Ministering to Millennials (Part I – Do We Have a Problem?)

(image credit to huffingtonpost.com)

(image credit to huffingtonpost.com)

Do we have a problem?

Across our country, the general impression appears to be that Christianity is on the decline. Is membership waning? Is the median age of worshippers increasing? These are different questions, but related. Even if membership numbers remain static, a church (or church body) could be aging in such a way that spells disaster for the next generation. Do we have a problem?

It’s fairly common knowledge that mainline Protestant churches have been bleeding slow deaths for the past forty years.[1] But independent scholar, Diana Butler Bass, who has written extensively on culture and religion, also suggests:

“Churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and the conservative Presbyterian Church in America are reporting losses that resemble declines their mainline counterparts suffered in the 1970s. New megachurches spring up and are successful for a time – until they are forced to close down and sell their buildings. Even the Catholic Church has barely maintained its share of the population, mostly because immigrant Catholics offset the massive loss of U.S. born members.”[2]

Furthermore, numerous studies seem to suggest that Americans drastically overreport their church attendance when polled. Researcher Philip Brenner from the University of Michigan says that Americans generally overreport church attendance by 10 to 18 points. On the basis of actual behavior, Brenner found church attendance for the past decade to be around 24 percent of the general populace (weekly) and falling, considerably lower than the 1970s.[3] Likewise, sociologists Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler, authors of Did You Really Go To Church?, after carefully tracking denominational church attendance statistics for years, have suggested that from 1961 to 1996, actual church attendance fell by half, despite the fact that self-reported attendance has remained the same.[4]

Whatever statistics one takes, the trends are the same. Church attendance is becoming less common, especially amongst young adults.[5] The current numbers indicate that two out of every five adults in the United States attends church at least monthly. Keep in mind, however, how this contrasts with the self-identifying of adults, i.e. two out of five is probably over reporting. Still, nearly eight out of ten adults in the country consider themselves “Christian.”[6] In other words, twice as many people call themselves “Christian” as attend church on any given month. For half of Americans then, involvement in regular church activity has ceased to be part of the definition of Christianity.

No matter what current numbers are discovered regarding Christian participation in the country, the data is consistently always worse for young adults than it is for adults in general. For instance, only 35 percent of adults in their twenties and thirties currently attend church…ever. Only one out of five of these young adults ever engages in Bible Study.[7] And even among those who do participate, orthodoxy – faithfulness to even basic Apostles’ Creed truths – is sparse. Some recent research has even indicated that only about three percent of those born between 1960 and 2000 fully believe basic biblical concepts, e.g. God as an all-knowing Creator, the Bible as fully authoritative in unchanging moral truth, salvation coming as a gift through the perfect God-man, Jesus.[8]

Somewhat paradoxically, but not surprisingly then, our country has a generation of “Christians” who have little to no conviction about Christianity. They are not necessarily antagonistic against religion, but they simply see faith as unimportant and irrelevant. They just don’t care about faith much. In fact, amongst self-described Christian young adults, only 18 percent say their faith is important to them.[9]

The next natural sociological domino to fall would be Americans who even self-identify as Christian. Since 1960, the number of Americans claiming “emphatic” belief in God has gone from 97 percent to 71 percent, a 26-point drop. Young adults today feel significantly less obligation to religion than their grandparents. Consequently, somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of adults under thirty today claim none.[10] A fifth of all adults and a third of young adults are now commonly referred to by researchers as “nones” (i.e. not religiously affiliated).[11]

All of this has led some of the more influential Christian voices in America, like noted Southern Baptist, Al Mohler, to conclude:

“A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered….Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.”[12]

Today, our country appears to possess a largely nominal, cultural Christianity, a haunting remnant of what was. The evidence, from declining numbers to altered beliefs to self-attested disinterest, all undeniably points to Christianity’s fading presence in the country. If we as a nation are indeed “post-Christian”…then yes, clearly, we have a problem. Denial only prevents us from addressing the issue.

….

Does this all sound too bleak? Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news. And prayer is more productive than worry anyways. The gospel is good news that trumps any possible bad news. I’ve got some thoughts. Keep checking back weekly for more on reaching Millennials. 

(image credit to alanrudnick.com)

(image credit to alanrudnick.com)

 

[1] ARIS, “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” Trinity College, http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf

[2] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion, pgs. 19-20

[3] Philip S. Brenner, “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity? Overreporting of Church Attendance in the U.S.,” Public Opinion Quarterly 75, no. 1 (spring 2011).

[4] Bass, pg. 54

[5] Interestingly, this is a uniquely American issue. Global affiliation with churches and worship attendance are actually on the rise, most significantly in Africa, China, and South Korea. James Emory White, Rise of the Nones, pg. 18.

[6] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, pg. 50

[7] Thom Rainer, Millennials, pg. 47

[8] Gabe Lyons, unchristian, pg. 75

[9] Rainer, pg. 111

[10] Bass, pg. 46

[11] David Brooks, “Building Better Secularists,” Feb. 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/david-brooks-building-better-secularists.html?_r=0

[12] John Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” April 3, 2009, www.newsweek.com/2009/04/03/the-end-of-christian-america.html.

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7 thoughts on “Ministering to Millennials (Part I – Do We Have a Problem?)

  1. John Huebner says:

    Thanks, James, for the research and information! Our Evangelism Commission is aware of all these things…have read the same stats and writers and is actively listening to our younger folks right now (esp. high schools) as we try to both inform and then equip our pastors and churches to be aware of and serve with the gospel our people and those who do not yet know Jesus or who have walked away from him. Keep up your excellent work! The Church will not perish is something we know from God’s word. Whether this is the “summer thunder shower” effect that Luther mentioned or another clear sign of the end…only God knows. Our call to reach out with Jesus remains ever important. Perhaps the way we’ve been equipping the saints since WW2 is something that needs attention, as well as giving a clear biblical voice in the midst of so much ungodly noise around us. Much more could be said…I look forward to your thoughts. God bless your work!

  2. John J Flanagan says:

    These trends are not new. Throughout history Christian churches have struggled with retention of young people, and often the cultural values and changing social ideas of the times have contributed to the problem. Sometimes it is related to prosperity, hedonistic distractions, or rejection of the traditional moral values of parents and past generations, Studies and polls were not common in ages past, but astute writers and historians give us a partial understanding of spiritual laxity and indifference. Even in my own case, raised a Catholic, I never lost my love of God and faith in Christ, prayed daily, but my church attendance was very sporadic. This was common to many of the youthful friends I knew growing up in the sixties. As an adult and a Lutheran (LCMS), my attendance is regular, but I hear and read about the problems of declining attendance in all denominations except some of the big mega-churches. Despite the problem of attendance decline, God is in charge, not man, and He will draw “whom He will.” And we both know that there are apostate churches, temples of an alien Gospel, and it is a good thing to welcome their decline.

  3. Donn Dobberstein says:

    The statistical trend has a visible trajectory. Now if only we blog-reading believers don’t bury our heads in the sands of lament even as the necessary alarm is sounded! The rise of the Nones gives rise to future questions:

    What church culture or ministry mindset needs to change if we are going to share the gospel with a growing segment of our population who are uninterested in the gospel?

    Are we on the verge of a new era for apologetics?

    Since this is a “part 1” article, I look forward to a coming “2” or “3”.

    • Can you explain that a little more, Jeff? Are you asking, “What is the correlation between belief in God and gathering together as believers to worship him publicly, i.e. ‘attending church’?”

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