How Young Adults Are Finding Religion

young woman praying

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Religion has been a cornerstone of many American's identities since the country was founded. From the freedom to worship as we please to the sense of community attending religious services can give us, religion has always played a large part in how many Americans see themselves. As our country has grown more diverse, so has the way some Americans view the role of religion in their lives, especially young adults and millennials.

Reasons for Moving Away From Religion

What are the reasons for the shift in how young adults approach religion in their lives? It's not a factor of what religion they follow—the decline in attendance at houses of worship is across the board, from Jewish to Christian to ​Mormon. ​According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, the trend away from religion is "most pronounced among young adults, with only half of those born from 1990 to 1996 absolutely certain of their belief in God, compared to 71% of the 'silent generation,' or those born from 1928 to 1945."

The delaying of adulthood by millennials is one of the biggest contributors to their moving away from organized religion. Because millennials are living with their parents longer, putting off marriage and having children, and taking more time than previous generations to make big purchases like homes and cars, their lives are less settled in the traditional sense.

Sixty-five percent of the members of the silent generation (the generation born between 1928 and 1945) were married by the time they reached the age of 32. Millennials, in contrast, are delaying the walk down the aisle, with just 26% married by the age of 32. For many people, the steps of marrying and having a family often bring religion back into focus after years of being single.

Most traditional religions are, by nature, homogeneous in their membership. If you attend a synagogue, most of the people at the service on a Friday evening for Shabbat are bound to be Jewish. If you attend mass at a Catholic church, it's reasonable to assume that the majority of the attendees will be Catholic.

For many millennials, these selective populations don't reflect what they experience in their daily lives, which are usually far more multicultural and, in the eyes of these young adults, more interesting and stimulating.

Organized religions also tend to have a belief system that they encourage their congregations to follow and adhere to as much as possible, while millennials have been encouraged from a young age to think creatively and "outside the box" as a way of standing out and being unique. 

According to Michael Hout, Professor of Sociology at NYU, "Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves—that they find their own moral compass. Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid." He goes on to explain that this sentiment is often "at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a 'do-it-yourself' attitude toward religion."

A study by LifeWay Research asked 2,000 people between ages 23 and 30 why they had left Protestant churches. Given multiple options, of which they could choose as many as applied, 96% cited life changes, such as moving for college or work. Seventy-three percent cited church or pastoral reasons, including conflicting beliefs or judgmentalism as the reason.

Young Adults Are Spiritual

Some parents may find their grown children's lack of religious conviction troublesome, concerned that they will lose their moral compass or sense of gratitude if they are not regularly attending religious services or observing holidays in the way the parents may see as appropriate.

There is plenty of reason for parents to be reassured that, despite their less conventional ways of staying connected to God, most young adults remain in touch with their spiritual side in a substantial and meaningful way.

Though many churches and other houses of worship are looking to bring 20-somethings into their fold with more "trendy" services, including rock music, younger congregational leaders, and a more exciting and innovative service than they may have experienced growing up, millennials actually want more intimate and genuine religious experiences.

The top word millennials used to describe their ideal environment for worship is "community," followed closely by "sanctuary."

This makes sense when considering how isolated and work-oriented many young people are, spending their days online in virtual meetings or communicating via email. Millennials prefer a larger congregation over a smaller one, and would rather attend services in casual clothing versus being more dressed up. Young adults want their churches, mosques, and synagogues to reflect who they are, rather than having to fit into what may be the organization's guidelines.

Young adults, contrary to what some may think based on the way they are often portrayed in and by the media, are thinking deeply about the meaning of life on a regular basis. Their faith may not be traditional, but many of their concerns and questions certainly are.

According to Pew Research, 46% of young adults feel "a deep sense of wonder" about life and the universe at least once a week, compared to 48% of baby boomers, putting both generations at equal levels of curiosity about the world around them. 

Millennials and young adults are also a grateful generation. Seventy-six percent of them feel a great sense of gratitude on a regular basis, nearly even with their boomer parents. The meaning of life is also on their minds, with 55% thinking about it at least once a week. 

Have Faith in Young Adults

Despite the many changes over the past generation in the way the world works and the apparent distractedness of so many 20-somethings, there is still a level of faith and a belief in a force bigger than they are that is strong and important in their lives.

Millennials and young adults may not attend church or synagogue regularly or follow the traditional guidelines and tenets of an organized religion as their parents do. Still, they are finding spirituality in a way that works in their lives and allows them the flexibility to explore and learn from their friends and acquaintances.

This is making those differences seem less pronounced and helping them find a shared sense of awe at the world around them. 

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