Walk into a local church. What do you see? Is the room full of young professionals and parents, or are the pews filled mostly by baby boomers? According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of the time it’s the latter. Statistically, one in four adults under age 30 (25 percent) is unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” About two-thirds of young people (68 percent) say they are members of a Christian denomination and 43 percent describe themselves as Protestants, compared with 81 percent of adults ages 30 and older who associate with Christian faiths and 53 percent who are Protestants.
This is a striking contrast. While the data seem to show that Millennials and younger generations are less religious overall, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Organized religion and affiliation are down, but general spirituality is not. A more recent Pew study found:
“ … while Millennials are not as religious as older Americans by some measures of religious observance, they are as likely to engage in many spiritual practices. For instance, like older Americans, more than four in ten of these younger adults (46 percent) say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week. Likewise, most also say they think about the meaning and purpose of life on a weekly basis (55 percent)—again, similar to older generations.”
“I’m spiritual, but not religious” has become somewhat of a cliché. This distinction might seem odd to older generations, but for young people the line is clear. So what does this mean? If younger generations are just as concerned with spirituality, then why are the church pews empty?
Faith without Place
This is a different way of relating to faith. Faith communities used to center on the neighborhood church, a literal building. Our neighbors, family, and friends would gather there for prayer and fellowship. With the advances of technology and communication, we no longer need the in-person fellowship. Today there are any number of ways to get our weekly spiritual injection. Whether it be watching a televangelist, tuning into a pastor over a livestream broadcast, or reading a spiritual book in the comfort of our own home or with a small study group, our habits of consumption are shaping how we perceive religion and also how we define being a part of a community. Young people are more likely to seek out spirituality and purpose beyond the church walls.
Some may see this as an abandonment of tradition and thus a rejection of faith. For some it is. But for many, it is not about rejecting faith, but about expanding it. Why sit in a stuffy building when you can enjoy a beautiful walk in nature? Why read scripture in a church basement when you can be volunteering at a homeless shelter? In the same way that Millennials often blend their work and home lives, faith is something that we seek to integrate into our daily experiences. We value real-world application over philosophical explanations.
A Collage of Influences
While “Millennial” has become the brand name for people who were born between the early ’80s and ’00s (depending who you ask), religious communities penned a different moniker for this unique generation: Mosaics. It perhaps more accurately describes the traits of this generation, especially in relationship to religion. Mosaics were given their name because of their ability to “pick and choose” pieces from a variety of different faiths and philosophies in order to create their own unique picture.