Most people acknowledge that Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1997) are less religiously affiliated than people born longer ago in the past. Nearly one-third of American Millennials do not belong to a faith community and only 10 percent are looking for one. Though many are atheists or agnostics, the majority are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality, with many falling back on the label “spiritual but not religious.” Sociologists label this group the “Nones” — those who, when offered a choice of religious affiliation, choose “none of the above.”
Rather than a move toward secularization, we seem to be witnessing a paradigmatic shift from an institutional to a personal understanding of spirituality. As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell explain, unaffiliated Americans “reject conventional religious affiliation, while not entirely giving up their religious feelings.”
During the course of our research into how Millennials build communities of meaning and belonging (published in the reports “How We Gather” and “Something More”), we found that while Millennials are disinclined to join faith communities that have a religious creed as the threshold, they are looking for spirituality and community in combination — qualities they deem essential for a meaningful life.
Young people long for a sense of communal belonging. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression continue to increase — with suicide the third-leading cause of death among the young. While traditional religion struggles to attract young people, this age cohort is looking elsewhere with increasing urgency.
We are finding unlikely centers of community springing up across the country. For example, the more than 15,000 CrossFit gyms, with their famously tough workouts, serve not only as the locus for physical transformation, but also as places in which to build strong social ties that can be called on for support in times of trial. The evangelical-like enthusiasm of CrossFit members is paired with an accountability that works to hold participants to a higher standard of living. Elsewhere, co-living and co-working startups offer places for Millennials to explore their creativity and purpose. Through weekend-long “hackathons” where individuals come together to solve a shared software-development problem, to after-work art classes, young people are creating their own spaces of meaning and belonging.
Though technology facilitates connection, these communities grow organically, largely through word of mouth. Often, the founders of these new communities were themselves looking for a space in which to belong and thrive, and they didn’t find what they were looking for. The entrepreneurial spirit is deeply embedded in this landscape of innovation.
Overwhelmingly, the organizations we’ve been researching use secular language while mirroring many of the functions fulfilled by religious community. We’ve identified six themes that are strikingly consistent: personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, accountability, and, of course, community. Clearly, these themes are not at all new — religious traditions have been seeking to offer them for centuries — but the ways in which they are finding expression are new. Innovative communities, such as the candlelit spin class SoulCycle and the cross-country train journey the Millennial Trains Project are echoing religious practices of pilgrimage, worship, a liturgical cycle, confession, and textual learning with a modern twist. And innovative Jewish communities, such as Mishkan Chicago or Gather the Jews in Washington, D.C. are more aligned with these secular counterparts than they are with traditional synagogues, as they depend less on a house of worship and more on a network of creative and constantly changing participants who co-create their own experiences.
On the leadership front, increasingly, innovative community leaders are encouraging an ethos of care for self and others and a mindset of abundance. They argue, explicitly or implicitly, that each person is a change maker with the opportunity — if not the responsibility — to make change for the better. And making change means making connections, both broadly in the world and deeply at home.
For religious institutions and leaders, these trends often seem bewildering and frustrating. Yet we see enormous opportunities to engage with the rising communities. Acknowledging that communities are sometimes built in unusual spaces, leaders could encourage friendship, promote neighborhood welfare, and nurture creativity in venues that we often overlook. They might yet contribute to the wellbeing and spiritual growth of the rising generation.