Rachel Held Evans’s CNN article “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” received a lot of press and follow-up across the blog and media worlds. I shared it on Facebook along with several of the follow-ups from various sources. Sixteen years ago, I remember reading very similar headlines about Gen-X. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, similar headlines were being written due to the Woodstock-Hippie types. I think Evan’s made some really good points in her article. She rightly questions church leaders assuming that a hip worship leader will get Millennials to show up in their church next Sunday. She rightly notes that some “young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” Very true – even though this has been true for many decades. It was true for me sixteen years ago growing up in a Fundamentalist congregation!
However, I also disagree with the assumed idea that Millennials are leaving the Church. In her follow-up blog post “More On Millennials and The Future of Christianity,” she states:
“…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). “
Let’s restate the data here from a positive view:
- Fully 3 in 4 members of the Millennials generation are Affiliated with a particular faith!
- Millennials are slightly less affiliated than members of Gen X at a comparable point in their life cycle. Generation X had a 80% Affiliation rate vs Millennials at a 75% Affiliation rate.
When the data is restated, my opinion on the whole idea changes A LOT! In fact, its really hard to believe. You are telling me that 75% of Millennials actually affiliate with a particular faith. My internal assumption is that this would be 25% affiliate rather than 75%. This is REALLY GREAT NEWS! The vast majority of Millennials affiliate with a particular faith. Rather than leaving the faith, most millennials are staying with a faith!!!!
So much has been written over the past few years regarding the Unaffiliated, the Nones, and the Spiritual-But-Religious. These groups are slightly larger than in years past. Do we need to understand why this small trend is taking place? Yes! Absolutely! But is it a crisis that is leading to the end of our faith? Absolutely not!
unChristian, deChurched, and Spiritual-But-Not-Religious
A few years ago, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman wrote a book called unChristian. It describes and analyzes a Barna Group study on those who consider by the study to be non-Christian. This past year, they followed up with a book called You Lost Me that explores why Millennials (who were 18-29 years old at the time) are leaving the church. Here is the question I want to ask, “Are we losing the Millennials?” From the stats above, I would seem to think the answer is No! Like generations that have come before them who are in their 20s, they are idealists and find some real problems in our faith communities. They are going through their own identity journeys – questioning, doubting, and very skeptical of the institutions that have provided (more like “forced” in their minds) meaning, definitions, boxes, lines and identity upon them. The real problems that both the non-Christians and the Millennials are finding with the Church need to be given real attention. Their issues are real and important for the future of our faith communities. Many of their issues are the same issues I take with American Christianity.
Data & Statistics
As I’ve noted, data and statistics are easy to manipulate. Terms are easy to interchange when they are very different. For example, religious Affiliation is different than church attendance. Church attendance is around the 20% rate for regular weekly attendance according to some studies and as high as 40% in other studies. Most surveys do not consider church participants who attend just 3x per month to be regular. However, most participants who attend even once every four weeks consider themselves to be regular attenders. Even C & E participants (attending Christmas and Easter only) will claim a particular congregation as their home church. This concept alone accounts for so much of the broken statistics being reported in the media. A closer look at all of the data shows that most Americans are very spiritual, and many are even religious – as in institutional religion such as affiliation with a particular church, synagogue or mosque.
Also, when you read the summaries of these various studies, and especially those using the studies to drive a certain idea such as “American Christianity will be extinct in 10 years” sort of headlines, what you will find is that article or book will:
- Mix data from a wide variety of studies
- It will shift back and forth from Percentages to Actual Numbers
- It will focus in on the most dramatic numbers
- It rarely takes into account population increases for various demographics
Here is a great example: “Today’s 30-somethings attend church at 25% of the rate of Boomers.” As I often do, I examine footnotes and links for statistical information. Here is what I discovered:
- It should read 25% less. Why is this significant? 25% means that if 100 Boomers attended church, then only 25 thirty-somethings attend. Whereas, 25% less means 75 thirty-somethings attend compared to 100 Boomers.
- Are we comparing today’s 30-somethings to yesterday’s Boomer 30-somethings from 10-20 years ago? Or, are we comparing today’s 30-somethings to today’s Boomers who are anywhere between the ages of 49-67 today? Those are very different stats to compare! If it’s the first, it might be significant. If it’s the second, then nothing has really changed over the past 60 years!
- Are we really comparing a 10 year age range (30 somethings) to an entire Generational demographic (Boomers make up an 18 year span!)?
- This example reveals the tilted perspective of the writer. A writer using such a so-called “statistic” has a very clear agenda. Rather than accuracy, such a writer is attempting to manipulate data to make a case. I think the Barna Group does this often in their books and articles. Unfortunately, this affected Rachel Held Evan’s article and even my own perspective the day I read her article.
Soul Searching & Souls In Transition
If you want to read someone who takes the study, data, and statistics very seriously, then read Dr. Christian Smith’s books. He is professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Two of his books that have been significant for the study of the religious affiliation and habits of teenagers and 20-somethings are Soul Searching and Souls In Transition. In the first, he studied teenagers. Then he took the same group as they went into college and were graduating to figure out if anything had changed. If you want to read a quick summary of his findings, check out this quick summary. Essentially, he states that children have the same basic shape to their faith as their parents. Most people in this country believe in what he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the belief that we should be good, feel good, and turn to God in emergencies.” Parents and faith communities teach this idea to our children and teenagers – often not realizing we are doing that. As college students and 20-somethings, Millennials push these ideas a little farther but not much. Here is what Smith finds:
- Emerging adults are significantly less religious than adults older than 30 and this has remained basically unchanged for the last 50 years. Here are my thoughts about this: Remember that significantly less religious in statistics is not that significant to most of us – remember the stats in my first paragraph. GenX affiliating at 80% vs Millennials affiliating at 75% was significant. Okay, sure. That 5% is a huge number of the population. But, in the end, 3 out of 4 Millenials are still religiously affiliated.
- The religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not accidental; rather, they flow out of the formative religious experiences of childhood and adolescence. Here are my thoughts about this: Of course! Does it really suprise us that our formation as children and teeangers has a huge influence on us as adults?
Millennials Are Mostly 20-somethings
The oldest Millennials are just turning 30 – 31 years-old. Most are in their 20s. 20-somethings are generally idealistic and congregations are not idealistic spaces for the most part. Churches are filled with people attempting to survive life; whereas many 20-somethings are complaining about the complacency and apathy of adults throughout our culture. Today’s millennials are very similar to two groups:
- 20-somethings from the past several decades – they complain a lot. They want to make their own way and ideas, even if those ways and ideas really are similar to the rest of culture. They have to think they are doing it their way.
- The rest of culture – some studies suggest that today’s millennials might be more narcissitic than adults 30+. Yes, but those same studies show that each demographic group is slightly more narcissistic than the same groups 20 years ago. Our whole culture seems more narcissistic. Yet, even these kinds of statements might not be true. How is narcissism being defined by these studies? Also, most studies show that our culture is both more self-centered and more volunteer-minded than the same groups 20 years ago. Interesting!
Substance & Style
Substance matters! Of course, it does. Style alone will only mesmerize us for a short period before we realize it’s empty. Today’s millennials, and really the full range of today’s culture, is concerned about some of the close-minded, anti-scientific, and hate-filled discriminatory language and attitudes of a large portion of today’s conservative church traditions. Millennials are the most likely group to decide to leave a church over such attitudes and actions, but only by a difference of 5-10%. As I have made clear throughout my post, I don’t find 5-10% to be that significant.
However, style matters as well. Substance ultimately trumps style but that does not mean style is not a factor. People of all demographic groups church shop around substance and style. They look for a church community with similar beliefs, attitudes, and actions similar to their own while also usually landing in a church community with a style similar to their previous community. Why in the world would we think that style does not matter? Do we shop based on substance alone? No! Style is also important for the vast majority of us.
High Church, Low Church, Blended Church & The Mash-up Church
Often this substance vs style conversation is really just a smoke screen for a high liturgy vs free liturgy discussion and which is considered to be better and more relevant to today’s culture. Both high-liturgy and free or low liturgy congregations have participants. Churches that attempt to blend the liturgical styles tend to not be good at one or the other and thus suffer from a poor product. These congregations either decide to stop doing blended style worship and go back to their high or low style, or they die! However, over the past 10 years the emergent movement came on scene. Emergent was characterized by using high liturgical actions in very low-church and free ways. Essentially, the Emergent Church found a way to mash-up or blend these traditions in a way that some Gen-X and Millennials (and even some Boomers) liked. However, the Emergent movement lost most of its sizzle as a wide variety of congregations figured out how to incorporate pieces of the Emergent movement into their non-emergent congregation’s life. Thus, Emergent lost its mojo while having a huge and continuing influence on the church at large.
Personality, Heritage, Peer Group, and Stages of Faith
Whether a person or even a Millennial is attracted to a High, Low, Blended, or Mashup Church is due to upbringing, personality factors, peer group, and an individual’s stage of faith. Most millennials attend church either 1) with their parents or 2) with other millennials. Some will choose something different. When they do, they choose a congregation that is different than their parents or peer group because they are looking for something different (not surprising!). When they do, they usually are going through a faith stage crisis. This will involve substance and/or style. Sometimes both. Sometimes just substance. Sometimes just style. Mainline congregations will often pick up some younger participants who were former evangelicals looking for a more robust liturgy, tradition, etc. However, free-churches are very likely to pick up former Mainliners looking for energy, liveliness, and technologically driven worship.
Reaching Our Culture
If we went to Russia as missionaries, we would attempt to create a church that is congruent with Russian culture. Would we challenge pieces of that same Russian culture. Absolutely! Churches attempt to do the same thing here in our American culture. Do we sometime not challenge enough? Yes! Do we fail at making congruent enough? Yes! It’s a difficult thing to do. Evangelicals tend to believe they need to challenge our culture in its Beliefs. Mainline congregations tend to believe they need to challenge our culture in its liturgy. The result is our culture generally has to choose beliefs or worship actions. This is really unfortunate. As a progressive, Mainline pastor, I would hope that we are creating congregations that are able to be congruent and challenging in both ways. The mega-church worship style works for a large group of Americans. Usually this mega-church worship falls into two categories: 1) Theatre styled concert or 2) Rock concert styled concert. These are the types of music Americans tend to enjoy in everyday life, so it should surprise us that churches become mega when they are able to reproduce such styles. It also shouldn’t surprise us that the small, intimate venue works really well too. For as many chain restaurants that are out there, many Americans prefer the intimate, local restaurant. It’s really difficult to quantify what works best. What we do know is that the mid-sized local-chain restaurant that’s been around for 10+ years is dying. This is true for churches as well. Mid-sized means not-intimate and lacks good customer service and good quality most of the time. They are not good enough to go BIG and they are not small enough to offer a unique experience. Thus, most mid-sized congregations need to choose. Will be go smaller or will we go bigger?
Will Millennials Come To My Church?
Maybe! If your church doesn’t have 20-somethings then you will have to expend a great deal of resources – time, energy, talent, and money – to get them to your church. It will involve substance and style. Overall, congregations that don’t have 20-somethings make a better investment going after 30- & 40- somethings. They are looking for places that are good for their whole family – adults and children and are more likely to stay rather than the constantly changing 20 somethings. Remember, just like past generations, 20-somethings begin returning to the institutions they were raised on when they begin having children themselves. When they do return, they will be looking for something meaningful and congruent with who they are. And churches need to be willing to shift, change, and adapt as they do. If we don’t, they will find a congregation that does. If we don’t, then your church will quickly become a congregation mostly composed of people 65+.