Millennials: Losing Our Religion?

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Religious doubt is on the rise among Millennials, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. While this may hardly sound like breaking news, the recent spike in the number of young Americans who say they sometimes doubt God’s existence has created a storm of debate regarding the forces responsible for the downward spiral of religious faith.

The percentage of Americans 30 and younger who told Pew they never doubt the existence of God has fallen to 68 percent. That’s a 15-point drop in just five years.

The verdict is still out regarding the cause, with believers and nonbelievers unable to identify a single culprit. In a recent panel on CNN’s Newsroom, Don Lemon and his two atheist guests indicated that technology and the Internet might be to blame. It’s now possible to fact check your pastor’s sermon while sitting in the pews, or to find an online community that supports religious questioning.

How ironic, then, that Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center believes that technology is part of the answer to the movement of young people away from religion. They launched an iPhone application with that aim in mind last fall — renewing the faith of the Millennials is now just a click away.

“Digital media is a critical component in engaging younger generations,” says Erik Goldschmidt, the center’s director. “If you want to get their attention, you have to use the tools that they use.”

The C21 Center was founded in 2002 in response to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Originally conceived as a two-year initiative, the organization quickly extended its mission to address other issues facing the Catholic community — including handing on the faith to young people.

The C21 app is the first of its kind. Developed last year and rolled out last fall, it has tools that allow users to engage and deepen their faith. It connects users to articles and videos published by the center, and allows them to upload their own faith-related content. It even has a tool called “Pray for Me,” which allows users to post prayer requests for themselves or a loved one.

“We’re taking the models of social media that are already out there, and we’re re-purposing them for the app in a faith-based lens,” says Karen Kiefer, the center’s associate director.

Kiefer says the app has thousands of downloads so far, and hundreds more are expected this fall when the incoming freshman class arrives on campus. But, I have to wonder: Does C21 really have what it takes to compete for their attention alongside apps like Instragram and Spotify?

“I hope it will inspire people to unplug. At the very least, I hope it will make them think about God,” says Keifer.

While the app alone isn’t likely to affect the rise of religious doubt among young people, it’s noteworthy for the effort it demonstrates in connecting with them. It’s unclear whether it’s disconnection or dissatisfaction that’s causing Millennials to turn away from religion. It seems likely that both factors play a part. As people spend more and more of their time online, religious organizations are going to have to throw their hat in the digital ring if they have any hope of reaching Millennials and persuading them that God exists.