Religion lives on millennials, on Ruth H. Perrin

Religion lives on millennials, on Ruth H. Perrin

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CHANGING SHAPE is an insightful and wise study by Ruth Perrin, a researcher at the University of Durham who deserves to be read and considered by church leaders and congregations. It is a small study based on face-to-face interviews with nearly fifty millennial generation respondents born between 1981 and the mid-1990s and currently in their mid to late twenties and mid to late thirties. It offers a snapshot of these increasingly rare young adult Christians in secular Britain, where, as Perrin reminds us, only three percent of the millennial generation have an active Christian faith.

Perrin draws fruitfully from her own faith journey and 20 years of experience serving young adults, as well as the limited amount of published research on what she calls emerging adult affirmers. She makes an important distinction between young American evangelicals and their British counterparts, and contrasts the predominantly right-wing politics of Americans with the centrist or left-wing position of the British, including their own sample.

Perrin admits that her sample may underrepresent young Christians who have not attended university, having drawn them from cities in north-east England with a sizable university population. It can also over-represent young people who grew up in the area, known for their strong family and community identification that may not be as strong among more mobile populations. Even so, she believes her core findings reflect what she has observed in other parts of the country.

While current models of belief development assume that the process is largely complete by the early twenties, Perrin's sample shows a much longer trajectory over another decade. Your respondents have different denominational origins and none (a significant sector has families with different Christian identities), but all move through either a church or an online community with a Protestant or Pentecostal focus, often one of the large non-Christian denominational mega-churches, the provide a large and welcoming community of young people.

They know and care neither about denominational stories nor about ecclesiological disputes and battles. What they are looking for is belief that offers solutions to the immediate problems they face in their personal, family and professional lives, and a peer group that addresses the same challenges that a haven in a world can be in The young Christian often feel incomprehensible curiosities. You are not surrounded by Dawkins-ite atheist warriors. Your worldly friends are not hostile, but they just don't see what's important to need a belief and most of the time have no idea what is going on in churches.

These millennials find modern styles of emotional worship attractive, but eventually seek out theological teachings to deepen and broaden their understanding. Mainly they are not looking for this in their church, but online, very often from Pentecostal sources. Some, especially when struggling with their relationships or work, find a break from a relentlessly optimistic atmosphere by attending formal liturgies where they can be calm and taking their sadness and disappointments with them into the service.

paMillennial generation adults with a child in a stroller in New York this summer

Millennials are used to negotiating on pluralistic cultures and creating work and educational contexts in which their contribution is sought and valued. If church leaders and senior members of their ward do not share these assumptions, they will feel unevaluated and discouraged. They are people for whom family relationships are very important and therefore look for family-like networks between the generations in the Church. In particular, they want nurturing but equal relationships with older mentors. When these things fail or never show up, they can become disappointed and discouraged.

In search of personal fulfillment, they are quite contemporary and place little value on dogmatic rules based on “the Bible says”, but learn from experiments and experiences, especially with regard to sexual identities: At least one of the respondents complained about the easy availability of the Pornography relying on personal experience of its dangers. Her personal goals include satisfying romantic relationships that lead to marriage and children, and embedding the church in a Christian way of life, especially for their children.

This Christian way of life focuses on altruism, social justice, and community activism facing poverty, marginality, and global issues like climate change. Many of the respondents had made significant personal sacrifices in order to achieve these moral and religious goals.

A small fraction of the sample had stopped being Christian after a long period of active leadership and found that their faith had faded rather than broken dramatically. Another sector had left the Church but kept its faith intact and found support in global online connections. The solid core of Active Adult Affirmers supported their faith through pilgrimages and Christian family vacations, and despite the danger of isolation, particularly for mothers with young families or less than, continued to act as young leaders in their community-supportive communities.

It is a tape that richly rewards church discussion groups who use it as a focus for a truthful intergenerational exchange about how their own church works. For this purpose, Perrin provides a list of discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Bernice Martin is a retired sociology reader at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Change of form: Faith lives on millennials
Ruth H. Perrin
SCM Press £ 19.99
(978-0-334-05831-1)
Church House Bookshop special price £ 16

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