Earlier this year, the news was filled with stories about millennials and their exodus from church. CNN, for example, declared: “Millennials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Finds.”
According to the story, which featured results from a Pew Research study, “almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost a significant number of members, . . . mainly because millennials are leaving the fold. More than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007.”
If you’re interested in digging into this phenomenon, check out Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, by Christian Smith (with Patricia Snell). Smith’s findings, drawn from a longitudinal study (surveys and interviews) of young people and their religious beliefs and practices, vividly reinforce much of what we hear these days (e.g., that religious indifference in this age group is common) while also pointing out that some young adults do, in fact, remain strongly committed.
Smith and his colleagues began their study with 13-17 year-olds (N=3,290), reporting the results in Soul Searching (2005). Souls in Transition (2009) is a follow-up study, reporting data collected from a group of the original sample (N=2,458 surveyed; 230 interviewed).
The book is heavy on data and rich with useful insights. The main takeaway: Teaching young people the faith is critical. Absolutely critical.
If young people aren’t taught the faith—if it isn’t modeled and encouraged by parents or other influential adults—their drift away should be no surprise.
Of course, there are other factors to keep in mind, which Smith is quick to point out. For example, the priorities of “emerging adults” (a group that typically includes the ages of 18-29; in Smith’s study, 18-23) don’t always mesh well with religious engagement. As Smith notes:
These years involve complex processes of incorporating new relationships and experiences into ongoing, developing lives, while sustaining and renegotiating old relationships with parents, siblings, friends, former adult mentors, and others. . . . Most [emerging adults] are at pains to keep open as many options as possible, to honor all forms of social and cultural diversity without judgment or even evaluation, and as quickly as possible to get on the road to autonomous self-sufficiency. Little of that encourages them to put down roots within particular religious communities that engage in committed faith practices. (280)
The life phase itself—characterized by transition, disruption, myriad possibilities, and emerging autonomy—presents challenges to religious commitment, yet as Smith’s data indicate, some emerging adults do remain highly committed to their faith in these years. Who are they?
In chapter 4 of the book, Smith breaks down data by religious tradition, and the results are fascinating. You can look at virtually any table in the chapter, and the results are the same: conservative Protestants, black Protestants, and LDS members consistently indicate stronger commitment to religious beliefs and practices than other groups of emerging adults (e.g., mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jewish youth, and the non-religious).
For example, when asked to indicate the importance of religious faith in shaping daily life, the average percentage of those who said it was “very or extremely important” was 44%; three groups indicated stronger commitment (CP: 57%, BP: 72%, LDS: 59%), while four groups indicated less of a commitment (MP: 33%, RC, 34%, J, 16%, NR, 17%).
The results follow the same pattern for a host of other questions. Emerging adults who are CP, BP, or LDS are more likely than their peers, for example, to attend religious services, believe in God, think that Jesus is the Son of God, and expect to be attending religious services at the age of 30.
That bit of news will be encouraging for some (and should be kept in mind when considering sweeping generalizations about the millennial population), but the results are still cause for concern. Take that last item: “expect to be attending religious services.” The conservative Protestant response, for example, is higher than average (67% compared with 53%), but it’s still just two-thirds of the total.
That brings me back to the point about teaching the faith, and equipping young people with the “religious capital” to remain committed.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Smith was asked: “What are the traits of religious American teenagers who retain a high faith commitment as emerging adults?” His response summarizes one of the clear conclusions of Souls in Transition:
The most important factor is parents. For better or worse, parents are tremendously important in shaping their children's faith trajectories. That's the story that came out in Soul Searching. It's also the story that comes out here. . . We emphasize above everything else the role of parents, not just in telling kids about faith but also in modeling it.
In the book, Smith actually identifies five important factors: frequent personal prayer, having seriously committed parents, engaging religious faith in a way that makes it very important in one’s daily life, having few religious doubts, and having many personal religious experiences. All of these factors can be tied directly or indirectly to religious teaching, modeling, and practice.
This isn’t a magic bullet. I’m sure you know people who have become involved with church whose parents were not very involved, and people who were brought up in religious families who ended up drifting away.
Smith simply points out patterns, and they’re patterns worth noting. The data suggest that the past is a powerful shaper of the future. The foundation matters. As Smith points out, “what happens religiously before the teenage years . . . powerfully conditions most of everything that happens thereafter” (248, original emphasis).
The current concern about millennials is understandable, but after reading Smith’s book, I’m thinking a little harder about a different generation: the 0-14s.
ART: Saint Bernard Church (Burkettsville, OH); clerestory, Let the Children Come to Me, detail. By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.