Or rather, away from them. Apparently, we’ve stopped going to church.
The data comes from the findings of two surveys released this month. Analyzing 2017 data from the American Time Use Survey, economist Michelle Freeman of the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that while millennials are more highly educated and spend more time working than their older counterparts, they have stepped back dramatically from religious activities.
At the Pew Research Center, studies tracking America’s religious landscape found that although religious beliefs and practice have been declining at a rapid pace for people of all ages, the drop-off has been most pronounced among people ages 23 to 38. In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services “a few times a year” or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. A decade ago, it was more than half and only 3 in 10, respectively.
Some of this might strike you as not-so-shocking. Millennials are entering their prime working years; they’ve got to make their way, climb their ladders, pay down all that student loan debt somehow. So what if they don’t have as much time for what the surveys call “civic and religious engagement” right now? Most of us tend to believe in a life cycle effect: Yes, people may drift away from their church or temple or congregation when they’re young, but they tend to come back when they have kids and things settle down.
Except that’s not what’s happening, either. Millennials are leaving religion — especially Christianity — and they’re not going back.
What to make of this latest deviation? First, there’s the discomfiting reminder that millennials aren’t as young as they used to be. Being born from 1981 to 1996 means that, at the upper end, some of us are 38 years old. By then you could be on your second husband and third career. Also, we may have “killed” Toys R Us, but we’re still having families: 30 percent of us now have children under the age of six. It’s just that we’re not drifting back into worshiping or volunteering.
But then again, so what? Will it matter for anyone other than the Sunday ushers whose collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?
Yes, actually. Religious and other civic organizations will atrophy — and not just from lack of funds. Faith and practice can’t persevere through our generation without attendance, and neither can the hope they tend to bring. And while that may not seem like a problem now, it will soon. We still want relationships and transcendence, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Our drive for those things isn’t likely to wane, despite how ambivalent we might feel about ancient liturgies or interminable coffee hours or even pastors whose politics have taken a sharp turn MAGA-wards.
Some of us are turning to convenient, low-commitment substitutes for faith and fellowship: astrology, the easy “spiritualism” of yoga and self-care, posting away on Twitter and playing more games. (Yes, literal games. The BLS survey found that we’re nearly twice as likely to get our game on than non-millennials, and for a longer time — but then again, we’re the “World of Warcraft” generation).
Here’s what really worries me: Few of these activities are as geared toward building deep relationships and communal support as the religious traditions the millennials are leaving behind. Actively participating in a congregation means embedding oneself in a community. This involves you in the lives of others and the other way around — their joys and sadnesses, connections and expectations. By leaving religion, we’re shrugging off the ties that bind, not just loosening them temporarily.
Which is freeing, in some sense — “Finally, no one’s breathing down my neck about finding a spouse!” — until it’s not. Much of the conversation around millennials today does center on workload and debt, but it’s our generation’s complaints about relationship culture, family formation and a lack thereof that are likely to reach a crescendo in the coming years. Dating apps were exciting in 2012, but seven years later we’re burnt out. A new wave of egg-freezing start-ups is targeting the growing number of millennial women who still haven’t found the partner they hoped they would.
In longer-range studies, researchers are also seeing that millennials are busier but also much more lonely. Perhaps as a result, we are having much less sex — attributable to fewer long-term relationships, exactly the sort of tie-ups that used to be fostered by churches and civic organizations.
The Pew and BLS surveys are MRIs for the soul: They give a snapshot of busy millennial life that many will easily attribute to our phase of life. But while phases pass, the underlying needs and wants will continue to matter. What happens when sleeping, working and gaming more than our elders begins to make less sense? If we’re closing the church doors behind us, we’ll have to find somewhere else to tend to our spirits — and our hearts.