Sam Blustin grew up attending synagogue and spent 12 of the past 14 summers at a Jewish camp as both a camper and a counselor. The senior computer science major at the University of Minnesota says Judaism is about being a part of a community. “Whether it’s spirituality, music, purpose, or an intellectual emphasis, there is something for everybody in Judaism,” Blustin says. Though Blustin has kept a close tie to his faith, he is one of the few in the millennial generation.
Leaving the Pews
For Americans ages 18 to 29, religion has been put on the back burner. One in four members of the millennial generation are unaffiliated with any particular faith, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center study that explored the behaviors and opinions of millennials. Compared with older Americans, fewer young people say that religion is very important to them.
Religious historians consider the millennial generation “religious seekers,” or “people who are not necessarily looking for a religion, but a spiritual experience,” says Jeanne Kilde, the University of Minnesota’s director of religious studies.
One millennial who has drifted from organized religion is Todd Baumgartner, a sophomore geology major at the University of Minnesota. “I’m an agnostic, atheist, secular humanist, but normally I just go by ‘secular humanist,’” he says. “I don’t believe there is a god, but I don’t have any evidence that there is or is not one.”
Baumgartner grew up Christian, attending church for 12 years before leaving. “I like to say I’m a recovering Lutheran,” Baumgartner says. “I just didn’t care as much as I did as a kid. As I got older, I started thinking about my beliefs more, instead of straight up leaving them. I gradually went from a true believer to an apologist to an atheist.”
A number of Baumgartner’s peers agree with him. According to Kilde, there is a risk of losing young people from organized religion.
Catching on to this trend, many churches work hard to engage the millennial crowd. “Evangelical churches and the emerging church movement especially work to bring young people in the church,” Kilde says. “They have contemporary rock bands, Jumbotron screens, and skits to keep younger members interested.”
Though a cool rock band and new technological toys may attract the millennial crowd, churches may also want to emphasize how finding religious relevance in their everyday lives allows millennials to connect to their faith. “Finding that meaning in life is what millennials really want,” says Julia Wiersum, a senior communications major at the University of Minnesota. “Churches try to attract our generation through the big screens and bands, but deep down, millennials want to find spirituality.”
Could it be that millennials are missing the point? “It is a failure of not connecting Jesus and the Bible—relational, missional, vocational, and cultural discernment,” says David Kinnaman in an article by the Barna Group, a research organization that focuses on the relationship between faith and culture. “In other words, the version of ‘Jesus in a vacuum’ that is often packaged for young people doesn’t last long compared with faith in Christ that is not compartmentalized but wholly integrated into all areas of life.”
This relatable, personal connection isn’t just for Christians. Amer Sassila is motivated by his faith in Islam to give back every day. “It’s about being proactive, bettering yourself, and doing good deeds behind the scenes,” says Sassila, a senior University of Minnesota architecture major. “I do the best I can in all that I do for my faith.”
Authentic, genuine, honest, real. Those are the words that come to mind when Joe McDonald describes Upper Room, an independent church in St. Louis Park, Minn. McDonald is the lead pastor at Upper Room, where the 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday gatherings are packed with millennials.
Why? “For millennials, it’s about teaching from personal experience,” McDonald says. “There’s something about it that draws you into what it should look like outside the walls of the church. It helps members connect on Sunday night and relate it to Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.”
The need for the Upper Room community began in 2000, when younger members were showing up Wednesday nights for student ministry, but were absent on Sundays. McDonald realized the younger generation needed something different from a service. They needed a different way to worship—a different way to see the scripture that they didn’t find in traditional Christian services.
Upper Room is the opposite of traditional. In this dark worship area, candles light the space, while a six-person rock band plays popular Christian songs with the lyrics projected on the walls. There is no hymnal, no organ. “I grew up Catholic, and we just never had a musical worship experience,” McDonald says. “Here at the Upper Room, we’re worshipping pretty hard.”
A different way of learning the scripture and living out the Bible was what allowed student Julia Wiersum to connect to her faith. Wiersum didn’t truly find her faith in Christianity until she came to college and joined The Rock Church in Southwest Minneapolis. It was then that she realized what she was looking for in a religion: authenticity. “When I started to go to The Rock, I saw people authentically living out what the Bible says,” Wiersum says. “It wasn’t just the lip service that I had seen at previous churches.”
Authenticity and genuineness may just be the key to gathering a younger crowd. “Millennials are attracted to the rock band-style worship, but what they’re looking for is spirituality,” Wiersum says. “It’s easy to see through a church that is trying too hard. Just be real and raw from the start.”
For Baumgartner, the University of Minnesota campus group CASH (Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists) is where he finds community. “We’re a safe place for people of all religious beliefs to come and have a discussion,” Baumgartner says. “We provide a community for people who perhaps don’t have a church to go to, but want a safe place for support.”
Open to Interpretation
Growing up in a rapidly changing world, millennials are known to bend the rules set by religion and work toward a more modern world without attaching to each word of the scripture. According to the Pew Research Center, a large difference between the millennials and their predecessors is their adaptability to social change and different views of the Bible—younger people are slightly less likely to view the Bible as the literal word of God.
An open mind on religion-dominated social matters is also a millennial trend, specifically in their growing acceptance of homosexuality. According to the Religious Landscape Survey in 2007, nearly twice as many young adults believe homosexuality should be accepted by society compared to people over 65 (63 percent vs. 35 percent). The survey also reports that young people are more likely than those ages 30 to 49 (51 percent) or 50 to 64 (48 percent) to say that homosexuality should be accepted.
Wiersum believes that religion and politics shouldn’t intertwine. “The Bible doesn’t say, ‘Get involved politically and make sure the government is making the right laws,’” Wiersum says. “We are supposed to love and accept everyone; that’s what God wants us to do. He wants us to show others the kind of love that he showed us.”
Baumgartner holds a similar opinion in the gay marriage debate. “The whole acceptance of gay marriage and other issues—it’s not just one particular ideology,” Baumgartner says. “From my experience, most people from my generation are saying, ‘Go get married.’ When that sort of perspective is generational, then there are splits within different organizations.”
“It’s easy to see through a Church that is trying too hard. Just be real and raw from the start.”
Simply a Phase?
Today, millennials find many reasons not to affiliate with a religion, but they are searching for a gateway to serve others, have open forums to question their faith, and keep genuine relationships.
Kilde believes young peoples’ detachment from religion is simply a phase. “Though millennials are not particularly engaged in religion now, they will be when they become older and have children,” Kilde says. “As individuals marry and have children, they often feel that—in Christianity—baptism and a religious background is important for raising kids. Churches and other religious institutions also provide community connections that are very important.”
Religious beliefs grow with age, according to the Pew Research Center. “Though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago.” In other words, the religious differences between younger and older generations today are due, in part, to the fact that people care more about religion as they get older.
McDonald is a testament of this. “If at 22 I was asked if I was a Christian, I would have said yes, based on my Catholic upbringing and my general sense of a belief in God. But I did not know what a relationship with Jesus looked like,” McDonald says. Just before he turned 24, he changed his mind. “It wasn’t as if I had never heard the name of Jesus or about having a relationship with Jesus. But after questioning my faith, it just made sense to me in a way that made me want to experience more, and I started pursuing Jesus at that time.”