Published May 07, 2010
Like countless people of her generation, Alexis Iacono goes online for just about everything: Facebook, fashion ... and faith.
"I go to the Internet and when I'm stuck and I'm not sure, and the research is right there, the answers are right there," the Long Island, N.Y., resident says.
She's not alone.
Young people are defining their own spiritual paths, says Rebecca Phillips, vice president of social networking for Beliefnet.com. "Young people are not necessarily doing the same thing religion-wise that their parents did, and they're developing their own unique brands of spirituality," she says.
It seems to affirm a Lifeway Christian Resources study showing that 72 percent of Millennials, the generation between 18 and 30 years old, say they are more spiritual than religious. Fewer of them attend worship services, pray or read sacred scriptures.
And technology is helping fuel that generational faith gap.
"In some ways it's breaking down connections with local churches," says David Kinnaman, president of the research organization The Barna Group. "Their access to peers is increasing, so that influences the way they make moral and ethical decisions."
"They're exposed to a variety of faith perspectives," he says, meaning they can tailor-make their own religion.
But not all agree with Lifeway's research.
Beliefnet.com found that nearly half the teens it polled felt they were more religious than their parents' generation.
"Online, what people are doing is seeking out truth," Phillips says, "and it might not be in the traditional way of a pastor speaking from a pulpit."
It also might be a matter of semantics.
"I think their generation is really turned off by the term religion," LifeChurch.TV's Pastor Bobby Gruenewald says, "They see it as a set of rules or something that represents the past."
Looking to the future is the challenge. Many religious organizations are realizing that to shepherd the millennial flock, you must meet them where they live ... online.
LifeChurch.TV boasts 80,000 congregants through the Web. They log on to hear sermons and chat with other worshippers.
There are countless faith-based phone apps, worship Web pages, online scripture readings, even prayer websites. And tweeting is encouraged.
"It doesn't necessarily mean the old is going away," says Gruenewald. "It just means that this is a way to reach people that maybe otherwise wouldn't be able to be reached."
But others warn that finding religion online has its drawbacks.
Jesse Rice, author of "The Church of Facebook," says "Millennials value authenticity so much, but the irony is they're settling for an inauthentic way to receive it."
"Spirituality becomes a more compartmentalized thing," says Rice, because the user is in the driver's seat. It won't necessarily change who they are.
But the Internet also levels the playing field between young people and the authority of the church, giving them a sense of control that previous generations never had.
"It does allow people to question, to check out a variety of sources when they have questions about what this religion believes ... or what this history is and so forth," says Dr. Brenda Brasher, author of "Give Me That Online Religion." "I would imagine that the best religious leaders see this as a sort of provocative challenge of how do they carry the word of truth that they feel and that enlivens them ... and that they think guides all of existence. How do they carry that word into this kind of generation?"
Young people are not only creating their own religious identities, they may also be changing the future of worship itself.