I was shocked – shocked I tell you! – to learn I was a “Protestant.”

But that’s what my mother told the intake nurse we were.

This startling discovery occurred when the local hospital granted my application for admission. They needed to know should they need to send for the proper chaplain if a sudden urge to pray for deliverance from a hospital food tray were to overtake me.

In 1963 we weren’t much of anything, religion-wise. But nonetheless they duly recorded my religious affiliation as “Protestant.”

Had that happened today I’d likely be one of the “Nones.”

That’s why I think a lot of Christian hand wringing about Millennials is overwrought. Technically the “Nones” and the “Millennials” are overlapping but not identical demographic cohorts. But, since day-to-day Christian literature treats both as pretty much the same, I’ll try to use the term Millennials for both groups. But my interest here centers on those folks who are old enough to drink but not yet old enough to have kids in High School.

Christian concern over both groups seems to boil down to two mistaken conclusions:

  1. They are hopelessly irreligious.
  2. They are hopelessly alien.

Both conclusions are just silly.

1. Millennials are not hopelessly irreligious

Sure, they’re oriented a degree or two from paths followed by their Boomer predecessors. They’re not your grandpa’s Baptists (or Methodists or Lutherans or Presbyterians). But they aren’t the zombie apocalypse. Or the end of Christian civilization.

They’re just different.

Case in point: the 2010 Pew Research reported that Millennials are, by some measures (and that’s key) “considerably less religious than their elders.”1 I wonder just how meaningful those “some measures” are.

The report notes, for example, that fewer are denominationally affiliated than were earlier generations at the same age.2 This supposes two things: first, that this is a problem specific to Millennials (it isn’t3); and second, that denominational affiliation is a sound measure of religious conviction and spiritual engagement.4

Pew also notes that Millennials attend church less often than their elders. But when has that not been true? Isn’t it a given that religious sentiment increases as we tear pages off the calendar? The report acknowledges that this may “pull” some of the “punch.”

This suggests that some of the religious difference between younger and older Americans today are not entirely generational but result in part from people’s tendency to place greater emphasis on religion as they age.5

The sky isn’t falling. To the contrary, the sky seems firmly affixed and, in spite of dead churches closing up shop (which many should!), faith is alive and well in the younger generation.

Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Though young adults pray less often than their elders do today, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago. This suggests that some of the religious differences between younger and older Americans today are not entirely generational but result in part from people’s tendency to place greater emphasis on religion as they age.6

When you cut through the booksellers’ fog, you’ll see that they aren’t a heathen horde swarming the gates of Christian civilization. Other than a few differences in religious conviction this is but a cohort that doesn’t self-identify by check boxes on a hospital intake screen or a Census form. They the “Protestants” of the Boomer generation.

Yes, there are some measurable differences in religious sentiment and religious practice between Millennials and earlier cohorts. But the meaning of those differences is debatable.

It’s all about how you look at it. And when you look.

Half full or half empty?


The glass is twice as large as it needs to be.

Which illustrates the issue of frame of reference. A mental frame of reference determines your perception of a problem and the universe of possible solutions available to you. If you fall into the wrong one you could get dinged up by the data!

For example, I could frame data about Millennial denominational affiliation in two ways:

  1. 1 in 5 Millennials leave their parents’ religious denomination.
  2. 80% of Millennials remain affiliated with their parents’ religious denomination.

I ask you, is it a rejection of religion when 80% of Millennials remain in their childhood denominations; when 68% identify as “Christian”; that they are highly responsive to calls for community service; and that they have their religiously informed own views about social and cultural issues7; or that atheism has not measurably increased since 1944?8

I think not.

It is not that the country’s newest generation of young adults, the Millennial Generation, rejects the spiritual values that deeply permeate the nation’s culture…. Americans, to a greater extent than those who live in other Western countries, believe in God (in numbers ranging from two-thirds to 80 percent depending on how pollsters ask the question). Millennials, born in the years 1982 through 2003, fully share this belief with older generations….9

When you dig a little deeper, you discover that Millennials do express religious sentiment differently than their Boomer predecessors. For instance, they prefer the elements of “sacred space” – bells and smells and stained glass – that Boomers and mega churches have rejected.

… [S]urveys administered online to 843 young adults ages 18 to 29 by Barna and Cornerstone Knowledge Network… found 67 percent chose the word “classic” to describe their ideal church. Only 33 percent preferred a trendy church as their ideal.

Most Millennials don’t look for a church facility that caters to the whims of pop culture. They want a community that calls them to deeper meaning.10

I just don’t see how the Millennials’ search for something different, something deeper, something more authentic portends the end of Christianity in America. It may portend the end of Boomer Church, but in time that ride’s gonna come to an end anyhow.

What’s your frame of reference? Half empty or half full?

2. Millennials are not hopelessly alien

The second mistaken conclusion is that Millennials are so different, so foreign that they are beyond the Church’s reach. But nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that Millennials are pretty much like everyone else!

Yup, when you boil it all down, they aren’t much different from us. The whole disconnect between them and the earlier generations (and between the two cultures) has been greatly exaggerated.

Whom do Millennials threaten?

Churches that are more interested in preserving a sub-culture than in reaching a new generation with the gospel.

Churches that communicate a sub-text that says, “Come and become like us. Help us keep the doors open.”

Churches that need to change or die.

The type of churches that Turnaround Pastors relish tackling.

  1. Pew Research Center, “Religion Among the Millennials” (February 2010), p. 1.  â†©
  2. Pew, p. 3.  â†©
  3. Rates of the religiously unaffiliated have increased rather steadily in all age groups. Yes, the young are more likely to be unaffiliated than the middle-aged or the old, but it’s been this way all along. Bradley Wright, “Trends in the Religious Unaffiliated, the “Nones,” by Age.” Patheos, March 7, 2013.  â†©
  4. But there’s good reason to suspect that the reported affiliation of many inprevious generations was about as meaningful as my being identified as a Protestant during theaforementioned hospital admission.Rodney Stark disagrees “with the notion that the U.S. is heading toward becoming as unchurched as much of Europe. One reason is that saying you have “no religion” is not the same as disbelieving in God. Many people who say they have no religion are simply saying they have no official religious affiliation. They may actually have strong personal beliefs. The increase in the “no religion” group may also be an illusion caused by the rising nonresponse rate to survey studies.” Rodney Stark, “The Myth of Unreligious AmericaWall Street Journal, January 4, 2013.  â†©
  5. Pew, p. 2.  â†©
  6. Pew, p. 2.  â†©
  7. Morely Winograd and Michael Hais, “Millennial Generation Challenges Religion in America.” The Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 2011.  â†©
  8. Stark, Op. cit.  â†©
  9. Winograd and Hais, Op. cit.  â†©
  10. Michael Gryboski, “Stained Glass Windows for Churches May Make Comeback With Younger Generations â†©
  11. Pew research page 6.  â†©