This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.
I can’t visit a church on Sunday morning without hearing someone comment about the decline in young people and young families in the church. Sometimes this is articulated as a simple complaint. Other times, denial. “They’ll come back when they get married/have children,” those folks often say.
The National Study of Youth and Religion’s research on young adults reveals something very interesting about this apparent decline: The mainline church loses many of its own young adults, but gains about the same number of young adults from other (usually more conservative) denominations. About 20 percent of mainline Protestant youth (58 youth surveyed) had left their churches between the ages of 18 and 24, while about 10 percent (79 youth surveyed) of conservative Protestants had joined mainline churches, more than compensating for the loss. “This is noteworthy because it counters so much of the ‘bad news’ that has been continually reported over the last four decades about mainline Protestant decline.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 111)
Researchers suggested that wider cultural influences contribute to this reality. The young people they surveyed largely embraced the conviction that diversity, including religious diversity, should be embraced. “… and to be socially inclusive has the unintended consequence of minimizing the importance of religious particularities and so encouraging emerging adults to conceive of religions as being generically similar. This produces a vision of religion in general that also turns out, we will show, to be not very appealing to most emerging adults.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 81.)
Given this social inclusivity, it is not surprising that mainline Protestant youth are among the most likely to rate their faith as “not very important.” Conservative Protestants are among the most likely to rate their faith as “very or extremely important.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 113.)
Mainline Protestants for years have positioned themselves as more open, less exclusive churches. In an effort to appeal to the non-religious, mainline Protestants tend to tone down their ‘religious’ language. This effort is well-intended; however, people then miss a substantive interpretation of the gospel, a valuing of of the Bible and a coherent set of religious beliefs. After all, young people learn about embracing diversity everywhere – at school, in the community, and in the media. Why do they need one more place to teach them the same thing they are already learning everywhere else? Church simply does not stand out among the chorus of voices singing the exact same song.
The commitment to diversity comes out of religious conviction. Mainline Protestants often interpret Biblical texts as affirming all people, all life, to be a sacred creation of God. All life, therefore, should be included in God’s promises of love, grace and peace. Further, many mainline Protestant believers would affirm that Jesus’ message was one that specifically welcomed the outcast – the ones deemed “unacceptable” by the wider culture.
The mainline Protestant faithful simply need to get better at understanding and articulating what they already believe. They’d probably be better at retaining our own, perhaps even attracting a few more of the “unaffiliated.” Just be more obvious about what the mainline church is – that might be one way to grow.