Not All Millennials Are Losing Their Religion

November 6th 2015

Joshua Stanton

A growing shift in our society assumes that Millennials don’t like religion. They don’t show up to religious services, they have doubts about their clergy, and consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.’ That may be true, at least in part. But it might have less to do with Millennials than it does with the religious institutions that don’t always serve them so well.

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As a Millennial rabbi, I welcome the way that our generation is challenging norms and seeking more from religious leaders. It is refreshing, disruptive, and exactly what so much of religion in America needs right now. We don’t need ‘consumers’ of religion, but active practitioners willing to collaborate and build vibrant communities worthy of the word “sacred.”

Even as many among us do search for meaning in life outside of organized religion, I likewise perceive a rising cohort of Millennial religious leaders who are embracing change – and in some cases foisting it upon institutions that are far too resistant to it.

Here are some of the rising religious leaders, up to age 35, who I look to for guidance as a rabbi, Millennial, and wonderer about the big questions in life. Many are friends or colleagues, but I’ve carefully tried to focus on those of religious traditions other than my own – perhaps a telltale sign of my Millennial mindset and our diverse generation. (It goes without saying that there are countless rabbis and Jewish colleagues to whom I turn, as well.)

Most importantly, I embrace the reality that this is a subjective and wholly incomplete list and that there are many others across the country who are worthy of praise and should be acknowledged as Millennial teachers and leaders in religion. There are also many other traditions whose leaders I do not yet know well enough, but should be praised for their leadership. Even so, these are extraordinary people, who have in so many ways awed me as spirited Millennial leaders.

Christianity – The Rev. Jennifer Bailey

An ordained pastor in the AME Church, Jennifer Bailey is founder of the Faith Matters Network, which uses community organizing techniques to promote social change. She is a recent Nathan Cummings Fellow and is widely seen as a guiding light regarding racial justice and interfaith collaboration.

Islam – Imam Khalid Latif

Imam Khalid Latif is a chaplain at New York University, NYPD officer, writer, and renowned orator. He has flown around the world to speak about Islam, pluralism, and faith, and was featured in the major documentary, "Of Many." He is best known for fostering institutional growth within the American Muslim community.

Sikhism – Dr. Simran Jeet Singh and Valarie Kaur

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a professor, activist, public intellectual, and marathoner. Valarie Kaur is an attorney, filmmaker, scholar, pundit, and movement-builder. Each one has significantly raised the profile of their community and worked to combat hate crimes, Islamophobia, and other injustices.

Humanism – Chaplain Chris Stedman

Chaplain Chris D. Stedman speaking

I wouldn’t be doing our generation justice if I didn’t also celebrate a non-religious leader excelling at his vocation as a builder and convener of ethical communities. Chris Stedman presently serves as Yale’s Humanist Chaplain and is author of "Faithiest," as well as a regular writer on all things humanist.

Interfaith Leadership – Whittney Barth, Frank Fredericks, and Amber Hacker

In our time, religion is being reshaped by leaders who have set about fostering greater collaboration between different traditions. A newly promoted Vice President of the country’s most vibrant interfaith organization, the Interfaith Youth Core, Amber Hacker derives much inspiration from her religious background and does much to lead others. Evangelical Christian Frank Fredericks spends his days preventing religious violence through his organization World Faith, when he isn’t at Davos or Oxford. Harvard Divinity School graduate, Whittney Barth now serves as Assistant Director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and studies religious diversity and collaboration at the national level – and ensures that such studies are translated into meaningful action by communities and non-profits. All three have caused me to rethink how I understand religion – and the ways in which different traditions interact.

Creative disruptions in religion

Our generation is once again shaking things up, including everything connected to religion. Even as we question our age-old institutions, we should not forget that there are many people already generating creative disruptions from within. Because of this new wave of leaders, our generation holds the potential to transform religious (and non-religious) communities in unprecedented ways.

Full Disclosure: I serve alongside the Rev. Jennifer Bailey on the Board of Directors of World Faith, the organization of which Frank Fredericks is Executive Director. I am the current recipient of a fellowship from the Interfaith Youth Core, of which Amber Hacker is Vice President. I previously worked with Chris Stedman at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and Valarie Kaur at Auburn Seminary, as well as with Simran Jeet Singh more informally on several interfaith projects. Whittney Barth and the Pluralism Project collaborated on several projects with State of Formation, a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders, which I co-Founded with Chris Stedman and a brilliant non-Millennial colleague, Stephanie Varnon-Hughes. Imam Khalid Latif served as the Martin Luther King Day Speaker at the synagogue where I presently serve.

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