, middle-aged mind. I called friends who attend services regularly and asked them what their church or synagogue was doing to draw in the young.

Is it any wonder, then, that the young aren’t showing up? After all, you could get better entertainment at the comedy club down the block, better chances of socializing with unattached men and women at the bar up the street, and better political screeds on campus or at the nearest chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. What you can’t get anywhere else is religion, a discipline that has kept our eyes trained on the heavens for millennia and which requires precisely the sort of rigor that, alas, terrifies most priests, pastors, and rabbis these days.

It’s a shame. Imagine if instead of trying desperately to appear relevant to our juniors—a posture that requires nodding politely when some misguided moron says that religion is inherently racist or that toddlers should be allowed to undergo genital butchery in pursuit of their preferred gender expression—we stood firm in our faith and offered them a clear and compelling case for choosing right over wrong. Imagine if we towered, like adults among children, and told the young that swiping right on a screen to summon a casual sexual encounter was corrosive to body and spirit alike. Imagine if instead of trying to appease and appeal, we offered the one thing that all humans, but particularly young ones, desire—a real, serious, meaningful, character-building challenge.

My dear friend and teacher (and First Things contributor) Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik joked recently that American Jews got it all wrong when they named their Jewish student association Hillel, after the famously welcoming and accommodating rabbi who died circa 10 c.e. We should establish a new organization, Rabbi Soloveichik quipped, and name it after Hillel’s contemporary and adversary, the notoriously stringent Shammai—instead of fun dinners and trips to the movies, we should offer students seven hours of intense Bible study followed by a cleansing fast. Abandon any hope of having fun, ye who enter.

The joke got a big laugh, but I suspect that, not too long ago, it wouldn’t have been much of a joke at all. The church, like the Beit Midrash, or the house of study, was a place where the youth came to sit at the feet of their elders, observe, imbibe, and emulate. Some, surely, resented their submission, secretly or otherwise. But society at large recognized that there was no better way to transmit ideas, virtues, and behaviors carefully curated over millennia than to treat those who have yet to reach maturity as apprentices who must sweat and sacrifice to earn their seat at the communal table. This, in part, helps explain why so many of the foundational stories that helped shape Western civilization—from the Fall to the elderly Laocoön warning the people of Troy to reject the advances of Greeks bearing gifts—revolve around the disasters that ensue when the young and insolent refuse to listen and obey.

We know, then, exactly what we have to do. Let’s not spend another minute humoring those who, by definition, seek us out for instruction, not indulgence. Let’s offer a serious, demanding admissions process into the faith, one that is as eminently forgiving of failure as it is uncompromising about effort. To those who want to grow and change and flourish, let’s offer everything we can. To those in the market for yet another facile lifestyle affectation, let’s show the door.

What will happen if we do? At first, nothing. All of us need hard work, devotion, and repentance, but not all of us are willing to put in the work required. We can turn our churches and our synagogues and our mosques into austere academies and push our youth to the limit, and the pews will continue to be empty for a little while longer. But then, as the serious young people we’ve instructed grow up, as they settle down and start families and deepen their commitment to the faith and its teachings, we’ll begin to see something miraculous, something that everyone, from teachers to farmers to CEOs, values above all else—real, organic growth.

We haven’t a moment to spare. It’s time to stop coddling our young and pretending that their frivolous nonsense merits acknowledgment. It’s time, as the kids say, for us “to adult.” We need to accept responsibility for those who depend on us and guide them to virtue. It’s time to proclaim that we’re neither cool nor hip nor conversant in the thin gruel that passes for culture these days. We’ve something else to offer, something far more precious, something eternal, without which none of us, old or young, can thrive.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.

Image by Karolina Grabowskapublic domain. Image cropped. 

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