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Changing Shape: The faith lives of millennials, by Ruth H. Perrin

14 August 2020

Bernice Martin reviews a study of the minority with an active faith

CHANGING SHAPE is an illuminating and wise study by Ruth Perrin, researcher in the University of Durham, which deserves to be read and pondered by church leaders and congregations. It is a small study based on personal interviews with just under fifty respondents from the Millennial generation, those born between 1981 and the mid-1990s, currently between their mid-to-late twenties and mid-to-late thirties. It provides a snapshot of that increasingly rare breed, young adult Christians in secular Britain, where, as Perrin reminds us, a mere three per cent of the Millennial generation has an active Christian faith.

Perrin draws fruitfully on her own faith journey and her 20 years of experience in ministry with young adults, as well as the small amount of published research about what she calls Emerging Adult Affirmers. She makes an important distinction between young American Evangelicals and their British counterparts, contrasting the predominantly right-wing politics of the Americans as against the Centrist or Left-leaning position of the British, including her own sample.

Perrin admits that her sample may under-represent young Christians who have not attended university, as she drew it from cities in the north-east of England with substantial university populations. It may also over-represent young people who grew up in the area, which is known for powerful family and community identification, which might not be so strong among more mobile populations. Even so, she believes that her core findings echo what she has observed in other parts of the country.

Where current models of the development of faith tend to assume that the process is largely complete by the early twenties, Perrin’s sample shows a much longer trajectory over an additional decade. Her respondents have a variety of denominational origins and none (a substantial sector have families with some variety of Christian identity), but all of them move through either a congregation or an online community with Evangelical or Pentecostal emphases, often one of the large non-denominational mega-churches that provide a large and welcoming community of young people.

They neither know nor care about denominational histories or ecclesiological disputes and battles. What they look for is faith that will provide solutions to the immediate problems that confront them in their personal, family and working lives, and a peer group facing the same challenges which can be a refuge in a world in which young Christians often feel like incomprehensible oddities. They are not surrounded by Dawkins-ite atheist warriors. Their secular friends are not hostile, but simply don’t see what is important about needing a faith, and mostly have no notion what goes on in churches.

These Millennials find modern emotional styles of worship attractive, but eventually look for theological teaching to deepen and broader their understanding. Mainly they seek this not from their church, but online, very often from Pentecostal sources. Some, especially if they have difficulties in their relationships or their work, find respite from a relentlessly upbeat atmosphere by attending formal liturgies where they can be quiet, and take their sadness and disappointments with them into worship.

paAdults of the Millennial generation with a child in a pushchair in New York this summer

Millennials are used to negotiating pluralist culture and to work and education contexts in which their input is sought and valued. When church leaders and older members of their congregations do not share these assumptions, they feel unvalued and get dispirited. They are people for whom family relations are very important, and so look for family-like inter-generational networks in church. Particularly, they want nurturing but equal relationships with older mentors. When these things fail or never appear, they can get disappointed and discouraged.

They are thoroughly contemporary in their search for personal fulfilment and give little weight to dogmatic rules based on “the Bible says”, but learn from experiment and experience, especially in the matter of sexual identities: at least one of the respondents lamented the easy availability of pornography, citing personal experience of its dangers. Their personal goals include satisfying romantic relationships that lead to marriage and children, and a congregational embedding in a Christian way of life, especially for their children.

That Christian way of life focuses on altruism, social justice, and community activism confronting poverty, marginality and global issues such as climate change. Many of the interviewees had made substantial personal sacrifices in pursuit of these moral and religious goals.

A small sector of the sample had ceased to be Christian after a long period of active leadership, finding that their faith had just faded away rather than been dramatically broken. Another sector had left the Church, but retained their faith intact, finding succour in online global connections. The solid core of Active Adult Affirmers supported their faith by such things as pilgrimages and Christian family holidays, and continued to act as young leaders in their congregations, in spite of the hazards of isolation, especially for mothers with young families, or less-than-supportive congregations.

It is a volume that will richly reward church discussion groups who choose to use it as a focus for truthful intergenerational exchanges about how their own church operates. Perrin provides a list of discussion questions at the end of each chapter for this purpose.


Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.


Changing Shape: The faith lives of millennials
Ruth H. Perrin
SCM Press £19.99
Church House Bookshop special price £16

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