“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”  Many Millennials take on that view.  But what does that even mean and why do people say that?  Basically, it’s been said “if you’re spiritual, but not religious—you’re not an atheist, you still believe in God, you still whisper a prayer every now and then, you’re spiritual—or at least open to spirituality, and you just don’t want to be tied to anything specific”  (James White, Rise of the Nones, p. 201).  A couple weeks ago we talked about a big word, “secularization.”  Today we are going to talk about another big word, “privatization.”  This will help us understand why someone says they are spiritual and not religious.  James White describes privatization this way: “A chasm is created between the public and the private spheres of life, and spiritual things are increasingly placed within the private arena.” (White, p. 49)

A shift in what faith is

Whether spiritual or religious—both have to do with faith and belief.  People want to take their faith and beliefs out of the public atmosphere and solely into the private atmosphere.  Because of that there is going to be a huge shift in what “faith” actually is.  Faith suddenly becomes no more than a reflection of ourselves.  Spirituality really is anything an individual desires it to be—a private affair to be developed as one sees fit.  So spiritually doesn’t always have to do with a known faith or religion (White, p. 48-49).

Jess Rainer has observed his fellow Millennials and many would fit that category: “Three out of four Millennials say they are spiritual but not religious.  If you state you are spiritual, most people will take that at face value.  If you state that you are religious, you will have to define what you believe.  Most Millennials are unable to define their beliefs.” (Thom and Jess Rainer, The Millennials, p. 47)

When did this shift happen?  Most of the Builder generation, my grandparents, did not act this way.  They identified with a specific church body and its beliefs.  They hardly ever missed church.  Diana Butler Bass explains:

In the post-World War II period, Western societies underwent what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘an expressivist revolution,’ whereby obligatory group identity—whether of nation, family, or church—was replaced with a new sense of individual authenticity and the ‘right of choices’ based in personal fulfillment.  External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward the authentic self in society (Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion, pg. 141).

Why this shift? 

I believe the root of the issue is fear and lack of trust.  This fear is the result when authority figures in society’s traditional structures—the home, the church, and the government—have failed them.  Because of these failures, there is a lack of trust in authority figures among many Millennials.

It begins in the home where Millennial grew up.  Millennials are eight times more likely to come into the world without married parents than Boomers (Kinnaman, You Lost Me, pgs. 46-47).  Many Millennials have grown up with parents that are divorced and only one parent was constantly around.  Since half the parental unit could not always be counted on, Millennials grew up very skeptical not only of parents, but of all authoritative figures.  Spiritual and political leaders themselves have not always done a good job reversing that stigma either.  James Hein explains this shift:

Because their God-given authorities have often proven themselves untrustworthy, Millennials have had to navigate a different route to find authentic authorities.  Authority tends to come only after personal investment and communal accountability, i.e. genuine connection, has been established.  In other words, don’t expect Millennials to willfully submit to long-standing systems or structures of expertise.  Traditional structures have largely failed them from birth.  They feel very little sense of obligation and therefore care far less about pre-existing “rules” than their predecessors (James Hein, Ministering to Millennials, Part II).

One way the church has caused this mistrust is the church often tries to become more worldly.  “In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges, to novel problems of knowledge, to the tightening standards of science, the defenders of God slowly strangled him” (White, p. 52).  Basically many well-known church bodies loosened up what God’s Word said and tried to fit in with society.  So really “preaching what people’s itching ears want to hear” has created this spiritual without being religious mentality.  The doctrine has been taken away, so there is no foundation to stand on.  Finally Millennials needed to take it upon themselves and made their own beliefs as their foundation.  Anyone can truly believe what he/she wants.  How can Millennials trust the church if it keeps changing what it believes? 

This has also affected how some Millennials view God’s Word.  They are skeptical.  They have been burned by God’s representatives in the church.  They don’t want to be burned by God himself too.  They don’t want to take a risk at believing something in God’s Word if it’s just going to change again.  It’s really funny how I’m writing this blog and preparing for a Bible study on a very similar topic.  The author, Joel Seifert, uses this topic (“spiritual, not religious”) as his intro to the lesson.  In the book that goes along with the study, Seifert reflects what many skeptical Millennials think: “Don’t put too much faith in God’s promises and it won’t hurt so much if they don’t seem to come true.  Don’t risk taking a stand on God’s Word; just be spiritual.” (Joel Seifert, Hard Sayings of Jesus, p. 32)  Millennials are afraid to trust.

Why do Millennials phrase it this way—“I’m spiritual, but not religious?”  One reason Millennials say it that way is because “religion” has become a tainted word to them.  Watch or listen to this YouTube video entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” that came out a few years back.  That will give you a good example on why many Millennials have made their faith a more personal affair than associated with a public one.  In the video, Jefferson Bethke (a Christian Millennial) recites a poem about why the organized church in America has failed.  Christianity has turned into a “religion.” Basically he identifies “religion” as a law-driven thing instead of grace-driven.  He goes into how the church is hypocritical, judgmental, and has tried to enforce law in politics.  This is why people don’t like to say they’re “religious.”  It’s because religion is associated with those negative aspects.

Another reason Millennials prefer spiritual over religious is they want to avoid confrontation.  They might not have been very religious to begin with, but they certainly want to keep it that way.  Politics and religion are social no-no’s because they often cause debate and arguments.  Millennials for the most part just want to get along with everyone.  Everyone can be their own spiritual person and no one needs to get hurt.  Like Jess Rainer’s quote above—most Millennials don’t want to explain their personal beliefs and possibly start a debate. 

In summary, Millennials say they are spiritual and not religious because they are skeptical of religious organizations and fear confrontation.  Basically personal choice trumps social obligation—consumer mentality overrules organizational loyalty.  When Millennials say this, they often want to avoid certain things.  They want to avoid hypocrisy, to avoid wearing the Christian label, to avoid seeming to be something you’re not—but still holding on to God (White, p. 200). 

What are the results of privatization of faith? 

One major result that we have seen lately is how people identify themselves—whether it’s man or woman, straight or homosexual.  When there is no association with religious morals and structure, people look inwardly at their own thoughts and beliefs.  They try to identify themselves from the inside out instead of outside in.  I saw a video recently about this identity issue.  I think it illustrates very well what many Millennials think—how faith and beliefs have become a private affair and we all need to respect each other.  The guy in the video makes this belief system look very foolish.  The guy tries to convince college students that he is not a 5’9” white guy, but he identifies himself as a 6’5” Asian woman.  Some come to their senses and say that he can’t be that, because he obviously isn’t a 6’5” Asian woman.  However, others want to avoid confrontation and just tell him, “Good for you that you think that way.”  They know that is not the truth, but they don’t want to tell him that he is wrong.  That is just one result of this privatization of faith.

Another result is the COEXIST sticker you often see on cars.  Those letters are made up of all religious symbols (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.)  Millennials buy into that sticker because they say everyone can believe what he or she wants, but we all just need to get along and coexist.

We have work to do 

As you can see from the last video, we have some work to do among our Millennial friends.  How can we talk about religion when Millennials choose to avoid the topic?  How do we approach the challenge that Millennials are fearful and lack trust?  How do we become trustworthy so they can trust God and his Word?  How do we convince them that there is actual truth outside of ourselves?  How do we make privatized faith public again?  Millennials will not always be comfortable talking about religion, beliefs and spirituality, but they will talk about it.  I won’t give any suggestions this week on what to do, because I want to save them until Part 6 of this series when we talk about “truth.”  I think they will fit better there because truth, religion and spiritually are very intertwined.

Thank for reading. Stay tuned for five more posts on Millennials these next five weeks.