by Rachel Held Evans
Well, my CNN post on millennials and the Church got shared like crazy this weekend, (with over 165,000 Facebook shares so far), so I guess it struck a nerve! I hadn’t intended it to be a comprehensive piece on the faith of millennials, just a commentary on how—generally, based on multiple surveys and my own experience—millennials in the U.S. long for change in the Church that goes beyond worship style and marketing. So it’s been nice to see the conversation continue as church leaders, researches, and my fellow millennials weigh in. I’ll try to share the most thoughtful pieces here and on Twitter/Tumblr as the week goes on.
In the meantime, I’ll just address a few common questions in relation to the piece and suggest some resources for learning more from the real experts on this topic:
1. Where do you get your research?
It’s pretty much impossible to find a survey that doesn’t report a dramatic decline in church attendance among young adults, but the ones that interest me the most are the ones that ask young adults why they have left the church.
One of the most helpful examinations of such research is David Kinnaman’s book, You Lost Me, which is based on data from The Barna Group gathered from 2007 and 2011. Kinnaman found that 59% of 18-29-year-olds in the U.S. with a Christian background report they have “dropped out of attending church regularly.” That translates into about 8 million young adults who have left, or are leaving the church. In sifting through Barna’s research findings, Kinnaman identified six themes that he says “captures the overall phenomenon of disconnection between the next generation and the church.” Young adults in the U.S. consistently reported that they left the church because they found it 1) overprotective, 2) shallow, 3) anti-science, 4) repressive (especially regarding sexuality), 5) exclusive, 6) hostile to those with doubts and questions about their faith.
Data from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows similar trends. Its most recent surveys on this age demographic show that “fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation - so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 - are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). “
Pew reports that “in their social and political views, young adults are clearly more accepting than older Americans of homosexuality, more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation of human life and less prone to see Hollywood as threatening their moral values. At the same time, Millennials are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. And they are slightly more supportive than their elders of government efforts to protect morality…” Back in March of this year, The Pew Forum made news when it reported that 70% of millennials are in favor of same-sex marriage.
Pew has several interactive and informative pages devoted to millennials that I recommend checking out if you’re interested in learning more. They also include more information about Latino millennials and African American millennials.
Public Religion Research Institute
The most recent survey to make headlines comes from the Public Religion Research Institute, which found that for people ages 18-33, religious progressives outnumber religious conservatives. The survey “shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels,” according to E.J. Dionne, a Brookings Senior Fellow. Like the others, this survey reveals increasing numbers of millennials unaffiliated with church.
(Some have noted that a weakness in this survey is that it did not examine the influence of the growing numbers of Asian American Christians in the U.S.)
So while some pastors may be seeing healthy numbers of millennials in their churches, statistically, this is not the norm in the U.S. And it’s worth addressing why.
Obviously there are additional factors to consider, including changes in average marrying age and increased education that contribute to these trends. But we can’t discount the fact that millennials are leaving the church at a higher rate than previous generations, nor should we ignore their responses when asked why they don’t want to go to church.
2. What about Mainline Protestantism?
As an evangelical (or at least a post-evangelical!) I generally write with an evangelical audience in mind, but as others have rightly noted, it’s not just evangelical churches losing young adults, but also Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, and Mainline Protestant churches…sometimes at even higher rates. I often hear from “Mainliners” who essentially say, “Hey, we’re much more open to science, social justice, political diversity, and LGBT people. Why aren’t these disaffected millennials flocking to us?” I’m not qualified to answer that question comprehensively. I can only share my own experience, which I did with a post entitled “The Mainline and Me.” (My friend Aric Clark, a PCUSA pastor, wrote a fantastic guest post in response, entitled “The Passionate Mainline.”)
Probably the best person to consult on this topic is Diana Bulter Bass, author of Christianity After Religion, Christianity for the Rest of Us, and a host of other books. Diana has covered renewal in Mainline churches as both a religious historian and journalist for more than a decade and is optimistic about the future of Mainline Protestantism.
For more on Diana’s perspective, check out this recent interview from Jonathan Wilson-Hatrgrove, or this article on the Huffington Post about the future of faith, or one of her excellent, informative books, particularly Christianity After Religion or The Practicing Congregation. I'm also wondering if "Ask Diana Butler Bass..." may be in order!
3. What about global Christianity and immigrant and ethnic minority communities in the U.S?
This is probably the most under-reported angle to stories about the future of Christianity, but perhaps the most important. The reality is, Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted away from Western Christianity to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, it has been suggested that by 2050, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians will constitute 71 percent of the world’s Christian population. So when we talk about the future of Christianity, we can’t do it well without looking beyond its white, American expressions.
My favorite book on the topic is The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah.
According to Rah, “fifty years ago, if you were asked to describe a typical Christian in the world, you could confidently assert that person to be an upper middle-class, white male, living in an affluent and comfortable Midwest suburb. If you were to ask the same question today, that answer would more likely be a young Nigerian mother on the outskirts of Lagos, a university student in Seoul, South Korea, or a teenage boy in Mexico City. European and North American Christianity continue to decline, while African, Asian, and Latin American Christianity continue to increase. “
Rah adds: “Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; its is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States.”
We will be discussing The Next Evangelicalism in the next few weeks—hopefully with an interview with Professor Rah— so I recommend picking up this challenging and insightful book.
4. Should the Church change for millennials? Aren’t you being a bit demanding?
No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity, as does Generation X, the Boomers, and the generations before them. The article wasn’t intended to be a list of demands, but rather an expression of desires, a casting of vision and an articulation of my hope for the Church. Obviously, the real work begins when we come together in community to do the hard, daily work of reconciliation, listening, serving, and worshipping in spirit and truth.
To get a better understanding of my own journey within evangelical Christianity, check out my first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. (My second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, deals with biblical literalism, gender issues, and me being a crazy person for year.)
And—I guess this is sort of an announcement!— my third book, to be published by Thomas Nelson in 2014, is about this very topic: Church. I’ll share more about that in the months to come.
5. How can I keep track of how this conversation develops?
I’ll share my favorite responses to the discussion here, and on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. If you’ve written on the topic, or if you write about it this week, feel free to leave a comment with a link in the comment section; I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Here are some interesting responses (both positive and negative!):
Is Rachel Held Evans right? by Bishop On a Bike (James Hazelwood)
United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face by Anthony Bradley
As always, thanks for the dialog! I’ve already learned a lot from your responses.
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