Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
There’s no secret about the main way we used to get new church members in the mainline Protestant church. You took two parents who were mainline Protestants and they had children who also became mainline Protestants. That never said much for our approach to sharing the good news about the kin-dom of God! It’s also a less and less effective way to bring people into the church. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, while nearly half of the Silent Generation (those born before 1946) were raised by two Protestant parents, only about a quarter of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) were raised by two Protestant parents. Another 8% were raised by a single parent who was Protestant.
One in five Americans was now raised in what Pew calls “a mixed religious background.” One in ten were raised by two parents who each practiced a different religion, Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. Another 12% were raised by one parent who practiced a religion and another who had none. Millennials (at 27%) are even more likely to be raised with a mixed background.
As a pastor, I’ve heard plenty of sad stories from older church members of hurtful treatment they received when they chose to marry someone of a different religious group. Few people would want to return to those days. It’s worth taking a look at the Pew study, though, to understand some of the implications of the rise in households where parents have different ideas about religion.
People raised by two parents who have no religious ties or by a single parent with no religious ties, are most likely to have none themselves (62%). Of those raised by one religious parent and one with no religion, 38% are “nones” today. Of those raised by a Protestant and a Catholic, 26% are “nones”. Most of those raised by two Catholic parents retain their Catholic identity, as do those raised by two Protestants.
In interfaith families, mothers are more likely to take the lead in the religious upbringing of children and as adults those children are more likely to adopt their mother’s faith. This is also true when the other parent is a “none.”
Many of us are in churches with large educational wings built in the 1960’s and memories of buildings full of children during the Baby Boom. You probably only need to look around on Sunday to know that’s not the case anymore. If you need a sobering graph, take a look at page 11 of the United Church of Christ Statistical Report for Fall 2016 to see the number of children currently enrolled in our Christian Formation programs. If there was ever a time when we could just sit back and wait for families to bring their children to us, that time is past. When we do make connections with children, we can expect that they come with all kinds of different religious backgrounds or none at all. We need to be ready to welcome and to teach. One of my sources of joy right now is three little boys who come to church and Sunday School. They are in foster care with a relative, and another relative and her partner bring them to church each week. The boys’ mother is Buddhist, the father raised a Christian. They’d never experienced church before. Their foster mother told me just recently how one of the boys got up one Friday insisting it was time to go to church. He was disappointed to find out that it wasn’t Sunday yet! I treasure their smiles and the way they reach for a hug. The oldest is proud to be an acolyte. The youngest learns the Lord’s Prayer while coloring a children’s bulletin under the pew. They certainly didn’t come to us in the way we used to add young Christians, but I thank God for them and hope there are more like them in our future.