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Hope Beyond the Headlines on Millennials and Religion

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Some recent headlines:

This certainly sounds bad. Why the recent flurry of these stories? Well, all of them reference a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. By “recent,” I mean it was published November 3. So more than a month ago.

There is a real trend of religious decline among Millennials. As the Pew study notes,

The share of older Millennials who say they seldom or never attend religious services has risen by 9 percentage points. And the share of older Millennials who say they seldom or never pray has risen by 6 points, as has the share who say religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives.

However, I suspect the appeal of these news stories, published long after the survey they are based on, is that they tap into the fears of older generations that they are “losing the youth.” The reality is a bit more varied — and hopeful — to me.

As I noted after a similar media reaction to a survey years ago,

the one thing that it does not do is the one thing that would have been the most insightful: it does not actually take the time to compare these statistics with similar statistics of older generations when they were the same age.

At the time, I compared comments to similar statistics and worries from an academic article in the 1970s, in which, among other things, “results from an unpublished study of Berkeley students conducted in 1971 found only 18 percent accepting a traditional image of God, 14 percent a traditional image of Christ, and only 9 percent a traditional view of life after death.”

In these recent journalists’ defense, the Pew survey at least compares their stats, which are from 2014, to a previous religious landscape survey they conducted in 2007. This comparison does demonstrate significant religious decline among Millennials, as noted above.

However, I find the caveats of these studies to be as important as the findings. The Pew study notes,

It is possible, of course, that younger adults will become more religious with age. Analysis of the General Social Survey (GSS), for instance, shows that over the long term, people pray more regularly and report attending religious services a bit more often as they get older. And Gallup surveys conducted over several decades indicate that as people age, they become more likely to say religion is an important part of their lives.

What we have right now is, still, the dominance of the Baby Boomer generation. Naturally, churches and other religious institutions that are led by Boomer leaders and are more dependent upon Boomer financial contributions are going to make themselves most appealing to people of those generations.

Millennials have been hit hardest by the economic crisis of 2007-2008 and have been slowest to recover, due in part to government policies that favor older generations. Put simply: Millennials aren’t the ones keeping the lights on at religious establishments.

Money isn’t everything, of course, but it isn’t nothing either. The fact of the matter is that as long as Millennials feel that churches don’t connect with them, shouldn’t we expect their attendance to continue to fall?

Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating that churches and other groups start some sort of “young adult outreach” program or any other such thing. Those have been tried and tried and tried. Whether they are a good idea or not, I’ll let others comment. No doubt there should be plenty of data on the subject to evaluate their actual effectiveness by now.

What would be — and will be — better, is when more Millennials are behind pulpits and in front of altars, and when more religious establishments are looking to Millennials for financial support. And we have no reason to believe that as they get older, more Millennials won’t start to fill the pews just like every other generation did.

To summarize, I still find this question unanswered: Are we facing a crisis, or is this something that is merely the result of other current demographic trends and that may pass with time?

Another Pew survey noted, “Marriage rates among Millennials are at an even lower starting point than for Gen X. However, marriage rates will continue to rise among Millennials as they age.” Now, it is true that Millennials are projected to have lower overall unmarried rates at 25%, but that leaves 75% likely to marry. And when people get married, they tend to do it in front of ministers in religious establishments.

And when people have babies they tend to want them baptized, dedicated, circumcised, and so on. Millennials are delaying parenthood, but that does not mean that most of them don’t want to be parents and won’t end up becoming parents (or, for that matter, that they aren’t already).

Furthermore, as happens with every generation, as they grow older Millennials will be attending more and more funerals, again bringing them back through the doors of churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions. Whether they become regular attenders or not, of course, will remain to be seen, and the causes will be various if they do. But as people of any generation get older, they tend to attend more often, i.e. they tend to become more religious.

And one thing the data does tell us is that though Millennials are less religious, they are not for that without religious conviction. 84% of older Millennials (born 1981-1989) and 80% of younger Millennials (born 1990-1996) believe in God. That would seem to indicate that while religion is not a priority now, it still could be in the future.

While the recent Pew survey does raise some reasons for concern with the trend of decline, the foregoing ought to be reason for hope.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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