When it comes to religion, millennials carve their own path
Young adults are tech-savvy, politically independent, optimistic and racially diverse, according to new, comprehensive research about the millennial generation (currently ages 18-33). Knowing who millennials are is an incredible tool in helping reach them with the message of Jesus.
Let's dig into findings on Millennials in Adulthood, released by the Pew Research Center in March 2014, and discover how the data can help you reach this generation.
Millennials (those born around 1982-97) have grown up with the Internet in their pocket, social media in their friendships and selfies on their walls. None of this was an adaptation. That is simply how their world works. A full 81 percent of millennials are on Facebook with a median number of friends at 250, far higher than that of older age groups.
What does that mean for the church? We must learn to adapt a message spoken more than 2,000 years ago to new media. Beyond having a presence on the Web and Facebook, we must engage there. We must have meaningful presence beyond "come to church at 11." Not doing so says we don't understand their world.
Though they generally vote more for Democrats, half of millennials claim no political affiliation. They consider themselves independent and not nearly as patriotic as the older generations.
What does this mean for the church? It means we must be very careful about how we engage with politics. In fact, an absence of political talk from any upfront personality is something most millennials will appreciate. This does not mean that they are not concerned with social issues. They simply choose to engage issues nonpolitically and do not like to label themselves with the more political terms like "environmentalist."
Though they are only half as likely (19 percent as opposed to around 40 percent of boomers) to say that most people can be trusted, millennials are more likely to believe that the United States' best years lie ahead. This generation has grown up with primetime TV specials like "To Catch a Predator" and constant warnings to guard themselves against people who might be wolves in sheep's clothing. Despite that, they think things generally are looking up.
This may be the most important insight of all from the church's perspective. In hopes of bringing healing and redemption, churches may focus more on sin and its negative impact on the world. However, to millennials, this sort of message lacks a ring of truth. To them, the world is not on the downslide. It is OK and going to get better as far as they are concerned. We must learn to capture the hope of the New Jerusalem and use it to talk about the brilliant future God has for us.
Millennials are the most racially diverse U.S. generation in history. With more than 43 percent of this generation being non-white, the idea of an all-white anything makes no sense. Everywhere they turn among their peers, they see the diverse beauty of God's creation, which is a new normal that is changing the United States. In fact, if current trends continue, the majority of North Americans will be non-white by 2043.
Though they may not expect to walk into your church and see a perfect representation of America's melting pot, when the worship leadership is mono-racial, it says the church is not like the rest of their world.
What do young people want from the church?
We asked this question of several young adults for the May-June issue of Interpreter. Ricky Harrison, a student at Duke Divinity School, summarized it this way. "What do young people want from the church? A place to feel accepted and loved unconditionally; authentic relationships; growth in a trusted community; a church that is relevant, engaging the world around it, not cloistered inside a building; a church seeking justice and reconciliation in issues of racism, sexism and economic disparities." Find Harrison's articles and others from the May-June issue at Interpreter OnLine,
One of the most intriguing pieces of data is a measure of the certainty of millennials' beliefs about God. A solid majority – 86 percent – still say they believe in God, but only 58 percent say they are "absolutely certain" that God exists, a lower share than among older adults. This trait of being willing to question and open to being wrong on very important ideas and beliefs is a hallmark of millennials. They are comfortable with truly reflecting on their beliefs, knowing they could be wrong.
This could be as big a cultural change in your church as any of the others are. Churches must be open to questioning. When we debate issues, we must recognize it. When we have questions about something we are discussing, we must share it. If we want to connect with this questioning generation, we must open ourselves – and our sermons – to this way of engaging with the world.
To read the full report, go to www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood.
The Rev. Jeremy Steele is Next Generation minister at Christ United Methodist Church, Mobile, Alabama. He is also an author, blogger at jeremywords.com and frequent contributor to MyCom, an e-newsletter published by United Methodist Communications. This article was adapted from his article in MyCom in May 2014.