LifeWay Resources, a research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention‘s publishing house, has taken note of an unsurprising disconnect between faith and faithfulness, at least when it comes to church attendance among “Millennials,” a demographic term often used for people born in the 1980s.
A survey of 1,200 young adults aged 18-29 showed that 65 percent of them claim to be Christian, but less than one in four attends organized worship services on a regular basis. Two-thirds of the respondents said they rarely or never attend, but a slightly larger number, 70 percent, said they still consider the church in America to be relevant today.
If that sounds like a disconnect, it is. Many younger adults acknowledge that the church remains relevant to many who have trusted it through the years — it just holds no appeal to them.
On the one hand, this could lead observers to shake their hands and fret for the future of the church. Could thousands of churches be closing soon, as LifeWay president Thom Rainer warned in an interview with USA Today?
It’s worth noting, I think, that it’s nothing new for 20-somethings to drop out of church during what has become an extended period of adolescence and exploration for many of them. The same thing was true 20 or 30 years ago. Some who leave the church in their young adult years don’t come back, but many do — generally when they start having children. Although young adults may not feel a personal connection to the church as they find it, many of them want their children to have a religious upbringing.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no reason for concern. Those who are involved in leading churches or training future leaders should take careful note of the trends, and seek to understand why younger adults remain quite interested in personal spirituality even while they’re turned off by the public institutions of religion: no less than 72 percent of the respondents agreed that they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”
While trepidation is an option, it’s also possible to see a great opportunity. Young adults growing up on the cusp of postmodernity really like the idea of thinking for themselves and accepting personal responsibility for working out their spiritual identity.
Baptists, in what I believe to be the most authentic sense of the word, are likewise grounded in principles we’re more likely to call “soul competency” or “the priesthood of the believer” — approaches to faith that acknowledge individual responsibility within the corporate body. I wonder sometimes if the shift among some Baptists toward a more creedal “we’ll do your thinking for you” mindset hasn’t played a significant role in prompting younger people to find the nearest exit.
I don’t want to suggest that any of the issues involved here are simple: human development, cultural trends, and religious expression are all complicated matters. Even so, in a world where younger adults are both interested in spiritual matters and also prefer thinking for themselves, authentic Baptists should flourish.