‘Millennials’ Search for Solutions in Religions

January 3, 2003 | By Ritz Mary Kaye

Christina Striebich, 17, already knows where she’ll be in five years. She’ll be in graduate school, studying to become an optometrist.

A five-year plan is “pretty standard” for her friends, said the Sacred Hearts senior. “I think a lot more so than previously.”

She’s right about that: The generation dubbed the “millennials”—children born starting in 1982—are less inclined to take risks than their baby boomer parents or Gen-X older siblings, and more likely to be joining a faith community, especially one in an orthodox tradition, find Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the book “Millennials Rising.” These young people prefer group activities and want clear rules set for them, the authors say—a combination that seemingly guarantees they will be sitting in the pews as adults.

Some theologians have expressed concern that such generalizations will lead to ministries that market spirituality merely as an activity. But many religious thinkers who follow youth trends agree with the findings, and have urged churches to do more to ensure the millennials fulfill their religious potential.

“I think it’s a great opportunity, if churches pay attention to it,” said Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor of youth, church and culture at the Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school in New Jersey.

Creasy Dean sees the change as a predictable cultural shift that follows a pattern in which young people reject the beliefs held by the generation before them.

“Whatever parents think is cool, kids rebel by saying it’s not cool,” she said. “Parents are trying to be very open and let kids make their own choices. Kids are saying, ‘Relativity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, because everything in my life is shifting sand.’ ”

Nor do they want to be like their older siblings.

Christina is 20 years younger than her brother, a bartender who is still single. As much as she loves him, she doesn’t emulate him.

“He’s out there, having fun,” she said. “He’s very independent. He doesn’t depend on anyone for anything.”

She and her generation are more focused on getting good grades, getting into college and getting good jobs, she said.

“He’s ‘Play now, pay later.’ My brother and his friends would be more geared toward taking one day at a time; they don’t really know what’s going to happen in another year,” she said.

Historical correction

While Christina’s boomer parents dropped out of church after college, they came back when they had a family.

She thinks she’ll be more like her grandparents, whom she suspects always attended Greek Orthodox services.

Christina even volunteers at Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific, baking goodies for the church’s Greek Festival fund-raiser—baklava and kourabiedes (a pastry with brandy, dough and powdered sugar).

“Personally, I like the way it’s orderly and traditional,” she said. “…I like knowing what’s going on, not feeling lost or not knowing what’s going to happen in the future. It’s comforting and reassuring.”

That parallels what Strauss found. Speaking by phone from his Virginia office, he said today’s millennials are looking to religion to create order and meaning.

“Boomers focused on religion from an inner-life perspective,” he said. “(They) took religion in very noticeable directions in the latter part of 20th century…looking at religion as dogma more than deed. Millennials are more culturally conservative.”

Strauss called this “historical correction,” noting that many in the boomer generation were big risk-takers.

“There’s a rise in some of the really classical notions of religion: chanting, labyrinths, medieval aspects of Christianity and Judaism, the aspect of ritual,” he said.

“For millennials, it’s an organized thing. They’re used to organized things—organized soccer, organized tests.”

Boomers were raised to not join a Hitler or a Stalin, he added, and millennials were raised to not be Gen-Xers, with all their attendant cynicism.

These are youths who matured as the Columbine High School murders and 9/11 were taking their toll, he said. The world of chaos is their norm, which is why they choose to seek order.

“Their biggest complaints?” he said. “Disorder. Random acts of violence.”

Daniel Levey, 19, attends sabbath service every week when he’s home and even away at the University of Oregon, where his five-year plan includes studying biochemistry and medicine.

“In my college, there are a lot more people going to churches or synagogues,” said Levey, who graduated from Punahou School.

“Why? It’s about holding our sanity in this world, with all the bad things happening.…(Our faith is) where we can find direction towards answers. We’ve been lost, I guess.”

And he doesn’t clamor to take risks because “we’ve already seen what the consequences of that is, like going to Vietnam. We’ve seen the results of these experiments (and) don’t want to be misled.”

These factors will come into play in this generation’s larger world view, and ,in turn, in their religion.

New churches

One interesting piece of this millennial-generation theory, Strauss said, is that as the pendulum swings back to the traditional, the “new Christian” churches that grew at a rapid pace in the ‘80s and ‘90s may find their growth rates leveling.

“Evangelical Christians were a boomer thing,” Strauss explained.

While at 27, Tyrone-Stavros Emery is a little older than the millennials, he has an interesting vantage point as a substitute high school teacher.

During college, he experimented with New Hope Christian Fellowship, Hope Chapel and others. But one Easter, around the time three of his grandparents died, he visited his surviving grandfather’s Greek Orthodox church for Pascha (Easter).

“Thinking about death and life got me searching for the truth,” he said, something he said he didn’t find in “those ‘new’ churches.” (As he spoke, he used his fingers to make quote marks in the air.)

Mosaic of influences

Youth ministers at two Christian churches disagree about millennials not finding what they want at their places of worship.

What Jim Miller, a youth minister at First Presbyterian, has heard about the millennial generation is that “they’re perceived to be traditional, conservative: I still hear kids say they’re bored by church but want stability.”

But Miller isn’t fully convinced that the trend will last. “I don’t know how much they’re really into ritual,” he said. “That comes from some sense of discipline, and they’re not a really disciplined generation.”

Miller worries about what he sees as a prevailing moral belief that tolerance is a virtue at all costs.

“They believe friends let friends do whatever they want” including driving drunk, he said. “The pro side, it teaches them not to be bigots. The down side, they have trouble making moral decisions.…When they have to push around a friend in a wheelchair who’s crashed their car, I think they’ll change their minds about that.”

Rick Bundschuh, pastor of Kauai Christian Fellowship in Poipu, didn’t want to make blanket statements about an entire generation, but finds some characteristics holding true on a practical level: “They have a wider selection; you tend not to get kids running in a big pack, more clusters,” he said. “…Certain things ignite them. Worship unites them. One of the things I’ve noticed with kids: They’re not concerned about denomination, but about whether it’s relevant. You do that without being ashamed of Christianity. It’s so counterculture, it’s cool.”

Kelii Akina, executive director of Hawaii Youth for Christ, prefers the term “mosaic” to “millennial” because it describes many different influences on the next generation.

“The key feature? They are eclectic, combining traditional and avant-garde lifestyles more than any time in the past, picking and choosing a la carte how they want to live, think, who they want to be with,” he said.

He agrees with Miller and Bundschuh that the Hawaii teens he comes in contact with veer away from objective morals toward subjective truth. “Truth is what they feel, rather than what they’re told by institutions or religions, “he said.

Searching for structure

But church officials at traditional churches—the Roman Catholics, orthodox Jews and Greek Orthodox—say they suspect the research is correct.

Today’s young people need substance over style, they say.

Al Simbahon, director/founder of AGAPE youth and young adult ministries in Waipahu, said he sees young people bringing their baby-boomer parents to church.

“It’s not services as entertainment anymore,” the Catholic youth leader said.

Rabbi Israel Chudaitov, assistant rabbi for the Chabad Lubavitch of Hawaii, has already seen an influx of people recently.

“I don’t know if it’s the ritual, or seeking something beyond MTV,” he said.

And the Rev. Nicholas V. Gamvas, the new dean at Sts. Constantine & Helen, where Christina and Tyrone-Stavros attend, knows his two congregants fit the outline of millennials perfectly: “Structure is very much a part of their orientation within the church, as opposed to us growing up in the ‘60s,” said Gamvas, who has his doctorate in psychology.

“It’s a sense of security coming from structure.”