Millennials and Religion

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Centre revealed that millennials in America are leaving traditional institutionalised religions such as Christianity. Roughly two-thirds of those between ages 23-28 surveyed said that they attend worship services ‘a few times a year’ or less. 4 in 10 say that they seldom or never attend.

According to David Masci, while the general American public is becoming less religious, millennials are ‘by many measures less religious than everyone else.’ He adds that young adults born between 1981 and 1996 are ‘much less likely than older Americans to pray or attend church regularly or to consider religion an important part of their lives.’

Michael Hunt, professor of sociology at New York University, thinks that this in part has to do with the way in which millennials have been brought up by their Baby Boomer parents. They have been taught to think for themselves, to find their own moral compass, as it were. Hunt says that ‘As a result, they are more likely to have a “do-it-yourself’ attitude toward religion.’

The American Enterprise Institute conducted a similar survey involving more than 2,500 Americans in the same year. It offers the following reasons for millennials’ disinterest in organised religions:

  • Millennials are less likely to develop strong associations with organised religion because they never had strong ties with it in the first place.
  • These young adults are also likely to have a spouse who is not affiliated with a religion, thus reinforcing their secular worldview.
  • The changing cultural climate, especially with regard to the relationship between morality and religion, has increasingly convinced parents that religious institutions are not relevant to their children.

Millennials also tend to have a negative view of religious people. Fifty-seven per cent of the young adults surveyed are of the view that religious people are generally less tolerant of others.

Many millennials who have drifted away from the Church are less likely to return to it later in life. In previous generations a cycle can be discerned when it comes to religious affiliations and involvement. Young adults may stray away from the Church for a period in their lives, but as they become older and have a family, they tend to return to the Church.

Sadly, this is not the case for millennials. According to Hunt, ‘In the past 20 years, we really haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that cycle continuing.’

This brings me to the ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude toward religion that Hunt referred to. While millennials have no patience with organised religions like Christianity, they are attracted to what has sometimes been described as ‘nonreligious spiritual practices.’ Many have also been turning to the occult.

According to Brendan Pringle, ‘As young people flee from churches that don’t align with society’s values, spirituality and occult are quickly filling the void. Sadly, this is where many are finding meaning in their lives.’

Some commentators are of the view that millennials are drawn to the occult because they feel that it gives them greater control over their lives. According to Melisa Jayne, who owns a ‘metaphysical boutique’ in Brooklyn:

Whether it be spell-casting, tarot, astrology, meditation and trance, or herbalism, these traditions offer tangible ways for people to enact change in their lives … For a generation that grew up in a world of big industry, environmental destruction, large and oppressive governments, and toxic social structures, all of which seem too big to change, this can be incredibly attractive.

In the US, the so-called psychic service industry is seeing an unprecedented upsurge in business as more millennials are attracted to the occult. According to an article published in MarketWatch, the industry is now worth USD 2 billion annually in the States.

In an article published in The Observer entitled ‘Star Gazing: Why Millennials are Turning to Astrology’, Rebecca Nicholson reports that many millennials have resorted to astrology and horoscopes to find direction and meaning in their lives.

She gave the example of a website called The Cut which focuses on fashion and catered to the millennial audience that saw its typical horoscope post receiving 150% more hits in 2017 than in the previous year.

Another social networking app that is popular among millennials that Nicholson referenced in her article is called Co-Star. It is an app ‘which sees just how compatible you are with your friends and lovers, based on their birth charts.’

In an interview with The Observer, Zing Tseng, the UK editor of the popular women’s website Broadly, offers this explanation as to why millennials find the occult attractive:

My personal belief is that people tend to turn to mysticism, spirituality and the occult in uncertain times. And I feel that young people, especially, are living in one of the most uncertain times ever, at least in my living memory. There’s an increasing willingness to question the arranged order, break out of pre-defined social norms and look for answers elsewhere.

While these trends are more pronounced in the US, Christian parents, pastors and church leaders in Singapore should be concerned that they are not replicated here.

Some years ago, the Barna Research Group published an interesting article on its website entitled ‘5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to the Church’. This article is instructive, and could serve as a catalyst for conversations among Christian parents, pastors, leaders and millennials about the importance of the Christian faith and the church.

Among the many important points that the article discussed, two or three especially stand out as we evaluate our approach to ministry to young adults in our churches.

The first has to do with the importance of relationships. According to David Kinnamon, president of the Barna Group:

… among those who remain active, this much is clear: the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational. This stands true from the inverse angle as well: Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.

This, it seems to me, to be a very important observation. In order to reach out to the young adults in our congregations, pastors and church leaders must be careful to invest more time in cultivating relationships.

The second striking point that the article highlights is the need to make what it calls ‘reverse mentoring’ a priority. The church must help young adults to find their true mission, a ministry where they can serve with conviction and commitment. ‘Effective ministry to Millennials’, Kinnamon says, ‘means helping these young believers discover their mission in the world, not merely asking them to wait their turn.’

And finally, the article points out that millennials must be nurtured in such a way that they can truly experience a deeper sense of intimacy with God. It is out of this profound relationship with God that young adults gain the conviction to participate in the ministries of the church, which in turn will further deepen their faith in and commitment to God.

According to the aforementioned article, ‘Millennials who remain active are more likely than those who dropped out to say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant (68% versus 25%). Additionally, actives are much more likely to believe the Bible contains wisdom for living a meaningful life (65% versus 17%).’

Millennials challenge the church and her leaders to ever greater authenticity, and to put more emphasis on cultivating relationships that are at once mutually edifying and redemptive.

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