by Aaron Earls
Faith wasn’t important in Dan Kassis’ home growing up, and he had no intention of changing that—until he found himself in a difficult time as a college freshman.
He had heard the gospel before, but it didn’t stick with him until he found himself alone at night wandering on a football field near his dorm, thinking about his struggles.
Kassis says he looked out at the Santa Susana Mountains north of the San Fernando Valley in California and asked God for a sign.
“At that moment, there was a brilliant streak of white, yellow, and orange light from east to west across the sky over the mountain—a meteor, except exactly when I needed it,” he says. “I began confessing my sins and professing my faith in Christ, wanting Him to be my Savior and Lord.”
Kassis is not alone.
About half of Americans (47 percent) who were raised with no religion—known as the “nones”—eventually find some kind of faith, according to Pew Research. And many of those, like Kassis, become Christians.
Two in 10 nones (19 percent) become evangelical Protestants, 17 percent join another Christian tradition, and 10 percent become part of a non-Christian faith.
By comparison, 35 percent of those raised evangelicals change their religious identity—16 percent switch to a different Christian tradition, 15 percent become religiously unaffiliated, and 3 percent join a non-Christian faith.
Mainline Protestants are the only Christian group with worse retention numbers than nones. Fewer than half (45 percent) still identify with their childhood religion. While 24 percent migrate to a different Christian tradition, even more (26 percent) become unaffiliated.
Like Kassis, most people who change religious affiliation do so when they are relatively young. According to additional research from Pew, almost three-quarters (72 percent) of the unaffiliated who become religious say they left the ranks of the nones before the age of 24.
While Lifeway Research has found few people outside of church think about spiritual topics like where they’ll spend eternity, most do consider the ultimate purpose of their lives, and they will listen to friends share about what’s important to them.
Those can be avenues for Christians to explore with friends and family who grew up irreligious.
Despite the overall likelihood of nones finding faith, younger generations are more likely than previous ones to stay unaffiliated.
Those raised nones are increasingly remaining irreligious into adulthood, says Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew.
“In our 2007 Religious Landscape Survey, for instance, just 46 percent of everyone who was raised as a none still identified as a none in adulthood. By 2014, that figure had increased to 53 percent,” Smith says. “Like so much in American religion, this shift is being driven in part by generational replacement.”
The younger the generation, the more likely those raised religiously unaffiliated are to stay that way.
Only 26 percent of nones in the silent generation, who were children during World War II, remained nones as adults, the lowest rate among any religious persuasion.
Among millennials, however, 67 percent of those raised religiously unaffiliated remain so as adults. That is second only to those raised Jewish, 70 percent of whom say they stayed that way.
“In short, religious switching is a big part of what’s driving the growth of the nones,” says Smith. “But at the same time, it’s also true that more people are being raised as nones, and more of them are remaining nones in adulthood.”
The trend may be coming from the increase in the number of nones raised in a home where both parents are irreligious. Only 3 percent of the silent generation had two unaffiliated parents. Among millennials, that number has doubled to 6 percent.
And having two parents of the same religious preference significantly increases the likelihood that a child will adopt the parents’ faith—or lack thereof.
In a separate study, Pew found 62 percent of those raised exclusively by religiously unaffiliated parents remained religiously unaffiliated as adults, while only 35 percent became Christians.
The numbers are almost reversed for those raised by one unaffiliated parent and one Protestant. Just 34 percent identify as a none in adulthood, while 59 percent adopt Christianity.
Future of evangelicalism
Among evangelicals, the retention numbers are on a slight decline by generation. Almost 7 in 10 evangelicals in the silent generation (69 percent) remain that way in adulthood. For baby boomers, the figure is 68 percent. It drops to 63 percent for Generation X and 61 percent for millennials.
Evangelicals, however, are the Christian group most likely to retain millennials. Sixty percent of historically black Protestant millennials stay that way as adults. Half of millennials raised Catholic are still Catholic as adults. Only 37 percent of millennials raised as mainline Protestants remain in their parents’ faith tradition.
Beyond retention, if evangelicals want to continue winning converts among people like Kassis, they’ll have to do so in a culture that is making it easier for nones to stay that way.
As someone who became a Christian from an unaffiliated background, Kassis says Christians should be open and honest with nones. “Don’t hold back about the truth you believe,” he says. “Don’t pretend you know everything, but honestly and clearly express what you know and believe.”
Perhaps surprisingly to many Christians, most irreligious people don’t mind having a conversation about religion, a Lifeway Research study shows. Only 33 percent of atheists and agnostics say those discussions make them uncomfortable.
Most unchurched Americans, 32 percent of whom are nonreligious, say they’re OK with a friend bringing up religion. Almost 8 in 10 of those who have not attended a worship service in the last six months (79 percent) say they don’t mind friends talking about their faith.
When Christians decide to talk to their unbelieving friends, Kassis says to stay persistent. “Don’t give up on people when they seem like they aren’t going to ever believe,” he says.
While he didn’t become an evangelical Christian until college, it was the faithful witness of friends and teachers from earlier in his life that came to mind standing on that football field. “My drum teachers in late elementary and junior high school were both believers,” he says. “They had a deep effect on me.”
Kassis has also seen persistence pay off with his own family. “I witnessed to my dad for 12 years before he began to respond at all.”
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.