Why young people are setting time aside for faith
By Adam Greenwald and Geoffrey Nelson-Blake,
For those of us who came of age in the past decade, two forces have us racing to keep up: First, we are immersed in a 24-hour cycle of news and information with a constant flow of tweets and text messages, cellphones clutched tightly in our hands like Linus’s blanket. And second, we’re starting our adult lives in a world without enough decent-paying jobs, where we might become the first generation in memory to have less opportunity than our parents.
So it’s no wonder that many people our age struggle with the depression, anxiety and disconnection that come with living at a breakneck pace. As a 28-year-old Conservative rabbi and a 30-year-old Seventh-day Adventist minister, we’ve found that many are coping, at least in part, by turning to a rather old-fashioned prescription — religion and, in particular, observance of the Sabbath.
That may sound surprising. After all, sociologists and pollsters often find that, compared with previous generations, young people today are turning away from religious observance. Just this past week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that rates of religious affiliation in the United States are falling; among those of us under 30, nearly one-third answer “none” when asked about our religion.
As a Seventh-day Adventist and a Jew, we find that the Sabbath brings spiritual discipline to our lives. Each week is punctuated by a day of conscious abstaining from the distracting, the noisy and the ordinary. Instead, we carve out time to focus on family, community, relaxation and reflection. For at least one-seventh of our lives, we put away our wallets, park our cars, shut down our digital devices and try our best to live like we already have everything we need to be happy and fulfilled.
An insistence on creating sacred time and space is one of the key components of nearly all faiths. Traditional Jews and many Christian denominations observe one day a week of sanctified rest. Muslims around the world pause five times a day to bow in prayer. Many religions derived from Eastern traditions include a daily meditative practice. While many Americans feel distant from religion, establishing fixed times for personal renewal has universal appeal.
In spiritual communities across the country — from Jewish worship groups such as Washington’s DC Minyan and Los Angeles’s IKAR to churches too numerous to count — young people come together each week to collectively “power down” from the busy world. The ancient act of gathering in a house of worship on the Sabbath now carries a distinctly countercultural tone: It’s a declaration of independence from the iPhone, a defiant assertion that an e-mail can be left unanswered for a day without causing disaster, a formal protest against the social media machine. It’s a quiet revolution but one of enormous power.
As the executive director of the nation’s largest program for those who want to convert to Judaism, one of us deals daily with individuals and couples, most in their 20s and 30s, who are actively choosing to join a religious community or recommit themselves to living a Jewish life. In countless conversations, nearly every one of the new Jews says that the yearning for a ritual break in life’s commotion is one of the main reasons they’ve decided to convert. Perhaps that is what Ahad Ha-Am, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher, meant when he wrote: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
One woman in her early 30s, who formally converted to Judaism this past week, wrote in a conversion essay: “On Shabbat we are encouraged to live it up, to surround ourselves with friends and family, laugh, tell stories and go to bed knowing that we have a whole morning and afternoon ahead of us to spend however we like. We sing, raise a glass and toast life, then go make crazy, passionate love to our partner. I beg my not-quite-convinced friends to tell me which life, secular or religious, sounds more restrictive?”
Similarly, as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, one of us knows that among the greatest appeals of that faith community is its serious observance of the Sabbath. For Seventh-day Adventists, the Sabbath is at the center of religious life. Potlucks and outdoor activities often follow Saturday morning worship services. In addition to abstaining from work and shopping, for 24 hours Adventists focus on community and rest. In our overloaded society, it cannot be a coincidence that Seventh-day Adventism is the nation’s fastest-growing Christian denomination. Adventists have found wholeness and holiness by closely adhering to a seventh-day Sabbath. It’s this weekly time together, set apart from the hurry of the week, that deepens their relationships, strengthens the fabric of their community and helps restore hope and joy to their lives.
We’ve also witnessed a more subtle embrace of Sabbath values — such as slowing down and eschewing technology — in secular culture. For example, the movement toward “slow food” and community gardens directly clashes with and helps free us from our addiction to fast food and our YouTube-driven attention spans. Recently, in America’s traffic capital, Los Angeles, more than 100,000 pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders filled empty downtown streets for CicLAvia, a celebration of all things human-powered.
And last spring, a National Day of Unplugging sponsored by Reboot, a nontraditional group of Jewish thought leaders, inspired a range of figures such as Jimmy Fallon and the wife of a former British prime minister to pledge to spend a day consciously avoiding technology and commerce — and instead refocusing on life’s simpler joys.
In place of anxiety about the scarcity of time, energy and resources, and instead of judging our personal connections by counting our Twitter followers or Facebook friends, faith gives us space to spend time with community members and loved ones. In place of the constant barrage of information and responsibilities, the Sabbath gives us room to breathe.
While the statistics paint a picture of waning affiliation and spiritual apathy, our view from the front lines is different. As leaders working with young people from many faiths, we are witnessing the beginnings of a religious renaissance through an embrace of the Sabbath. And for a stressed-out, anxious generation seeking strength and solace, it’s just in time.
Adam Greenwald, a Conservative rabbi, is the executive director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is a community organizer with the San Francisco Organizing Project.