His finding was announced as the Barna Group released its end-of-the-year top six trends in American faith for 2011.
One of the most favorable discoveries by pollsters was that three-quarters of Americans see churches as a positive factor in their communities. Only 5 percent consider the church’s influence to be negative. However, “Americans are struggling to determine how faith, Christianity and church fit into modern life,” reports Barna.
Among 2011’s other trends:
“Forty-one percent of Americans are unable to identify who they consider to be an influential Christian,” reported Barna. When surveyed about their Christian heroes, many Americans came up blank.
“Only Billy Graham, the Pope, Barack Obama and Joel Osteen were mentioned by more than 1 out of 50 adults as the most significant Christian leaders,” reported Barna.
“Another way in which Christianity hit the mainstream radar was prominent discussion about hell,” reported Barna. “This issue sparked so much controversy and vigorous debate in part because America is
essentially split down the middle on most issues of universalism and religious pluralism. For example, 43 percent of Americans said it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons; 54 percent of Americans disagree. Half of Americans believe that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God no matter what they do, while 40 percent disagreed.
“With the nation’s population so divided, expect to see these issues continue to stoke lively conversations,” said Barna.
Pollsters also found “a great deal of openness among millions of Americans to overtly supporting Christian business and brands. In fact, nearly half of all adults (including all faith groups) said they would be open to purchasing from a business or brand that operates according to Christian principles.”
A consistent theme from Barna Group’s research this year is Americans’ growing acceptance of limitations.
Will these kids stay in church?
“Compared to the experience of economic surplus of recent decades,” he writes, “residents are living within a redefined American dream. For many, this includes lowered expectations, rethinking spending habits, and relearning savings.
“One reason for their modest outlook on life is that three-quarters of adults claim to have been personally affected by the economic downturn. Another reason: Americans have come to accept that the economy is not recovering anytime soon. They are settling in for the long haul. Seven out of 10 Americans believe it will be two or more years and nearly half say it will take three years or longer. One out of 17 Americans now believes the economy will never fully recover, up from one in 50 two years ago.
“One of the unfortunate consequences of these changes is a reduction
in charitable giving,” writes Barna. “Three out of 10 adults have reduced their giving to churches and four out of 10 have downgraded their giving to non-profits. One of the measures of generosity is tithing, or giving 10 percent or more of one’s income.
The tithing indicator, too, has dropped from 7 percent to 4 percent of all Americans. The patterns of giving and generosity suggest a tough year ahead for non-profit and church leaders.
What does it take to make church relevant?
Another key theme from Barna Group’s research in 2011 is the new generation gap hitting the Christian community. Many of today’s congregations are struggling to remain connected with Millennials. The faith journeys of teens and young adults are often challenging for many parents and faith leaders, who often misunderstand how and why young people become disconnected.
Barna cites six reasons that young adults leave church as well as five common myths about church dropouts.
The six reasons? According to Barna:
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective. A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23 percent indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the
problems of the real world” (22 percent) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18 percent).
What do young Americans need?
The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15. No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged.
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow. A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31 percent). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24 percent) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23 percent). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20 percent).
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science. One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35 percent). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29 percent). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25 percent). And nearly the same proportion (23 percent) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways
of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twenty-someting Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17 percent) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40 percent) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29 percent) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22 percent).
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36 percent) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23 percent). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background
said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18 percent).
How can we keep these kids engaged in church?
And what about the five myths about why kids drop out of church?
Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school. Reality: There has been considerable attention paid to the so-called loss of faith that happens between high school and early adulthood. Some have estimated this dropout in alarming terms, estimating that a large majority of young Christians will lose their faith. The reality is more nuanced. In general, there are three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals, nomads, and exiles.
One out of nine young people who grow up with a Christian background lose their faith in Christianity—a group described by the research team as prodigals. In essence, prodigals say they have lost their faith after being a Christian at some time in their past.
More commonly, young Christians wander away from the institutional church — a pattern the researchers labeled nomads. Roughly four out of ten young Christians fall into this category. They still call themselves Christians but they are far less active in church than they were during high school. Nomads have become 'lost’ to church participation.
Another two out of ten young Christians were categorized as exiles, those who feel lost between the “church culture” and the society they feel called to influence. The sentiments of exiles include feeling that “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me” and “I feel stuck between the comfortable faith of my parents and the life I believe God wants from me.”
Overall, about three out of ten young people who grow up with a Christian background stay faithful to church and to faith throughout their transitions from the teen years through their twenties.
David Kinnaman, who directed the research, concluded: “The reality of the dropout problem is not about a huge exodus of young people from the Christian faith. In fact, it is about the various ways that young people become disconnected in their spiritual journey. Church leaders and parents cannot effectively help the next generation in their spiritual development without understanding these three primary patterns. The conclusion from the research is that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.”
Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults’ maturation. Reality: First, this line of reasoning ignores that tens of millions of young Christians never lose their faith or drop out of church. Thus, leaving church or losing faith should not be a foregone conclusion.
Second, leaving church has not always been normative. Evidence
exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s.
In addition to continuing the dropout pattern of previous generations, today’s teens and young adults (identified by Barna Group as Mosaics) are spiritually the most eclectic generation the nation has seen. They are also much less likely than prior generations to begin their religious explorations with Christianity. Moreover, their pervasive technology use is deepening the generation gap, allowing Mosaics (often called Millennials of Gen Y) to embrace new ways of learning about and connecting to the world.
Kinnaman commented on this myth: “The significant spiritual and technological changes over the last 50 years make the dropout problem more urgent. Young people are dropping out earlier, staying away longer, and if they come back are less likely to see the church as a long-term part of their life. Today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.” [Note: See Myth 5 for more about how the dropout problem has changed.]
Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out. Reality: College certainly plays a role in young Christians’ spiritual journeys, but it is not necessarily the ‘faith killer’ many assume. College experiences, particularly in public universities, can be neutral or even adversarial to faith. However, it is too simplistic to blame college for today’s young church dropouts. As evidence, many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment; in fact, many are emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.
“The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group.” Kinnaman pointed to research findings showing that “only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests. And most lack adult mentors or meaningful friendships with older Christians who can guide them through the inevitable questions that arise during the course of their studies. In other words, the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.”
Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.” Reality: The study examined beliefs across the firm’s 28-year history, looking for generational gaps in spiritual beliefs and knowledge. When comparing the faith of young practicing faith Christians (ages 18 to 29) to those of older practicing Christians (ages 30-plus), surprisingly few differences emerged between what the two groups believe. This means that within the Christian community, the theological differences between generations are not as pronounced as might be expected. Young Christians lack biblical knowledge on some matters, but not significantly more so than older Christians.
Instead, the research showed substantial differences among those outside of Christianity. That is, older non-Christians were more familiar than younger non-Christians with Bible stories and Christian theology, even if they did not personally embrace those beliefs.
The Barna president described this as “unexpected, because one often hears how theologically illiterate young Christians are these days. Instead, when it comes to questions of biblical literacy, the broader culture seems to be losing its collective understanding of Christian
teachings. In other words, Christianity is no longer ‘autopilot’ for the nation’s youngest citizens.
“Many younger Christians are cognizant that their peers are increasingly unfriendly or indifferent toward Christian beliefs and commitment. As a consequence, young Christians recognize that the nature of sharing one’s faith is changing. For example, many young Christians believe they have to be more culturally engaged in order to communicate Christianity to their peers. For younger Christians, matters of orthodoxy are deeply interconnected with questions of how and why the Gospel advances among a post-Christian generation.”
Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do. Reality: Some faith leaders minimize the church dropout problem by assuming that young adults will come back to the church when they get older, especially when they have children. However, previous research conducted by Barna Group raises doubts about this conclusion.
Furthermore, the social changes since 1960 make this generation much less likely to follow the conventional path to having children: Mosaics (often called Millennials or Gen Y) are getting married roughly six years later than did the Boomers; they are having their first child much later in life; and they are eight times more likely than were the youth of the 1960s to come from homes where their own biological parents were never married.
Much of Barna Group’s work through the years has shown the rarity of lasting spiritual transformation in people’s lives. For example, among those who believe they are Christians, just one-fifth say they live in a way that makes them completely dependent on God. A similar proportion of Christians claim that the single most important decision they have ever made was to invite Jesus Christ to forgive them and become their savior. And just one-sixth of Christians say they are totally committed to engaging in personal spiritual development.