By Aaron Earls
Ask someone over the age of 40 if growing up they attended church each week with their family, and they’ll most likely say yes. For those younger, however, they most likely didn’t have the same churchgoing experience.
The American National Family Life Survey found less than half of millennials (45%) and Generation Z (40%) say their families attended religious services weekly or more growing up. Meanwhile, a majority of Generation X (52%), baby boomers (57%), and the silent generation (58%) say they went to church each week with their families.Less than half of millennials (45%) and Generation Z (40%) say their families attended religious services weekly or more growing up, according to the American National Family Life Survey. Click To Tweet
The generational gap is even more pronounced around involvement in Sunday School or another similar religious education program. Less than half of millennials (43%) and Generation Z (42%) say they were involved in these at least weekly, while 53% of Generation X, 61% of baby boomers, and 68% of the silent generation say they were involved.
Not only are younger generations more likely to miss out on faith experiences through local churches, they’re also less likely to say they formed friendships at churches. A Springtide Research Institute study, found only 28% of Generation Z say they’ve met friends within a church or spiritual community, about the same chance of meeting someone by happenstance (26%).
Among activities at home, however, there are fewer differences in generational upbringing, according to the American National Family Life Survey. Each older generation is more likely than the next to say their families prayed at a meal at least weekly, but it only ranged from 40% of Generation Z to 49% of the silent generation. Millennials (24%), Generation X (22%), and Generation Z (21%) are actually more likely than the silent generation (19%) and baby boomers (17%) to say they read Scripture or religious stories at least weekly with their families growing up.
Those raised in a two-parent home are far more likely to have had religious involvement than those raised by a single parent, regardless of generation. Those with two parents at home are more likely than those with a single parent to say their childhood involved attending Sunday School or similar religious education programs (56% vs. 42%), attending religious services with their families (55% vs. 36%), and praying at meals (47% vs. 34%). More children live in single-parent homes in the U.S. (23%) than any other country in the world, according to Pew Research.
As younger generations are less likely to have participated in many public expressions of faith, they’re also less likely to currently identify with a faith, according to the American National Family Life Survey. While only 9% of the silent generation say they’re religiously unaffiliated, that percentage rises with each subsequent generation: 18% of baby boomers, 25% of Generation X, 29% of millennials, and 34% of Generation Z. More than half of Gen Z directly identifies as either atheist (9%) or agnostic (9%).Among Generation Z in the U.S., as many identify as atheist (9%) as white evangelical Protestant (9%), according to the American National Family Life Survey. Click To Tweet
White evangelical Protestants represent a shrinking percentage of the U.S. population. Among the silent generation 25% identify as such, but that drops to 18% of baby boomers, 16% of Generation X, 11% of millennials, and 9% of Generation Z. While fewer members of the silent generation, baby boomers, and Generation X say they’re white mainline Protestant, that group outnumbers white evangelicals among millennials (11%) and Generation Z (12%).
White Catholics also show a consistent generational drop, while Black Protestant and Hispanic Catholics percentages remain consistent across generations. Members of major non-Christian religions also stay essentially equal generationally. Besides the unaffiliated, the only significant religious group to grow as a share of the U.S. population across generations are the other non-white Christians, which grows from 9% of the silent generation to 18% of Generation Z.
Reaching younger generations
Pew Research analysis finds an even starker picture, with millennials being the first generation in which Christians are a minority. There are, however, ways to reach younger generations, and you don’t have to alienate previous generations to do so. Some of those ways may surprise church leaders.
By using social media, a website, and online worship services, you can reach people around the world any time, including the young adult who lives down the street from your church building and just Googled your church name to see what you’re all about.
Invest outside your walls.
For younger generations, the community is not a pool of prospects but a place for service. They want to see the church actively involved in helping make the community and the lives of those in it better.For younger generations, the community is not a pool of prospects, but a place for service. — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Young adults don’t want Christianity presented to them through a fake, plastic smile. They want authenticity and integrity. They want to know how to live a faithful Christian life in a messy, complicated world.
Reach outside your comfort zone.
The younger the age group, the more demographically diverse they are. If your church wants to reach young adults, they’d better be ready to reach an ethnically diverse demographic.
Be open to institutional change.
This is not a matter of changing the gospel or historically Christian teachings but rather the methodology in which it’s presented. Allow young adults to have a voice at the table when discussing the way you structure and conduct church.
This should be an easy way for churches to connect with younger relational generations, but too often congregations miss out. Younger generations want to invest their lives in and with others. Churches that provide an avenue for this will connect with them.
Preach Christ.Don’t assume a biblical foundation. Preach Christ for the younger generation and everyone else. — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
In every generation, every person needs to hear the gospel and be taught the Bible. But for many young adults, even some of those who grew up in church, they’ve never really heard it before. Don’t assume a biblical foundation. Preach Christ for the younger generation and everyone else.
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.