The life of a young college graduate isn’t what it used to be, as viewers of Girls and other recent hits well know. In 1970, the median age of marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men, not much different than in 1950. By 2000, the averages were 25 and 27, and they have continued to climb. Gone are the old dreams of quickly settling into marriage, children, and a comfortable job. Here, instead, is a period of uncertainty, self-absorption, and serial relationships and jobs that psychologist Jeffrey Arnett calls “emerging adulthood.”
This doesn’t bode well for America’s major religious institutions. It’s not just that millennials, the current emerging adults, are far less interested in religion than their parents and grandparents: Youthful rebellion is nothing new, though the percentage of millennials who have no religious affiliation has reached unprecedented levels (30 percent, as compared with 9 percent of those over 65). Much more alarming for local churches and synagogues are the implications of delayed childbearing, since parenthood traditionally has brought rebels back into the fold. By the time today’s millennials start families, their religious background may be a distant memory.
Can the estranged religious institutions lure millennials back? Naomi Schaefer Riley thinks they can. Here, she explores seven often-unlikely strategies that seem to be working. In Utah, the Mormon church, which uses a neighborhood-oriented ward system, has created a singles-only parish that lets millennials mix entirely with their kind. In New Jersey, the pastor of a black church “fired” his wife and her peers from leadership positions in order to open up those positions for the young. In Charlotte, evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, so often at loggerheads over theology and church-building elsewhere, have linked arms with Charlotte ONE, a weekly, 40-church collaboration featuring sermons and high-quality contemporary Christian music.
With each of the seven initiatives, Riley interviewed both leaders and participants, and she attended services and events in venues ranging from the “well-appointed” Santa Barbara home where Muslims Establishing Communities in America met to the “fraying carpet” of a Roman Catholic retreat center. Riley’s case studies aren’t exhaustive: She sticks to the three monotheistic religions, so there are no Hindu or Buddhist temples. The Christian churches in her study tend to be theologically conservative, the Muslim and Jewish initiatives more theologically liberal. But she covers a great deal of ground and discovers initiatives few of us knew existed.
Riley is a refreshingly genial guide. Although Jewish herself, she is equally sympathetic to the Christian and Muslim groups, which won’t surprise anyone who has read her previous books on religious colleges and interfaith marriage. Riley does point out the limitations of the millennial-seeking strategies: For instance, Jewish men and women who are given free trips to Israel through Birthright Israel balk at paying dues to a synagogue, and the youth-oriented Mormon ward has a transitional feel. But the overall tone is optimistic. Although millennials dislike traditional institutions even more than baby boomers do, it isn’t too late for religious institutions to get them back, and creative approaches may do the trick.
Some might instinctively recoil from the attention being lavished on today’s emerging adults. Aren’t they already the most spoiled generation yet? It’s hard not to think so: In deciding on a church, one typical interviewee says she chose “the one that fills me.” The millennials are also a bundle of contradictions. They are preoccupied with themselves and their own interests, yet they stick together in “urban tribes” and treat religion as a “team sport.” Still, the same millennials who seem so self-absorbed also have a strong desire to serve: “An acceptance letter from Teach for America is harder to come by these days,” Riley notes, “than one from a top law school.”
Although Riley mostly steers clear of the theological dimension of religious institutions’ outreach to millennials, her findings suggest that traditional strategies for conveying religious truth also might need updating, at least for millennials. Christian leaders are fond of simple, logical arguments designed to prove that God created the universe and of demonstrations that atheists do not have an objective foundation for the conclusions they reach about moral issues. These arguments strike many millennials as beside the point. So what if their views aren’t altogether consistent and they can’t give an objective basis for their sense of right and wrong? Millennials are also more concerned with the world as we experience it than with debates over how it was created. Religious leaders might do well to spend less energy sparring with Charles Darwin and more energy showing the insights an ancient faith can offer into beauty, suffering, and other experiences that are not easily explained by popular atheists like Richard Dawkins.
Got Religion? is the perfect playbook for religious leaders (or anyone else) looking to reach out to millennials. There’s only one catch: The strategies won’t work if they seem to have come from a script. “We’ve been ‘marketed to’ since childhood,” as one millennial put it in Leadership Journal, “and we can smell it a mile away.”
David Skeel is the S. Samuel Arsht professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania.