Spiritual Journey of Millennials   by Barna

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Bright Spots, Opportunities to Learn

Despite the millions of twentysomethings who are conflicted with Christianity and churches, there is still some good news for the future of the American church. That’s because there are millions of Millennial Christians who are concerned for the future of their faith, have a strong desire to connect to the traditions of the church and feel a sense of excitement about church involvement. More than four out of ten Millennials with a Christian background (42%) say they are very concerned about their generation leaving the church, and a similar number (41%) say they desire “a more traditional faith, rather than a hip version of Christianity.” And nearly one-third of young adults with a Christian past say they are “more excited about church than any time in my life.”

While these engaged young adults are good reasons not to despair over the future of American Christianity, the trend of disengagement provides a sobering backdrop. The reality is that more than one-third of Millennials who grew up in the Christian faith say they went through a period when they felt like rejecting their parents’ faith. How they deal with such struggles often defines their spiritual trajectory. They can be the people reconnecting with a vital faith; they can be nomads, claiming vestiges of their previous faith while mostly rejecting the church that fostered that faith; they can be prodigals, leaving Christianity in the rearview mirror; or they can be exiles, struggling to connect their Christianity in a complex, accelerated culture.

Getting a Handle on Millennials

The trend of youth and young adult disengagement from Christianity seems to be picking up steam at a larger rate than normal generational trends. On these matters, previous Barna articles have explored six reasons young people leave church and five myths about young church dropouts.

To help educate leaders about the Millennial generation and their faith journeys, the Barna team has recently completed the national tour You Lost Me, Live! The series of events convened nearly 10,000 leaders, pastors and parents over the past 16 months. One of the features of the events was hearing Millennials from the stage talking about their spiritual views and journeys.

Kinnaman said one of the key insights emerging from the tour was that “nomads, prodigals and exiles share something in common: being somewhere other than home. One of the characteristics of Millennial life has become the image of the traveller. They want to wander the world, both in real life and in digital ways. They want to feel untethered. There is a trend among young adults of delaying the pressures of adult life as long as possible; they want to embrace a lifestyle of risk, exploration and unscripted moments. At the same time, they want to be loyal to their peers. The generation has come to appreciate and take identity from a spiritual version of life on the road. In other words, it is a generation that is spiritually homeless.

“This transience stands in contrast to the staid, predictable, and often overprotective experience that most churches seem to offer. The gap is simple: Millennials are a generation that craves spontaneity, participation, adventure and clan-like relationships, but what they often find in churches are featureless programs and moralistic content. Leaders who hope to alter the spiritual journeys of today’s Millennials need to embrace something of a ‘reverse mentoring’ mindset, allowing the next generation to help lead alongside established leaders. Millennials need to find spiritual rootedness, but that’s not simply to preserve old ways of doing church.

“During the last 16 months of touring, our team learned that Millennials are more willing to be challenged than most church leaders are willing to challenge them. However, this does not mean simply confronting Millennials to become more conventional and embrace what they may see as ‘boring’ or ‘outdated’ forms of spiritual expression. It means inviting them into the Christian community as valued members of that community to create a new, courageous sense of home.”


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