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Millennial Generation challenges religion in America

The Millennial Generation believes in God, but is even less interested in organized religion than were baby boomers or Generation X in their youth. Religions in America may be able to attract Millennials by appealing to their values, especially volunteering and service.

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The nation's religious diversity is likely to increase even more in coming years as ever greater numbers choose spouses across denominational lines. The percentage of mixed-faith marriages rose from 15 percent in 1988 to 25 percent in 2006.

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Millennials are particularly willing to cross denominational boundaries in selecting a life partner. In a 2010 survey, less than a quarter of 18-to-23-year-olds thought it was important to marry someone of the same faith. How might America's religious denominations respond to this less ritualistic and more diverse future?

For religious faiths that are thousands of years old, it may make long-term sense to be comforted by the lesson offered in Ecclesiastes, as amplified in the boomer anthems of Simon & Garfunkel and the Byrds: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

Those who study generations say that American history is cyclical rather than linear. In about four decades a new, young generation of the archetype labeled Idealist by generational theorists will emerge into adulthood. The members of this new cohort – the children and grandchildren of Millennials – will, like today's boomers, be driven by their deeply held internal values, among which traditional religion and its rituals are likely to be very important.

Adjusting to Millennial values, service

In the immediate future, however, religious organizations will have to emphasize those aspects of their belief structures that most strongly mesh with Millennial values.

On one level this means that America's denominations will at least have to recognize that Millennials are far less driven than older generations by traditional beliefs on the cultural issues – women's rights, homosexuality, and evolution – that have divided the nation since the 1960s.

Millennials will also be drawn by appeals that emphasize service more than doctrine and ritual. No generation in American history has been as involved in national and community service as the Millennial Generation. Millennials make up a disproportionately large and growing share of large national service organizations – the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, as well as the armed forces.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, two-thirds of all youthful community service work is done through nonprofit educational and religious institutions. This faith-based community service participation lets Millennials live their spiritual beliefs in a very basic way and on their own terms. It may also help America's religious denominations weather and perhaps even thrive in the Millennial era ahead.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and coauthors of the recently published "Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America," and "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, & the Future of American Politics."

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