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One of the cornerstones of Millennial study is Soul Searching a book and study by Dr. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. The book, published in 2009, outlines the findings from a study by the National Study of Youth and Religion from July 2002 to March 2003.
While much of what I write may be specifically tailored to mid-to-young Millennials, Smith’s book gives us important insight on the older Millennials that would have been interviewed in this study. The book is a trove of information about Millennials, but one of the biggest takeaways is a term he coined: moral therapeutic deism—more on that later, though.
What do teens, or those who are now in their late-20s or early-30s, think about religion?
When Smith interviewed a number of teens who consider themselves “nonreligious,” here is what they told him about religion. These are actual quotes from teens—keep that in mind.
Religion gives people a good foundation, it’s a great moral foundation for people who don’t have any, a spiritual foundation, it helps a lot of people.
It’s important that people take religion as their own and interpret it as it helps them. It definitely gives people some ground, like my aunt for one. She was so heavily into drugs, then found God and has calmed down. So it gives people a lot of hope. I don’t believe in pushing anything on people, but if they choose it, then great. It’s all up to them.
I think it’s good to have something to hold on to and religion is a very personal thing, so I would never say that religion is not good or that it’s stupid. It just depends on the person.
I think religion is important for people to have. All religions are meant for people to better themselves. That’s one way someone can try to be a better person, through organized religion, so I think that’s important and really good for a lot of people. It’s not for some people, but I can’t think of it as a bad thing.
Religions is something that should happen in people’s lives, it’s a good thing—any religion, as long as you believe in God. Because it’s just having faith and believing in God, makes you feel like a different person.
What’s good is that it emphasizes how you treat other people. Just ethics in general could be good. The main message of most religions is to love each other. Though in some religions, women are treated with less respect, and that’s not cool.
I don’t think you necessarily have to believe in God and go to church, but I do think you have to believe there’s something more powerful than you and some things you can’t control. If you don’t have something to believe in, there’s just no point in waking up and going to work. If people without religion are happy, that’s okay for them. But if they start feeling like there’s something missing, then I think they should believe in something.
Religion teaches treating other people with respect, to show kindness. Religion should be a really strong thing, ’cause a lot of people are in gangs and stuff and if they had a religious influence that would be good.
Religion brings people together, it’s a big support. The people in the church and stuff are really supportive. If you need anything, they’re always there. It doesn’t matter which religious faith, as long as they believe in God. My idea has always been as long as you believe in God, you’re doing the right thing.
Religion’s another thing that helps instill morals in people when they’re young and I think it’s important to see God in life. It always shows there’s hope, it give people hope and that kind of thing.
Smith notes that not all nonreligious teens were so kind toward religion, saying some were more opposed than neutral or open to religious beliefs. But it seems that the majority felt this ambivalence.
Pastors and church leaders, these are the attitudes of the people you’re desperately trying to reach. I hope to elaborate on these quotes in the future, but they’re incredibly revealing. Some plaid shirts, smoke machines, and fancy coffee isn’t going to do the job. Reaching Millennials takes hard work and a serious understanding of a diverse people group.
Those Millennials who consider themselves nonreligious tend to see religion as a neutral crutch that people lean on when they need something to hold them up and when they need purpose in their lives. It is not to be imposed on others. It is not to extend outside of the self, except, of course, when it is being used as a motivation to love.
Read the quotes above, share them with the pastors on your staff, decide if your church is able to find the holes in this thinking.