Millennials lead shift away from organized religion as pandemic tests Americans’ faith

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  • A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month found that 29% of American adults said they had no religious affiliations, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016.
  • The survey found that the millennial generation is moving away from organized religion.
  • The trend is prompting more faith leaders to find new ways to reach and engage with young adults.
  • This outreach takes many forms from engaging on social media to converting sermons to different styles of worship.

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It is not uncommon for people to seek God in times of difficulty. However, the opposite appears to have happened during the coronavirus pandemic, with more Americans abandoning organized religion.

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a pew research center survey, released earlier this month, found that 29% of American adults said they had no religious affiliations, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016, with the millennial generation leading that change. An increasing number of Americans said they were also praying less often. About 32% of those surveyed by Pew Research from May 29 to August 25 said they rarely or never pray. This is up from 18% of the surveys conducted by the group in 2007.

“So far apparent secular changes in American society show no signs of slowing down into the 21st century,” Gregory Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, said in a report on the findings.

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The trend is prompting more faith leaders to find new ways to reach and connect with millennials.

“I use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, stories, all kinds of things to get people where they are, and that’s where a lot of young people are,” said Rev. Joseph Martin.

A wake-up call for religious leaders

Martin, 61, is a Jesuit Catholic priest in New York City and the editor-in-chief of America magazine. He is among religious ministers who embraced social media at the peak of the pandemic, when places of worship were forced to close their doors.

Martin said, “I started these Facebook Live events at the start of the pandemic because I felt people really lacked a sense of community. … I do whatever I can to help people meet God.” I can do that is important.”

Even as churches reopened across the US, attendance has been slow to pick up. Average personal attendance has declined by 12% in the past 18 months, according to one discovery Published in November which was led by Hartford Institute for Religion Research,

While this trend is cause for concern for the church, it also serves as a wake-up call for religious leaders to refine the way they engage with their members, Martin said.

“I think it has taken some time, but most churches and religious organizations have realized that this needs to be addressed,” Martin said.

shock of energy

At New York City’s East End Temple, Rabbi Joshua Stanton gives a jolt of energy to his sermons.

“My sermons are getting shorter and shorter, and more and more open. And what I try to encourage people to do is discuss them with me. Argue about them . Navigate with them. And come and study together so we can all share an understanding,” Stanton said.

Stanton, 35, is creating more room for members to chat and argue with each other.

Spiritual experience will never go away. The need to find meaning and purpose in our existence will never end.
Deepak Chopra

New York-based designer Fletcher Esbaugh, a recent Jewish convert, said what he loves most about the East End Temple is debate.

“Aspects of arguments and conflicts are very important. And I think it’s certainly a pillar of Judaism … it’s intellectual pursuit,” said Esbaugh.

While many millennials are leaving organized religion, Esbaugh embraced Judaism several years ago after being introduced to Jewish traditions through a few close friends. Esbaugh did not become religious, but immediately felt a sense of belonging and fulfillment.

He said, “I find spiritual and intellectual fulfillment and an understanding of my place in the world by being Jewish. Constantly asking questions and challenging ideas through Judaism fulfills me.”

no subject off the table

Younger Christian followers are flocking to the Middle Collegiate Church on New York’s Lower East Side, where Rev. Jackie Lewis says no topic is off the table. She encourages her congregations—most of which are millennials—to get involved and take a stand on political issues.

“We place social justice and democracy between trust in a way that really speaks to young people,
Lewis said. “We’ve had an incredible campaign for voting rights, women’s right to choose, immigrant rights, racial justice.”

While Lewis, a Christian devout, said that his teachings are inspired by the Bible, his approach is more progressive, emphasizing spirituality and community over scripture. On its website, Middle Collegiate stated that its church is “where medicine meets Broadway … where old-time religion gets a new twist.”

While some critics might say that this model is changing Christians’ traditional relationship with God, Lewis said this is a good thing.

“It’s exciting to me, I’m trying to get God out of the box,” Lewis said.

Middle Collegiate Church’s congregation grew by 500 members during the pandemic – even though its original 128-year-old church building was destroyed by fire last year.

Congressman Paron Allen said he grew up in a conservative Christian household in Mississippi, but as a gay man, he struggled to be accepted by his community.

“I was a Baptist Christian. And so the way we saw things – and the way they communicated – … you had to do things the way the Bible really says. But I think the Bible and Jesus Christ believes in love, no matter what. And I think I found it in the middle. … It’s about love — and love, period,” Allen shared.

Disagreement over where church doctrine stands on specific issues remains a struggle for many young Catholics.

“When it comes to the Catholic Church, there are some significant differences between what the Church teaches and what young Catholics think,” Martin said. “I think probably the two biggest issues are women’s ordination and the way the church treats LGBTQ people.”

“I think the difference is that maybe 25 years ago, people would have said, ‘Ugh, how can I stay Catholic and have difficulty with church teaching?’ Now, I guess, young people just say ‘I’m leaving,'” Martin said. “Okay? They have very little tolerance for what they see as intolerable behaviour.”

people come to retreat

Spiritual leader Deepak Chopra said, “Some of the things told to us in traditional religion do not seem logical or rational, and more people are questioning these teachings.”

However, Chopra said, she believes the interest in belonging and finding connection in a community has never been stronger.

“The pandemic has shown us that people do not like isolation. … [In] Absence of that human need for love, compassion, happiness, sharing, attention, affection, appreciation, gratitude, …, people panicked,” Chopra said.

These last two years have definitely tested my faith – because so many lives are being taken away from us, it’s hard to make sense of it.
Megha Desai
Philanthropist, Desai Foundation

Chopra, 75, is the author of 97 books, from Jesus and the Buddha to the Metaverse. He has accumulated a worldwide following, and speaks at major events throughout the year. As the founder of the Chopra Foundation, he hosts retreats around the world where spiritually minded people come to recover, meditate, and connect.

“The retreats are full,” he said. “We just completed one in Mexico. Another in Los Angeles. People are coming to these retreats.”

Events can cost thousands to attend. a Week-long retreat planned for next month in Carefree, Arizona, is priced anywhere between $6,000 to $8,000. Chopra said that people leave the church to attend the retreat. He said that while the decline in religious observance is raising questions about how society is changing, people are becoming more spiritual.

“The spiritual experience will never go away,” he said. “The need to find meaning and purpose in our existence will never go away. The need to solve inevitable suffering will never go away.”

He added that as the pandemic progresses, engaging the younger generation in spirituality is one way to foster a stronger connection.

faith tested

Philanthropist Megha Desai, a Hindu, grew up in Boston, but spent a lot of time in India. She used to worship in beautiful temples of both the countries. But Desai, who now lives in New York, said the pandemic had changed her relationship with religion, prompting her to ask more questions.

“These last two years have definitely tested my faith,” Desai said. “Since so many lives are being taken from us, it’s hard to make sense of it.”

Desai still identifies as a Hindu, but said she has become less religious.

Desai said, “I access my connection to God from a more spiritual place through religion. … I find that the Hindu rituals I participate in, festivals like Diwali, that take me away from my culture. Faith connects more,” Desai said. , who drives Desai Foundation, a non-profit organization that organizes community and educational programs for women in India.

But the search for answers to life’s toughest questions will continue even as more of America’s youth leave organized religion, Chopra said.

“Some things that are told to us in traditional religion don’t seem logical or rational,” he said. “So people are leaving… but humans still have the same questions: Do we have meaning or purpose in our existence? Why do we suffer?”


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