Faith leaders needn’t worry too much that the growing availability of online religious content and activities will lure Millennials away from houses of worship, a recent study suggests.
On the contrary, faith content and activities available virtually are in some cases enhancing the in-person religious experience for participating Americans and Canadians ages 18 to 35, scholar Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme said in “Digital Religion Among U.S. and Canadian Millennial Adults,” a paper published last year in the Review of Religion Research.
“We know that more and more people are turning toward digital mediums for spirituality such as chat groups with pastors, online sermons, and religious content on social media,” said Wilkins-Laflamme, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “We’ve found that while digital religion isn’t necessarily attracting a lot of new Millennials to participate, it is making the experience of those already involved richer.”
But the trend does not represent most Millennials, she added. “It is still present though for a sizeable minority of the young adult population, and for many of them, digital religion plays an important complementary role to the in-person practicing of their faith.”
Her study distinguishes between Millennials who consume online religious content, such as readings and worship, and those who actively post spiritual topics to virtual platforms, including social media.
Subjects were asked to describe their involvement in such activity during a 12-month period. In the U.S., those who responded “Not at all” led the way, including 36% who did not consume online religious content and 53% who said they did not post spiritual views on sites such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook.
Digital content consumption led active posting in most other responses.
Millennials who said they post something at least once daily, (11%) barely surpassed content consumers (10%).
Wilkins-Laflamme said the numbers point to a far greater prevalence of digital religious practice among Americans compared to Canadians.
“Fifty-nine percent of Canadian Millennial respondents consumed religious or spiritual digital content at least once in the year prior to the survey, compared with 64% in the U.S. In turn, 33% of Canadian young adult respondents posted on social media about religion or spirituality at least once in the year prior to the survey, compared with 47% among U.S. young adults.”
The difference corresponds to declines in religious adherence documented in previous research, the study noted.
“These lower rates of digital religion practices among Canadian Millennials thus continue the trend present in the country since the 1970s of lower religiosity indicators in general when compared with the U.S., such as lower rates of frequent religious service attendance in Canada, lower prayer rates, and lower rates of belief in God or a higher power.”
Respondents who consume religious or spiritual content at least once a month were most likely to say the activity played a more valuable role in their lives, Wilkins-Laflamme said. “As rates of more conventional religious practices, such as in-person religious service attendance, have fallen in more recent years among younger generations, the expansion of the internet in our lives has meant that a larger proportion of Millennials are coming into somewhat regular contact with religion and spirituality online.”
The project also uncovered a correlation between those who participate at least monthly in digital faith activities and those more likely to attend in-person religious services and other events.
“There are only 5% of young adult respondents … who only do monthly or more frequent religious or spiritual digital content consumption without also attending religious services at least once a month or practicing an unchurched spirituality at least once a month,” Wilkins-Laflamme said. “Another 11% do both monthly or more frequent digital content consumption and religious service attendance; 6% do both monthly or more frequent digital content consumption and unchurched spiritual activities; and another 10% do all three types of activities at least once a month.”
As a whole, 25% of Millennial respondents in the U.S. and Canada said they participate in less conventional religious practices at least monthly, with 11% including a digital component. “Another 25% pair these frequent less conventional religious and spiritual activities with monthly or more frequent religious service attendance, among whom almost all include a digital component.”
Wilkins-Laflamme also examined the influence of religious tradition on spiritual social media behavior.
“Evangelical Protestants are nine percentage points more likely than Catholics to consume digital content on religion or spirituality at least once a month, but no more likely than Catholics to post on social media about religion or spirituality monthly or more frequently,” she found. “By contrast, mainline Protestants are 14 percentage points less likely than Catholics to post on social media about religion or spirituality, but no less likely than Catholics to consume digital content on religion or spirituality monthly or more frequently.”
Presence at in-person religious services was found to influence participation in online faith activities.
“Adult religious service attendance and unchurched spiritual activities also have a greater impact on this more active form of digital religion,” she said. “Living and experiencing religious and spiritual activities in person seems to make a young adult much more likely to post about them on social media.”
But Wilkins-Laflamme sought to temper drawing any major conclusions from the study. “For a smaller proportion of Millennials, digital religion along with other unchurched forms of spirituality are practiced alternatives to more conventional in-person forms of religiosity. These are minority phenomena among Millennials, and so we would not use the term ‘spiritual revolution’ to describe them. Nevertheless, they are substantial phenomena. … Digital religion does have its followers and is one set of available options competing in a sense with many other more secular ones for the time and attention of young adults today.”
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