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.

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Turns Out the Devil Didn’t Have All the Good Music

Historians, says Philip Jenkins in his latest Real Clear Religion column, are just now starting to understand with how evangelicalism remade itself in the 1970s. He argues the professors are doing a decent job “showing how Christian movements and leaders developed during these years” but they’re not seriously grappling with pop culture.

That grappling is necessary, writes Jenkins, because “those groups faced a daunting challenge in reaching out to a non-believing audience that was at first deeply unsympathetic to the moral and cultural messages they preached. To say the least, the years around 1970 were not a promising time to be preaching chastity, heterosexuality, and a drug-free lifestyle…

And into this cultural gulf, between the clean-shaven, clean living, low-church Protestants and their long-haired, chemically-enhanced, non-churched contemporaries stepped… rock music.

Jenkins argues that as the ’60s pushed into the ’70s, rock rediscovered its country roots and found God in the process. At the same time, evangelicals launched their own sort of Christian rock that would eventually become the Contemporary Christian Music genre. These two things pushed the secular closer to the religious and the religious close to the secular, and the rest is religious history.

We were actually supposed to run a different Jenkins column today as a way of relaunching his regular column, but he sent us the piece early last week. It was on Jerry Sandusky, Penn State and pedophilia. If there’s one lesson I learned working for two tours of duty with Wlady Pleszczynski, it’s that sitting on good, newsy copy is a sin against the Polish Holy Spirit.

Philip Jenkins, Meet Adam Sandler

I would like to offer my fellow Patheos blogger Philip Jenkins a bit of unsolicited but highly necessary audio-visual advice:

Philip, the next time you feel compelled to write a post like this one, consider appending this video to really drive the point home:

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