Are We Losing the Young? Evangelicals by Age Since 1972

Are We Losing the Young? Evangelicals by Age Since 1972 April 18, 2013

One of the loudest fear messages that we hear in American Evangelical Christianity is that we’re losing the young which means that the future of the church is in peril. Christian writers have claimed that 60% of church-going teens drop out after high school, that young people are fleeing the church and thus will crash it, and that we’re in the last Christian generation.

Are these claims of imminent disaster true? Well, there are various ways of looking at age and religion, and I’ll start with a rather simple analysis. Again using data from the General Social Survey, I divide Americans up into three age groups: Age 18-29, 30-49, and 50+. Then, I calculated how many people in each of these groups affiliate with Evangelical Christianity, and plotted it in the figure below.

As you can see, there are some similarities by age. Evangelicalism increased among all age groups from 1972 through the early 1990s, and it has decreased in all groups since then. The differences exist in rates of change, namely it’s dropped among young people faster than older people. It’s worth noting, however that the biggest drop of faith in young people happened in the 1990s, and that current levels are about the same as the early 1970s.

Should Evangelical Christians be worried about this? It’s a judgement call. From my perspective, given the dramatic rise of religious unaffiliation (the “nones”) among young people since the 1990s, there are far more young Evangelicals than I would have thought. Still, I can understand Evangelicals being concerned about future and the young.

However, the data so far don’t support the disaster narrative so prominently featured in popular Christian writing.

(Part 3 in a series on Evangelicals in America. Previous post in series)


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  • George Yancey

    Do you have data on the trends in dropout rates? It may be the case that young evangelcials have always dropped out in relatively high levels but tend to come back to the faith in later years. The fact that the 18-29 line is almost always lower than the other two lines suggests that this is a possiblity. So do you have any longitudinal data on dropout rates?

    • abb3w

      Conceivably possible, but seeming more likely a will-o’-the-wisp.

      Data indirectly illuminating that question can be generated in the GSS by grouping on COHORT (say, by decades) rather than AGE. The gory classification details referred to in the last post are too complex for me to replicate while feeling lazy; using the simpler proxy of FUND, the trend seems to be that later cohorts are consistently less fundamentalist than their predecessors — which results in the 18-29 line tending lower as a by-product. In FUND, that’s in part due to the increasing number of non-Christian religious and the religiously unaffiliated; the decline is larger in relative terms than in absolute numbers.

      Addressing drop-out rates more directly would be more complicated, but you might be able to do something using the questions about background at age 16 (such as FUND16). Younger cohorts of the raised fundamentalist seem more likely to become less so than in earlier generations, but the moderates seem to be getting hit harder.

      There is some of that sort of the return you describe; however, not all who leave come back (possibly even a minority?), and those that do seem to tend to remain less strongly religious (likely with corresponding higher disaffiliation in the next generation). Even with the number of conversions from those who were raised unaffiliated, the net trend looks to be away… and among those raised unaffiliated, the fraction of converts (by relative cohort) seems to have fallen comparing 1980-1990 and 2002-2012.

  • I’ll do a cohort analysis next week….

  • But your chart doesn’t show how Evangelical views are changing, especially among the younger set. A young Evangelical could very well be in favor of gay marriage. They may not all be dropping out of the church, but they are going to change it.

    • Very true… something else to look at in future posts

  • Theodore Seeber

    In Catholicism, this curve becomes a u.
    Lots of Catholics older than 50, quite a few younger than 20, missing the middle.

    Being 40 myself I can tell you that the incomplete implementation of Vatican II is to blame- whether the fiscal libertines on the right dissenting from CSJ teachings or the sexual libertines on the left dissenting from the sacrament of marriage, American culture in the 1970s was *strongly against teaching the faith*.

    It’s only in the last 15 years or so that has begun to rebound.

  • DRH

    This would be more interesting if it was compared to proportion of age group in the overall population.

    • Actually, this analysis looks at rate by age, so it controls for size of age group.

  • Psy

    I was surprised when my ex-wife left her Evangelical church at age 50 last summer, but it was over the new preacher being too pushy and not a reflection on the church itself.

    • Anonymous

      Regarding your ex-wife, it’s not just the young people who are walking away from the church, Baby Boomers are leaving the church too. Between 2007 and 2012 the unaffiliateds went from 12% to 15% and the Older Millennials (b. 1981-1989) changed from 16% to 30%.

      I think there’s a link to divorce here: Pew’s study “Nones on the Rise” does show that “not marrieds” have increased their religious disaffiliation from 20% to 24% between 2007 and 2012.

      • Anonymous

        Sorry, slip of the keyboard. Unaffiliation among Older Millennials rose from 26% to 30%.

      • Churches are often hard places to endure if you’ve been through a divorce. Many folks have to take up part time work which even in the “Bible Belt” often means working on Sundays. Additionally, the “pro-marriage” rhetoric of many pulpits is off-putting to the never married. I know a woman who finally married late in life and is childless. She makes a point to not be in church on Mother’s day.

  • sg

    Since you are using the GSS, you can check out how many fewer were born and that is where you will find they are disappearing. In 1960, the average evangelical had 3.6 children. In 1980, It was more like 2. Basically they aren’t being born. Pretty simple really. All growth in the US population since 1970 is from immigrants and their children. No cohort of US born women born in 1946 or later has had a tfr above replacement. Immigrants are less likely to be evangelical. So, there you go. Simple demographics. Our leaders have elected a new people.

    • Anonymous

      Actually, SG, the only way the number of Christians in the U.S. is increasing IS through immigration. If it weren’t for immigration, the Christian population would be dropping significantly, because churches are losing attendees at a high rate.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    These charts clearly indicate that it has been the Baby Boom generation – yes, those hippies whose minds have been addled by sex, drugs, and rock & roll – that have been the real mainstay of Evangelical church growth throughout the last quarter of the 20th century. Upon reflection, this really shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. Their parent’s generation – the GI/”Greatest” generation – mostly attended mainline denominations. When Boomers went to high school and college, awaiting them was an intensive evangelical ministry targeted at them, including: Young Life, InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators, etc. When people think of Boomers they think of Woodstock, but forget that only half a million Boomers were there and over 76 million of us were not. Most of us were fairly normal kids living fairly conventional lives, and a very great many of our lives were touched by one or more of the evangelical youth ministries and led into the evangelical churches. As it turns out, late adolescence and early adulthood really are “prime time” for evangelism: young minds and hearts are open and far from settled.

    Since the Boomer generation was the “pig in the python”, it should be little surprise that a surge in church attendance should follow them as they age. However, it also seems to be clear that more Boomers proportionally have been evangelicals than has been the case in the generations that came before them. Unfortunately, it does seem to be the case that the newer generations are failing to become (or remain) evangelicals to the same extent. Why is this? All the youth ministries like InterVarsity, Navigators, and Crusade (now “Cru”) are still active, yet they don’t seem to have the same appeal to the newest generation as they did to the Boomers. All these ministries are actively trying to update themselves, yet so far they don’t seem to have hit the right formula that might cause them to really catch fire. I don’t know if it is a case of maybe a totally new approach with totally new organizations is needed, or if the Boomer youth years were just one of those exceptional episodes of revival that God initiates every so often, but not right now.

    • CND

      Good observations, Stefan. The big drop corresponds to Generation X, a smart and cynical group who saw through the various power moves that came from the unholy merging of evangelicals and politics. Having been raised on punk rock and grunge, we were trained to unmask facades and express our fears and doubts in stark terms. Obviously, those values don’t translate into most church settings. Generation Y tends to be far more compliant and willing to please even while leading a double life/hiding their deepest feelings (see Chap Clark’s book, HURT). So the subsequent drops since the 90s are slower. Today’s teens will tend to play along for longer while never really letting most of the sermons or doctrines seep in.

  • Becca

    This is very impressionistic, but the chart in no way surprises me. Do you guys remember the Southern Strategy, through which the GOP won the South? As part of that strategy, the GOP gave a lot of publicity and political influence to Southern evangelical churches. The strategy went national under Reagan, giving further power to conservative Christian groups. In doing this, the GOP created a “culture war,” where personal faith became politicized and tied to a specific political party, and where wedge issues could win elections.

    What gets publicity and what is perceived to have power wins converts, so it’s predictable that the numbers would rise during the ’70s and the ’80s, only to start a dramatic decline in the middle of Clinton’s era. People who convert under short-lived, odd circumstances (Southern Strategy, Reagan) are unlikely to stay converts for long, and will be unable to pass the belief on to their children. As a political party starts to age, everything associated with it, including conservative Christianity, becomes unpopular. My feeling is that the artificial, politically created increase in numbers has ended. Evangelicals enjoyed great power for nearly three decades. That, too, will dissipate as the mostly elderly GOP base starts dying out, forcing the GOP to find other, more socially viable ways of gaining votes.

    • The Democratic party embraced abortion rights and supported Roe. That ran counter to the basic teachings of Catholicism and most biblical protestantism so prominent in the south. The R party welcomed proLifers even as they realized an end to abortion on demand would mean white voters might “re-migrate” to their historic party. I think many in the Religious Right were disillusioned when Reagan judges never overturned Roe and Republican legislators in DC were unwilling to tinker or reform Roe either. Reagan era conservatism bankrupted the USSR and thus ended the Cold War. 80s conservatism was as much a creation of unique instances as was JFK “tough internationalism” in the Cold War. Neither could endure. The R party to survive must embrace and actively pursue minimalist Libertarian agenda of small govt/ low taxes

      • Barry_D

        “The Democratic party embraced abortion rights and supported Roe. That ran counter to the basic teachings of Catholicism and most biblical protestantism so prominent in the south. ”

        No, it didn’t. It’s well known that the Evangelical Right didn’t have much of a problem with abortion until the late 70’s, whenbCarter yanked tax exemptions for segregation academies.

  • One of the disillusionments for some has been the mistake among many evangelicals in the failure to note, as Spurgeon did, that “it is a dangerous state of things if doctrine is made to drive out precept…”

  • Chris Moody

    How do you even know if this is true? How do they know if I as a Christian am Evangelical or not?