What Millennials Can Teach Us about Religion

by Rachelle Kramer

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly cited Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on American’s College Campuses by Donna Freitas. The research used is from the book by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett cited below. The author regrets the error. 

Too often today we hear the cries: where are the young people missing from our pews each week? Many answers abound, but the prevalent voice appears to be one of resignation: the young are indifferent, they have no interest in religion and spirituality. They are so inundated with American values of materialism, monetary success, and individualism that that they care only for themselves rather than the common good.

I could not disagree more.

In the book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett categorizes the religious beliefs of the younger generation (in this case, college students) into four groups:

  1. atheists and agnostics,
  2. deists—belief in God yet not affiliated with a religious tradition;
  3. liberals—practicing a particular religious denomination while not accepting all of its creeds; and
  4. conservatives—those who regularly practice and ascribe to all doctrinal tenets of their faith tradition.

His research revealed that the percentage of young adults belonging to each category is strikingly equal: atheist/agnostic—22%, deist—28%, liberal —27%, and conservative—23%.

What does it all mean? First, it means 78% believe in God (a very good thing); second, one could argue this generation is lost and desperately seeking and trying to find its way amidst a very confusing and complex world. I cannot help but wonder if something even more profound is happening.

One of the definitive characteristics of this generation is its pride in personal autonomy and freedom in decision-making. Gone are the days when one went to church due to external pressures, deeply rooted cultural traditions, or fear of going to hell. Young people do what feeds, nourishes, and supports their personal journey of faith, whether that means attending a weekly Sunday service, practicing yoga, or finding God in creation. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

For most of us involved in the work of the church, this doing “whatever works for me” is troubling. In one sense, I agree. In another, however, I find it to be incredibly positive and even helpful for the Catholic Church and organized religion in general.

Since most young people do not acquiesce to any church teaching without having reflected critically on it—and drawing from their own personal experience—they refuse to accept anything blindly. Therefore, if they subscribe to a particular religious denomination and its practices, it is likely because they have made a thoughtful, careful decision. This challenges the status quo in our church traditions.

Liturgical celebrations lacking quality music, poor presiding, a clear “going through the motions” mentality of the assembly without any interior participation, and an inhospitable atmosphere yield little participation from the younger generation.

The global sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is seen by the young for what it is: a failure of the church hierarchy to hold guilty priests accountable for their actions.  Blood being shed in the name of religion all over the world is recognized as the direct contradiction of people’s actions with their religious views, and as hypocrisy.

If young people do not adhere to a particular teaching of any given faith tradition, they often choose not to join—not out of laziness or apathy, but because of their integrity and the desire to hold true to their values and beliefs.

Many young people claim Christians are highly judgmental. Have we ever considered their reason for saying this is because they are right? Is it any wonder why the interest in Eastern religions has so greatly increased among this population? Perhaps it isn’t because young people don’t care or view everything through a subjective lens (though certainly some do). Perhaps it is because they desire quality liturgical experiences and churches that are not mired in conflict, hypocrisy, politics, and fighting. Perhaps they want to discard the dysfunction and get down to what is really important: experiencing the sacred and having a relationship with the divine.

I do not assert there are no negative influences modern culture has inculcated in this generation. There are many. However, this generation has much to teach us.

The Millennials holds us to accountability and higher standards. They call us out when our actions do not match our wordst. In a way, they are our modern day prophets, and I cannot help think that Jesus would be proud.

Rachelle Kramer is a masters study of theology at Saint John’s University School of Theology•Seminary in Collegeville, MN. She is leader of the Youth Section of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians

 

 

 

 

11 comments

  1. Thank you Rachelle for your excellent observations. I am not a millennial. I missed the beginning of the era by just a few years. Even so, a few observations.

    As you remark later in your post, “Many young people claim Christians are highly judgmental. Have we ever considered their reason for saying this is because they are right?

    I, and some other younger Catholics, find it difficult to lend an unbiased ear to some bishops’ vociferous support of anti-same-sex-marriage (SSM) state referenda and support for the repeal of the HHS mandate. A number of bishops’ complicity in criminal cover-ups has, in my view, bankrupted the American Church’s moral capital. Also, I suspect it’s difficult for many younger Catholics to stir up self-hatred and hatred in others over SSM. A very large number of younger adults and millennials are accepting of gay people. Many in this cohort view anti-SSM rhetoric as damaging to people they care about. Moreover, the contraception horse bolted from the barn decades ago. For these reasons, some Catholic bishops’ denunciations of SSM and federal healthcare contraception policy might strike many younger Catholics as anachronistic or judgmental.

    As an ex-Catholic fundamentalist, I’ll wager that much of the anger from younger, “orthodox” Catholics over sexuality in particular sometimes stems from a blend of personal conflicts and a desire to scrupulously adhere to “the motions”, as you’ve rightly observed. It’s important for more self-identified progressive/liberal young Catholics to stay in dialogue with self-identified orthodox Catholics. Part of being Church in assembly is living with brothers and sisters a believer sometimes can’t stand. Calling younger Catholics who strongly oppose SSM as “haters” or “fundies”, for example, isn’t representative of the the hard work of listening that is required in dialogue. While I don’t blame younger Catholics from walking away from the Church due to the often heated rhetoric of intra-assembly conflicts, these conflicts are inherent within all religious communities east or west.

  2. I am personally aware of many young people who remain in the Church, love her, including the clergy and our bishops, warts and all, (which means they are following today’s Gospel reading unabashedly) and find a great deal of support from the Church for her teachings in all areas including natural law. They love God and all He has created and neighbor as we are taught and know that the truth and spreading it is an act of love. I might add too that it is this group that is most persecuted outside of the church building by their peers, their academic institutions and sometimes their family members, but they find courage and sustenance in their sacramental life.

  3. “Many young people claim Christians are highly judgmental. Have we ever considered their reason for saying this is because they are right? Is it any wonder why the interest in Eastern religions has so greatly increased among this population? Perhaps it isn’t because young people don’t care or view everything through a subjective lens (though certainly some do). Perhaps it is because they desire quality liturgical experiences and churches that are not mired in conflict, hypocrisy, politics, and fighting. Perhaps they want to discard the dysfunction and get down to what is really important: experiencing the sacred and having a relationship with the divine.”

    Perhaps they want to be spiritual but not moral. Alas, that would require some sort of judgment. But Christ said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

  4. Christian/Catholic moves to Eastern/Esoteric/Exotic religion. This is done to escape (perceived) doctrinal tyrrany, hypocrisy, rules, and a religion and culture that is perceived to have nothing to offer their need for exotic experience and spirituality. Although Christian/Catholic religion has a vibrant living tradition of deep spirituality, mysticism, devotion to the One True Living God, care for the poor, etc., etc., these are seen merely as old-fashionisms, while the same qualities when discovered in other religions are perceived as freeing, ‘real’ mysticism, ‘real’ caring for the poor, and deliverence from the shackles of their horrible old bankrupt religion, which is ipso facto useless because it is what they grew up with. Ancientness in Christianity = being out of touch and merely old-fashioned. Ancientness in other religions is thought somehow to be a more genuine mark of unquestioned truth, and a guarantee of deep roots, honesty and proven worth. What people who make these moves don’t seem to notice is that in having become free from the bad old religion, they have become the subject of merely a different set of required beliefs and disciplines.. but they somehow imagine that, now, they are free. And they actually believe that their new-found spiritual home is free from internal conflict, symptoms of pride, absence of the 7 deadly sins, freedom from sexual mis-conduct, AND free from that bugbear judgmentalism mentioned above. This all represents the sloppiest of thinking which accompanies our western willingness to question our traditions: certain people like to ask, ‘well, how do we know that our religion is the right one? Well, we can’t know that ours is the right one, so that one over there MUST be the right one’.

  5. As a child of the seventies, I’m largely out of touch with the millenials who are currently engaging in Church. I am, however, very much encouraged by what I hear of said youngsters and their attitudes to marriage equality, gender equality and equality in general. They really do seem to just “get it” that we are all created equal in the image and likeness of God.

    The vitriol spilling out of the various Bishops’ Conferences exhorting us to support “traditional marriage” (presumably, that would be where women are treated as property, do not get to consent to the match, and can be one of several hundred wives if the man is as rich as Solomon) concerns me deeply. It tells me that the Magesterium is getting bogged down telling us the world is flat, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary.

    It concerns me on a more visceral level, too. My five-year-old son loves all that is pink and sparkly and would like nothing more than to prance around the house all day in a dress. The growing body of literature about gender-variance in children suggests that there is a very small chance that he’ll be transgender and seek transition and surgery at some point in the future; there’s a possibility he’ll grow up to be happy and straight; the greatest probability is that he’ll be gay. All of the evidence I’ve discovered suggests that there is nothing I can do to alter this outcome, yet this leaves me in a quandry. I want to open the Church up to him, yet that very Church which should be his salvation is currently expending great effort to convince him that he will not be welcome unless he crushes his God-given self and squashes himself into a box that does not fit. This is not really what I understand “…that you might have life and have it to the full” to mean.

    1. @Paul Robertson – comment #5:

      Thank you Paul for your forthright account of your son’s development. I now experience what your son might eventually experience: some Christians’ crushing rejection of those who cannot conform to a sex/gender “male and female he created them” binary.

      Rachelle observes, “Liturgical celebrations lacking quality music, poor presiding, a clear “going through the motions” mentality of the assembly without any interior participation, and an inhospitable atmosphere yield little participation from the younger generation.” I suspect that many PTB readers would agree that a liturgical assembly rises and falls on its ability to transform individuals into an indivisible image of the Body of Christ. A liturgy which cannot forge this Body has failed in one of the primary goals of worship. The conscious, even spiteful, rejection of non-heterosexual brothers and sisters is a rupture of the Body more grave than poor liturgical presidency or halfhearted assembly participation. I cannot understand how some Christians could contend that an assembly can be built and maintained even while some in the assembly actively denigrate and exclude a minority of the People of God.

      What do a number of Christians gain by fencing the Eucharist with bitter words against LGBT people? I suspect that not a few Christians struggle, even silently, with the presence of persons who do not fulfill idealized doctrinal and scriptural expectations about sex and gender. The sign of contradiction that is diversity in sexual and gender identity is both a point for growth and a challenge for Christians who yearn to walk righteously.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #9:
        Jordan,
        I think you make some really great points. I am reminded that eucharist is a rehearsal for everything we do after we leave the assembly. For many millenials who were once part of the assembly they see a tremendous disconnect and have left the Church for various reasons. When Jesus said “Come Follow Me” he did not have an excluded persons list. He invited all to the banquet of the kingdom. I yearn for the day that we have realized this. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I am troubled by the definitions of liberal and conservative used by Freitas. She seems to treat all denominations as equivalent in outlook and theology, and then describes liberals as those who pick and choose while conservatives accept everything.

    What would Freitas say about young members of the United Church of Christ who willingly accept all their denomination’s teachings? I would hesitate to call these folks “conservative” who accept women/LGBT clergy, marriage quality, and other obviously liberal positions. What would Freitas say about the Lefebrites, who reject some of their denomination’s teachings? Are they “liberal”?

    Thus, this passage from Rachelle speaks loudly to me:

    If young people do not adhere to a particular teaching of any given faith tradition, they often choose not to join—not out of laziness or apathy, but because of their integrity and the desire to hold true to their values and beliefs.

    That said . . .

    The phenomenon Freitas describes is real, but the language is misleading. More helpful, I think, would be to find other words to describe these groups. Perhaps “questioning” and “accepting” or “wrestling” and “comfortable”?

    In my experience with younger folks, any denomination (liberal or conservative) that says to millennials “Leave the thinking to us” will find them simply leaving.

    Rachelle’s final paragraph is spot on, as are her earlier comments regarding the reaction to the sexual abuse crisis. This crisis affects not only how the Roman Catholic church is viewed, but other denominations as well, when it plays into a “all Christians act like this” mentality.

    Calling God’s people to account — especially those in leadership — has a long and faithful tradition. When I hear the challenges and questions raised by Millennials, I hear the spirit of Jeremiah, who tried to beg off his ministry as a prophet on the grounds that he was too young. To this, God said (paraphrasing greatly), “Nonsense!”

  7. Ditto to Peter Rehwalt’s concern about the use of the terms liberal/conservative. I also found designating as “deists” those who believe in God but do not belong to a religious tradition, to be, well, erroneous.

    Either something isn’t being reported accurately in this brief summary, or Freitas is mislabeling these categories. It doesn’t fill me with confidence about her other observations.

  8. Rachelle, you raise a number of really important points in your reflection, but I want to comment on just one. Lately, many bishops seem to inveigh strongly against individualism and secularism, as if these were new things that the Church has had to deal with. I focus particularly on the individual quest for meaning that you highlight. That has long been a suspect part of Christian life; it’s why the hierarchy have always been distrusting of mystics (e.g., Juan de la Cruz) and theologians (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) who didn’t toe the party line and wrote or taught impressively about the need for a personal religious experience or personal appropriation of Christian meaning. Despite the “individuals” who “have to do their own thing” by dressing like their peers, acting like their peers, or holding the same opinions as their peers, I think the Millennials may have caught this strain of the Christian tradition–expressed theologically in Lonergan’s “turn to the subject”–and embraced it as at least as important as an appropriation of the dogmatic tradition (or Tradition). Those two aspects of Christianity (individual and corporate tradition) are in tension, but they could be more in dialogue, if the hierarchy didn’t keep attacking one of them.

  9. The interest in eastern religions?

    “Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where…there aren’t no Ten Commandments…” -Kipling, ” Mandalay”

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