Pew recently released their religious landscape survey, a broad overview of American religious life. At first glance the report looks grim for Christianity, which appears to be losing adherents at a rapid pace, while the ranks of the unaffiliated have swelled from 16% in 2007 to 23% today. The numbers don’t appear to be the product of a statistical outlier. Another study, the recent Relationships in America survey we fielded, estimated that 25% of adults ages 18-60, didn’t identify with any religious group, even more than Pew found. So Pew’s numbers don’t seem to be at the top end of the range, rather this change appears to represent a very real mass exodus of Christians.
Some pundits seized on this news as a wholesale retreat from Christianity. Meanwhile others have taken a rosier view, claiming that although Christian religious affiliation is in decline, religious practice remains largely unaffected. The claim is that nominal Christians, those who show up at church only at Christmas or Easter, have dropped the label, while the more active church-goers haven’t budged much. They argue that the sky isn’t falling because weekly church attendance hasn’t changed substantially, and Millennialls may circle back to Christianity when they settle down to have kids. They’re simply taking longer to do so because of delayed marriage and childbearing. How do we evaluate these claims? For now it appears that the drops are indeed largely due to nominal Christians shedding the label, but it doesn’t seem like Millennials are going to come back to Christianity, which may not bode well for the long-term vitality of churches.
Although Pew’s data shows that there haven’t been large shifts in weekly church attendance in the past decade, the numbers for those who attend weekly appear a bit more rosy than is likely true. It’s long been believed that survey takers exaggerate their church attendance on surveys, and so accurate estimates of church attendance rates can be hard to come by. Pew reports that 37% of Americans attended church weekly in 2013, a decline of just 2% since 2003. In contrast, the Relationships in America survey found that only 27% of Americans reported weekly church attendance. Other researchers have used time use diaries, believing these would elicit more accurate estimates, concluding that about a quarter of Americans attend on a weekly basis. Researchers who have counted the number of people in church services put the number even lower, around 20%. But much of these differences are likely due to the methodology the researchers use to arrive at their estimates. Although Pew’s estimate of weekly church attendance is likely an overestimate, their methodology has been consistent. The fact that Pew’s estimates with regard to weekly church attendance haven’t changed much over time tells us that weekly church attendance likely hasn’t budged much either.
Although it’s impossible to tell if Millenials will return to Christianity after they settle down, the current data gives us a few clues. It’s not likely. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that one of the reasons for the shift is the lengthening of “emerging adulthood.” Historically, many young adults slack off in church attendance, but come back when they marry and have children that they want to raise in a religious value system. In six short years, from 2007 to 2013, the median age at first marriage rose by 1.3 years for men and 0.6 years for women, meaning an extension of the “emerging adulthood” phase, a period often associated with lower church activity rates. Naturally we would expect this change to precipitate a decrease in weekly church attendance rates. But as these periods of inactivity grow longer we should expect young adults to feel less and less connected to the religion of their childhood, and therefore unlikely to return. This conclusion is supported by the data. Although those in every generation were less likely to identify as Christians in 2014 than in 2007, Older Millennials—those born between 1981 and 1989—accounted for the lion’s share of the decline. In 2007, 25 percent of these Millennials said they were unaffiliated, compared to 34 percent in the 2014 survey. Keep in mind that in 2007 this group was firmly in the age range where young adults typically slack off on religious activity, and by 2014 they would be far more likely to be married and have settled down than they were 7 years prior. Yet we still see a massive drop-off in claiming a Christian religious affiliation, or any religious affiliation for that matter. While they may come back eventually, the fact that so many are rapidly shedding even nominal Christian ties at the time when they have historically come back to Christianity may be an advance signal that they aren’t like their parent’s generation. They don’t plan on coming back. While church attendance numbers are relatively stable for now, if young adults stop coming back when they start families, dips in church attendance may shortly follow the slide in claiming a Christian affiliation.
In short, there does not seem to be a wholesale retreat from Christianity among the faithful. But we also don’t see a generation that’s about to join the faithful either, a trend which doesn’t bode well for the health of Christian churches in years to come. So those who take a rosier view are right. The sky isn’t falling. Not yet.