The Story: There are now as many millennials who say they “never” attend religious services as there are who attend once a week. Here’s a simple way to change that trend.
The Background: A recent survey by Pew Research finds that the percentage of American adults who describe themselves as Christians continues to decline. Currently, 43 percent of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51 percent a decade ago, and only one-in-five adults (20 percent) identifies as Catholic, down from 23 percent in 2009.
In contrast, Pew says, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population (i.e., religious “nones”) have increased. Self-described atheists now account for 4 percent of U.S. adults, up from 2 percent in 2009; agnostics make up 5 percent of U.S. adults, up from 3 percent a decade ago; and 17 percent of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12 percent in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.
Self-reported attendance at religious services has also declined. The share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points over the last decade. The share who say they attend religious services less often (if at all) has risen by the same degree. In 2009, regular worship attenders (those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month) outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52-to-47 percent margin. Today those figures are reversed; more Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54 percent) than say they attend at least monthly (45 percent).
The Christian share of the population has declined, and religious “nones” have grown in almost every demographic group measured in the survey: white people, black people, and Hispanics; men and women; in all regions of the country; and among college graduates and those with lower levels of educational attainment.
Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, though Pew notes their ranks are swelling in both partisan coalitions. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults. The percentage change in millennials (16 percent) is equal to the combined change of the Silent Generation (2 percent), Baby Boomers (6 percent), and Gen X-ers (8 percent).
Only half of millennials (49 percent) describe themselves as Christians; four-in-ten are religious “nones”; and one-in-ten millennials identifies with non-Christian faiths. Only about one-in-three millennials says they attend religious services at least once or twice a month. Roughly two-thirds of millennials (64 percent) attend worship services a few times a year or less often, including about four-in-ten who say they seldom or never go. Indeed, there are as many millennials who say they “never” attend religious services (22 percent) as there are who say they go at least once a week (22 percent).
Why It Matters: Often when we see such trends we are tempted to despair, because there is no obvious solution we can implement as individuals. But this time is different. There is a way we could work to turn the tide: invite a millennial to church.
In a survey last year, LifeWay Research found that almost one-in-three (29 percent) Protestant churchgoers said in the last six months they had not invited an individual or family to attend a worship service with them at church.
Church invitations were more rare in some parts of the country than in others. Forty-two percent of churchgoers in the Northeast and 37 percent of Midwesterners said they hadn’t invited anyone. Yet one-in-four Southerners (24 percent) and those in the West (26 percent) also said they hadn’t invited anyone.
When asked about the primary reason they didn’t invite anyone, about one-in-three churchgoers said “I don’t know,” while about one-in-ten (11 percent) said they’re just not comfortable inviting people to church. Another 20 percent said their invitations would likely be rejected.
Such reasons are not completely unjustified. Only 35 percent of the unchurched say they would attend a worship service if they were invited by someone they knew. But we can’t know if a person is in that one-third of people who will come unless we ask.
Also, while we should be inviting people of all ages, we should make a special effort to target millennials (ages 23 to 38). This demographic is the most likely to be not only unchurched but also to never have attended a worship service. And based on survey results, there is a high probability that no one has ever invited them to church.
So do your part to reverse the trend. Think of a millennial you know and then invite them to church today. They may say no. But they may say yes. And God could use that simple invitation to change the trajectory of their life for all eternity.