Millennials at hand

Those 18- to 33-year-olds present a challenge to churches, but they may be more religious than we — or they — think.

By Bill Leonard

The Millennials are at hand! Millennials — that’s what sociologists call the generation of 18- to 33-year-olds now coming of age in America. A new study from the Pew Research Center details the nature of their unique location in American society as compared to earlier age groups that include Gen Xers (34-49), Boomers (50-68) and the Silent Generation (69-86). Pew research echoes previous findings published by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace and recently expanded by Paul Taylor in The Next America.

Pew’s research suggests that Millennials “are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry — optimistic about the future.” With 43 percent non-white, they are the nation’s most racially diverse generation, a minority that should become a majority around 2043.

Millennials make no secret of their distrust for traditional institutions political or religious, with 50 percent calling themselves political independents, and three in 10 (29 percent) indicating no discernible religious affiliation. While 86 percent affirm a belief in God, only 58 percent of that number is “absolutely certain” about it. Eleven percent claims no belief in God at all, a category larger than the other age groups. While they hope for marriage, only 26 percent of Millennials have done so between 18 and 33, a much smaller percentage than their elders at that age.

Pew labels Millennials “digital natives” reared on technology, widely engaged in social media, with 81 percent “friending” on Facebook. Amid this social network, many continue to live with their parents, a phenomenon often dictated by economics and difficulties in securing permanent employment. Their higher education debt is considerable, averaging $27,000 after completing the bachelor’s degree, another statistical high.

Millennials represent yet another demographic challenge for American religious institutions, many already reeling from the impact of the “nones” — multi-generational Americans (1 in 5) who claim no religious affiliation — aging congregations, declining resources and the changing sociology of Sunday. Across the theological spectrum, churches and church leaders are responding (or failing to respond) to a population whose interest in traditional religion seems increasingly limited or nonexistent. As the reality of these demographics deepens, distinguishing evangelistic strategy from ecclesiastical panic can be difficult. Strategies abound.

• Some suggest that Millennials are really nothing new, their disengagement merely a characteristic of coming of age. The plan is simply to do ministry and hold on until the Millennials grow up.

• Some propose a return to soul-winning, and “plan salvation,” inviting persons to immediate conversion through repentance and a simple “prayer of faith” — tried and true evangelistic methods waning even among evangelicals.

• Others assert that contemporary moral compromise and ethical capitulation in church and society can be corrected by a renewed doctrinal orthodoxy and moral rigor — issues that are uniting many Mormons, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, groups distanced by theology but drawn together by varying cultural transitions.

• Certain conservatives suggest that popular culture is rejecting their nonnegotiable principles so dramatically and making traditional evangelism so difficult that Christians must increase their birthrate, rearing children in theologically uncompromised Christian families who will redeem the future.

• Others have challenged the culture by venturing into it, utilizing certain “worldly” incentives to gain popular attention, options that include pub-based “theology on tap” groups, extreme workout and diet programs (“firm believers”) and even gospel gun-giveaways. One New York Baptist pastor even raffled off a semiautomatic rifle, insisting that Jesus’ use of the “whip” on Temple moneychangers offered biblical justification for his own Second Amendment evangelism. (Other Baptists agreed with the gospel-gun-toting, but denounced raffles as a vehicle for dispensing it.)

Controversial evangelism is nothing new in American life. Nineteenth century evangelist Charles Finney introduced various “New Measures” for attracting the religiously disengaged, including the “prayer of faith,” forerunner of the “sinner’s prayer”; the “Anxious Bench,” precursor of the modern invitation/altar call; and “testimony meetings,” where women led public prayer or witness in “promiscuous gatherings” of both sexes. These debatable methods later became evangelical norms for bringing salvation and church involvement to generations of Americans.

Many frontier preachers panicked over dwindling male participation. In Southern Cross, Christine Heyrman tells of one frontier “Millennial” who fought conversion so hard that “he drew a large pistole out of his pocket, with which he intended to defend himself if any one should offer to speak to him on the subject of religion.” The Second Amendment apparently cuts both ways.

These days, the Millennials engaged in and engaging churches seem less concerned with sectarian diatribe or gospel gimmicks than with the captivating person of Jesus and his still-radical responses to struggling humanity. If Jesus is right and those who clothe the naked, feed the hungry and care for the sick have actually “done it also unto me,” then Millennials may be more “religious” than they or we think. Convincing them that we can be trusted to articulate and exemplify that revolutionary gospel may be the church’s greatest challenge. Since Jesus tarries, there is still time.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.