Recently, I have been mulling over a new book by Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, The Twenty-something Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults (Oxford U. Press, 2019). I’ve read some of Clydesdale’s other work (The First Year Out, The Purposeful Graduate) and have had brief opportunities to hear and interact with him. He is one of my go-to sociologists when it comes to young adults.
I have long worried that church leaders hop on research data of the sort these sociologists offer and frantically try to ride the trend. Think of the alarmist responses over “nones,” for example (the subject of a separate post). The desire to do something about the problem is laudable. The tactics are usually tragically inadequate. We in old-line Protestantism know that we’re not doing very well reaching young people, but we don’t have a clear, consistent, widespread, effective strategy. Books like The Twenty-something Soul, read carefully, provide critical perspective.
I’ll make a couple of initial observations about the book’s findings (stay tuned for related posts), but for now let’s keep a couple of important points in mind. First, the authors are sociologists. They use empirical methods. Their findings are descriptive. They do not offer theological analysis or proposals, although it is clear that they care deeply that young people flourish and that church leaders understand them adequately. These scholars have provided resources to church leaders and served as consultants, but church leaders need to the theological work using sociologists’ findings. Sociology tells us what is. We have to discern what ought to be and set our strategies accordingly.
Second, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley are critical of the disparaging stereotypes about young adults. The notion that twenty-somethings are over-indulged post-adolescents who seek to put off adult responsibility makes them bristle. I share that irritation. Most young people are responsibly trying to figure out adult life in the face of dramatically different economic and social conditions than 50 years ago. The economy is much different nowadays and companies are generally less loyal to their employees than in an earlier generation. Everybody is responding to the vagaries of a global economy. So, yes, young adults have more options and freedom to choose, but they also undertake more risk than their elders did at the same age. It’s not that emerging adults refuse to grow up. It’s that growing up is much more challenging, with a wider range of “social scripts” from which to choose and with much less predictable outcomes.
Again, Christians working with young adults need to do the theological reflection on changing social conditions. We too often skip this desperately important task.
With those cautions in mind, let’s tackle a couple of sets of statistics. First, almost 43 million twenty-something adults populate the United States. 91% fall into one of the four following categories:
30% are Evangelical Protestant
18% are Roman Catholic
14% are Mainline Protestant
30% are “Nones”
(9% are “other”)
(I’m using rounded percentages, rendering more than 100%.)
Right away we need to make one important qualification. The researchers did not ask about denominational affiliation, but, rather, certain responses to specific questions (e.g. “only one religion is true” vs. “many religions are true” – agree or disagree). They then classified certain responses from Protestants as “Evangelical” (more “conservative”) or “Mainline” (more “liberal”or “progressive”). It is highly likely, then, that we find United Methodists in both categories. The same goes for congregations. Some United Methodist congregations would be considered “Mainline Protestant” and others “Evangelical Protestant.”
Slightly less than 40% of Mainline Protestant young people attend worship at least 2-3 times per month. Slightly more than 60% of Evangelical Protestant young people attend at that rate. Putting numbers to these percentages, we see that around 2.4 million young people attend Mainline Protestant services. About 7.9 million attend Evangelical Protestant congregations.
Not only do Mainline Protestant (remember that key distinction) young adults attend worship less often than Evangelical Protestants, they also care less about the church’s doctrines. They tend to care about social service efforts, ethical values, and community, apart from formal dogma. Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, are quite concerned about doctrine while also being strongly interested in social service ministries.
In a future post, we’ll explore some other implications of these differences, but for now, some questions. What do we do with these numbers? Since we have both types of young adults in our churches, how do we respond to their differing preferences? One option is a kind of market response. We have different churches for different types and we let young people sort themselves accordingly. From a market perspective this makes sense, but theologically, how does it work?
Another market response would be to recognize that the far larger percentage of young people are Evangelical Protestant and aim our ministries more in their direction. This tactic, of course, is completely unacceptable, but maybe it illustrates the problem of relying on market-oriented responses.
How would we go about developing theologically sound strategies? We could start by ferreting out the theological assumptions hiding behind market strategies. This would open up an enormously fruitful, though fraught, set of engagements. We would discover implicit doctrines of God and of human nature. We would begin to see hidden views of human flourishing and what counts as salvation. Might we be quite surprised at what we tacitly believe?
How do the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and John Wesley’s Standard Sermons, apply? What, finally, does being United Methodist, actually mean?
Young adults, in their own ways, are demanding that we honestly, openly, and straightforwardly answer such questions.