The wavering of millennials in America’s religious landscape may not only be an issue, but also a question begging an answer. Where is everyone going? And what’s working to bring them back? To find answers, a team of Universe reporters spent a semester talking to religious experts around the country and to millennials themselves. What they found is presented in ongoing articles.
Third in a series. Part one deals with the rise of the ‘nones.’ Part two examines why millennials leave religion. Part four reveals millennials who stay with religion. Part five looks at millennials within the LDS community.
Imagine the Christmas story: Mary, Joseph, angels and everything in between. Mary is told she will give birth to the Savior of the world, and her calm yet cautious countenance exudes hope and faith.
Now imagine that all being set to “Blackbird” by the Beatles during a colorful church musical in the Midwest.
Granger Community Church, a nondenominational congregation, performs a Christmas pageant that combines two classics: the nativity story and Beatles’ music.
Their production, “Let it Be Christmas,” is just one example of the modernization of religion, an attempt to appeal to young adults using not-so-normal points of entry. Many young adults today don’t want religion pews, pastors or preaching. Instead, they gravitate toward unconventional methods like music, food or beer.
That’s right. Religion and beer.
Theology on Tap is a Catholic program that started in the ’80s after Father John Cusick wanted to take religion out of churches and onto the streets. The program now has more than 40 chapters nationwide. It’s set up as a lecture series, including spiritual discussions and guest speakers, and it all happens in a bar or restaurant.
The idea is to create a more casual feeling for its visitors, usually 20-somethings interested in the spiritual community without the strict configuration of a standard church. These young adults are in a comfortable setting; they don’t have to dress up, they can eat and drink and they can be on their cell phones.
In fact, many young adults prefer to use their cell phones during church services, and technology is becoming a bigger player in millennial religiosity every day.
Religious leaders have leveraged the Internet to spread the word through technology, too. Mark Brown, a new New Zealand native, is an Anglican priest who now lives in Houston. Brown loves Jesus, God and Facebook. He runs a social media company called Grow My Media and his religious influence is felt by hundreds of thousands of users online. Before starting his current business, he helped organize a cyber-church in the virtual world of “Second Life.”
Brown’s Facebook page has more than 340,000 likes, and his daily posts gain hundreds of likes and shares. He’ll post scripture verses, spiritual questions and Pinterest-worthy quotes. And it’s bringing people a new version of religion: religion online.
Brown said he wants to see people discover the love of Jesus Christ.
“One of the activities I do through my Facebook page is invite people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” he said. He said he’ll post something like, “If you are struggling in your life and need to commit or re-commit your life to Jesus, click ‘Like’ and make a public declaration of your decision!”
“These posts are always well-received,” Brown said. “And though I am not privy to what decision has been made or what transformation has been undertaken, I trust that God is working in their lives.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also using social media to invite people to learn more on platforms that millennials frequent. In August 2014, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles encouraged members at BYU Campus Education Week to share the gospel using social media. Additionally, the First Presidency and all of the church’s apostles each have Facebook and Twitter accounts.
For Christmas 2015, the LDS Church embarked on a Christmas marketing program that invited people to visit christmas.mormon.org, where they could access videos, information about Christmas, and media to share across social platforms.
At least one business is focusing on drawing young people back to the religious fold. Young Adult Ministry in a Box uses technology in a different way to direct ministry right at millennials. The company offers resources to Catholic parishes that might not have the funds to put on Beatles Christmas pageants. Ministers can purchase Ministry in a Box and use it to help engage young adults.
“We know that young adult ministry, while it might be a spoken priority, is generally lacking specific leadership or a staff person or minister to organize and minister to and with young adults,” Editor-in-Chief Barbara Wheeler-Bride wrote in an email. “We created this digital toolkit to help even the busy minister or volunteer start, grow and sustain young adult ministry from scratch.”
Subscribers get access to different resources, from activity ideas to updates on religion and culture.
“We … called upon several experienced Catholic young adult ministry ‘experts’ to help us write general resources and also specific program ideas that they knew were successful in their own ministries,” Wheeler-Bride wrote.
Young adults are looking at religion differently from their forebears, and Young Adult Ministry in a Box aims to bridge the gap for ministers trying to reach this demographic.
A new religious community
Technology and modernization may be religion’s first strategy in bringing church inside people’s homes, but this technology may also be indirectly creating the real driving force behind what brings young adults to church: community.
Mark Holmes served as a board member of a campus ministry at the University of Illinois called Illini Life. Holmes said a community atmosphere is a huge factor in retaining students. He said being in a Christian community helps active and less active churchgoers.
“Even for the less spiritually-invested students who are still on the fence a bit about what they believe, they often form good friendships with the Christians in Illini Life who love them dearly, and not too many people willingly walk away from friendships where there is sincere love and care for one another,” Holmes said.
At Real Life Church, a nondenominational Christian church with two campuses near Los Angeles, young adult pastor Dave Wilson focuses on helping young people build relationships through a ministry called “The Bridge.”
Real Life Church was established in 2000 and has grown steadily since then. According to the Real Life Church website, their main church building is home to a 12,000-seat auditorium and a coffee house that’s open all week. Real Life Church aims to lead people to Christ as they “strive to meet people in their comfort zone.”
Wilson tries to help his congregation members first feel loved by their fellow churchgoers. He said focusing on community anchors young people to the church.
“Everything we do is motivated by relationship more than program, which breeds authenticity,” he said. “Our hope is that millennials would love the culture and environment at The Bridge so much that they desire to not only stay connected, but invite their friends.”
When millennials are able to boil church down to the core, Wilson said, they can appreciate the aspects of organized religion that might have deterred them before.
“It’s amazing to see how passionate they get when the practice of the church is understood as loving God and loving others,” he wrote.
Inclusivity vs. purity
So which should a religion prioritize? Loving God or loving others? Is it possible to do both? Director of Research at Bonneville Communications Sam Sturgeon cites the sociology of religion principles of “inclusivity,” or acceptance of people’s lifestyles, and “purity,” keeping a church pure and true to its doctrine.
“Millennials always tend to lean towards inclusivity,” Sturgeon said.
This tendency toward inclusivity is often evident in millennials’ stances on social issues, including LGBTQ rights and women’s issues. These young people aren’t afraid to be vocal about their views. Protestants responded to criticism like this by ordaining women, and other churches address social issues with subtler methods.
In recent months, the LDS Church has drawn connections between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, a departure from its approach to the topic. Elder Dallin H. Oaks defended specific legal rights for all people in a January 2015 press conference.
Additionally, Elder Ronald A. Rasband gave a BYU devotional in September 2015 in which he advocated freedom and rights for all people.
“When the rights of one group collide against the rights of another, we must follow the principle of being as fair and sensitive to as many people as possible. The Church believes in and teachers ‘fairness for all,’” Elder Rasband said.
As young people leave religions and become “nones,” some churches are changing the way they do things, whether in policy, practice or approach. Yet there are millennials who prefer tradition over religious modernization; they want to do away with the fancy facade and get straight to the point.