An increase in religious “nones” challenge religious leaders in East Lansing, Mich.
While those of faith become more devout, the number of nonbelievers drifting further from religion grows, according to a study conducted in 2015 by the Pew Research Center. And millennials are the least devout of any generation, a trend observed by religious leaders around East Lansing, Mich.
“There is a trend of people who shy away from the term ‘religious,’” said Matt St. Germaine, a 21-year-old volunteer at 242 Church, a nondenominational Christian organization based in Brighton, Mich. “I think people don’t necessarily like to say they’re a religious person because I think that word now has [come to] negative connotations … I think sometimes people may associate the term with misunderstanding or not open to alternative beliefs.”
Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, make up 35 percent of all “religious nones.” “Nones” are defined as those who do not identify with any particular religion nor consider themselves agnostic or atheist.
The number of nones is growing across all segments of the population, particularly with young people. Twenty percent of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, and that number is mostly millennials. The millennial population is now the largest of any living generational group.
For the devout, faith is growing stronger. Church attendance and scripture study have increased in religiously affiliated persons since the first Pew religion study in 2007, across generational lines.
Michigan State University freshman Hernan “Fenu” Brarda is Catholic but has few friends who are also religious.
“I don’t have a lot of friends that go to church, probably [because] it’s not as fun as doing other activities,” Brarda said. “Everyone’s focused on themselves rather than the community.”
For organizations like Element Church, a nondenominational Christian group in East Lansing, getting new members means attracting students with a strong religious core as well as those who may be curious or skeptical.
“[My] experience is that some millennials are disenfranchised with some of the religious experiences they’ve had,” said Element Church Pastor Scott Hayes. “Millennials are very open to spiritual conversations, it’s just that some of them have had a sour taste in their mouth from some of their church experiences.”
A majority of nones were raised religiously but drifted from organized religious practice in adulthood. According to the Pew Research Center, their departure is largely attributed to lack of belief, opposition to organized religion and uncertainty.
Pastor Joe Reis at St. John Catholic Church and Student Center in East Lansing has heard the same reasons.
“When I was at [student] orientation this year helping out with the Religious Advisors Association table, students would come up, and I’d ask them if they were looking for a church,” Reis said. “I’d get a lot of ‘No, I’m done with that,’ or ‘No, I’m not interested in that,’ which was surprising.”
For local religious organizations, the beginning of a school year is prime time to catch new students and convert them into new members. That can mean reaching out on social media, mailing postcards or sending emails. For Reis, it meant passing out potted plants.
“We give out little plants that students can have in their dorm room, and it has the mass times on them,” Reis said. “The things we do aren’t necessarily meant to cater to Catholic students, they’re meant to kind of begin to connect them. It doesn’t matter who comes up, we’re able to have a conversation with them.”
Many organizations reach out during freshman orientation. But the abundance of options was daunting for MSU freshman Abby Vandergraaff.
“There were so many churches … I didn’t want to listen to one thousand different churches try to tell me stuff,” said Vandergraaff. “I’m United Methodist, so I was kind of keeping my eyes peeled for that.”
For Muslim students, finding a religious home is often simple, says Hauwa Abbas, an assistant at the Islamic Center of East Lansing. That’s because there is only one choice.
“We don’t have to do a lot of recruitment here,” Abbas said. “We are the only Islamic center in the area, so we don’t really have to do that much work,” “We had a huge amount of freshman come in this year.”
Local churches like Martin Luther Chapel want to provide a community for religious students who are looking for a church to attend in East Lansing. Martin Luther Chapel Pastor Curt Dwyer says attendance numbers at his parish have been steady in recent years.
“It’s all about personal connection – it’s finding students who are looking for a community,” Dwyer said. “I’d say [new members] are 80 percent people of a faith background prior to coming here, and 20 percent of people that don’t have much of any.”
While millennials are decreasingly religious, there has been an uptick in key measures of spirituality. Persons of all ages and religious backgrounds, or lack thereof, increasingly report experiencing deep spiritual peace on a weekly basis, wondering about the universe and feeling extreme gratitude. These measures have increased sharply since the first Pew Research Center religion study in 2007. Hayes says he feels hopeful about this statistic.
“I actually think there’s an openness in this millennial generation … my wife and I didn’t see this in the group before them,” Hayes said. “So there’s a lot we can do there. We know that God loves people and God loves millennials – so for us, it’s like, ‘let’s go show them what a church looks like.’”