The Story: A new Pew Research Center analysis of survey data shows that when it comes to institutions that play a significant role in American society, younger generations tend to have more-positive views about them than their elders. The exception: churches and religious organizations.
The Background: Pew surveyed four different generational cohorts—Millennials (1981 or later), Gen Xers (1965-1980), Boomers (1946-64), and Silents (1928-45)—in 2010 and 2015 about whether they believed particular institutions had a positive effect on the country.
In 2015, Millennials had a more positive view than any other generation of labor unions, colleges and universities, small businesses, the energy industry, technology companies, large corporations, banks and financial institutions, national news media, and the entertainment industry. The only institution they were less positive about than their elders was churches and religious organizations.
This is a complete reversal from 2010, when 73 percent of Millennials said churches and religious organizations have a positive effect on the way things are going in America today. At that time, they polled 8 points higher than any other group on this question; today, they poll 6 points lower than any other generation.
What It Means: What could have changed Millennials attitudes about the church so drastically in five years? The most obvious candidate is the issue of gay rights, specifically same-sex marriage (SSM).
In 2010, Pew’s polling showed that only 42 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage and 48 percent opposed. In 2015, the same polls revealed that 55 percent supported same-sex marriage and only 39 percent opposed.
But the change was even more drastic for Millennials. In 2010, 53 percent supported SSM; by 2015, their support had risen to 70 percent. Churches, however, failed to adapt so rapidly as did the Millennials.
Before 2010, only one religious group had a majority support for SSM: the Unaffiliated (62 percent). Roman Catholics had the highest level of support at that time (48 percent), even higher than white mainliners (46 percent). Additionally, only 29 percent of black Protestants and 20 percent of white evangelicals supported SSM.
By 2015 several groups were rushing to catch up to and match the Millennials’ attitudes’ about SSM. Support by the unaffiliated rose 20 points (to 82 percent), mainliners, 16 percent (to 62 percent), and Roman Catholics, 9 percent (to 57 percent). Black Protestants moved only 5 percent (to 34 percent), and the group with the least change was white evangelicals, whose support shifted only 4 percent (to 24 percent).
On this issue there remains a significant gap between Millennials and every polled religious group—and a nearly unbridgeable chasm with Millennials on one side and black Protestants and white evangelicals on the other. It’s not surprising, then, that Millennials—as a whole—have a less positive view of churches since on this issue we are considered to be on the “wrong side of history.”
So what does this mean for Christians? Not much, at least nothing new. Faithful Christians have seen the threat of SSM coming for some time and have been attempting to respond biblically—with truth and compassion.
In fact, we should not take too seriously any single poll or survey (they are, after all, just pseudoevents). But we should consider the trend line as potentially revealing. This is especially true when we look at long-term trends. Consider for example the polling trend for SSM from 2001 to 2015.
For decades Christians fretted about the “slippery slope” (a claim that “A will lead to B” either as an inevitability, as an increased probability, or as a logical outcome). But what we need to start considering is the “twist”— the way support and opposition on a particular social issue can completely reverse in a matter of 5 to 10 years. That is what we saw with SSM. And our refusal to abandon our biblical views appears to correlate with a less positive view of the church.
A question we all need to consider today is, “What other issues will see this type of ‘twist’ in the next five years?” The answer to that question may help determine how prepared the church will be to face challenges in the near future.