It’s no secret that Americans are increasingly likely to identify as “unaffiliated” when it comes to religion. Many people in generation X and Y have grown disenchanted with organized religion, and have abandoned the traditions in which they grew up. Their mass exodus has left religious leaders scrambling to find ways to get them back, but many of these religious “nones” insist they are just “spiritual, but not religious.”
We’ve all heard someone claim they are “spiritual, but not religious,” but what does it really mean? And is it even true? While some might argue this designation is hollow, millennials seem to be finding meaning in unorthodox ways and using otherwise secular activities to mimic religious ritual.
In a recent poll, researchers found that nearly 40 percent of millennials are unaffiliated, and for those who left a tradition, many did so as a result of a personal objection to their church’s doctrine. Specifically, a large percentage of former religious adherents disagree with official church positions on issues pertaining to the LGBT community. So a lot of people are conscientiously objecting to religion, while maintaining affection for spirituality.
The unaffiliated who disagree with theology can still appreciate the community, worship and reflection provided in sacred spaces. The void left by abandoning the Church contributes to what scholars refer to as seeker spirituality wherein people shop for religion and are open to finding spirituality in otherwise secular spaces. While churches used to be a one-stop shop for meeting people’s spiritual needs, now it seems people are taking an a la carte approach to fostering inspiration, wellness, joy and morality.
As such, millennials are participating in a variety of activities to create surrogate spaces that provide fulfillment without the dogma. Bookstores and coffee shops, for example, often act as the de facto stage for fellowship, friendship and inspiration that was previously primarily found in church foyers and sanctuaries. Meeting friends for coffee amidst Starbucks’ low-key, soft-rock setting to talk about families, feelings and fears can soothe the souls of spiritual seekers.
For more adventurous millennials, music festivals are a growing community event that replicates a lot of religious theatrics and ebullience. If you’re not among the “festie” crowd you might think of these events as just a bunch of hippies hopped up on who knows what, sharing tents and port-a-potties. For many, however, these musical festivals hinge upon a strong sense of community, emotional transcendence and joy.
One young festival regular told me she likes the music, but what inspires her to travel hundreds of miles and spend a lot of money on tickets is “connecting to people and seeing the good in humanity.” The communal love of the music acts as a foundation through which the crowd feels connected, inspired and happy. Sound familiar? It’s what often happens at religious gatherings that Emile Durkheim dubbed “collective effervescence.”
In addition to visiting Starbucks and music festivals, people are experiencing a sense of community in their own homes.
For example, millions of people meeting for informal book clubs or common-interest clubs has become the norm. The community, support and love they find often find in these groups can be transformative. The fraternal nature and focus on personal growth make them a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere, generally free from judgment and supportive of differences. These clubs are not new, of course, but they have grown in popularity over the last few years, and for some post-baby boomers, they might be acting as substitutes for the Bible studies and Sunday Schools they grew up with.
Spiritual and physical wellness
Millennials are also seeking rejuvenation and physical wellness in response to their hectic lives, and many are finding it through yoga. According to a Yoga in America study, spending on yoga classes, clothing and equipment increased from $10 billion to $16 billion in the last four years alone.
While no one would argue that everyone practicing yoga does it as a religious expression, it is more than just another exercise fad. As an important component to many religious traditions, yoga’s appeal is, in part, due to its holistic approach to well-being and stress reduction. As such, it stands to reason that its rise in popularity coincided with churchgoers’ mass exodus.
And despite their reputation as narcissistic and selfish, millennials are generous—with their time and money. They are giving at higher rates than previous generations did at their age, and 70 percent of them spent at least an hour volunteering for a cause that was important to them. It’s impossible to know what is motivating their charitable nature, but it’s evident that this generation feels a moral compulsion to give back.
Given the way millennials are mimicking religious rituals in their secular routines, it is perhaps unsurprising that churches are trying to woo them back.
General expressions of spirituality and wellness are more broadly appealing than dogma, and savvy church marketers know their best chance of convincing Millennials to attend are by mirroring the environments in which they feel comfortable.
Churches embracing millennial-friendly marketing are attracting and maintaining audiences better than more traditional congregations, but their retention rates are still suffering in comparison to 10 and 20 years ago. I asked a business director at a large evangelical church in Pittsburgh about changes they were making, and he said, “We don’t see other churches as our competition. We see Starbucks and the Sunday paper as our competition.”
He acknowledged that what is keeping people from attending weren’t other places of worship, but secular activities that meet spiritual needs without the dogma. Even though the community, style and worship might be appealing, doctrine matters and millennials aren’t buying in.
It remains to be seen how much rebranding will ultimately help churches, but most scholars are not optimistic. Religious affiliation is predicted to continue its current decline. It seems many people have successfully simulated the essence of religion on their own without the troublesome doctrinal parts.
The evidence surrounding millennial trends clearly shows people still crave community, meaning, wonder, joy and peace, and are taking the elements of religious participation that enhance their lives. Even if that means ditching the traditional ways that generations before have found these things in the church’s past.