More young people leaving organized religion [Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.]
(Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, KY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 27--Ceara Robin's childhood room at her grandmother's house in Albany was filled with toys, books and movies. But unlike most children, her playthings were all Christian-centered.
"My grandmother read the Bible to me all the time," said the 21-year-old. "I still know the stories by heart. She'd be heartbroken if she knew I had these thoughts."
But the constant lessons, though out of love, Robin said, became distant thoughts after a while.
Amid some rough patches in her young life -- being bullied, her parents separating, witnessing abuse of her mother by a notorious gang member -- Robin's belief in God dwindled.
"I was bullied relentlessly 'cause we were poor," she said. "Everything just built up."
Some independent research and classes at Brescia University gave Robin some insight, she said.
"I'd read and analyze the Bible to make sure opposing things I saw weren't taking verses out of context," she said. "In some parts, I'd think, 'The God I was raised to believe in wouldn't do this.' So I think there's a God out there, but it's not who the Bible says it is."
Similarly, Kayleigh Bowlds' experiences drove her to doubt.
The 19-year-old biology major at Brescia felt hurt by the God she grew to know when her baby sister, Emmalee, died of health problems just two days before her second birthday.
Though her mother was accepting when she expressed her doubts, her father and stepmother's advice stung.
"They'd get upset knowing I wasn't going to church," she said. "They saw it as, since I knew about Jesus and chose not to follow, I was damning myself to hell."
She also learned more about her beliefs after Old and New Testament classes.
"I was baptized and believed in a humane God," she said. "But I learned that God wasn't always nice. He kills."
Bowlds said though she's drifted from Christianity, she appreciates the positive things she's gained from it.
"I was never a rambunctious child, so it was definitely a good foundation for me," she said. "I'm just on the fence now because it's always in the back of my mind. I'm exploring and one day I'll find my groove, my understanding. I don't want to be on the fence forever."
Drifting from doctrine
According to a National Public Radio survey, one in five Americans aren't affiliated with a particular religion. Of that total, most younger than 30 are disconnected from organized religion altogether.
NPR reports the total as the highest of any period in U.S. history.
Many consider the growing occurrence a result of personal exploration. And many suggest that churches should accept some of the blame.
"There are a host of issues within the church, but nothing can be pinpointed," said Jonathan Payne, 21. "It's gotten to a point where it's like shattered glass -- there are cracks everywhere and you can't really tell where they started."
Payne, who had a devout Christian upbringing, has focused on mission work at Lewis Lane Baptist Church since graduating from Owensboro Community & Technical College.
He is part of the praise team and special needs ministry at the church and said a six-month mission trip to Guatemala confirmed his hope in Christianity.
There, he said, he realized his purpose.
"My calling is to begin an organization that gives accountability and encourages communication and greater unity among all denominations," Payne said.
Payne said he never lost his faith in God or Jesus, but he met challenges in his journey to strengthen it.
Around age 12, he battled addictions to pornography and anger.
"It was bad," he said. "I'd dream of ways to be worse than people like Hitler. I was hurt. But God stuck with me. He made himself real to me in a way that I could never deny his existence."
Also, after news of an extramarital affair of the pastor at his childhood church, Payne's two brothers stopped believing.
"They looked up to him," Payne said. "But when he did that, they saw someone give up on them. We often forget that our leaders are still human."
Payne, who was baptized at age 6, said he and his sister still encourage their brothers to embrace Christianity. Since rededicating his life to the church at 18, he said the best thing he can do to encourage anyone is live as Jesus would.
"I was saved but I didn't fully understand what salvation was," he said. "(I understand now) that it's not just religion, it's a lifestyle. It's about personal responsibility and being proactive. People assume that the pastors or deacons have to do all the work, but the church is a body of people. Everyone has a role, we just have to figure out what it is."
Changing the church
As denominations across the country try to adjust to reach those who no longer attend or strictly follow their doctrines, one of the most renowned, though often controversial, church collectives is no exception.
With 15.9 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in America.
It was established in 1845 in Augusta, Ga., when disagreements about slavery split southern and northern Baptists. The convention openly supported segregation for many of its prominent years.
The Rev. Fred Luter, who became the SBC's first black president, said the organization has moved on and is now working to fix other shortcomings.
"Like all organizations, we can always do better," Luter said during a phone interview Wednesday. "We set certain goals and evaluate our churches so that we won't become complacent."
Among those goals are baptisms.
Baptisms within SBC churches have declined by 20 percent since 1999, according to LifeWay Christian Resources, which conducts surveys and other research in conjunction with SBC state conventions, and the 2012 SBC Annual, a compilation of uniform reports submitted by all churches in the convention.
Though the SBC's church planting initiative has increased the number of member churches by about 2 percent from its 2009 total of 45,010, the LifeWay report said, the convention has also seen steadily declines in worship service attendance and membership, which was 16.1 million just two years ago, for the past five years.
Local churches are also combating membership woes. Rosters in the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association, an SBC affiliate, have plateaued or decreased in 80 percent of the association's 56 churches, according to its website.
But Luter, the pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in his native New Orleans, said he's optimistic.
"I've seen change here," he said. "We took a hard hit with (Hurricane) Katrina. Many churches didn't come back because their people didn't. Being back is a blessing."
Luter credits a slight uptick -- 0.7 percent -- in baptisms in 2012 to youth-focused efforts, such as tailored music and sermons.
"We can't reach an iPod generation with an 8-track ministry," he said. "There are many things like social media grabbing young people's attention. Our churches need to get better and change they ways we reach out."
Finding their way
While these young people refrain from discussing their beliefs with disapproving relatives, they said they confide in each other.
Robin especially enjoys conversations with her like-minded fiance. She also speaks openly to her friend and colleague, Emily Fabrizio. The women grew closer while working on Brescia's news publication.
Fabrizio had her own doubts for a period in life, but eventually reclaimed her Catholic roots as she learned about Brescia at her Henderson high school and decided to attend.
"It's a judge-free zone, even though it's connected to the Catholic church," said the sophomore English major. "Everybody is really accepting here."
"Yeah, we can talk about our different opinions, we just stay respectful," Robin said.
Two other classmates joined them Wednesday morning in the campus center. They laughed and shared their experiences with each other, revealing that they had a lot in common.
"It seems like we all had rough times and moved from religion because it was forced on us," said Katy Johnson, a freshman art major from Whitesville. "Naturally, you rebel when it's shoved down your throat."
Like Johnson, Louisville senior Sarah Downs was raised Catholic. After confirmation, she said she'd seek answers about things she didn't understand. But church leaders and her parents never had answers, only anger.
She's researched and studied other religions, including Kemetism, paganism and other polytheistic traditions.
"In society today, you have to be something, or you're nothing," Downs said. "I don't agree with that. I have faith in something, but I can't limit myself to one sect. No one should have to."
Angela Oliver, 691-7360, email@example.com
(c)2013 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)
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