Echoes of Hope – When bad things happen to Spiritual-But-Not-Religious people Introduction

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Listening to The Echo – The Research

I have been listening to The Echo for about 30 years, since the oldest Echoes were babies. My wife and I have four children who were born in 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1983. They have friends. As a father, I spent the 1990s driving van loads of soccer and basketball players to games and tournaments. As a minister, I had been called to a church-planting situation in the Ottawa suburbs in 1984. The congregation grew, and I stayed for 15 years, during which time I baptized 1000 babies – 1000 Echoes. In 1999, I went back to campus ministry at Carleton University in Ottawa just as The Echo was coming to campus. For the next 10 years I was the only full time, on-call religious professional for a student population of more than 20,000. Those were the years of 9/11, the December Tsunamis, the student deaths at Virginia Tech and at Dawson College in Montreal. There were suicides, traffic accidents, and other sudden deaths. I was well known and trusted by a large population of students, who became a national and international population of graduates.

In November 1999 I started a blog, “Thursday Thoughts,” weekly postings of theological and spiritual reflection in the context of life that week: exams on campus, political crises in the world, religious news, celebrity activity, pop culture, the turning of the seasons in nature and the religious calendars. By 2004, several hundred people were reading it; and a dozen or so would respond to me each week, telling me about their lives, especially about their spirituality, values, and social concerns. I began to develop a bank of statements from young adults who were thinking seriously about their spirituality and about organized religion. I continued Thursday Thoughts until my sabbatical in 2009, reaching a population of about 1000.

In 2009, the United Church of Canada commissioned me to “Listen to The Echo,” and announced that “the point of this project is essentially

* to conduct an ethnography of this cohort in Canada, collating existent knowledge

and new research from the point of view of a church leader,

* giving voice to The Echo’s perspective on church and society,

* listening to the advice this generation might offer the church,

* sharing that information through the structures of the church

and ministry networks in order to begin drawing the implications.”

I did not seek to connect with the entire population of young adults in this project. After reviewing the research on emerging young adults, and in consultation with church leaders, I considered the young adult cohort to be comprised of four sub-groups with respect to their religiosity:

1. traditionally religious, participating in the religious communities of their families;

2. aggressive atheists, denying God and the value of religious traditions;

3. fundamentalists and literalists looking for certainty and security in the face of modernity and post-modernity; and

4. SBNRs – ethical seekers who self-identify as Spiritual But Not Religious.

The first three groups were already being heard. The last group became the focus of my research. I designed the project to attract a population whose thoughts and perspective are not widely published, but could be a significant resource to religious leaders – spiritual, ethical young adults who are thoughtfully choosing to avoid traditional religious institutions.

The respondent population was developed out of the Thursday Thoughts contact list, and from a national network of ecumenical campus chaplains. In social science research, this is called convenience sampling, a nonprobability method that does not allow for calculation of statistical significance, as in random sampling, but which can yield significant data. It is the technique of a cultural anthropologist conducting an ethnography by means of participant observation and unscripted conversations rather than that of a sociologist conducting survey research and quantitative analysis. Since many of the early respondents referred friends and acquaintances into the study, the research technique is also called snowball sampling. The success and pragmatism of these techniques are apparent; but the weaknesses and limitations need to be identified.

I was the only researcher, based in Ottawa, doing research only in English, using email, GoogleTalk and similar media so that all statements were written by the participant. The population tended to be university students or graduates, urban, and interested in discussing religion and spirituality.

By March 2014, there were 684 participants who had contributed statements that are a page or two long if printed, about 300 to 800 words.

They were mostly about 19 to 24 years old when they participated, and they are an extremely diverse group. They live in every region of Canada. Most had graduated from a Canadian high school between the late 1990s and 2011. In other words, they were born in the 1980s and early 1990s. About 60% of the statements came from young women, about 40% from young men. All the statements were collected in English, although that is not the family language of all respondents. Nearly 500 are from various Christian backgrounds, more than 150 from Jewish or Muslim families, about 30 from Sikh, Hindu, Aboriginal or other backgrounds, and several self-identified in terms of the LGBTTQ population – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited or queer.

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