Oct 15, 2013

From the Archives

How Technology is Changing Millennial Faith

The Church has always used regular habits and practices designed to help people worship. These habitual practices—such as prayer, Scripture reading, Sabbath observance, gathering every Sunday and more—have been part of the Church throughout the centuries.

Today there’s a new dimension that is reshaping personal spirituality, particularly among younger generations. The advent of the Internet and, more recently, social media have shaped personal habits significantly. The first and last thing most people do every day is check their phones. When they want to know an answer to a question, they “Google it.” Scrolling through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds has become a fixture of leisurely activity.

This digital world is the playground of Millennials, or those ages 18 to 29 in this current Barna study. Millennials certainly stand apart in their unsurpassed digital savvy. They’re also in a class of their own when it comes to faith experience and practice.

Yet what happens when the unique spiritual characteristics and technological trends among Millennials collide? The latest study from Barna Group explores just that.

Faith in Real-Time

They’ve been called the digital natives for a reason. Technology has infiltrated every area of Millennial life, and the realm of faith is no exception.

According to Barna research, the most common way Millennials are blending their faith and technology is through digital reading of Scripture. It’s an escalating trend, considering there are just as many YouVersion (the free Bible phone app) downloads as there are Instagram downloads. And has become one of the top Christian websites today.

Seven out of 10 of practicing Christian Millennials (70%) read Scripture on a screen. One-third of all Millennials says they read sacred Scripture on a phone or online, demonstrating how broadly the digital trends are shaping this generation.

Millennials are also heavy users of online videos pertaining to faith—54% of practicing Christian Millennials and 31% of all Millennials engage in this activity.

About one-third of Millennials are using online search to scope out a church, temple or synagogue online. This increases to over half (56%) of practicing Christian Millennials who do the same. It may be that for Millennials, checking out a faith community online, from a safe distance, is a prerequisite for the commitment of showing up in person.

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Certainly the Internet has made finding answers to questions—any questions—easier than ever. Whether it’s curiosity about a new restaurant or matters of faith, Millennials are taking their inquiries to the search bar. Nearly six out of 10 practicing Christians (59%) say they search for spiritual content online, but it’s not only Christians doing this kind of surfing. Three out of 10 of all Millennials are too, which may open up a new field of opportunity for churches hoping to understand and connect with these souls in cyberspace.

Fact-Checking Sermons

The one-way communication from pulpit to pew is not how Millennials experience faith. By nature of digital connectedness, Millennial life is interactive. For many of them, faith is interactive as well—whether their churches are ready for it or not. It’s an ongoing conversation, and it’s all happening on their computers, tablets and smart phones. What’s more, many of them bring their devices with them to church. Now with the ability to fact-check at their fingertips, Millennials aren’t taking the teaching of faith leaders for granted. In fact, 14% of Millennials say they search to verify something a faith leader has said. A striking 38% of practicing Christian Millennials say the same.

Beyond the congregation, technology is also changing how Millennials learn about and discuss their faith. This generation is accustomed to foraging in multiple digital places at any given time—from texting to Twitter to Instagram, from news feeds to blogs and more. This digital deluge naturally includes matters of faith and spirituality. For example, more than four out of 10 practicing Christian Millennials say they participate in online conversations about faith, and the same number say they blog or post comments on blogs about spiritual matters.

Digital Donations

When it comes to Millennials and their money, many church leaders start to get nervous. How will we get this next generation to give to the church? What can we do to get them to commit to tithing? And what will happen to our organization if they won’t? These are common questions among those leading faith communities and non-profits.

But are these perceptions based on fact or myth? The latest Barna research shows that Millennials are giving, yet technology is significantly changing how they give. In fact, Millennial generosity, for the most part, has gone paperless.

Perhaps opting for the quick, easy and trackable, just more than one in 10 Millennials say they donate to a church or faith organization online at least once a month. The rate is four times higher among practicing Christian Millennials (39%). These levels are lower than average donors of other generations, but nevertheless demonstrate millions of Millennials are active givers. And technology is powering much of their charitable engagement.

Another way to spark Millennial giving is to reach them where they are, which in many cases, is on their mobile phones. Nearly one out of every 10 of all Millennials say they text to donate at least once a month, which doubles among practicing Christian Millennials to two out of 10.

The traditional tithing envelope or donation request mailings that have worked for their parents and grandparents don’t seem to work for a generation as mobile as Millennials. Yet as the data show, this doesn’t mean Millennials never give financially. But it may mean for this generation on the go, moving from job to job and city to city, digital donations are a preferred method.

What the Research Means

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and author of two books on Millennials, points out the implications of this research: “Millennials live in an era of radical transparency, powered by social and digital tools. Any leader or organization who wants to engage Millennials must learn this—whether from the pulpit or the front of the classroom, whether fundraising or marketing. If Millennials are doing their own research on what happens from the stage, leaders need to take care not to make false promises or exaggerations in their messages. Millennials, who already exhibit institutional distrust, have heightened sensitivity for artificiality and false promotion.

“Instead, Millennials desire relevant, two-way conversations on a wide-range of topics. In many ways, these conversations are already happening online. The digital world simply makes this kind of interaction and transparency a non-negotiable among the youngest generations.

“For church leaders, the data point to lots of opportunities to engage Millennials spiritually online. This stems from the convergence of two trends: Millennials leaving the Church, and Millennials taking their faith discussions and explorations online. One of the most positive trends among Millennials is that they want faith that is holistically integrated into all areas of life—including their technology. How the Church acknowledges and engages the digital domain—and teaches faithfulness in real-life to young adults as well—will determine much about its long-term effectiveness among Millennials.”

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About the Research

This article is based on research conducted from January 17-23, 2013, in which 1,078 adults 18 or older were interviewed using an online probability-based panel. The sampling error is plus or minus 2.8% at the 95% confidence level.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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