I’m not sure why this is, but some of the Vital Signs & Statistics blog articles that I get the most pushback on from readers, are those dealing with Millennials dropping out of church because they find it to be hypocritical and pointless. This topic, as much as any other, get blog readers riled up.
I suspect the sharp reactions have as much to do with what’s going on in readers’ families as they do with what I’ve written. Many of our children and grandchildren have dropped out of church, and they don’t seem interested in coming back when they get older.
Many people are saying crazy things these days about Millennials (those born between 1984 and 1998), and even about Gen-Z’ers (born from 1997 to 2012). But what does the demographic data show?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “Millennials now number 83.1 million”—they are more populous than Baby Boomers—and they “represent [over] one-quarter of the nation’s population. Overall, millennials are more diverse than the generations that preceded them, with 44.2 percent [belonging to] a minority race or ethnic group.” Indeed,“among heads of household, Millennials [are] the generation with the largest number identifying as multiracial” United States Census Bureau, “Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse, Census Bureau Reports,” June 25, 2015, and Richard Fry, “5 Facts About Millennial Households,” Pew Research Center Factank (PRCF), September 6, 2017.
The youngest Americans—those younger than 10 years old—are even more diverse than Millennials. In 2014, this group became majority-minority for the first time, with 50.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group.
According to Pew Research Center data, “the past five decades have seen large shifts in U.S. society and culture. It has been a period during which Millennials have become detached from major institutions such as political parties, the military, marriage,” the labor market, the press, and importantly, the church and religion (Kristen Bialik and Richard Fry, “Millennial Life: How Young Adulthood Today Compares with Prior Generations,” February 14, 2019. Millennials stand out [from their grandparents in] several ways:
- “Millennials are much better educated than the Silent Generation. Four-in-ten (39%) have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with just 15% of the Silent Generation, [and] a quarter of Baby Boomers when they were the same age.” According to Nikki Graf of the U.S. Census Bureau, the best-educated Millennials are more likely to live in “the Northeast U.S., and in metropolitan areas rather than in other regions or rural communities “Today’s Young Workers Are More Likely Than Ever To Have a Bachelor’s Degree,” PRCF, May 16, 2017.
- “Gains in educational attainment have been especially steep for young women. Only 11% of Silent Generation women had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree when they were young; [but] Millennial women are four times (43%) as likely to have completed as much education at the same age. [Today], the share of Millennial women with a bachelor’s degree is higher than that of men.
- “Young women today are much more likely to be working, compared with Silent Generation women during their young adult years.”
- “The financial well-being of Millennials is complicated. Young workers’ individual earnings have remained flat over [five decades]. But [there is] a large earnings gap between Millennials [with] a college education and those [without one]. For Millennial households [holding a] bachelor’s degree or higher in 2018, the median adjusted household income was $105,300, roughly $56,000 greater than that of households headed by high school graduates.”
- “Millennials—especially those without college—“have been slower in getting married, forming their own households, and starting families than previous generations. They’re [also] more likely to live in their parents’ home, and to [live there] for longer stretches.”
- “Generation-Z is on track to be the nation’s best-educated generation. [They] are enrolling in college at a higher rate than Millennials were at their age.”
What this means, say journalists Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, is that “American Millennials are approaching middle age in worse financial shape than every living generation ahead of them, lagging behind despite a decade of economic growth and falling unemployment. They have less wealth, less property, fewer children,” and more college loan debt “‘Playing Catch-Up in the Game of Life.’ Millennials Approach Middle Age in Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2019.
“The financial strain faced by American millennials is [influencing] their political views. According to Pew data, “59% of Millennials affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, compared with about half of Boomers and Gen-X’ers, and 43% of the Silent Generation.” Adamy and Overberg point out that “Millennials [are] the only generation that favor[s] socialism over capitalism by a slight margin. Tough times have triggered support for populist candidates and promises of universal health care and free college education.”
Millennial attitudes toward religion differ markedly from the beliefs and practices of their elders. According to Pew researchers Alan Cooperman and Gregory A. Smith, “the share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is growing: While fewer than one-in-ten U.S. adults in the 1970s and 1980s said they had no religious affiliation, 23% now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular.’” This phenomenon is driven by generational change: Millennials are “much more comfortable identifying as ‘Nones’ than are older people” “The Factors Driving the Growth of Religious ‘Nones’ in the U.S.,” PRCF, September 14, 2016.
Pew Researcher David Masci explains that “while [Americans] in general [are] becoming less religious, the nation’s youngest adults are much less religious than everyone else. Millennials are much less likely than older Americans to pray, attend church regularly, [or] consider religion an important part of their lives” “Q & A: Why Millennials Are Less Religious Than Older Americans,” PRCF, January 8, 2016.
Less likely indeed. A friend recently sent me a cartoon. In the first frame, Jesus is comforting a young follower with the somewhat hackneyed words from the popularized “Footprints” reading: “My child, I never left you. Those places with one set of footprints? It was then that I carried you.” In the next frame, the young follower is perplexed to hear Jesus continue: “That long groove over there is when I dragged you for a while.” In the final frame, Jesus concludes: “One time I hid you in that little sandhole while I got a hot dog” (undated cartoon, chainsawsuit.com).
If you don’t get the humor, you don’t get Millennials. If there is one thing that Millennials are about, it is the deconstruction of religious clichés like the “Footprints” reading.
According to New Yorker journalist Eliza Grizwold, Millennial and Gen-Z Evangelicals think and act differently than older Evangelicals. “Many [say that] the separation of families at the [southern U.S.] border, climate change, [and] police brutality have galvanized” them; they see their own faces and those of their families in these ongoing moral atrocities “Millennial Evangelicals Diverge from their Parents Beliefs,” New Yorker, August 27, 2018.
“During the past decade, Evangelicalism has grown more diverse: as the number of white believers has declined, the Latino evangelical population has increased dramatically,” Grizwold writes. Many young Evangelicals [say they] are more diverse, less nationalistic, and more heterodox in their views than older generations. Fifty-three percent support same-sex marriage.”
For many, “the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks in their lives have made it more difficult to live in the kind of theological, cultural, and political isolation that previous generations [of Evangelicals] once did.
Many young Evangelicals say that they are pushing back “on the God and Country idea,” and that they “are not ready to jump into [Christian] patriotism” or [celebrations of American] civil religion. Many “don’t consider themselves liberal or conservative,” and say they don’t know who they will vote for in the 2020 Presidential election. They say they “support Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, and universal health care. And some who define themselves as pro-life say that their commitment to life extends to “recognizing the sanctity of all human beings, [and protecting the lives] of minorities, gay people, persons convicted of capital offenses, and immigrant families at the southern U.S. border.”
As one young Evangelical told Griswold, “‘If you’re weeping for the child who has been aborted, you should be weeping for Trayvon Martin and black mothers in Flint who are experiencing miscarriages as a result of lead poisoning.’” These Millennial and Gen-Z Christians say that they care about marginalized people, and that their “faith requires [them] to reject politics that discriminate.”
Some but not all of “these younger [Evangelicals] remain committed to the tenet of Biblical inerrancy, and the idea that the Bible is divine revelation. But [they insist that] their emphasis is different from that of older white evangelicals who frequently [used] scripture verses––often out of context or in isolation––as weapon[s] in the culture wars of the eighties and nineties.”
These Millennial Evangelicals say a lot of things—but I must admit that I remain skeptical. I don’t like their anti-abortion politics. And I see a lot of Millennial and Gen-Z faces—many more than I’m comfortable with—in Trump rally audiences. Time will tell if these young Evangelicals reject racism, sexism, and xenophobia, and embrace the teachings of Christ, or if their religion turns out to be “more of the same.”
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.