Father David Ruchinski, Rabbi David Kaiman, Reverend Bryan Fulwider and Imam Muhammad Musri are familiar with the questions people ask of religion. With more than 55 years of religious leadership between them, they’ve provided spiritual guidance for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Millennials, however, presented a different challenge: They’re more subjective in their beliefs, more willing to entertain opposing points of view and draw from more sources in forming their religious compass. Despite these tendencies — and the statistical tendencies indicating a decrease in religiosity among the generation — these four men of faith believe millennials aren’t as different as people say they are. Their personal experiences with the cohort have suggested otherwise.
Ultimately, they arrived at a similar conclusion — faith isn’t as doomed as people think.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Could each of you give us a brief introduction of who you are and what you do?
A: Father: I was ordained as a Catholic priest in 2007 and was assigned to Gainesville’s Saint Augustine Church and Student Center in 2008. I’ve been working in this parish and campus ministry setting ever since.
A: Imam: I’m a senior Imam and the President of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
A: Reverend: And I’m a minister in the United Church of Christ. I served in local congregations for over 25 years and now I manage our production, Friends Talking Faith with The Three Wise Guys (a radio show dedicated to bringing different religious perspectives to important societal discussions).
Q: What do you define as the difference between religion and spirituality?
A: Father: Religion comes from a Latin word — religio. It’s what binds people together. In a certain sense, anything that people share in common, that affects their common practices, could be a religion. But spirituality is about our connection with the transcendent. Spirituality says that there is something that exists outside of ourselves. Because we define it as ‘spiritual,’ we say there is a non-material reality that transcends the ordinary in our lives; and that, somehow, we have a relationship to that non-material reality.
A: Imam: The words “religion” and “faith” are not really the same. When we talk about “religion” or “organized religion” — institutions that have been around for a while — they are man-made. They change. They are not set in stone. But when we talk about faith and the spirit of faith, that has no really physical space where it’s confined in. If you think about the messages of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad or other historical figures, they often are outside the boundaries of the church, synagogue or mosque. They transcend our current definition of religion.
Q:Why do you think millennials are becoming increasing unaffiliated?
A: Reverend: I think that people who are unaffiliating with religion are often doing so because they find some religious communities and attitudes to be completely unacceptable in terms of their own understanding of life. A lot of those communities tell people “you can’t believe X if you want to be part of our community.” But it’s worth finding community. Communities hold us accountable, they give us a place of comfort and nourishment for our hearts and minds and lives when we’re in difficult times. They can be a place of real growth, because we have to bounce our ideas against other people who may disagree with us sometimes. If it’s a loving and good community, they’ll give us room to make our case and be who we are. It’s harder to find those sometimes, but it can be worth it.
Q: Overall, just how are millennials different from other generations in your congregation?
A: Reverend: One of the things that I have experienced is that they have a real strong B.S. detector. Most millennials won’t put up with nonsense, bad answers that don’t make sense to them or some sort of absolutism about what they must believe or think. They really would rather have a conversation and share their ideas, and they’re willing to listen to another’s ideas as well; but they don’t want to be told what to believe. They want to be in a conversation and come to their own understanding.
Q: Is there any way you cater to them differently than you would to older generations?
A: Imam: The vast majority of millennials went to college, and when we talk to them, we find it, honestly, easier to address them because there’s a common ground based on a scientific understanding of the phenomena around us. When talking to older folks who haven’t had that opportunity — who have absolute views about religion, who did not go out of their safe zone and interact with the rest of the world — they have very narrow views of the world and of religion. It’s really hard to work with them.
Q: What’s the best part about reaching millennials?
A: Father: What I love about this particular ministry is seeing their great potential, and seeing them bring that potential to fruition. In the Bible, it talks about what a richness it is for a father to see his children gather around his table. It’s compared to shoots of an olive tree. Coming into this, I don’t know that I had the expectation that I would experience that kind of fatherly joy; but ten years now of working with millennials has given me that great gift. I’ve had the chance to work with those who came here as freshmen, grew up in the faith and found their spouse. I did their weddings, and now, I’m baptizing their babies and bouncing my little spiritual grandbabies on my knee. That’s just a gift that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Q: What do you think is the fate of faith in America?
A: Father: I think the fate of faith in America is hopeful.
A: Imam: I think faith is going to be there; not just in the millennial generation, but beyond. However, if institutions want to be relevant, they need to evolve very quickly.