SALT LAKE CITY — This is how the pattern works: Young people go to church with their parents until college, then they start sleeping in and drifting away from the faith of their parents. After they marry and settle down, they begin to miss something in their lives. So they go back to church again.
But now some experts are saying the pattern has changed and the current generation is not as likely to return to church.
"I think there has been a lot of evidence that they are dropping religion at a greater rate than the younger adults of yesteryear," said Drew Dyck, the author of "Generation EX-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith … And How to Bring Them Back."
If you compare the millennial generation (born 1981 or later), Gen X (born 1965 — 80) and boomers (born 1946-1964), it looks like the millennials are less affiliated with churches than previous generations were at the same age, according to data gathered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: "Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25 percent) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as 'atheist,' 'agnostic' or 'nothing in particular.'"
For decades, the Pew Forum has asked young people the following question: "What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion or no religion?" In the 1970s and 1980s, about 12 percent of young people 18-29 years-old said they were unaffiliated. By the 1990s, it was up to 16 percent. By the 2000s, that percentage of young people claiming "no religion" had risen to 23 percent.
Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a private Baptist university, is skeptical that this is a new trend.
"The years pass and nothing changes," Stark said. "This has been going on forever. I published data on this in 1965 for heaven's sakes."
Stark said that poll questions about affiliation leaves too much in question about the choice "no religion." If you take the atheists out of that group, he said you would discover that most of the "no religion" people pray. "Most people who say they have no religion mean they have no church. They aren't saying they have no religion."
The Pew Forum survey looked at daily prayer among young adults and found that 41 percent of young people in the 1980s said they prayed daily. That number dropped slightly to 40 percent in the 1990s. The number of millennials who say they pray daily, however, actually jumped--to 45 percent. The percentage of affiliated young people who said they are "strong" members of their faith is 37 percent, the same as it was for members of the gen X generation at that age and six percent higher than it was for boomers at that age. Pew also found that "young adults' beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today.
"Church membership is the highest it's ever been — it is about 70 percent," Stark said. "In 1776 it was 16 to 17 percent. Think about that some time. It has been going up every year for more than 200 years. Most of those people were religious, but they didn't belong to a church."
Dyck, however, is still disturbed that the number of youth that describe themselves as unaffiliated has doubled in two decades. "Young adulthood is not what it used to be. It is much longer. And so those primary sociological drivers back to religious involvement — like getting married, like getting a career established and settling down in one place — are no longer there."
Waiting longer to get married is one other factor that may explain why youth may be staying out of churches longer. "I think there has been a tectonic shift in the culture," Dyck said. In the past, if a young person rebelled, they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. "This generation may be the first reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America. The cultural gravity that used to pull people back may have dissipated entirely."
Kenda Creasy Dean also sees less pull for the unaffiliated to come back to church. "Kids may be following same patterns they have always followed in terms of trying to distance themselves from institutional life, but now there is less of a cultural support system for young people across institutions," said Dean, a professor of youth, church and culture at the Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school and author of "Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church" by Oxford University Press.
"I think their return is unlikely," she said.
Dyck wanted to know why youth are leaving churches. He interviewed members of the millennial generation, children born starting in 1982. He said he saw several patterns emerge that described why different youth are leaving the Christian faith:
1. Postmodern leavers
Postmodern leavers have a worldview that is suspicious of moral absolutes. Although they are open to the supernatural, they are allergic to any claim of larger truth that excludes other beliefs.
Recoilers were offended by some negative experience at church. They feel they were hurt in God's name either personally or feel betrayed by some public religious person.
3. Modern Leavers
Modern leavers care about reason and rationality. Anything that can't be verified empirically is superstitious and delusion.
Neo-Pagans have a desire for the supernatural in an increasingly secular world, whether it is Wicca's spells and rituals or a softer "Avatar" version of environmental worship.
Rebels are people that just want to have a good time, and Christian morality gets in the way. So they create a creed to match their conduct. Spiritual rebels are more hardcore and have a real problem with any superintending divine authority. Dyck told of one young woman who said to him that even if Jesus were real, she would "rather burn in hell" than follow him.
Drifters just gradually drifted away. Dyck said not everybody rejects religion. In a post-Christian society, he said there was not a lot to push people back into churches.
"I see a shift in the air that may make it less likely that there is an automatic return," Dyck said.
Dean agrees. "If churches are indistinguishable from the popular culture, there is no reason to go to the churches," Dean said. "You can get what you need in 13 other venues — and probably in a better package."
Stark still wonders why churches panic over this sort of statistics, but acknowledges that it is probably good that churches work to retain their members.95 comments on this story
Part of that work, according to Dyck, would be for churches to create a safe space for doubt — to not chastise youth when they ask questions, and for parents to admit that sometimes they don't know the answers. "Youth value authenticity over expertise," Dyck said.
In his interviews with unaffiliated youth, Dyck asked them what their prayers were like. Sometimes the prayers were angry at God: "Where are you?"
But other times, the prayers were filled with both pathos and perhaps, a glimmer of hope: "I miss you."