Gen Y Gets Religion Online

Amazon, eBay, Priceline — we’ve come to accept these virtual shopping places for every day purchases of books, records, travel and even used cars. While the Internet didn’t strike a fatal blow to bricks-and-mortar retail, it certainly changed the way buyers buy and sellers sell.

So you shouldn’t be surprised that religion has also found a new home on the Internet. And that traditional houses of worship are going virtual. In a simple search for “churches in Second Life,” I found the following places of worship listed on the first page: Second Life Synagogue Temple Beit Israel, Chebi Mosque, Chapel for the Holy Mother of God Maria and First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life.

Just as they go online for everything from Facebook to finances, a growing number of young people are finding faith online, most notably in the virtual world known as Second Life.

Young people are not only creating their own religious identities, they may also be changing the future of worship itself. 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.

“I think [this] generation is really turned off by the term religion,” LifeChurch.TV’s Pastor Bobby Gruenewald says. LifeChurch.TV boasts 80,000 congregants through the web. They log on to hear sermons and chat with other worshippers.  Other online congregations are popping up daily where they connect with the digitally connected faithful through faith-based phone apps, worship Web pages, online scripture readings, even prayer websites. And… tweeting is encouraged.

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.

This may also explain why a recent Pew Research Center study on Generation Y and religion found that while young adults are the least overtly religious American generation in modern times, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. According to a new Pew Research study, one in four Millennials (as the generation between 18 and 30 years old is also known) are unaffiliated with any religion, far more than the share of older adults when they were ages 18 to 29. But belonging does not necessarily mean not believing in the minds of these Millennials.

A Lifeway Christian Resources study offers additional insight into what appears on the surface to be just another widening gap between the generations. Seventy-two percent of Millennials say they are more spiritual than religious. While the study did find that fewer of them attend worship services, pray or read sacred scriptures, I wonder what percentage might gravitate toward online or virtual religion when it comes to prayer.

“Online, what people are doing is seeking out truth,” Rebecca Phillips, vice president of social networking for Beliefnet.com, “and it might not be in the traditional way of a pastor speaking from a pulpit.”

Second Life was created by Linden Lab in San Francisco in 2003; its founders imagined a social platform for an idealized online society. Membership has soared to 18 million and 1 billion hours logged on “in life.” Second Life has established a thriving economy that grew 93% in 2009 and transacted the equivalent of more than $1 billion. It has become a popular venue for politics and education.

For a quick introduction to Second Life, you can download a free excerpt from my book, Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization and view this YouTube video, An Introduction to Second Life.

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