What Do Young Americans Think of Jesus–And How Can We Change Their Minds?

What Do Young Americans Think of Jesus–And How Can We Change Their Minds? April 6, 2015
PRAYING HANDS (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer.  Wikimedia Commons.  This photo is in the public domain.
PRAYING HANDS (Betende Hände) by Albrecht Dürer. Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain.

Well, Easter has passed.  We remember with gratitude that Jesus lived, died on the Cross for our sins, and was raised from the dead.

But what does that really mean?  Unfortunately, for too many American Christians, it doesn’t mean as much as one might hope. A new research report by the Barna Research Group demonstrates that “Americans’ dedication to Jesus is, in most cases, a mile wide and an inch deep.”

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, discusses the findings in their phone and on-line studies during 2014 and 2015, which are summarized in a report released on April 1:

“Many of the institutional, cultural and familial tendons that connect young adults to life in Christ are stretching. Much has been made about whether Millennials will get more serious about church and faith as they age, but the fact is younger Americans are not as connected as older generations are to Christ. Jesus is a friend of sinners, but many Millennials are ‘unfriending’ him at a time when their lives are being shaped and their trajectories set toward the future.”

What, exactly, do Americans believe about Jesus?  The Barna Group lists five tenets of Christianity and shows that in each case, the number of Millennials (those born in 1980 or after) who believe is lower than the number of older adults.  The five beliefs about Jesus which are analyzed in the Barna studies are:

1.  Jesus was a real person.  More than nine out of ten adults (and most Millennials, who were born between 1980 and the early 2000s) believe he walked the earth.  But while 92% of adults believe in the existence of Jesus as a real person who walked the sands of Israel 2000 years ago, there is a slight decrease in faith among Millennials–only 87% of whom believe that Jesus was a real person.

2.  Younger generations are less likely to believe that Jesus was God.  While 56% of adults believe in Christ’s divinity, that number drops to fewer than half (48%) for the Millennial generation.

3.  Americans are divided on whether Jesus was sinless.  Again, though, there is a generational difference.  Among Millenials, 56% say that Jesus sinned while he was here on earth; when all adults are lumped together, that number drops to 52%.

4.  Most Americans say they have made a commitment to Christ.  In their report, the Barna Group examines different subsets of the population:  women vs. men, whites vs. blacks, people at various income levels–and have found differences within those groups.  Again, though, the most significant difference is age.  According to the Barna Group,

Millennials are much less likely than any other group to have made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important in their life today. Fewer than half of Millennials say they have made such a commitment (46%), compared to six in 10 Gen-Xers (59%), two-thirds of Boomers (65%) and seven in 10 Elders (71%).

5.  People are conflicted between “Jesus” and “Good Deeds” as the way to heaven.  Here Barna’s understanding of being a “born-again Christian” strongly delineates between “faith” and “works”–assessing the situation as “either-or” rather than “both-and.”  Barna’s report explains:

Millennials are less likely to believe that Jesus is the path to Heaven than are other generations. Among Millennials who have made a personal commitment to Jesus, only 56 percent say they believe they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. This percentage climbs to two-thirds of Gen-Xers (64%), six in 10 Boomers (62%) and nearly seven in 10 among Elders (68%).

*     *     *     *     *

So what shall we make of the fact that in each category, younger Americans report less faith?  

  • Is it the result of poor catechesis, of inadequate teaching of the faith on the part of parents, clergy and educators?
  • Or does the fault lie with a society which demands instant gratification, which has captivated the youth of America with technology and social media and trivial pursuits, abandoning the rigorous study of biblical texts?
  • Or has the younger generation simply not yet been tested in faith and will they, as they pass through critical life experiences such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, grow in faith and understanding?
  • Or is there something else?

What do YOU think?


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  • Decontented sex is decontenting everything else.

  • “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” — Brennan Manning
    Simple as that. Why should we, the Millennials, ascribe to systems of religion that are guilty of the worst kind of hypocrisy? Don’t get me wrong, I am a Catholic Millennial, and I do go to Mass, but there is nothing as frustrating as watching common laity, priests, much less bishops say one thing and do another; forgetting the core humility, compassion and prayerful nature of Christ himself..

    This is particularly true in the wake of the sex scandal; much less when bishops get involved in politics. Cardinal Dolan’s statement of ‘Paul Ryan ain’t such a bad guy” in the wake of Mr. Ryan’s nomination to VP Candidate in 2012, for example. Dolan should have advocated for Catholic doctrine, not a candidate, especially one who is so divisive over political nature.

    Added to this is that the Church has little to no outreach to Catholic Singles. Sure, there’s some diocese with some outreach, but it’s either not well advertised, or not well formed. The unspoken message given to young adults is “Get married, get to baby making and in that order, and them come talk to us.”

    So you can blame the culture. You can blame poor Catholic education. There’s arguments for that.

    But when the Boomers don’t live the religious-inspired life, and then question why their Millennial children don’t follow, they have no one to blame but themselves.

    • Korou

      Quite right. the Catholic Church says it wants people to come to it but is completely, utterly deaf to what they want. Which is why it asks things like “dear young people – did we not give you enough catechis? Or is it the way you’re obsessed with instant gratification?”
      Young people want a Catholic Church which shows an interest in being fair, kind, honest and accepting, and moves away from hypocrisy and bigotry. When that happens, young people might be interested in what you have to offer again.