Memo to Millennials: Organized Religion Isn’t Bad

If you want to get somewhere, you have to follow the map.

This 6th-century mosaic map, discovered in 1884 in the region of Madaba, Jordan, depicts Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
This 6th-century mosaic map, discovered in 1884 in the region of Madaba, Jordan, depicts Jerusalem and the Holy Land. (photo: Bill Perry / Shutterstock)

A recent Pew Research Center survey found 29% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6% from 2016. And according to the poll, Millennials are leading the shift away from organized religion. This echoes a previous Gallup poll, which confirmed a gradual deterioration in the confidence of Americans in organized religion over the past several decades.

What a strange trend! Imagine if you needed bypass surgery and your cardiologist said to you, “I love performing complex heart surgery, but I’ve never actually studied the procedure. I just go by feel.” Or if someone wanted you to invest in a business scheme and told you, “I have no business plan, no budget numbers, no organizational chart — but give me all your money anyway because my idea is great.” 

In every important area of life, there needs to be some level of organization — otherwise, there’s disaster.

“But hold on,” comes the reply. “Isn’t the most essential thing to have a personal relationship with God? And personal relationships don’t have to be organized, do they?”

Yes, they do. That’s the point so many people miss. Your relationship with God is the most essential thing in the world. But that doesn’t reduce the need for organization; it increases it. Any successful relationship has a built-in organization — otherwise, it’s doomed to failure. The organization of any long-lasting marriage may not be apparent to the eye, but it’s there: unwritten rules that govern the relationship; a clear understanding of a million details relating to sex, child-rearing, bill paying, mealtimes, family functions, in-laws and so forth. It’s only those relationships with no organizational substructure that don’t succeed over the long term.

But people don’t want to hear that, do they? To them, organization gets in the way of their feelings.

And yet, a relationship with God is a lot more than mushy feelings. Yes, it’s easy to see why a person might walk down to the beach at sunset and marvel at the blazing colors and think, “Ah, I feel so close to God right now.” But what too many people do is jump to the illogical conclusion that the good feeling they have on the beach is somehow more real than the experience they have in church; more real than the experience of saying their memorized prayers; more real than the experience of fulfilling the humdrum obligations of their faith. The problem with these people is that their definition of “real” is too tied to their emotions.

C.S. Lewis understood this point well. In his book Mere Christianity, he said that if a person looked at the Atlantic Ocean from the beach, and then went back home and looked at a map of the Atlantic Ocean, he might think that his experience at the beach was more real. But that would be a mistake, he writes:

The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based upon what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. … In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.

So many people are perfectly content to go through life looking at the ocean from the beach. It’s so easy. Who wants to look at some “boring” map? So they end up strolling leisurely along the beach their entire lives, pacing up and down the same stretch of sand, never going anywhere spiritually.

But is that the point of a personal relationship with God? To go in circles, endlessly?

Or is the point to do something? To be able to experience peace and joy even when things are not going well — even when you’re not looking at a beautiful sunset on the beach — even when you’re in a hospital bed suffering or at a funeral parlor grieving? To spread the good news about God and salvation and to assist as many people as you can to go to Heaven with you?

Those are the kinds of things you’re called to do as a child of God. And to do them correctly, you need more than just a stretch of pretty sand — you need a map.

Well, guess what? We already have a map. And it’s a map that has been provided to us by God himself in the form of the Church he founded. This map has one main destination: Heaven. And surprisingly, God has made the gigantic claim that if you follow this map and attempt to reach that destination, you’ll experience peace and happiness along the way. Best of all, if you want a printout of this map, all you have to do is get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

That’s what makes the phenomenon of people’s dislike for organized religion so mind-boggling. These well-meaning folks want happiness. But instead of venturing out with a map to find it, all they do is walk up and down that same stretch of beach, repeating the same mindless mantra: “Organized religion is bad, organized religion is bad.”

Do yourself a favor — stop wandering aimlessly on the beach. Stop complaining about organized religion and start following the map you’ve already been given. Maybe you’ll find the treasure you’re looking for.