While most religions believe their doctrines and practices to be eternal verities, all denominations, like other institutions, must continually enlist and renew the commitment of each new generation if they are to survive and carry on their work. At perhaps no other time in the nation's history has this task been more challenging for America's religious faiths than it is now.
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, according to the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds of Millennials (64 percent) are certain God exists.
In spite of these beliefs, however, a large majority of Millennials (72 percent) describe themselves as "more spiritual than religious," according to a LifeWay Christian Resources survey.
Millennials are significantly less likely than older Americans to be members of a specific denomination or to participate in traditional religious rituals. About 1 in 5 Millennials (18 percent) has left the denomination of their childhood and a quarter of them are completely unaffiliated with any denomination. Millennials are also less likely than older generations to attend religious services weekly or to read Scripture, pray, and meditate regularly.
Not just youthful skepticism
And for any who may believe that the generation's lesser commitment to specific denominations or participation in religious rituals simply stems from youthful skepticism, Pew tracking surveys indicate otherwise. Millennials are twice as likely to be unaffiliated with a specific denomination than were baby boomers in the 1970s and 1-1/2 times more likely than were members of Generation X in the 1990s – when both of those cohorts were the age that Millennials are today.
In the end, however, perhaps the biggest impact Millennials will have on the country's religious landscape is to increase its diversity and expand the definition of what faiths are recognized as part of the American mainstream.
Since ratification in 1791, the First Amendment has protected the rights of religious minorities and nonbelievers. But from the beginning, the United States has been predominantly a Christian, and more specifically, a Protestant, nation. The Millennials put a large dent in that description.
This generation is not only the most ethnically diverse in US history, it is also the most religiously diverse. Millennials are half as likely to be white Evangelicals or Roman Catholics and a quarter less likely to be white mainline Protestants compared with older generations. By contrast, they are twice as likely to be Hispanic Catholics or unaffiliated and a third more likely to be non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists), finds Pew.
As a result of all these trends, only two-thirds (68 percent) of Millennials are Christian, compared with about 80 percent of older Americans. Fewer than half (43 percent) are Protestant, in contrast to 53 percent of all older generations and almost two-thirds of senior citizens.
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.
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."