Are We Losing the Young? Evangelicals by Age Since 1972 (Part II)

In my last post, I looked at the relationship between age and Evangelical affiliation here in the US. In this post, I want to revisit the topic but use a stronger form of analysis–cohort analysis. Using data from the General Social Survey, I divided respondents up into five groups–those born in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I then calculated the percentage of each of these five cohorts who were Evangelical from 1972 to 2012. Here are the results:

So, the blue line with squares plots the path of people born in the 1940s. In the 1970s, when they were mostly in their 30s, about 18% of them affiliated with Evangelical Christian churches or denominations. That grew substantially in the 1980s and 1990s, but it has dropped slightly since so that now, when they are in their 60s, about 28% of them are Evangelicals.

Its interesting to look at the last two cohorts–those born in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike previous cohorts, both of them dropped in affiliation in their early 20s, but both trended upwards after that.

I wonder if this initial drop downwards contributes to the hyperbole regarding the young–that Evangelical Christianity is facing an imminent collapse. We see higher-than-usual rates of them leaving in their late teens and early twenties, and we project this trend into the future. That doesn’t seem to have happened to those born in the 1970s, and it’s too early to tell for those born in the 1980s.

While the hyperbole might be a great way to sell books and get people to listen to sermons, I don’t see it born out in the data.

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  • Dr. Peter Wielhouwer

    At last week’s Calvin College Henry Symposium on Religion and Public Life, Christine Kim from Georgetown U presented research that had some pretty sophisticated controls, looking at this exact question. My recollection, if correct, is that she demonstrated that there is a strong “period” effect to the Age:Evangelical relationship. That is, there is something about the 2000s that is affecting young Evangelicals’ religious affiliation in a different and negative way, compared with young Evangelicals in previous decades.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, Peter, and Kinnamon of Barna Group says something similar in his book _You Lost Me._ It would be good to have Bradley’s analysis of why he is so much more optimistic than many other researchers. My concern is that he’s looking only at the General Social Survey rather than the other data.

  • http://biblicalgeology.net/blog/ Tas Walker

    I suspect high school and college have a lot to do with it. Evangelical young people in their late teens face the secular worldview presented by teachers and professors they are required to look up to, some openly hostile to Christians. This worldview is diametrically opposed to the biblical Christanity. This worldview has its creation myth (evolution over millions of years) and many Christians fall by the wayside in those years. Some say the drop-out rate is 60% or higher.

    • Anonymous

      Bradley,
      Does your data include non-native born Christians? If so, can you point us to another graph that normalizes the immigration effect?
      How do you respond to the other major researchers who seem to be suggesting a different outcome? Barna Group, Pew, Duke, Wilcox, and Berkeley? Even Jenkins says Christianity as a percentage of the population is declining (even though he projects an increase in numbers over the next 40 years.)

    • Anonymous

      Tas,
      You might find this study (it’s a free download) to be helpful:
      “How Corrosive Is College to Religious Faith and Practice?”
      By Mark D. Regnerus; Jeremy E. Uecker

    • abb3w

      While I’d disagree with the characterization of the reasons, I’d tend to agree with the guess on the timing. The module on religious change in 1988 indicates that of those who changed religions, roughly half first did so between ages 14 and 24. I suspect it’s a combination of increased exposure to alternative ideas, and decreased reliance on parental authority as a basis for decisions. It may also be related to encountering dating/marriage prospects outside the religion they were brought up in.

      My impression from what I recall of other surveys is that the 60% number would be high except in the most fundamentalist sects — Jehovah’s Witnesses and such. However, it may depend on what your criteria defining “drop out” is; the number who attend church services less frequently is a lot higher than the number who change what they think of as their own self-identification.


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