At Work & Public Square

Are Millennials Really Less Religious Than Previous Generations?

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Many studies show that Millennials are less religious today. However, this might not mean they have deserted their faith more than members of previous generations when they were young.

Pew Research found that in some ways, young people today are not much different from youth of the past when it comes to certain aspects of religion:

  • Importance of religion: “In Gallup surveys in the late 2000s, 40% of Millennials said religion is very important, as did 48% of Gen Xers in the late 1990s. However, young people today look very much like Baby Boomers did at a similar point in their life cycle; in a 1978 Gallup poll, 39% of Boomers said religion was very important to them.”
  • Prayer: “Although Millennials report praying less often than their elders do today, […] Millennials are in sync with Generation X and Baby Boomers when members of those generations were younger.”
  • Belief in God: “Millennials’ level of belief in God resembles that seen among Gen Xers when they were roughly the same age. Just over half of Millennials in the 2008 GSS survey (53%) say they have no doubt that God exists, a figure that is very similar to that among Gen Xers in the late 1990s (55%).”
  • Believing the Bible is the word of God: “Millennials display beliefs that closely resemble those of Generation X in the late 1990s. In the 2008 GSS survey, roughly a quarter of Millennials (27%) said the Bible is the literal word of God, compared with 28% among Gen Xers when they were young.”
  • Faith among those affiliated with a religion: “[While] young people are less likely than their elders to be affiliated with a religion, among those who are affiliated, generational differences in worship attendance are fairly small. […] More than one-third of religiously affiliated Millennials (37%) say they are a ‘strong’ member of their faith, the same as the 37% of Gen Xers who said this at a similar age and not significantly different than among Baby Boomers when they were young (31%).”

It is likely that Millennials will grow more faithful as they grow older, just as previous generational trends indicate. But there remains a concerning question for churches today: why are fewer Millennials claiming to attend worship services?

Even though Millennials are less likely to claim a specific religious affiliation than Gen X, Boomers, the Silent, and the Greatest generations, this may not be because they have completely abandoned their faith. There may be several other reasons for this:

  • Lack of trust in institutions: Millennials overall are less trusting of political and religious institutions and therefore less likely to prescribe to a specific religious denomination. Many might call themselves Christians (65%), but if someone asks them if they are Protestant or Catholic, or Episcopalian or Methodist, they will likely say neither.
  • Changing social climate: Young people are also in a stage of life with many more disruptions. They are moving around and changing social networks. For those who would otherwise attend church, life circumstances are presenting challenges to settling down in a church community. Millennials are also delaying marriage more than previous generations, so if they return to church, it will likely be later in life than previous generations.
  • Spiritual, but not religious: Nearly three out of four Millennials say that they are more spiritual than religious, which may be rooted in their growing distrust in the institution of the church. This might mean they are attending a “home church” where they gather independently with a group of Christians for worship at a friend’s house or they might watch a sermon livestreamed online from their bed on Sunday morning instead. For many Millennials, they don’t believe their faith should be dependent on a physical church building.

Millennials are less religious than previous generations were when they were of similar age, but only if that means that fewer Millennials are claiming a church affiliation. But Millennials aren’t less religious if it means completely abandoning their religious beliefs. Only time will tell if Millennials will return to church as they grow older, but as for now, they at least seem to be holding on to their faith.

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