Millennials and Lent: An Unlikely Pairing, by David Kinnaman

Part of Lenten series Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

Millennials are by far the least likely age group to be aware of Lent—but, interestingly, they are more likely than average to say they are planning to fast.  

by David Kinnaman • President, The Barna Group

ash-wednesdayEvery year, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday, millions of people celebrate the 40 days of Lent by giving up—fasting from—certain foods or activities. It’s a practice with a rich history among many Christian traditions. But how likely are believers today to participate in Lenten disciplines—and, if they do choose to fast, what are they fasting from?

The majority of adults (72%) are aware of the Christian tradition of giving something up for Lent. Even among non-Christians, awareness of Lent is at about the same level (70%). Yet in spite of this widespread awareness of the season, only 17% of all adults—roughly one-fifth of those who know about the season—have practiced Lenten fasting in the last three years. The same number (17%) plan to give something up for Lent again this year.

Not surprisingly, practicing Catholics are among the most likely to have participated in Lent, with just over two-thirds (65%) saying they have celebrated the fast in the past three years. But many Protestants have also adopted the habit: one in six practicing Protestants (15%) say they have fasted for Lent in the past three years, and about the same number (16%) say they plan to fast this year.

Each younger generation of Americans is less likely to know about Lent. Millennials, the youngest adult generation, are by far the least likely age group to be aware of Lent (57%)—but, interestingly, they are more likely than average to say they are planning to fast in 2014 (20% compared to 17% among all adults). By contrast, eight out of 10 Boomers (80%) are aware of Lent, but only 10% are planning to give something up this year. Those in the oldest generation, the Elders, are most likely to know about Lent (82%) and most likely to celebrate it, with one-quarter (26%) planning to fast in 2014.

Among those who plan to celebrate Lent this year, the most common abstentions include food or drink, such as chocolate (30%), meat (28%), sugar (28%), soda drinks (26%), alcohol (24%), fruit (14%) and butter or cream (11%). Although less common, many Americans who fast for Lent are planning to abstain from technology or entertainment. This includes curtailing use of social networks (16%), smartphones (13%), television (11%), video games (10%), movies (9%) and the Internet (9%). Activities that were mentioned by fewer than 2% of respondents include sex, smoking and swearing.  Unsurprisingly, Millennials are the population segments most likely to fast from technology.

What the Research Means
Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group and general editor of the FRAMES series, points out that the data belies established stereotypes about Millennials and traditions, “The conventional wisdom says younger people are anti-tradition—that young Christians rebel against rituals they may deem ’empty’ or antiquated. However, the data shows Millennial Christians express distinctive interest in this ancient discipline—even more so than among their parents’ generation.

“The ability for people to adapt this practice to daily habits such as television, social media, video games and other modern ‘idols’ is likely part of Lent’s current appeal,” Stone says. “It’s a tradition that can connect a contemporary believer to a very ancient and rich faith history, while still feeling applicable to the realities of modern life.

“This connection is an important one for church leaders to note: the more rituals and belief practices can be made pertinent—that is, can be shown to have a depth beyond mere tradition—the more likely today’s Christians are to see their validity and to engage them. Young Christians have come of age in a time when everything feels up in the air; when the newest thing is old in just a few days. The ancient practices of the Christian faith may hold a counter-cultural appeal to many Christians, including Millennials, as they seek to find a sense of rootedness in such a shifting cultural context.”

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