Researchers tend to agree on how Millennials, born roughly between the late 1980s and early 2000s, feel about religion. A difference exists, however, between studying charted trends and carefully listening to what people from this age group have to say as individuals.
Are You for Real?
Statistics say that Millennials can spot phonies; so when they see a disconnect, they’re quick to call it out. Katrina, a marketing student at Aquinas College, a small Catholic school (Nashville, Tennessee), observes a lack of heartfelt worship. “It bothers me when I see devout Catholics that make their faith a big, showy deal,” she explains, “but do not pay attention during the mass. It seems hypocritical to go if you don’t want to.”
Ariana, a twenty-one-year-old senior journalism student at Hofstra University (Long Island, New York) says that church should be more than rote observances. “The predictability of church makes it boring,” she explains. “I do not believe that church should be entertaining, but I do believe that the members of the congregation should be excited to go.”
Going to church seems to be a duty to fulfill to Tiffany as well. She and her husband, both of whom are in their mid-twenties and live in New York, grew up in Christian families, but neither of them attend church now. “From our experience, we’ve seen a lot of fake people in church who go . . . just to check the box,” she explains. “I would like to meet people from church who actually enjoy going and want to improve their life.”
Santa Claus Is Evil?
Characteristically speaking, Millennials are generally more open to diversity on social justice issues. Just as popular opinion lumps everyone in this age group together regardless of individual thoughts and actions, many of the Millennials seem to use this same broad brush to paint all churchgoers a pretty awful shade of hate and hypocrisy.
Kaitlin attended Alvernia University, a Franciscan college (Reading, Pennsylvania), and loved the school’s focus on core values like service and humility. She even traveled to the jungles of El Salvador to work with children and their families. Now twenty-five and a licensed social worker, she no longer participates in any church activities.
“I have yet to find a church that aligns with my belief system,” she explains. “I would love to find a church that isn’t going to condemn me to hell for small infractions and allows the LGTBQ community to worship as well. I guess the church has yet to catch up with the younger demographic.”
In Kaneohe, Hawaii, Allison, a thirty-one-year-old mother of two, works with the United States Marine Corps and owns an event/artist management company; she agrees that some adaptation is necessary. “Speaking on my hometown church, there are many things done correctly,” she says. “But they don’t evolve. There are ways to speak on topics such as homosexuality, adultery, etc. without completely damning everyone to hell by the time the sermon is finished.”
Katrina puts it more bluntly. “I hate the hateful speech that comes from some of the pastors and parishioners, especially regarding other races, religions, sexual/gender identities, etc.,” she says. “The hypocrisy of preaching about loving your neighbor as yourself and then explicitly hating minority groups is too big of a turn-off for me to ever return to the church.”
As a preteen, Aryana, a marketing manager for a tech company in Denver, experienced several bad encounters at church—incidents that still keep her away from church nine years later. “The pastor only talked about how Santa decorations were offensive and evil because they didn’t have anything to do with Jesus,” she remembers. “Mind you, there were many children in the audience.
“I was repeatedly told that if I didn’t get my friends to come to church with me, I was going to hell for not doing my Christian duty,” she continues. “I was also told that I needed to have children in order to build the Christian population, that having premarital sex was equivalent to murder, and that missing one youth group meeting was just like turning my back on God.”
A Second Family
Thankfully, there’s some good news. Although Ariana is bored by “predictable” services, her Baptist church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, speaks to her heart. “I enjoy going,” she admits. “It provides me with the proper outlet to express my gratitude for everything that God has blessed me with.”
Brent, a thirty-one-year-old financial advisor from Las Vegas, attends a church run exclusively by lay clergy. “Everyone gives freely of their time and talents,” he explains. “The church has been my second family, no matter where I go.”
At twenty-nine, Kati says that although church has always been a part of her life, the significance of church has adjusted slightly now that she’s been in the “real world” for almost ten years. “I believe in going to church for many reasons,” the television professional explains. “First being my love for God, but as I’ve gotten older I have learned to appreciate how important the church community is.”
Olivia, one of Kati’s coworkers, agrees. Soon after moving to Nashville, the twenty-three-year-old felt the pull. “With a hectic job and life, I realized that I needed to have some time somewhere to think about nothing but God,” Olivia says. “I do not go every Sunday, but do my best to keep it a habit.” She attends a more unconventional church than the traditional Methodist church in which she was raised. “I am adjusting,” she says. “At the end of the day, worship is worship.”
And then there’s Lucy, a twenty-nine-year-old dietitian in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, who takes a different approach: She attends one of three churches, depending upon her needs. “I attend a United Methodist Church when I want the personal, homey feeling; the non-denominational mega-church when I want awesome music and a good teaching on the Bible; and the Catholic Church when I’m homesick and want the traditional, ritualistic experience,” she says.
If you read carefully, a common thread emerges from the varied opinions. The negative comments aren’t against church or religion; instead, they talk about the apathy and hate they observed from people at church. And the positive comments talk about the importance of people as part of a family and a community. People . . . as in us.
How does your faith community reaches Millennials who want nothing to do with church based on false (or valid) perceptions? Please share your stories.
Judy Bumgarner is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee. She also works at Brentwood United Methodist Church in the church’s Caring Ministry.