Will Young Evangelicals Return to Church?

Beth Seversen rarely saw young adults at the evangelical church in Kansas where she served as an associate pastor until 12 years ago. But one Sunday, after the service, she spotted a young man sitting in the back of the sanctuary. She hurried to greet him, pushing past, as best she could, the many congregants who wished to speak to her, trying to reach him before he could slip out the door—possibly forever. She managed to chat with him that day, and he came for two more Sundays. Then, as she feared, he failed to return.

Seversen, now an associate professor of youth and Christian ministries at North Park University, shared this story in April with a group of white evangelical pastors and church leaders to illustrate the challenges of attracting younger people to church and the challenges of retaining them. The pastors and leaders had come together for the Wheaton Mission & Ministry Conference at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. They were there to brainstorm strategies to reengage late-teens and twenty-somethings who were raised evangelical but had stopped attending church. Seversen summed up their worries when she said: “Many of our millennials have not come back [to church] at the age of 29, 30.”

The 18-to-29-year-olds missing from predominantly white evangelical churches span two generations. Using the Pew Research Center’s breakdown of U.S. generations, this cohort includes younger millennials (a generation born between 1981 and 1996) and older members of Generation Z (born after 1996).

At first glance, research seems to validate the alarm of Wheaton’s conference participants: A 2017 LifeWay study found that 66 percent of Protestants between age 23 and 30 said they stopped attending church regularly between age 18 and 22. However, some of these young people do eventually return. Indeed, during a recorded lecture, Wheaton College Professor David Setran explained that their hiatus from church—the so-called “driver’s license to marriage license” gap—has remained constant for the past 40 years.

These findings may offer little comfort to white evangelicals, given that two-thirds of their younger adults go missing, some for more than a decade. Moreover, the time away of young people has steadily increased. They generally wait to return to church until they wed and start families. In a 2016 paper in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Baylor University sociologist Jeremy E. Uecker reported that people who stop attending church after high school are most likely to return as married parents, childless couples, or single parents. However, young adults get married later in life than they did in previous generations—at an average age of 29.5 years for men and 27 years for women, according to Pew—which partly accounts for the delay in coming back to church.

Collier Neeley, age 28, is a case in point. He grew up in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and then attended the University of Mississippi, where he says he went to church “probably no more than ten times, to be honest.” He added, “I kind of fell away from the church because I didn’t really see the benefit of having that kind of influence in my life at that time. I felt pretty confident going into college that I would be able to maintain my faith without having to constantly be in the church.” But Neeley recently married, and he and his new wife are now shopping for a congregation. He has decided that faith “takes more than praying here and there and talking about it with my friends.”

One of the longest running measures of religion in the United States is the General Social Survey (GSS). Eastern Illinois University political scientist Ryan P. Burge analyzed relevant GSS data in a recent Christianity Today article. He reported that evangelical Protestants make up 22.5 percent of the U.S. population. Between 2016 and 2018, the total number of self-identified evangelicals dropped a mere 1.4 percent, a change that falls within the survey’s margin of error. Based on his research, Burge concluded that the number of evangelicals has been fairly stable “for much of the past decade.”

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SOURCE: Religion & Politics, Myriam Renaud