Almost every American town is dotted by historic Episcopal, United Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches.
They all have one thing in common: Fewer and fewer young people are sitting in their pews.
While church leaders have been wrestling with this for decades, the decline the past eight years has become even more startling, a Pew Research Center report has found.
Based on a survey of 35,000 people, the report reveals Americans calling themselves Christian has dropped sharply, with almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States losing a significant number of members.
The drops have been deepest among two of the country’s most formidable faith traditions: Catholics and mainline Protestants. Much of that decline can be attributed to Generation Y, or millennials — people age 18 to 34.
By the numbers
The research center compared its May survey to a similar one conducted eight years ago in 2007. It found:
• More than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points. That’s more than evangelicals (25.4 percent), Catholics (about 21 percent) and mainline Protestants (14.7 percent).
• Just 56 percent of today’s younger millennials (born 1990-1996) call themselves Christians, even though about eight in 10 were raised in religious homes.
• The number of total adults calling themselves Christians has dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
What does it all mean?
While older generations of Americans and church leaders may not have passed along their Christian faith as effectively as their forebears, they also haven’t spawned a generation of infidels. Instead, we are seeing a whole generation of people who are making their own decisions about religion and spirituality.
They’re finding what they are being told doesn’t always equate with what’s being sold.
For instance, the core principle of Christianity is that “good people” are supposed to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Yet we are living in a scary age where one’s Christian identity is being exploited by political interests who have become angry, paranoid, cultish, selfish and intolerant.
Debates too often become mean-spirited instead of Christian-like.
Conservatives should be grateful that these millennials who struggle with religion also tend to have poor voting records. If their power is ever harnessed, it could bolster those who want to see traditional religious morality disappear from debates over women’s health, abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change.
As is, most millennials are more interested in working for the good of the wider world than holding endless debates over sexual morality.
It is a shame that is driving them away from the many good things a church has to offer.