Faith and the Millennials — it’s complicated

LOS ANGELES – When pollster David Kinnaman went to college two decades ago, his Generation X life was surrounded by electronic screens and all the gadgets that connected to them.

There were TV screens, movie screens and new computers, some of which even had speakers. There were VCRs, CD players, cassette recorders, video cameras and other cool devices. The hottest trend was “email” that allowed students to do something Baby Boomers could only dream about — send private, instant messages to friends in nearby dorms or around the world.

Pop culture was huge. Technology was powerful. But today, all those devices have evolved into one life-changing screen carried by millions of so-called Millennials — the smartphone. And through these screens stream the myriad channels, icons, brands, apps and voices that are shaping a generation.

But what religious leaders and educators must understand is that this updated “screen culture” has created the opposite of a unified youth culture, said Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a faith-centered research firm. While it’s accurate, for example, to say pop culture is in “some ways the new religion,” that doesn’t mean all digital consumers raised during past quarter century share one faith — quite the opposite.

“Pop culture is becoming a new religious grid, it’s becoming the filter through which they examine and interpret their reality,” he said, speaking at a national conference in Los Angeles held by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach, through the Washington Journalism Center).

The smartphone “screen age is dictating this new 20-something reality,” which should affect everything from how churches address sexuality to how colleges teach the Bible, he added. “How it is that we will disciple in this … digital Babylon is terribly important for us to consider.”

The bottom line: The pieces in the puzzles that complicate so many of young lives have been radically individualized. Thus, the Millennials mantra: “It’s complicated.”

This includes faith. Over the past decade, Kinnaman noted, Barna researchers have conducted 27,000 interviews with Millennials (ages 18-31) and found that more than half of those with a Christian background have, at some point, stopped going to church.

In his book, “You Lost Me,” Kinnaman noted that 10 percent of these straying Millennials are “Prodigals” who have lost the faith — period. Another 30 percent are “Exiles,” who to some degree remain inside a church, but feel lost and cannot find a comfortable niche. The largest segment — 40 percent — are “Nomads” who have left the institutional church, but still claim the label “Christian.”

The hard truth that many religious leaders have never accepted, he added, is that Millennials are merely walking the do-it-yourself spirituality path used by many of their parents. Nomad faith is now the American way.

“What we learn in our research,” he said, “is that a majority of Americans are Christian nomads — adults of whatever generation. Right? We see that most adults in the country are Christian, and yet very few of them are very active as Christians. They have accepted the IDEA of being Christians.”

This reality is now affecting how young Americans make decisions about sex, marriage, family life and careers, with more and more Millennials delaying the burdens, commitments and uncertainties of adulthood.

In the 1960s, he noted, 77 percent of women and 66 percent of men had — by age 30 — completed the major transitions of life, such as leaving home, finishing school, achieving financial independence, getting married and having children. In 2014 these numbers were quite different, with 46 percent of women and a mere 31 percent of men having made these steps into adulthood by age 30.

Will it be a challenge for older adults to offer spiritual guidance as young Americans struggle with these issues? Obviously, said Kinnaman, because adults are adults and peers are peers.

“This is a generation that wants … be engaged with people, with diversity, with friends from around the world, with different points of view, with different religions, with different perspectives,” he warned the educators in attendance.

“If you tell them that you have to choose between being friends with somebody and their faith, they will choose being friends. They will choose relational connection over what you think they need to believe in terms of orthodoxy. … We are finding that with Millennials their peers are their moral and spiritual compass.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The “christian” hasn’t awakened to the fact that humanism is closer to what Jesus exemplified than are their ritualistic religions. Many millenials are out ministering to each other and the earth, maybe not in the name of Jesus, but following in his humble human footsteps. perhaps they have received, and exhibit in their actions, The Holy Spirit behind the backs of the clergy?

  • Emily

    I for one strongly object to being termed a “prodigal”. We Millennials can hear you, you know, and the term “prodigal” is insulting to our motives, our experiences, and our morals. The prodigal son in the parable irresponsibly squandered his inheritance before realizing the error of his ways and coming back home. The term has a derogatory color and presumes eventual return to the culture/beliefs of the “prodigal’s” upbringing. Many of us who no longer consider ourselves Christians left due to genuine moral opposition to Christianity’s tenets (is it really a sign of immaturity that I find the notion of Hell completely evil?) and intellectual disagreements with its various philosophical claims, and do not anticipate re-adopting our former beliefs in the light of what we have learned and the arguments we have encountered during the de-conversion process. We are not wayward children seeking a dissolute lifestyle; we are responsible, cognitively mature adults with sincere convictions.

    • Censored

      Good way of putting it, Emily.

      I regard the church hierarchy that think of we “nomads” as a “prodigal” to be as absolutely useless as that dysfunctional printer in Office Space.

  • Censored

    We Christian nomads of two centuries don’t mind being demeaned as “prodigals.”

    “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819

    “Behavior over belief” is the core of our creed.[1] Good riddance to institutions that promote otherwise.[2]

    “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its conscience to neither kings or priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822

    1. David Voelker (1993) Who is Nature’s God? The Hanover Historical Review.

    2. Gregory Lawrence Knittel (1993) The Euthanasia of Platonic Christianity: Thomas Jefferson, Plato, Religion and Human Freedom. San Jose State University.