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Essay

In Defense of Millennials

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We welcome Allison Vander Broek to The Twelve today, filling in for Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell. Thanks, Allison.

PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly recently re-aired one of my favorite stories from the last six months (www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2015/03/13/november-7-2014-millennials-religion/24527/). It’s a piece on millennials and religion, and specifically looking at how churches are trying to target millennials.

Millennials 3It’s not that I completely identify with the story. I don’t go to a church that’s out to target millennials like the one they examine in the story, I don’t consider myself a “Budeo-Christian” or “Jew-Bu” or know anyone else my age that does for that matter. But in a lot of ways, I think the story is spot on. One particularly resonant observation is that religious faith and practice remains important yet millennials “want to come to faith on their own terms.”

As I’m getting my PhD in American Religious History and am also a millennial, I’m always up for thinking about the trajectory of American religion, why changes like these are occurring, and how my generation might shape religion from here on out. Beyond these professional concerns, I think another reason the story has struck such a chord with me is that it has led me to look around at the religious community that I’ve made for myself since moving to Boston three years ago and how it matches up with the usual millennial narrative.

I’m not going to lie—I got told a few scare stories before I moved to the Northeast. Not just about the cold-hearted Northeasterners (a scary prospect for this friendly Iowa girl) but also about the indifference or, at worst, hostility toward religion. Up to that point I’d been blessed with loving and supportive faith communities—from my small hometown to my post-grad volunteer work at a Catholic non-profit.

Needless to say, I have been pleasantly surprised by Boston, and even more surprised that, while my church home here has been great, some of my toughest, most productive, and most meaningful growth has come from the religious community I’ve found in my group of close friends (we call each other the Boston Family). We’ve all got a lot in common— we’re all living far from home, arrived in this city at similar times not knowing a soul, most of us work in academia. The one thing we most definitely do not have in common is our faith. We’ve got a few atheists, agnostics, the cradle Catholic, the lapsed Catholic, the Protestants. But out of this, we’ve managed to create a safe, open, and honest space when it comes to religion, and we’re all generally pretty candid with one another when it comes to conversations about faith or our lack of it.

millennial 2So now religious community looks completely different to me. It looks like a late-night beer on the back deck with one of my best friends chatting about life, faith, and doubts; an Easter vigil and Easter feast at the church I call home in Boston; blunt conversations about the frustrations, hurts, and problems that religion can cause in the world. It hasn’t been easy to be a Christian here—if anything, it has been even harder than the naysayers predicted. Yet my religious community is vibrant and diverse and messy and beautiful, and I have never been more thankful for it.

Yes, religion in the US is changing. By this point, you’ve probably heard the scare stories and seen the stats to back it up—the rise of the “nones,” young people wary of labels and churches, the least religious generation coming of age. But at the same time, I don’t see all hope being lost. As far as my closest friends here in Boston, we’re willing to engage with the big questions about life, have the hard conversations, and live authentically with one another. Perhaps we millennials aren’t such a lost cause after all.

Allison Vander Broek is a PhD candidate at Boston College studying American religious history and currently working on a dissertation on the antiabortion movement before Roe.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

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