Hundreds of college students and young adults gather in a line that curves around the block in the early hours of a Sunday morning to jam out in Gramercy Theatre. The room is filled to capacity with young people and a line has already started outside for the next show. This isn’t a rock concert or club; it’s the popular Christian church, Hillsong, that holds five services every Sunday on 23rd Street in Manhattan.
What’s unusual about the congregations is that most are under 30, yet many in GenY consider themselves more spiritual than religious, according to a survey by Lifeway Christian Resources. Another found that one-fifth of adults under 30 were religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Like many other millennials, Nikki Sriram, 20, a student at University of Chicago and a practicing Hindu, fell away from the religion when she started college. “I’ve practiced Hinduism with my family since birth, though I consider myself more spiritual than religious,” she says. To her being spiritual means the belief in a higher being, but not feeling the need to live her life through what she considers the religion’s strict rules.
Today, Gen Yers rarely attend religious service or pray, 64 percent of them still have “absolutely certain belief in God,” even those who are religiously unaffiliated. “I feel like as I learned more in college, I started to reject the ideas of organized religion,” says Sriram. “That doesn’t mean that I no longer believe in God, but that I no longer support the pomp and circumstance surrounding formal religion.”
Another millennial with a differing view on religion is David Harty, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Brooklyn who is a self-proclaimed “ex-Christian, ex-missionary, existentialist nihilist,” according to his public description on Twitter. He was an evangelical Baptist Christian before he came to college and started to doubt what he believed. Like other Gen Yers, he began to question Christianity and stopped going to church. “I wanted to know new info, so I started looking into what I actually believed,” David says.
Sociologist and author of “Souls in Transition”, Christian Smith told Christianity Today about research he has done to show that higher education does not necessarily corrode religious belief. “College is no different in terms of the faith corrosion outcomes on youth. It may even strengthen the faith of some,” Smith said. He attributes some of this growth to the multiple campus religious groups and ministries at secular colleges, a growing trend.
Although numbers of religious millennials have decreased drastically in a short amount of time, there are still many students and adults that practice religion despite what their friends and co-workers may believe. That was the case for Richard Kim, 20, who joined a Christian organization on campus called KCCC (Korean Campus Crusade for Christ). “I got involved in the campus organization before I came to church in the city because I found a great sense of community there and I was just able to gain brothers and sisters who really cared for me and showed their love towards me,” Richard says.
He shares his faith with the 74 percent of millennials who also practice organized religion, a rather large number, but nothing compared to the larger percentages of previous generations.
Agreeing with Smith that college is a vital time in students’ development is Andrew Kim, 26, a College pastor from Philadelphia. He believes that in college, students search for answers of their identity and place in the world for which religion may answer. “College age students are wrestling with many questions and issues among which religion is definitely one,” he says.
Andrew Kim, like others in his generation, went through a phase of questioning and doubt in his faith. “I came to realize my association with a particular religion or faith commitment really wasn’t so different with my peers and who claimed to have no affiliation,” he says. “The issue for me was which faith system—be it religion, science, new age spirituality, etc.—made the most sense of the reality around me.” In the end, he found Christianity was most fulfilling.
During this tumultuous time, it is obvious why religion may not concern millennials as much as it did for previous generations. “Geographic mobility, social mobility, wanting to have options, thinking this is the time to be crazy and free in ways most religions traditions would frown upon, wanting an identity different from the family of origin—all of these factors reduce serious faith commitments,” Christians Smith said to Christianity Today.
Gen Y isn’t bored or lazy to be involved with religion, but is just still searching. Some have found their niches in life, but others continue to ask questions and search for new knowledge. Gen Y is known for being the most liberal and open generation which reflects on their religious beliefs. The five Hillsong church services end every Sunday to a hoard of young Christian adults coming out of the theatre with satisfied and refreshed looks on their faces. Spirituality may be the only thing that matters to some millennials, but to others religion still reigns supreme.