Millennials – What is going on?!

Recently an article was brought to my attention: “Millennials Invent New Religion: No Hell, No Priests, No Punishment” by Candace Chellew-Hodge. The author begins by recounting a class assignment in which she asks her class to “create a religion.”

Key features of organized religion are missing from these new Millennial religions:

Not one of them had career clergy who were in charge of services, rituals, or care of the congregation. There were, for the most part, no regular meetings of the faithful. Some had monthly or annual gatherings, like conferences, but most were very individualized religions, centering on personal growth and enrichment away from a physical community.

Gone are community and communal accountability. All that remains is a religion of individual human progress, undoubtedly understood in the eyes of the beholder.

According to the author, established religion is too judgmental and too hypocritical for a significant portion of Millennials. The author’s poll is a bit dated (2007) and narrow (it only surveyed Protestants), but the trend against established religion among the youth seems universal.

The author concludes that:

The problem, as I see it, is not with the lack of imagination of this new generation, but with religious institutions themselves—many of which have allowed their leaders to become rock stars, their communities to become clubs of like-minded believers, and their doctrines to become rigid, with an over-emphasis on discipline and damnation for things (like homosexuality) that millennials see as simply judgmental and unfair.

If organized religion can’t renew itself from the inside, this new generation will switch to a new platform—even if they have to invent it for themselves.

Born in 1990, I am among the Millennial generation. I offer a different perspective from the author: the Millennial “problem” is not as simple as we think.

Yes many people are falling away from established religion, but the ones who stay seem more fervent. A me-and-God mentality permeates religious or spiritual thought, but a significant number of people are also concerned about community. Many are self-absorbed, but many also work for social transformation.

The Millennials are not a cohesive group, and here lies the problem.

Regardless of what exactly is going on, we – members of an established religion – have work to do. How can our churches, liturgies and catechetical programs respond to the confused chaos which is the Millennial generation?

13 comments

  1. No generational “cohort” is a cohesive group. Millennials are no different from previous cohorts in that regard.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #1:

      Karl: No generational “cohort” is a cohesive group. Millennials are no different from previous cohorts in that regard.

      This is mostly true. However, the rapid changes in technology over the past 30 years or so has created a generational gap within a generation.

      I was born at the very beginning of the “Millennials”. Growing up, we had a rotary phone. Rotary phone technology has definitely gone the way of the butter churn for most people (although I rather miss turning the dial). Younger adults born in the 1990s have likely never seen a rotary phone. So, a person born in the early 1980s might have entirely different technological experiences and expectations that a person born in the early 1990s. Earlier generations likely did not experience this rapid change of technology.

      The group of younger adults who are searching for high liturgy, regardless of their chosen tradition, often have difficulty understanding the liturgy wars of the 1960s and 1970s in my experience. Often younger adults who seek high church worship are discovering the older liturgies anew but with the perspective that ideologies are flexible enough to change in very short timeframes. This latter expectation can cause younger adults to either move on to another liturgy when they realize the slow pace of liturgical change, or latch on to older liturgies and older liturgical ideologies as anchors in rapidly changing cultural and moral-ethical environments.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #12:

        I fully agree Karl; thanks for pointing out my inconsistencies. And so, we are back to your original point again. The Industrial Revolution, electric lighting, the car, radio, and television are only a few points on a spectrum of technological change, with many revolutions in between.

        Perhaps the titles that advertisers and demographers have thought up to describe various generations and age groups are mostly irrelevant. Still, there is a human desire to value subjective experience of history. This tendency uneasily coexists with an acceptance of historical and technological change as perpetually changing and not always changing alongside with human need.

  2. Fascinating article. But I can’t help wonder why these kids took a course in religion in the first place. Are they “seekers” in the old sense of the term — people who perhaps long for God or, on the other hand, are they people who have problems with the old notions of God? Their invented religions do seem to show that the kids don’t expect to get anything of value from priests, etc.

    My question is: what jump-starts the young people’s interest in God? The article doesn’t get into that. And, yes, that most probably varies a lot.

  3. I’m 31 and can see that these young people, like most young people, are clueless. Hierarchy and clergy are necessary for the perpetuation of a religious institution. Loosely-organized bands of seekers without defined beliefs go nowhere. The problem with our religious institutions is that they don’t have enough discipline. The Catholic Church needs more structure and more accountability. In my experience I have seen too many cases of bishops, priests and religious doing as they please. Laymen need to be educated on the duties of the clergy and religious and demand the best from them.

    1. @Sean Peters – comment #3:
      Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths on the planet and is now larger than Catholicism. The five pillars are expected to be followed by all Muslims with everything else expected of them contained in the Koran. It requires little in the way of a hierarchy or structure of any kind.

      There’s nothing “loosely organized” about most of the pentecostals, reformed Protestants (a people of the book too) and many atheists I’ve met or read about. They seem to know what they know and firmly hold their precepts with little or no guidance or interference from a clerical elite.

      These Christian groups can and do dismiss pastors they disagree with. Yet they continue to thrive and multiply. As we see here in this country and in Latin America.

  4. I understand these Millennials’ concerns. They aren’t the only ones who feel this way, as can be seen by Garry Wills’ book about priests, or groups like the Red Letter Christians, or even the Quakers.

  5. “The problem with our religious institutions is that they don’t have enough discipline. The Catholic Church needs more structure and more accountability.”
    Ah Dios mio!

  6. Islam has structure, although it’s not as strong as the hierarchy in the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church, at least here in the US, to me seems to be a lumbering and declining giant. By no means do I want to impugn the work of all Catholic clergy and religious, but, for the most part, they do almost nothing to keep the people they have, let alone try to bring in young people. The lost sheep are pretty much lost for good because bringing them back would take too much effort. What a waste all this Church bureaucracy is, too. Directors of ecumenical outreach, social justice directors, professional lay ministers, etc. Why do we need all these? Back in the 1800s a few priests and sisters could do more than thousands of lay “ministers” and social justice directors do today.

  7. Millennials are usually defined by demographers as those born between 1980 and 2000. So, their attitudes about the church, and religion in general, would have been formed, in large part, by leaders in charge during that period. Who was running the show during that time? Who was the face of the church, of Christianity, of religion during that time?

  8. Millennials are usually defined by demographers as those born between 1980 and 2000.

    To help people think clearly about this:

    A person born in 1980 became 15 in 1995,
    and 18 in 1998, and then 25 in 2005

    A person born in 1990 become 15 in 2005
    and 18 in 2008 and then 25 next year in 2015

    A person born in 2000 becomes 15 next year in 2015
    and 18 in 2018 nd 25 in 2025!!!

    What is important about ages 15-25? this is the age range in which events in the social and cultural environment have a maximum impact upon a person’s values and beliefs. People are not blank slates into which beliefs and values are poured from age 0-15. Rather people begin to seriously process beliefs and values during the age 15 to 25 period. Events during this period like a “great depression” often shape those values and beliefs for the rest of their lives.

    For a birth in 1980, the critical period was 1995-2005.
    For a birth in 1990, the critical period is 2005-2015
    For a birth in 2000, the critical period begins in 2015 and goes to 2025.

    So you can see why all millenials will not be the same. A person born in 1980 went through a much different set of historical events in 1995 through 2005, than a person born in 2000 will go through during the coming years 2015 to 2025!!!

    Why is age 18 important? Well social scientists mainly study adults over 18. So a millennial is mainly a person born after 1980 and also over age 18. So we still have a few more millenials who will come to age 18 in the next few years. And most millenials have not gone past age 25. So we cannot really yet assess the impact of these critical years.

  9. Beware of assumptions like you can easily use the above model to evaluate papacies without finding out how many young people knew how much about the popes or their policies. Some did and were likely affected; but many more did not. Some may have liked the popes, others may have disliked them.

    However let us assume for the sake of the model that most Catholics who were between 15 and 25 from 2002 until 2013 got a strong image of “pedophile priests and pedophile hiding bishops” What might that mean?
    Some may have rejected the media rather than the bishops, but lets assume most got the message.

    It might mean little for the person born in 1980 because that image would have arisen and been maintained in the media when they were already moving into their late 20’s.

    It also might mean little for the person born in 2000 because that person is age 14. If Francis pulls off the church of the poor and maintains his high ratings for say the next eight years, people coming to age 15 now (really the post millennium generation) may come to regard the church of the pedophiles, Pope John Paul the Great, the Vatican Council and the Council of Treat as all history and only relevant to us old folks! Why would they want to deal with the past when the future beckons?

    But for the twenty years of millennials in between the sex abuse scandal may be a big problem which has not yet played out, except many of them are becoming “NONES.” But will they remain that way and could Francis turn things around? Many are still in their critical years. And it may be very important whether he really deals directly with the problem or just hopes it goes away. In that case, they may decide the “church of the poor” is merely a way to change the subject.

    This millennial generation thing may be very important. Priests may look at Francis and say “great” he is making all the old Vatican II people happy, and the very young people love him, too. And then only belatedly discover they lost the millennial generation when these people don’t marry in the church or raise their children as Catholics. Do I see where CARA is already concerned about marriages and baptisms?

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