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What's Up With Millennials? Ask UUs.
What's Up With Millennials? Ask UUs.

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The Pew Forum’s March 7 report on the Millennial Generation (age 18-33) was yet another poll that highlighted the rising number of young people who are nonreligious. However, Pew’s report also made an important new connection, which is that the decline of religion among Millennials is rooted in the generation’s overall detachment from institutions. As the Director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a Millennial myself, I see these generational changes play out every day.  In fact, looking at what’s going on in the United States’ 1000 Unitarian Universalist congregations is a great window into the Pew report’s conclusions about generations and institutions.

Pew’s new poll pegs the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Millennials at 29%, compared to a mere 9% of the Silent Generation (age 69-86). It’s a trend that has been confirmed through dozens of studies, and it comes as no surprise to those of us who attend Mainline Protestant, traditional Christian or other congregationalist-style churches where the average member is often in their late 50’s or early 60’s. The poll points out that the number of Millennial atheists continues to grow, though they are still a small minority (11%). Pew’s report further shows my generation is exceptionally liberal on a host of social issues, including support for gay marriage and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

For religious groups that do not invite questions about the existence of God, or have not supported key social justice issues, these trends might be pretty worrisome. On the other hand, the UUA, is excited about these changes. Unitarian Universalists embrace an open theology that welcomes humanists and nonbelievers alongside committed theists, spiritual seekers and interfaith families. We are prominent advocates of equality for LGBTQ people, and hosted a mass interfaith demonstration in 2012 in support of immigration reform.

It seems that we Unitarian Universalists should be well-positioned to take advantage of these trends to reach out to Millennials. Yet, in reality, our membership is barely staying level, and we have trouble retaining the Millennial youth who grow up in our churches.  How could that be? Pew’s report holds the answer.

We UU’s aren’t truly reaching my generation because we haven’t figured how to take the things we love about our churches and translate them into an approach that makes sense for young adults. Far from being an accident, this is a product of our UU congregational model that thrives on members who are culturally similar, economically stable and geographically rooted - all things that are different for the diverse, uncertain and mobile Millennial Generation. No matter how much our UU values match up with those of Millennials, our congregations are institutions in an era that is not very institution-friendly.

Institutions like churches, political parties and social organizations were simply designed for a different era. Pew makes this point crystal clear, linking the increase in the ranks of political “independents” among Millennials with the decline in religious practice to illustrate the challenges all institutions face in trying to attract younger members.

You might say that UU’s are a natural experiment because many of our congregations still have the look and feel of a traditional church but defy the negative stereotypes young adults associate with religion. UU’s are proof that the institutional hypothesis explains what’s going on with Millennials and church. This is not just a theory; it’s a daily reality for the congregations I work with across the country. I see the struggle in adapting a traditional church format with its countless committees, weekly potlucks and Sunday morning services to appeal to younger folks.

Overall, I see great potential down the rocky road ahead for UU’s and religiously liberal people of all kinds. I am glad that the compassion and justice at the heart of my faith is the norm for other people my age, and that the openness and diversity which UU’s cherish is in line with the broader society. But I also know that we with religious leaders stripes must figure out how to create sustainable spiritual organizations in this brave new world if we want our faith to continue to be a beacon of conscience, connection and meaning for decades to come.

About the Author

  • Carey McDonald is the UUA's Executive Vice President. He's a lifelong UU who has worked in nonprofit, government, political and progressive organizations. He lives Medford, MA with his wife, Sarah and two sons, Julian and Hosea.

Comments (15) (Open)

Frank Coon (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Brilliant article and great comments. Thank you all. I think we all need to consider what kind of legacy we want to create. The church of yesterday and today will not be the church of tomorrow. We must adapt, evolve, or die. I believe the future of our faith is at stake if we refuse to take on this challenge. Blessed be.

MB Tankersley (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

OK, now that we’ve identified this audience as one receptive to our values, as well as identifying our current congregational model as inadequate to reach the Millennial generation & beyond, we need a plan of action. What do you suggest we should do to reach this generation? I have read many articles containing this same information, with a somewhat misplaced sense of optimism that we are poised in the tight position for this generation to find us… somehow. As a YRUU-trained Advisor for almost a decade, & current Mid-High Advisor at FIrst Unitarian Albuquerque, I can tell that the socially connected Millennial generation & the “Gen-Next” coming along afterward enjoy a highly-personal style of worship centered on a safe group of friends. As you mention i your piece, they are much more diverse as far as socio-economic, cultural, & gender identity then previous generations, even in the Unitarian Universalist community. Indeed, we need to evolve. There are clues about how this can be accomplished by examining what was successful about the dissolved YRUU community, if anybody in Boston will listen.

Annie Gonzalez (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Hi MB,

Well I think different strategies will work for each unique congregation and community, but if you're looking for some models of success, you can check out the Spotlight Series, which highlights different congregations that are successfully ministering to millenials: http://blueboat.blogs.uua.org/spotlight/

Another program addressing these particular needs is called Faith Architects and the goal is to use conferences to help young adults take the best of youth culture and use it to transform their congregations. It is just getting started this year and you can read about it here: http://blueboat.blogs.uua.org/2014/04/01/faith-architects-lets-build-spi...

MB Tankersley (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Hi Annie, thank you for the links. Glad to see there are a few initiatives in place. The different strategies for different congregations methodology is cool, although I think it could work hand-in-hand with some national programs, especially where online presence is concerned. In addition, it would be terrific to see the UUA offer more resources to congregations & communities interested in online outreach, but without the expertise to utilize it effectively.

And what I've read mentioned above, more on-campus outreach could really provide a boon for our faith. Young Adults are notoriously hard-to-reach, but a visible, on-campus group can mean a world of difference. This is another issue that is handled well on the congregational level but is intimidating to most church personnel. More resources & leadership from the UUA would be appreciated.

Becki Harringto... (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Yes! Yes! Yes! "Far from being an accident, this is a product of our UU congregational model that thrives on members who are culturally similar, economically stable and geographically rooted – all things that are different for the diverse, uncertain and mobile Millennial Generation."

I've tried to bring up at my church that the congregational model is itself outdated in terms of expectations of consistent Sunday morning attendance and what it means to be a "member" and pledging. These ingrained cultural norms are not so easy to change.

Carey McDonald (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Thanks, Becki! We'd love to hear more about what your church is doing. You might check out the 21st Century Faith Formation resources (they are not UU-specific) here: www.21stcenturyfaithformation.com

BD (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Thanks for pushing on how the current models of UU churches don't work for 20somethings. One thing the UUA could do is have a program staff of more than one for the YAYA ministries...

Carey McDonald (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Hi BD,

We do! There are five folks in the UUA's Youth and Young Adult Ministries, as well as staff focused on youth and young adults at the UU College of Social Justice and in our districts and regions across the country.

But to be honest, I don't think that lack of staff is what's holding us back, and staff alone can't make all the changes that need to happen for us to thrive in the future. It's people at all levels of lay and professional leadership understanding these trends and bringing their dedication and creativity to bear in adapting their faith communities to respond.

Liz (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Agreed! Moreover, the youth culture changes very fast - so we need to be able and ready to keep evolving. Constant changes in communication creates a huge challenge for established organizations like ours.

Although I am not a youth, I spend much of my time as a teacher of college and high school-age youth. I believe youth (like all of us) deeply yearn for connection, community. Plus, our congregations offer many a chance to lead and serve (esp. bc many of our youth don't necessarily connect with the mainstream school culture.)

We have a lot to learn from youth and young adult population! Glad to read your thoughts on this-

NextGen Ministr... (not verified) 4 years 1 month ago

[…] all well aware. We’ve talked about how Millennials are less religious than other generations in words and in images. We’ve also tossed out some ways to engage this young adult generation. Well the […]

Bryan (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Many things are needed to remedy this including but not limited to: (1) getting the word out (visibility) in general and at colleges. I never noticed UU until college, aside from the Prairie Home Companion, i never heard about UUs. (2) more youthful services. So many opportunities here, like occasionally not using antiquated music, but maybe something more modern (previous 20 years). (3) bringing children into services, we UCBR just started doing this last year. (4) transitional groups or some mechanism to transition those who complete RE to the regular service. maybe a mentor from a youth group? (5) having one or more youth groups for those age 18 to 39. (6) find a way to target Gifted & Talented youth in the area

Annie Gonzalez (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Hi Bryan,
You raise some great suggestions! And these strategies do tend to get results. Some of our congregations do these things really well. For example we have lots of campus ministry groups supported by congregations around the country, and there are many congregations that use lively and more contemporary music as well. Young Adult groups for those in their 20s and 30s are also common. To read about some congregations that are successfully ministering to millenials, you can check out the Spotlight Series on this blog that highlights particular examples: http://blueboat.blogs.uua.org/spotlight/

Annie Gonzalez (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Dianne, I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's experience. I agree, we definitely would do well to focus on ministering to the youngest of our young adults who are going through lots of transition and often feel they are losing their supportive youth community only to cross a bridge to nowhere.

Campus ministries are one important way to bridge this gap, and support from the home congregation for those youth who have graduated high school is also crucial. For an example of a congregation working on this, you can read this blogpost: http://blueboat.blogs.uua.org/2014/02/10/uuyoungadultsofgolden/

Another exciting initiative in this area is called Faith Architects, and it's a program designed to help young adults take the best of youth culture and use it to transform their UU congregations and communities. It's just getting started and you can read about it here: http://blueboat.blogs.uua.org/2014/04/01/faith-architects-lets-build-spi...

Dianne (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

As the mother of an 18 year old who moved from San Antonio to Rochester, NY for college, I would have have to say UU churches we have known in both places have really let our young people 18-? down. Once her group finished high school and before leaving for college, there were no regular Sunday meetings, nor were there other get-to-get hers. This would have been a great opportunity to have groups to discuss questions and anxieties about the transition to college.My daughter would have attended something if available. There need to transitional activities/classes for this 18-college age group. They aren't interested in our regular adult classes. When she went to UU church in Rochester, she learned things were the same there. It's as if people 18-22 have ceased to exist for the church-UU. We ought to reach out to colleges where young people are settling into a new city, and provide Transportation to church- or have UU activities on campuses.

Heather (not verified) 4 years 3 months ago

Being a GenXer I can't really comment on Millennials, but I can on GenXers. One of the reasons I picked our church instead of other UU churchs in the area is because we have an active Young Adult group & Keen Supporters. Having socials, fun, and activities together helps promote a sense of belonging and makes you want to come to church. The other churchs in the area I went to didn't have a group for our age group.
Also most people stop going to church when they go to collage or leave High School. Let's face it- If you are out until 2 am at a night club, concert, or rave who wants to get up & go to church the next day? People only seem to want to come back to church after they get married and have kids to raise the kids in an ethical structure. Someone like me gets lost without kids and a husband in those years. At my old UU church, when we were trying to partner with the local University, we only got about 3 people to show up. No one wanted to put in the time to make it a reality. They didn't start a young adult group until it was too late for me to join. We tried to do a Young Adult chalice circle, but after the first meeting no one could agree on a good day or time because everyone was so busy. Can't say what the solution is, but my churchdoes have a good start on solving the problem.

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