January 25, 2011

Talkin’ About My Generation

Around this time last year the Pew Research Center published a major study called Religion Among the Millennials. I downloaded the report and read it the instant the news flashed across my computer screen.

My interest comes from the fact that I am a Millennial. Born in 1982, I’m one of those young adults whose religious landscape has been dominated by the Christian right, the September 11 attacks, the Roman Catholic Church’s pedophilia and cover up scandals, as well as the ongoing conflict regarding the role of gays and lesbians in our churches. All of these events have shaped my own viewpoint of the world and this was my first chance to check in, numerically, with how everyone else was processing these experiences.

In many ways, the Pew study emphasized what Millennials are not. We are, for instance, the least religiously affiliated generation in U.S. history (twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were at a comparable age). We are also shockingly disloyal – with one-in-five opting out of the faith traditions we were raised in. As one might imagine, many laments followed, though few as dramatic as this article from USA Today.

Reading the report again a year later, though, I thought it would be helpful to highlight some of the more hopeful aspects of the report. Here is what I found:

  • Faith is vital. Sunday attendance - not so much: 45% of Millennials say that religion is very important to their lives - a higher percentage than Baby Boomers said in a Gallup poll conducted when they were at a comparable age. However, this isn’t translating into all the things we’d normally associate with religious affiliation (Sunday worship, membership in a particular denomination, etc).
  • Intensity: Among Millennials who are affiliated with a faith tradition, more than one-third say they are strong members of their faith – roughly the same number as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers at a comparable age.
  • Practice: Millennials engage in faith practices such as daily prayer at roughly the same rate as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers did when they were asked at comparable ages. Compare this, though, to the dramatic drop in religious affiliation and one gets a picture of young adults practicing their faith while very much outside organized religion. This led many to quip that Millennials are “spiritual but not religious.”
  • Open and Engaged: Many of the conflicts presently dividing denominations - the role of women and gays and lesbians – have long been settled in Millennials’ minds. It’s now a question of becoming authentically engaged in mission. (My favorite quote from this analysis of the Pew Study comes from Allison Morgan who joined the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at her college: “I don't feel like I have to go to church in a traditional setting to be Christian or spiritual. The most important thing for me was to look for people who were globally minded. Are they into social causes? Are they living what they are preaching?'')

So what can parishes do? One answer may lie in how other membership organizations are addressing Millennial’s disaffiliation and (for lack of a better term) organizational disloyalty. Based on studies addressing Millennial volunteer recruitment and giving, many membership organizations are focusing on one-on-one meetings, small group gatherings, and the effective use of communications to build lasting, authentic relationships. I’d recommend checking out one study, in particular, which concludes with the following recommendations for how membership organizations can reach out to young adults:

From A Study of Millennial Giving and Engagement Habits, organizations should…

  • Focus on face-to-face work and relationship building through small group gatherings and social media.
  • Work with donors and volunteers who are willing to build networks with friend and family.
  • Create more specific requests for giving and volunteer opportunities rather than general requests.
  • Develop a multichannel approach to communication and solicitation methods, recognizing that technology is a tool not a solution.
  • Plan for a long-term return on investment for relationship-building efforts with Millennial donors rather than a quick result.
  • Align fundraising priorities for all donor audiences, but when it comes to Millennials, focus on engagement in ways traditionally reserved for donors with greater means.
  • Incorporate Millennial donors into strategic planning and organizational development. Make sure to provide opportunities to work with those in leadership.

From the standpoint of worshipping communities, what would you add to this list?