Earlier this summer, the Pew Research released a new study confirming the so-called “rise of the nones.” Their research revealed that fewer and fewer people in the United States identify with any religion at all. And the numbers largely indicate that it’s all millennials’ fault.
We already knew that a large portion of twentysomethings contribute to the nonery, but the new Pew data shows that the number is increasing significantly. According to the study, 35 percent of millennials identify with no religion—a far higher percentage than the closest frontrunner, evangelicalism (21 percent). That’s double the number of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17 percent).
Some news sources took the data to mean the Christian faith as a whole is now in decline. Some evangelicals pushed back (like Ed Stetzer and Russell Moore). They argued that, yes, nominal Christianity is certainly declining. But true expressions of the faith aren’t going anywhere.
Jesus did say, after all, that the “gates of Hell won’t prevail” against His Church. So a shifting cultural landscape probably doesn’t stand much of a chance. Still, it’s undeniable that the millennial generation could very well be the least religious generation ever, which will inevitably lead to least religious homes, least religious cities, and so on.
But despite these numbers, the situation doesn’t appear that bleak.
A Whole New Context
According to David Kinnaman, we have good reason to think the millennials who are Christians claim a deeper, more rooted faith than Christians of previous generations.
Kinnaman, who is the president of the faith-based research organization, Barna Group, says we’re seeing in this generation a “counter trend,” where the trend toward “noneness” is “counterbalanced by a different trend of younger Christians being as or more committed to the Bible, Christian practice and even theology,” as the Christians before them. From a merely statistical perspective, “the light of millennial Christians is shining actually brighter than that of Boomer or Gen X Christians,” Kinnaman says.
To make this kind of assessment, Kinnaman and his team at Barna evaluate things like the level of skepticism an age-group shows toward the Bible. In this case, only about 10 percent of Boomers question the validity of the Bible, whereas a full 25 percent of millennials think the Bible is “a book of myths just made up one day.”
Because of these kinds of findings, we often hear accusations that millennial Christians are theologically or biblically illiterate. But, according to Kinnaman, “practicing Christian millennials are just as biblically literate as older Christians—it’s just that their non-Christian peers are becoming further and further removed from any muscle memory of the Bible.”
By “muscle memory,” Kinnamin means that the cultural climate in which millennials live offers far less exposure to churchy ideas and attitudes. So, someone may be indifferent to the faith, but would still be familiar enough—probably from attending church on requisite holidays—to articulate some facts about it.
“Part of the larger narrative here is that we think previous generations of Christians in America benefited from sort of a monotheistic, Christianized cultural setting that allowed for Christianity to seem normal,” Kinnaman says. “And it was very easy to be Christian without a lot of negative repercussion.
“But millennials are really feeling that they have to be counter-cultural to be Christian. Most of Christian culture [has departed, turning] a socially Christian America into a more of what we call a ‘digital Babylon’—a post-Christian experience. It’s a much more pluralistic in terms of faith; there’s less of a clear sense of where right and wrong might come from. And so [millennials] are living in a very different kind of cultural context than the Boomer generation.”
Considering this, millennial Christians may only appear “deeper” than previous generations because there’s simply a larger gap in the spiritual experience of Christians and non-Christians. Meaning because it’s no longer culturally advantageous to identify as a Christian, church-goers without deep-rooted, genuine commitment stay more or less quiet. So it’s possible that Christians in this generation only stand out from their peers because what Kinnaman calls the “millennial spiritual gene pool” is weaker.
Quality Over Quantity
However, the idea that millennial Christians own a deeper version of Christianity than previous generations appears to be more than a statistical phenomenon. Kinnaman says there is “real evidence that those who are staying connected in the churches and connected into their faith are taking matters of faith even more seriously than do previous generations of Christians.”
He says millennial Christians seem to have “a more holistic understanding that theology matters, that Scripture matters; that worship should be taken seriously, that being a Christian is a whole-life commitment, rather than something you just do on Sundays.”
For example, a Barna study last year found that nearly all millennial believers (96 percent) believe the Bible is the actual or inspired Word of God, compared that to 56 percent in the general population. And millennials consistently rank reading the Scriptures as more important than other spiritual disciplines.
An International Trend?
What’s more, this doesn’t appear to be only an American trend. Barna just wrapped up a study in Scotland, where a similar trend is emerging. Kinnaman and his team saw the same kind of religious disengagement among millennials as in the States. But what surprised them, he said, is that the counter trend is even stronger than in the U.S.
“So in America, about one out of four millennials are practicing Christians, and in Scotland, about one out of 10 are. And what we found among millennial Scots—even though they are more secular and have fewer experiences growing up in a Christian or church-going context—they are more interested than other generations in the Bible and what the Bible teaches on topics like life, death, marriage, money, finances and even digital life.
“And so it seemed as though the millennial disengagement, at least in the small country of Scotland, has sort of bottomed out, and there seemed to be a bit of resurgence or counter trend among millennials that they’re quite vocal about.
This Scotland study, Kinnaman says, provides “a bit of verification or corroboration” of what we’re seeing here: millennials who are born-again Christians may claim the most active faith of any generation.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury