08 Millennials



This study reveals some differences in the way Millennials think about and practice discipleship compared with older generations. For the most part these differences are minor; however, data show a shift by generation that suggests a trend that may continue over time.

Looking at definitions for discipleship reveals its goals to some degree. Millennials’ choice of terminology for discipleship is largely the same as other generations except for “becoming more Christ-like”: Boomers are most likely to select this label at 46 percent, followed by 41 percent of Gen-Xers and only 38 percent of Millennials. Nevertheless, this is still the most commonly chosen name for spiritual growth among young adults.

“Knowing Christ more deeply” is more commonly chosen by Millennials (63%) as a key goal of spiritual growth, compared with Gen-Xers and Boomers (56% each). Millennials are less likely to say “learning to live a more consistent Christian life” is a key goal (53%, vs. 59% of Gen-Xers, 62% of Boomers and 66% of Elders). This indicates that the idea of behaviorfocused sanctification is waning over generations, replaced for the most part by a relational measure of spiritual health—confirming the aptness of exemplar churches’ shift in this direction.

Regarding relationships, Millennials have a similar perception to older adults of how their faith could and should impact those around them. The exception is that they, and Gen-Xers, are more likely to believe their faith has an impact on relatives (41% each, vs. 33% of Boomers and 36% of Elders), rather than being a private affair.

Younger generations are slightly less concerned in general about spiritual growth. Fifty-eight percent of Millennials consider it “very important” to see spiritual progress in their life, compared with 61 percent of Gen-Xers and Boomers and 67 percent of Elders. Among the reasons they desire spiritual progress in their lives, Millennials are more likely than older generations to cite a need for healing. Thirty-six percent say “I have been through a lot, and growing spiritually will help me,” compared with 33 percent of Gen-Xers, 30 percent of Boomers and 27 percent of Elders. Millennials also are less likely than other generations to say “I think it is important to be improving or growing in general.”

Young adults are far more likely to consider the general “busyness of life” a major obstacle to their spiritual growth. Among those who consider spiritual growth very or somewhat important, 38 percent of Millennials say busyness is a major obstacle, compared with 27 percent of Gen-Xers, 17 percent of Boomers and 11 percent of Elders. The realities of life stages suggest that Gen-Xers should feel most overwhelmed by the demands of life (career, children, home ownership, etc.); Millennials’ assertion that busyness is a significant barrier may be due to broader factors such as a pervasive sense of bombardment by technology and social media.

Not surprisingly, Millennials are the most likely to currently use digital media—specifically, podcasts—for the purpose of spiritual growth. One-quarter of those who believe spiritual growth is very or somewhat important say they listen to podcasts about the Bible or related topics at least monthly (24%). This is in contrast to 15 percent of Gen-Xers and 10 percent of Boomers who listen to podcasts.

The relationships that seem to be most influential in Millennials’ spiritual growth are somewhat distinct from other generations. Not surprisingly, more of them say “friends” have been “very helpful” to their spiritual growth (47%, vs. 33% of Gen-Xers and 39% among Boomers who say spiritual growth is important). In addition, 39 percent of spiritually growing Millennials say a “Christian community other than a church” has been “very helpful” to their spiritual growth, compared with 31 percent among Gen-Xers, 30 percent of Boomers and 25 percent of Elders. Online social networks are considered “very helpful” by 14 percent of Millennials who consider spiritual growth at least somewhat important, compared with 11 percent of Gen-Xers and 9 percent of Boomers among the same segment.

Despite these propensities for social interaction, Millennials are more likely than other generations to prefer one-on-one or solitary discipleship structures. Forty percent of Millennials who consider spiritual growth very or somewhat important prefer on-their-own discipleship, compared with 36 percent among Gen-Xers and 32 percent of Elders (and 39 percent of Boomers, who are more like Millennials in this respect).

Twenty-one percent of Millennials who consider spiritual growth important prefer one-on-one mentoring models, compared with 14 percent among Gen-Xers and 16 percent of Boomers and Elders. Slightly more Millennials than other generations are currently in a one-on-one discipleship relationship. Twenty-eight percent of Millennials who consider spiritual growth important are currently being discipled, contrasted with 25 percent of Gen-Xers and 22 percent of Boomers.
In summary, young adults tend to think of spiritual growth as a deepening relationship with God rather than as changed outward behavior. They value relationships and friendships in the context of spiritual growth. Millennials are more likely to feel overwhelmed or bombarded, which hinders their involvement in structured discipleship. However, past struggles and a need for healing may drive their desire for spiritual growth more than other generations.

Barna Group on Millennials

Over the past decade, Barna has interviewed nearly 30,000 Millennials in more than 200 studies. These data validate findings in The Navigators’ State of Discipleship study that Millennials desire meaningful relationships, often feel overwhelmed and struggle to make connections between faith and the rest of their lives.

Millennials’ technology habits have an impact on their social and emotional well-being. One example: 49 percent of adults 18 to 30 years old acknowledge that their personal electronics separate them from other people, compared with 35 percent of all adults.

The effects run deeper than mere distraction. In 2001, about one in eight Americans self-identified as lonely (12%). By 2012, that number had doubled—a paradoxical reality in the social-media age. While loneliness among Americans has risen, the desire to find one’s place among a few good friends has likewise increased from 31 percent a decade ago to 37 percent today. Leading this charge toward finding friendship are Millennials at 47 percent.

Barna research has uncovered significant differences between twentysomethings who have remained active in their faith after high school and twentysomethings who have dropped out of church. For instance, those who stay are twice as likely to have had a close personal friendship with an adult in their church (59%, compared to 31% among those who are no longer active). The same pattern is evident when it comes to intentional relationships such as mentoring; nearly three in 10 active Millennials had an adult mentor at the church other than their pastor (28%), compared to the just one in 10 dropouts who report the same (11%).

In addition to loneliness and a lack of meaningful relationships, 35 percent of Americans said in 2012 that they were “stressed out”; just 21 percent felt this way in 2001. Millennials especially feel this sense of being overwhelmed by life: 25 percent say they felt physically or mentally overwhelmed five or more times in the previous month, compared with 21 percent of all adults.

Having grown up with ubiquitous information technology, they often feel a sense of bombardment and are compelled to be “always on.” Forty-two percent of Millennials, compared with 36 percent of all adults, say they usually stop what they’re doing to check their phone when a text messages comes in; 56 percent, versus 40 percent of all adults, check their phone first thing in the morning; and 54 percent of Millennials, compared with 33 percent of all adults, check their phone right before going to bed.

Nearly four out of 10 young adults with a Christian background say they desire to follow Jesus in a way that connects with the world they live in (38%). Thanks to technology, information is pervasive; Millennials have greater access to knowledge than any generation in history. What they desire is wisdom—spiritual understanding that allows them to put knowledge into practice. They want to know how to interact with today’s culture in a way that is consistent with their beliefs.

One of the most important areas where faith must connect to their lives is their work; career is paramount for Millennials. Thirty-seven percent expect to make an impact through their work within the first five years, and another 28 percent expect to do so in six or more years. Churches can deepen their connection with Millennials by focusing on vocational calling, outside of traditional church-based ministry. Millennials who have remained active in their faith (45%) are three times more likely than church dropouts (17%) to say they learned to view their gifts and passions as part of God’s calling. They are also four times more likely to have learned “how the Bible applies to my field or career interests” (29% vs. 7% of dropouts).

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