For religious millennials — a generation with one of the lowest rates of participation in organized in-person religious activities in North America — engaging with digital religion has made their faith experience richer, while some who don't go to church have found religion in digital spaces, a new study suggests.
The study, "Digital Religion Among U.S. and Canadian Millennial Adults," recently published in the Review of Religious Research, explores the prevalence of some digital religion practices among 18- to 35-year-old millennials in the U.S. and Canada using data from the 2019 Millennial Trends Survey.
The report was authored by University of Waterloo sociology professor Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme.
Millennials are described as "generally those born and raised in the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s." For the purposes of this study, the cohort was limited to the years 1984 to 2001.
"As such, they are the first truly digital natives in North America, in that they were raised since childhood with the digital world at their fingertips," Wilkins-Laflamme said.
Digital religion is defined in the study as an umbrella concept that reflects "a new frame for articulating the evolution of religious practices online" and "points to how digital media and spaces are shaping and being shaped by religious practice."
Laflamme found that digital religion is practiced by a substantial minority of the millennial population. Some 29% of Canadian millennials in the study reported consuming religious or spiritual digital content at least once a month. That figure is much higher in the U.S., where 41% of millennials said they consume religious or spiritual digital content at least once a month.
"We know that more and more people are turning toward digital mediums for spirituality such as chat groups with pastors, online sermons and religious content on social media," Wilkins-Laflamme said in a statement to The Christian Post. "We've found that while digital religion isn't necessarily attracting a lot of new millennials to participate, it is making the experience of those already involved richer."
The study doesn't capture how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the consumption of digital religion among millennials since 2020 but suggests there was already a majority of millennials in both the U.S. and Canada consuming religious or spiritual digital content at least once a year.
The study also indicates: "As rates of more conventional religious practices, such as in-person religious service attendance, have fallen in more recent years among younger generations, the expansion of the internet in our lives has meant that a larger proportion of millennials are coming into somewhat regular contact with religion and spirituality online."
Most U.S. and Canadian millennials who engage with digital religion at least once a month also do at least one in-person religious or spiritual activity monthly, the study suggests.
"There are only 5% of young adult respondents (16% of monthly or more frequent digital content consumers) who only do monthly or more frequent religious or spiritual digital content consumption without also attending religious services at least once a month or practicing an unchurched spirituality at least once a month," Wilkins-Laflamme said.
About 11% of millennials in the study reported that they consumed digital content and attended religious services monthly or more frequently, while another 6% said they did monthly or more frequent digital content consumption and unchurched spiritual activities. About 10% reported that they did all three types of activities at least once a month.
"In other words, 25% of millennial respondents across both countries take part in less conventional spiritual or religious activities at least once a month, and 11% include a digital component to these activities. Another 25% pair these frequent less conventional religious and spiritual activities with monthly or more frequent religious service attendance, among whom almost all include a digital component," the study noted.
Only 7% reported taking part in conventional religious service attendance at least once a month without other digital or unchurched religious and spiritual activities.
"We see a lot of overlap between digital religious and spiritual content consumption and religious service attendance among respondents. This said, it is also important to note that there is a significant minority of millennials who seem to do digital religion away from organized religion," the study added.
Wilkins-Laflamme told CP that while digital religion is a phenomenon among many millennials, it is not the reality for most millennials.
"It is still present though for a sizeable minority of the young adult population," she said. "And for many of them, digital religion plays an important complementary role to the in-person practicing of their faith."
Chestly Lunday, an expert in innovative leadership who has helped churches and companies lead in the digital age, told CP last month that one of the biggest reasons behind an ongoing decline in traditional church membership is that the younger generation and innovative Christians have migrated online while older adults haven't.
"What we're seeing [now] is the exodus of the late majority [from traditional churches]. We're not seeing the exodus of early adopters [of technology], and the early majority of innovators. They've been gone already for a while," Lunday said. "Church of the future is a network. And it's going to be digitally based. It's not going to be geographically based. It's going to be built on relationships and purpose."