Explaining the Millennial Meltdown

Baylor’s Research on Religion podcast this week features a long interview with your diarist. This is the second time I’ve been on host Anthony “Tony” Gill’s program (first time here). There’s too much there to even try to unpack in one blogpost, so I’ll stick to one item: the declining church attendance of younger Americans.

Religion in America has always been highly mobile. Indeed some scholars think that is what has made it so effective. Philip Jenkins several years ago put to me the idea that Americans are so much more religiously observant than Europeans because we’re not very rooted.

We move around a lot and need a means of fostering a quick sense of belonging for ourselves and our immediate families. Whenever we move into new places, churches are the most effective institutions at grafting us into the local community.

You may doubt this explanation — I did when Jenkins first shared it with me — but put that aside for now. What do we know, demographically speaking, about younger Americans — Millennials and perhaps late Gen X-ers — that makes them different from their parents?

Here’s my stab at an answer:

1) They’re poorer. This is almost always the case with younger people but the kids these days may be structurally poorer than their parents. They have a much harder time finding jobs and wage growth is pretty slow.

2) They’re more urban. The white flight of the 1970s has partially reversed itself, with a younger cohort pouring back into the cities.

3) They’re less mobile. Fewer have cars and those that do drive them more sparingly.

(I have excluded all issues of family formation in order to keep this from becoming a full-blown treatise. You’re welcome.)

The lack of mobility is a direct consequence of the first two differences. Younger people don’t have money for cars and in cities they can take public transport or hail a cab.

This de-carization of the kids has knock-on effects, including a reduction in trips, a narrowed perspective and fewer spontaneous moves. With a car, you can find yourself in all kinds of new places and decide to pack a bunch of your stuff up and move there. Without, it’s harder to find the places and it takes more planning to get there.

Add to all of this the fact that American religion is what economists would call a “lagging indicator.” Employment is the oft-cited example of this term. Strong economic performance spurs job growth, but it takes time.

For much of this country’s history, people poured into frontier territory. Badly needed civilizing forces came later. Churches followed pioneers and took some time to establish beachheads and integrate newcomers.

A more pedestrian but similar thing happened in the last 40 years with the growth of America’s suburbs and exurbs. People moved there from the cities and religion came with them and adapted to new circumstances.

Thus, Tony Gill says in the podcast, we saw the rise of “non-denominational” Christian bodies. And also, I would add, megachurches.

At the same time, many city-based churches consolidated or closed down entirely. Their members were moving away and the struggle to keep them open hardly seemed worth it, because the future was elsewhere.

Well now the future, for a good number of younger Americans, has boomeranged. They find themselves un- or underemployed in cities without the great number of churches that our metropolises once boasted of.

Twenty- and early thirty-somethings don’t have cars or a lot of money and so they are staying put, more or less. They are certainly moving around within a much smaller radius than their predecessors. Community is easier to foster because, in these new straitened times, community is basically the people you’re stuck with.

That these folks find church relatively less useful than their parents should not come as a great surprise.

  • Brett Blatchley

    This is interesting, but I’m not sure that I buy it as an explanation.

    One might think that if churches (in general) were attractive to and meeting the spiritual and community needs of young people, that they would flock to congregations in the areas in which they are “stuck.” It would seem that young people are having these needs met elsewhere (or not?). So could local churches meet their needs if only young people would look to them? We know Jesus can meet our needs, but are the churches presenting Jesus? Can we see Jesus in fellow Christians? In ourselves? Is the problem that they aren’t looking or is it the problem that we aren’t appearing as Christ in their midst? Are we exhibiting “faith in our Christian subculture” or faith in Jesus?

    Maybe the formal, program-laden, policy-driven, budget-wielding churches will give way to a more organic approach where individual believers “do life” with others, and their lives are full of Christ and are increasingly Christlike, and they go to others, and these others are connected with personal, vulerable, trusting faith in God that is winsome and infectious. In truth, this is it’s supposed to be like for all Christians, but maybe it becomes stifled in the ratified air of formal churches? Often it seems that Jesus is the “CEO” or “Chairman of the Board” or even a “silent partner” in these bigger organizations, and we as His people are just “cogs in the machine.” When you’re a “cog” it’s easy to take spiritual things and compartmentalize them into 10-11am on Sundays. What if Jesus would rather be like a friendly mentor who *desires* your company and works side-by-side with you and give you room to be creative, to risk, to shine, to sparkle, to fall-down, bump-into-things, to just be yourself, growing in trust and love of a God powerful enough to create the universe, but warm and close enough to be a best friend?

    An Aussie pastor-friend calls the formal church bodies “Apple Tree Church,” where things are “polished” and the fruit (while beautiful and tasty) depends on the tree to develop, and it is tended and people come to it for the fruit. “Come to us, sit in our pews join our programs and you will find Living Water for your souls.” He then notes there is another form of “church,” “Potato Patch Church,” where the fruit is not seen (it’s underground), you have to dig it up, it has to be cleaned before it’s edible…BUT it grows like a weed, with nothing more than a “potato-hearted” person and a bit of Living Water. For them it’s “We’re coming to *you*; we’re church in your midst and some will get saved and it can get all kinds of scrappy.” He’s not anti-Apple-Tree-Church, but he sees both churches as necessary and as instruments of our God, and each is good for certain things and not so good for other things. Maybe potato-hearted folks need to seed themselves amount our youth so they can see that the “Lord, He is good.” Then they can walk with the apple-hearted believers for a while for discipleship and training, which require a longevity and stability that “trees” are good for?

    It’s interesting that Jesus both went to others, seeking them out, and He also received others who sought Him…different people have different needs and approaches to Jesus…

    So what is “church?” Church is Christ’s people all over the world; a people, not a thing, an organism, a body. We come together to express our love for God; we come together to express our love for each other; we go about our lives, expressing love for those around us, in all of this we look to our Abba, along side His son Jesus, guided by and cooperating with His Spirit indewling us.

    Just some thoughts, and many not my own!

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    This misses the mark. I would recommend a major study. American Grace, Putnam & Campbell, on this topic.
    Religion is not a lagging indicator. The Puritans moved to New England because they were being slaughtered in Europe. Mormons moved to Utah for the same reason. Blacks moved from Mississippi to Detroit for much the same reason. And voila! Their religions grew where they landed.
    The generation becoming adults in the long sixties (1963 – 1975) fundamentally changed America, due to the pill, abortion, drugs, and premarital sex. There was a religious counter movement in the 80s (e.g Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell), and a counter- counter movement, in the 90s, the Nones (God either does not exist, or is irrelevant). It is true that generation X took all the wealth from the Nones. When they get to power, they will take it back (without mercy IMHO). Moreover, for the first time in US history, our major parties are split, on the bed rock issues of the long sixties (Republican – social conservatism vs Democrat – liberal any thing goes).

    America has lost its middle class; we are a divided nation of high end wealthy, and impoverished masses. This breaks a basic social contract, children poorer than their parents. History if filled with the failed resolutions of this conflict, and many involved religion. Without its moderating effect, the Nones face a brutal future. With our current political leadership, so does America.

  • James Burnett

    I disagree with your analysis. Your three arguments may bear some weight towards why young people are not attending church but I believe that a much larger reason for why younger people do not attend church is because our churches are DEAD. Most churches in the United States are all about improving the christian-self by being a better christian. This is wrong. Our churches don’t imitate Jesus Christ to the world by going out into the community and helping the world with their spiritual, emotional, financial, and community needs. Young people see the hyprocracy and find something better to do with their time.

  • jz

    Interesting article, but very narrow. If you think of the issue in terms of the 80/20 rule, the reasons described in the article are at best only a portion of the 20%. The overwhelming reason the next generation falls away from the faith is family dysfunction. The sad reality is children of divorce or from single mothers are much less likely to have much faith formation – both academic and experiential – and are much more likely to fall away as their world collapses around them. If you want to strengthen the next generation, strengthen the family. If you want to strengthen the family, strengthen marriage. This is the root of the problem…all other issues, while they’re probably worth addressing, are really just picking around the edges.

  • Akrasius

    I am not a young person, so I can’t speak for the demographic, but I am a recent apostate from the faith and I can offer another possibility. It is the internet. Before the internet, access to knowledge and opinion was drastically more limited than it is today. It would have taken a fortune or easy access to one of the world’s great libraries to even poorly approximate the amount of information that is now available at the click of a mouse. As a young person in a rural town, I formed my opinions based on proximity. My opinions were much like those of the people around me because that’s what I had access to. If I had any doubts about the validity of Christianity, they would have never had any oxygen with which to develop, being snuffed out by a lack of critical literature and the pressure of the group around me.

    Thanks to the internet, I now have the ability to see the much larger world of thought around me. It’s as if the heavy drapes of dogma have been pulled back to illuminate a room that is much larger than I ever thought it was. Through the web, I have found books and articles on history, politics, philosophy, biology and psychology that I would have never found without it. All of these disciplines have helped me to shine a light on my beliefs and inspect them against a much broader standard. Against this bigger and broader standard of inquiry, the things that I had taken for granted started to seem ridiculous. Holes developed in my Christ-centered logic. Christianity started to look small and provincial, the product of local mythology and politics as opposed to the universal perspective through which I had previously seen it. As I was going through my conversion (de-conversion?) I prayed to God that he would help me see the truth and turn me from the path I was on if it was not correct. No answer came. All through the process, which is continuing, I have kept an open mind, even a pro-Christian bias, looking for some foundational truth from which I can rebuild a Christian perspective.

    I think there is something worth saving. The teachings on love, forgiveness, generosity, etc. are timeless instructions for living a better life. But as long as those things are tied with a mandatory acceptance of the writings of a handful of 1st century zealots and propagandists who insisted that their stories of supernatural events are proof of the exclusivity of their assertions, Christianity will continue to lose ground with people who can now test those claims against a broader tapestry of human history and experience.

    • Adam

      This. Statistics show that people are most likely to become religious between the ages of 4-14 and they always follow in the path of their parents. Prior to the internet, there was never a reason to question since your parents, friends, pastors, community, etc. all believed in Jesus. The internet has opened eyes in ways nothing else could, including my own. And in my opinion, this trend will not reverse and only gain steam in the coming years.

    • Bill S

      Akrasius- I am not a young person either. I’m 83, and have been a practicing Catholic all my life. My career has been in mechanical engineering, in which I have a Master’s Degree. My hobby is pursuing articles on the web about astrophysics, the origin and structure of the universe and the earth, and biological evolution. I am fascinated how science and Catholicism are in such alignment (not conflict) at whatever points they may touch. In fact, there is a scientific test used by astrophysicists (a predominately atheistic group) to predict the validity of a theoretical concept, the anthrocentric principle. If it results in helping human life to survive, the concept is probably true; if it doesn’t, it’s probably false.
      Akrasius- look up the case of Edith Stein. She was born in pre-war Germany to a moderately religious Jewish family, attained a PhD education early in life, and was considered brilliant. She entered academic life and became an atheist. Once, while staying in the apartment of a friend, she stumbled upon a book on the gospels, and spent the night straight through reading. She put it down and from that point on she was convinced that Catholicism was the truth: “IT ALL FIT”. She became a cloistered nun, was arrested by the Nazis in 1942, died in Auschwitz, and was canonized a saint by John Paul II.
      The “Big Bang” was first proposed by astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest. (Einstein initially did not accept this concept.) Akrasius, take a second look at the real big picture. It’s bigger than you appreciate.

    • Brett Blatchley

      Hi Akrasius,

      I can see a lot of truth to what you say…

      People are so similar and yet so different: I used to be a atheist and I pretty much worshiped science. There were lots of good reasons for this. Then as a young adult, at university, one of my math professors introduced me to Jesus. He did this after I had come to know and respect him, his mind, and his heart. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I saw Jesus in him (not that he was perfect, but he bore a distinct and winsome resemblance).

      There were good reasons for me to be interested in something beyond science and skepticism: science tries to explain, but it can’t answer every question that could reasonably be asked (the mathematician Kurt Gödel helped us realize this with his “incompleteness theorem.” Skepticism asks questions, but never seems to answer them. I had questions, deep questions: why is there good and evil? Why when I was raped as a child, did I feel evil? Why do some people think (for no apparent reason) that I’m evil because I’m “different,” and some people see me as saintly? Why? I never thought these questions could possibly lead me to Jesus, but they did, and He answered those questions to me, and more besides. Do I have ALL my questions answered? No! But the most important, the pressing, the existential ones, yes, those are answered, and I have a peace about my self and my place in things that passes human understanding. AND rather than being less of a person as this “narrowing” might imply, it has actually freed my curiosity, freed my mind, my emotions, my very being.

      Akrasius? It’s my hope and prayer (and motive behind this post), that everyone would find the freedom that God wants to give them that comes with a reconciled relationship.

      Farewell Friend! :-)

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    So is this the not convenient theory? There is an opportunity amidst all those closed churches that could be had for a song to build a young urban congregation?

  • lovelypeace

    Being car-less is really dependent on where you live. That’s also becoming less of a problem with non-traditional car rental services (where you can rent a car for a couple of hours and return it for another user that same day). In a lot of areas of the country, the car is still king – regardless of trends. I live in the Detroit Metro area. In my suburb, a lot of kids drive newer/better cars than I do (and could only dream about driving back in the day). That just speaks to the wealth/dependence that our community has on cars.

    I tend to agree with James Burnett. A lot of “church people” don’t live out their faith after service on Sunday. On the other side of the coin, a lot of atheists will say that they have no faith, but still consciously say they act upon a moral code (not sure how you get a moral code if you don’t believe in a higher power, but ok….?) that tells them most of the same things that we learn in church – treat people well and (essentially) the 10 commandments were good ideas (except that whole idea that there is only one God, but 9 out of 10 really isn’t bad, is it?)

    Christians spend too much time fighting about what part of the faith is the “real” Christian faith. My generation (I’m late Gen X) and the younger folks aren’t interested in a version of Christianity where you either have to choose between the gospel of sin (on the right) and tolerance (on the left). Jesus focused on both. He wasn’t legalistic either. God cares that I show up, not whether I’m wearing jeans and flip-flops.

    Also, stop trying to be trendy. A lot of us actually like it when churches do traditional services and are turned off by the mega-church rock concerts every Sunday.

  • Mark Hammell

    As an aging baby-boomer (59 this year) and the son of a Lutheran minister, I find these periodic “Why are young people leaving the church?” articles amusing. Every generation sees a decline in church attendance among young people when they leave home and are no longer under the influence of their parents. Every generation sees an increase in church attendance by those same people once they settle down and have children of their own. Every time this happens, a bunch of well-meaning clerics suggest that if the church is just made more “relevant” to the young people, they’ll return. Instead of wasting time on this stuff, religious leaders would do much better to continue to focus on doctrine and leave the behaviors of adolescents and post-adolescents to the social scientists. The simple fact of life is that for most young people, carousing on Saturday night and sleeping in on Sunday morning is much more appealing than regular church attendance. They grow out of it in most cases.

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  • Karen Geraghty

    Here’s my theory–they’ve been living in culture infested with evil whose leading institutions—the media and the schools– have been attacking traditional Christianity and other religions believing in a transcendent God—not the God of self–for 40 years. Also, we’re in love with consumerism and compared to the rest of the world still have very comfortable lives. After 9/11 the churches were full and if we continue on our current path and the travails that will follow, I believe the churches will be full again. Religion is about following God–what is comfortable for our lifestyle has nothing to do with it. In fact, the mainline Protestant churches who espouse this are collapsing. Oh and by the way–I’m tired of this canard that religious people don’t live out their faith. Nonsense. I see lots of unglamorous activities in churches where we serve others. And believe it or not many Christians know far more about world affairs thru service work than your average secular humanist.

  • Phil

    As someone in this article’s target audience, being 31 years old (on the cusp of Gen X and the Millennial Gen), I feel compelled to throw down a shotgun blast of factors I think are preventing the church from reaching us. I’m still very much a believer, my faith is stronger than ever, but I quit the church for the following reasons:

    1) The over emphasis of sin makes Jesus appear weak. I mean, I get it. In order to explain what Jesus did, you have to understand the concept of Sin. However, first we tie sin to the Old Testament Law, which is inaccurate, you should be going back to the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. If people intrinsically know right from wrong, there’s no need to enumerate sin or even care that much outside of specific situations. Meanwhile harping on and on about sin as something that can somehow interefere with a Christian’s spirital life appears as either a social control made by scared clergy that doesn’t trust the folks in the pews or as Jesus’s sacrifice being inadequate.

    2) We can read, we don’t need a large sermon from one really great orator as much as we need discipleship in terms of how one is supposed to be Christian. I think specifically of Ephesians 6 as the context for this. You’ve got this big oppressive world that’s fallen and wrong, and Ephesians 6 tells you to shut up, stand up, do the right thing, and get the job done. As it stands most churches are oriented towards people coming in and learning a lesson and singing some songs. No sermon is a just replacement for good, earnest, friendly discipleship, and that’s based on a trusting relationship, which can’t be established when the majority of interaction going on is between an observer and a stage.

    3) There’s no benefit. I don’t like getting all materialistic here, but if I’m going to a place and I’m being told to tithe and all my money is going overseas because that’s where my dollar goes the farthest, I’m never seeing the power of God’s hand at work… Not first hand. The early Christians lived communally. Not 100%, sure, but there was a pretty significant emphasis placed on it. Why? Prolly the same reason that Christianity is still expanding everywhere our money goes: people see that it works! Even for early Christians on the short end of the stick (people who were wealth and therefore expected to share a greater amount than those who were poor), they were able to see the money they gave to the church prosper their communities.

    4) “The phrase in the world but not of” has come to be a battle cry for social separatism and Culture War. Post Modern Christianity has really failed people by making it’s public face separatist and confrontational. Was Jesus a coward? Not at all, but he was interested in alleviating suffering, tearing down the walls that divide us, and providing a basis by which we can come together under God. By picking fights over homosexuality and abortion, you’re telling people you don’t want people you’ve labeled as “bad”, which is totally what the Pharasees did. That was the whole point of their holy roll: self-righteousness for the purpose of proving one person was better than another. As someone who has sinned and loves Jesus, I want homosexuals in my church, I want single mothers and women who’ve had abortions and pimps and prostitutes and theives and murderers in my church. They need to experience Christ, and they shouldn’t have to clean themselves up to have that experience. Christ’s love does a better job of that than man made rules anyway.

    5) Boomers love crash diets, self-help fads, therapy for people who aren’t mentally ill and all other manner of self improvement. Millennials are much better at spotting frauds a mile a way. Most churches I’ve been in have a program for you. A set agenda of making you better. Some of these are better than others, but they’re no way to treat people and they are, at their core, idolotrous. As Christians, we believe that Jesus knocked a man off his horse, and turned him instantly from a persecutor into a pillar. So… If we believe in that, why does everyone else need to be into a self improvement regime? That’s social control and masturbation and it’s really not of interest to most Millennials.

    So all this junk up above? This made me quit showing up. Not out of anger or hatred or because I wanted to live in sin… But out of boredom, frustration, and disgust.

  • Lizbeth

    It is not only young people not interested in churches, but older people as well. My children are not interested in church (even though they were brought up going to church and Sunday school), I’m not interested in church (even though I was raised in a church going household and went to religious based schools for 12 years!) and my parents are no longer interested in church. I have seen a rabbi talk about churches and synagogues need to “upgrade” their services, theories and talk about God. We live in a different time. We all don’t buy the old dogmas of the church anymore. They are not relevant to us. Should they change to a pot luck gathering where people can connect and then someone would speak on spiritual topic on par say with someone like Eckart Tolle. Something that goes a little deeper, a more universal. People are seeking out the best practices of many forms of spirituality, not the narrow dogmas of one religion.