Just about everyone is reacting to the Barna Group’s surveys that show a decline in church membership among the millennial generation. Just about everyone sees the problem through the lens of their own experience.
Rachel Held Evans wants a change in substance – high church, more open minded with less focus on listing the things you shouldn’t be doing with your genitals. Richard Lindsay says that we need a change in style and substance, by doing everything that Evans says not to do. And Hemant is saying that atheists are to blame, and whatever we’re doing we need to do more of it.
On one hand, my instincts as a historian are telling me to keep out of this. Maybe this is big, maybe it’s just another case of the younger generation ignoring their parent’s religion until they become parents themselves. “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings” and all that.
On the other hand, I can’t help thinking of Martin Marty’s column on the low church participation in early America. That changed after the revolution, in part because more churches were built but also because there was more social pressure on people to attend them.
That social pressure crested during the Cold War, as faith and patriotism were merged together in opposition to godless communism. But the Cold War ended in the late eighties, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is it a coincidence that the “rise of the nones” and the “flight of the millennials” seems to have begun in the ’90s? Folks like Per Smith at Irritually think it’s not, and I’m starting to agree.
So here’s a hypothesis: the high levels of church membership seen in the last half of the 20th century were driven by the narrative of the Cold War. The social pressure and close association between national identity and religion drove people to church. Now that those pressures have eased, church membership is in decline.
Most folks I’ve read are focusing on the “civil religion” aspect. I’m taking more of a Thaddeus Russell approach. Perhaps we’re all less high-minded than we like to admit, to the pollsters and even to ourselves.
Americans are under less social pressure to be part of a church than at any time since WWII. It seems less important to be part of a church community. In most areas there is little stigma attached to those who do not attend. Combine this with an increasing value on leisure time – since modern consumer capitalism is eager to give us new ways to spend it – and you see people who would rather stream Netflix on their tablets than get out of bed and go to that church social.
Without that pressure we are simply drifting back to a state in which a fair percentage of the population is unchurched. Not un-religious or un-spiritual, but unchurched. Belief has not declined, but belonging has.
If I’m right then 1) I’ll be fricken amazed, and 2) the question becomes where will this drift take us? Will some other force arise to send people back to church? Will we go back to pre-cold war levels? Or has society changed enough, through increasing secularism, that we will drift toward numbers last seen in Colonial times?