This is the second installment of thoughts on the book, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, (Oxford, 2019). See the previous post if you’d like to see the start. I now consider what the authors have found regarding Mainline Protestant young people. The researchers, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley, define “Mainline Protestant” as:
[reflecting] the early twentieth-century divide between those Protestants who hold to traditional Christian teachings–namely Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals–and those Protestants who, to varying degrees, accommodate their theology to cultural norms (p. 84).
Keep in mind that the label “Mainline Protestant” does not refer strictly to denominational membership. Rather, it has to do with a set of orienting values and identities. By this book’s analysis, some United Methodist Twentysomethings are Mainline Protestant and some are Evangelical Protestant, which is a distinction important to keep in mind.
1 in 7 American twentysomethings (14%) identify as “Mainline Protestant,” numbering 6 million souls. 35% of that 6 million attend worship 2-3 times per month, around 2,100,000 persons (p. 85). 30% (180,000) “consider religion to be very or extremely important in their daily lives” (pp. 96).
Those numbers, which may seem encouraging at the outset, turn out, in my view, to be not so comforting. The researchers sub-divide Mainline Protestants into three categories: (1) Actives (e.g. attending worship regularly), (2) Nominals (e.g. attending worship rarely, maybe once or twice a year), and (3) Estranged (no attendance and no involvement with the church at all). Get this: some young people think of themselves as Mainline Protestant who nonetheless do not participate at all.
19% of Mainline Protestants are Actives. This is roughly 1,140,000 young people. 64% of Mainliners fall into the “Nominal” category, 3,840,000 souls. They attend worship rarely and don’t pray very often. The third category of Mainline Protestants – 17% or 1, 020,000, are Estranged.
For comparison’s sake, keep in mind that 35% of all Twentysomethings who identify as Christian (Catholic, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical Protestant), attend worship weekly (p. 96). Again, for comparison’s sake, around 60% of Evangelical Protestants, attend worship regularly, compared to the 19% of Mainline Protestants.
Another statistical wrinkle worth pondering is that even though estranged Mainliners identified themselves in a way as to put them in the “Mainline” category, “only half of Estranged Mainliners think of themselves ‘as a part of a particular religion, denomination, or church'” (p. 102). Of the 1,020,000 Estranged Mainliners, 510,000 of them seem headed in the direction of the “nones.” Keep in mind, they are not (yet?) “nones.” The researchers have a separate chapter for this now well-known percentage of young people.
What do Mainliner Actives tell us about their reasons for being active? They give community as the top one (p. 89). Community to them means a shared vision and shared values sincerely pursued in their congregations, welcoming all persons, not making people feel judged, and strongly valuing diversity and inclusiveness.
Along with common values, they also exhibit a decidedly casual attitude about a denomination’s particular doctrines. Significantly, regarding this question, it does not matter if one is Active, Nominal, or Estranged:
[All three sub-categories of Mainline Protestants] equally and overwhelmingly agree ‘that it is OK to pick and choose [one’s] religious beliefs without having to accept the teachings of their religious faith as a whole.’ Similarly, 2 out of 5 Mainliners, regardless of type, indicate that they view God as a spiritual force and not personal; this demonstrates Mainliners’ comfort with holding beliefs outside the orthodox box. (p. 100)
Escaping the orthodox box only means that another box has become a Mainliner’s doctrinal home. That 40% of Mainliners think of God as an impersonal force shows that they have picked up doctrine, to be sure. It’s just not Christian doctrine, even if they have learned this view of God while participating in a church. I am always struck by this irony.
In truth, the beliefs and values that Mainline Protestant Twentysomethings hold sound very much like the spirituality found permeating American popular culture. It’s the new American religion, precisely the kind promoted in many colleges and universities and it presages the drift of young people toward no religious affiliation. As other sources show, the lion’s share of nones come from Mainline Protestants.
If you worry that I have skewed the picture by cherry-picking the data in The Twentysomething Soul, I invite you to have a look yourself. The next time we’ll look at Evangelical Protestants.