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Millennials are leaving organized religion. Here’s where some are finding community

The American religious landscape has changed dramatically over the past several decades. While regular church, synagogue and mosque attendance has been on the decline since the late 1970s, a Pew Research Center study this year has found that the biggest generational dropoff has occurred with millennials -- young adults born between 1981 and 1996. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on why.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While evangelicals remain an important demographic group for politicians, the percent of Americans who identify with any religion has been on the decline for decades.

    And a recent Pew Research Center study has found the biggest generational drop-off is with millennials, young adults born between 1981 and 1996.

    Cat Wise reports from Southern California on the young people who are changing their beliefs and the efforts by some faith communities to bring them back.

  • And a note:

    The Pew Research Center is a "NewsHour" funder.

  • Man:

    We're all together in this thing.

  • Cat Wise:

    A Sunday service that is part therapy session…

  • Man:

    Imagine how that would change the trajectory of your life.

  • Cat Wise:

    … part stand-up comedy routine, and part live concert, all followed by a round of beers with your pastor in a rented CrossFit gym?

    This is not your grandmother's idea of church.

  • Brittany Barron:

    So, we wanted everyone to be able to hear the good news. So, we had something right in the back. Do you have good news?

  • Cat Wise:

    Welcome to New Abbey, a Christian, LGBTQ-affirming, progressive, family friendly church in Pasadena, California.

    It was started six years ago in the living room of this guy:

  • Cory Marquez:

    For all the ways that we don't believe that we're human enough or good enough.

  • Cat Wise:

    Cory Marquez is a 34-year-old ordained pastor who left a larger evangelical congregation after he saw many of his own friends were no longer interested in attending church.

    When you were talking to your friends about why they didn't go to church, what were you hearing from them?

  • Cory Marquez:

    This isn't relevant for me. Sexuality, that's a big one, that the church is not honestly talking about sexuality.

  • Brittany Barron:

    You can ask my wife.

  • Cat Wise:

    Sexuality is not a taboo topic here. Marquez's fellow pastor, Brittany Barron, speaks openly with the congregation about being a lesbian, and many of those who attend are from the LGBTQ community.

    The congregation has grown from 20 to 400 over the last several years.

  • Cory Marquez:

    It's less about form and more about content, that people want something that actually matters for their lives.

    So, if the content is literally not healing you, connecting you to something bigger, then you're wasting your time.

  • Cat Wise:

    New Abbey is one of a number of new religious organizations popping up across the country trying to appeal to young people, who are increasingly leaving the religions of their ancestors.

    According to an October report from the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of the baby boomer generation describe themselves as Christians. In contrast, only half of millennials identify as Christians. Four in 10 say they are religiously unaffiliated, and one in 10 identify with non-Christian faiths.

  • Diane Winston:

    This is what interests me, like, if people say they feel nothing.

  • Cat Wise:

    Diane Winston is a professor of religion and media at the University of Southern California who has been studying religious trends among young adults.

  • Diane Winston:

    Many religions just don't feel relevant to a lot of these young people. They don't speak their language. And now there are other ways you can make those connections. You can make them online. You can make them at an interest group or an affinity group.

  • Cat Wise:

    She also says many young people have lost trust in religious institutions.

  • Diane Winston:

    Their scandals, the sexuality improprieties, these problems of, you know, pedophilia, of sexism, of misogyny. Why would you want to give your time and money to an institution that countenances or protects people who do these kinds of things?

  • Cat Wise:

    Some of those turned off by traditional religions continue to seek fulfillment in other ways.

    According to Pew, three in 10 adults ages 18 to 49 now identify as spiritual, but not religious.

    One of those who has made the switch is Jaison Perez. The 32-year-old from Los Angeles was raised Catholic and attended weekly services with his family, but he says he never felt truly connected to the church and left in his early 20s.

  • Jaison Perez:

    As a queer person, the Catholic Church is unsafe. I go to church, and I'm immediately sinful. It's this feeling of not being able to show up fully myself.

  • Cat Wise:

    Now he works as a healer at Mostly Angels, a store specializing in mystical services and products in Culver City. Perez says there's been a significant uptick in business over the last three to five years.

  • Jaison Perez:

    We're not sold on old fantasy of what the church can provide you, what spirituality, structural spirituality can provide.

  • Cat Wise:

    While New Age practices and beliefs have been growing since the 1960s and '70s, the Internet and social media have played a big role in the spread among the younger generations.

    More than 60 percent of adults ages 18 to 49 have at least one New Age belief, according to Pew. And many are turning to new horoscope apps and online astrologers for guidance.

    But some favor much more intimate ways to spread the word.

  • Lori Shapiro:

    In what ways do we take on the challenge of wrestling with our shadow?

  • Cat Wise:

    At the Open Temple in Venice, California, Rabbi Lori Shapiro incorporates a variety of New Age practices, even a colorful bus, to reach new people in the community.

  • Lori Shapiro:

    There are a lot of reasons why people have fallen away, I think the least of which is ideology. People are hungry for these ideas. We just need to make them accessible again.

  • Cat Wise:

    But many faith leaders aren't rushing to change long-held practices and beliefs in order to keep young people in the pews.

    Reverend Mary Minor is the pastor of Brookins-Kirkland Community Church in Los Angeles' Inglewood neighborhood. The church once had about 10,000 members. Today, there are about 300, and many are older adults.

    Do you feel that, in an effort to reach younger people, that the church might need to change its views on certain issues, like gay marriage, for example?

  • Mary Minor:

    I don't think the church needs to change that. My denomination doesn't believe in gay marriage. However, my denomination embraces those that are of the LGBTQ community.

  • Cat Wise:

    According to Pew, black millennials nationally tend to be less religious than older black adults, but they are considerably more religious than their peers.

    Reverend Minor says she is concerned about losing so many young people in her church, and worries they are missing out on an important aspect of religion: community.

  • Mary Minor:

    When you're not assembled with believers, then you feel like you're on an island all by yourself.

  • Cat Wise:

    Back at New Abbey, Pastor Cory Marquez says a sense of community is what's bringing people back Sunday after Sunday. And their approach isn't all that radical.

  • Cory Marquez:

    I have never opened a door in Christian tradition where I found that I was the first person there. There have always been people, monks and priests and nuns and theologians and philosophers, who have been asking these questions for thousands of years.

  • Cat Wise:

    Once the congregation finishes pondering life's most ancient and enduring questions, they get to celebrate with pizza and cold beverages.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Pasadena, California.

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