You’ve probably heard the doomsday reports. “Young adults are fleeing the church!” they say. “Millennials want nothing to do with religion—they’re not like any generation before them!”
In Emerging Adulthood and Faith, Jonathan P. Hill, a sociologist from Calvin College, challenges this narrative, citing two key issues that are often overlooked. “The first is the overemphasis on generational analysis,” he says, noting that generations may not be as different from one another as they seem. “The second is the tendency to analyze emerging adult faith through the lens of individual stories,” which can lead to a distorted picture of today’s young adults.
To counter this, Hill took a hard look at the data, examining General Social Surveys dating back forty years. According to the 2012 General Social Survey, people in their forties and above report significantly higher levels of daily prayer than those under the age of thirty. Hill cautions us against jumping to the conclusion that this is due to a generational difference: indeed, the same survey administered in 1983 revealed similar trends, indicating that these differences in prayer habits are due not to intractable differences between Millennials and Baby Boomers, but to age.
Hill also reveals that for some Christian groups—evangelicals in particular—young adult church attendance has remained relatively stable, though Catholics and mainline Protestant numbers are in decline. Still, he contends that most young adults raised in the Church stay there, and that only one out of every five young adults raised in a religious tradition leave that tradition altogether.
Even the familiar narrative that young adults leave the Church after attending college and being confronted with differing belief systems doesn’t hold up when approached from a social science standpoint. On the contrary, Hill says that young adults who graduate from college “are actually more likely to practice their faith and say it is important in their daily life.”
Hill does concede that emerging adults of any generation do seem to be less religiously engaged than other age groups. To better understand this, he introduces the concept of “social scripts”: predetermined patterns of behavior and attitudes to which we all subconsciously subscribe, accumulated through experience.
For emerging adults, Hill argues, the “faith script” that they have been given throughout life is that faith is mostly about being a decent person. “As it turns out,” he says, “this basic morality is something many young people already believe they have a good handle on,” thus negating their need for lasting religious engagement.
These attitudes are so deeply embedded in our culture that most aren’t aware of them –and as a result, young adults who do leave the church may not even be aware why they did.
How can we counter this? “Keeping young people involved in the heart of worship is the most important way to cast doubt about the dominant narratives they receive from outside the faith,” says Hill. He says the best way to do this is to draw from our deep Christian heritage, making the riches of our faith known to all. “As we ponder how to deal with the contemporary challenges of emerging adults, perhaps it is time to turn away from the latest marketing technique and toward this ancient wisdom.”