They don’t feel the need to attend church as their parents and grandparents did.
Millennials are less religiously active than almost any other living generation. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, nearly 30% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 33 say they are not affiliated with any religion. Only 58% say they are “absolutely certain” God exists.
Pew’s previous and slightly larger study on Millennials (2010) offered data just as telling. Young people attend religious services less often than older Americans today, and compared with their elders, fewer young people say religion is important to their lives. A LifeWay survey reported similarly: more than 65% of Millennials rarely or never pray with others, attend worship services, or read sacred texts.
So why has this change taken place? Why don’t Millennials (and many others) feel the need to attend church as their parents and grandparents did? Here are five reasons.
1. Technology and Third-Wave Media
As Lisa Miller points out in her book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With an Afterlife, unlike their predecessors who attended church for reasons of cultural norms or social conformity, Millennials are exposed to a variety of faith perspectives online. They can “tailor-make their own religion,” one expert notes. Case in point: “I go to the Internet and when I’m stuck and I’m not sure, the research is right there; the answers are right there,” one Millennial student explains.
Yes, some answers are right there on the Web, but that’s not the only reason this generation customizes its own religion. Millennials have been raised almost entirely in a digital or third-wave culture (the first two cultural waves are oral and print). As such, they generally view information and the media nonlinearly and dynamically. This differs from (some) members of Generation X, Baby Boomers and the GI Generation who grew up predominantly in a linear, print culture, which led them from point A to point B to point C along a relatively predetermined path.
Clicking hyperlinks, shuffling iPods and surfing television channels train the mind to see the world spatially rather than temporally, introducing it to various perspectives and points of view. Theoretically, then, for many Millennials, it’s hard to believe one person possesses the ultimate Truth; there are too many truths out there.
2. The Millennial Way of Life
Other experts suggest the “Millennial way of thinking” inhibits their belief system: “They are absolutely appalled at the conflict and war that competing exclusivist religions can engender. According to Millennial logic, they can’t all be right, so they must be all wrong. Political parties are viewed the same way.”
Perhaps this is true, but it could also be that the Millennial way of life (tattoos, inclusiveness, hipsterism, social networking) does not gel with most religions. For example, a leader for a Buddhist lay organization reports, “Many youth I speak with feel they are estranged from their church groups because of the way that they live, whether it’s the clothes that they wear, the way they present themselves, the fact that they have tattoos, or even if they are homosexual. Many churches and synagogues do not engage the interest of the youth.”
Another example, this time from a Millennial herself: “I had a friend who was considered atheist but she was a very good person and I remember bringing it up to the [church members] and they were just talking about how she’s going to go to hell. It just made me feel it wasn’t right.” Undoubtedly, it’s difficult for a generation defined by its acceptance of others to adhere to some religious institutions that preach the exact opposite.
One pastor claims that the word religion is the primary problem: “I think their generation is really turned off by the term religion. They see it as a set of rules or something that represents the past.”
A professor experienced this contempt in real time after posing this question to his introductory religion class: “What comes to mind when you hear the word religion?” Of the students who responded (about 22/30), each expressed a negative view of religion except one. And these are Millennial students at a small, church-affiliated school in rural North Carolina, not some “some secular bastion of higher education,” as the professor puts it. For many Millennials, it seems, just the word religion is a buzzkill.
4. Consumer Culture
America’s consumer culture and the church’s embracing of it via evangelical mega-churches have also turned off Millennials who, in general, seek to distance themselves from large institutions. One Millennial cringes at “performance churches”: “Having been advertised to our whole lives, we Millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.” In fact, she argues, the “church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away.”
A religious leader points out similarly that “churches are businesses like any other, fraught with hierarchy and prone to the same cliques, power struggles and petty despots.” Most Millennials, it seems, don’t want any part of that, even (or especially?) if it boasts the more youth-friendly “edgier music, coffee shop, pastor who wears skinny jeans, and updated Web site that includes online giving.”
5. The Merging of Church and Politics
Finally, Millennials–who mostly identify as independents and vote Democratic–are turned off by the increased merging of church and politics. They are “sick of the association we commonly make, in our culture, between ‘being religious’ and having a conservative political agenda,” a professor of theology explains.
In an opinion piece that went viral on CNN, Millennial Rachel Evans speaks out precisely about this issue. Ultimately, she wants her generation to be known for what it stands for, not what it is against. More specifically, she longs for churches that emphasize “an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.”
There are certainly other reasons Millennials–and many people in general–have left, renounced,or redefined religion, Christianity in particular. See, for instance, the teachings/beliefs of the progressive Christian movement and the Jesus Seminar, the founding of non-denominational churches like the Unitarian Universalists, and public outrage at sex scandals within the Catholic Church.
And there are certainly more traditional reasons: it’s boring, hypocritical, out of touch, too big, money-hungry, judgmental, misogynistic, homophobic, and racist. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see where the Millennial class takes us.