We are continuing a series considering the excellent Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, by Bradley R. E. Wright.
Chapter 3 asks whether we’re really losing our young people. I imagine we’re all familiar with the many assertions that the young members of our congregations are all leaving, never to return. It’s certainly true of some congregations and some denominations, but is it true of evangelicalism?
Is the church really losing the young? On the negative side, the number of young people who do not affiliate with any religion has increased in recent decades, just as it has for the whole population. Furthermore, to the extent that religiousness has changed, it has tended slightly toward less religion. On the positive side, the percentage of young people who attend church or who think that religion is important has remained mostly stable. Also, the percentage that affiliate with Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Black protestantism are at or near 1970 levels. What I don’t see in the data are evidence of a cataclysmic loss of young people. Have we lost the young? No.
You can see that the Mainline churches are certainly losing their young, just as they are losing members generally. We also see a growth in unaffiliated people, likely due to objecting to the conservative politics of the evangelical churches.
But if you compare how affiliated Baby Boomers were in college or their 20s to how affiliated young people are today, it’s about the same. There’s no reason to assume they won’t grow up. We grew up.
Another way to look at the question is to compare how old a religious group is compared to the overal population and other religions. For example, in the general population, 41% of the population is over age 50. Evangelicals and the Orthodox are just slightly older than the general population on average, meaning they are slightly underrepresented among young people — which is no surprise.
The oldest groups are the Mainline churches and Jews. Mormons are, on average, younger than the general population, likely due to their larger-than-average family size.
Another measure is to consider the level of religious adherence by people of each generation.
This one requires a little study. Each line shows how people of a given generation have become more religious as they’ve aged. And you’ll see that for generations born as early as 1910, young people consistently become more religious as they age.
Wright is careful to warn us that this guarantees nothing — which is true — but it certainly tells us that all the panic is a bit overblown. The evidence does not support a dramatic drop out of young people — other than the drop out that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.
This is no call for apathy! After all, in all the previous generations, people left the church, church leaders worked hard to bring them back, and they came back. We leaders have to do our part.