Just over half of 18–35-year-old Christians surveyed for The Connected Generation study (54%) attend church at least once a month, including one-third (33%) who are in the pews once a week or more. Three in 10 (30%) attend less frequently. A small group of Christians (10%) says they used to go to church, but no longer do.
Despite their fairly consistent presence in the pews, almost half of Christians (44%) say that attending church is not an essential part of their faith. Practicing Christians, defined in part by their regular attendance, are less likely to feel this way, though one-fifth in this group (21%) still agrees. But even if belonging to a community of worship isn’t always seen as essential, young Christians who attend church point to many reasons their participation may be fruitful, most of which pertain to personal spiritual development.
Church Is Primarily Seen as a Place to Grow Spiritually
About six in 10 Christians in this study say they participate in their community of worship to grow in their faith (63%) and learn about God (61%). These two options are by far the top responses, though other main motivations also relate to learning, such as receiving relevant teachings (40%), wisdom for how to live faithfully (39%) or wisdom for applying scriptures (35%). This desire for spiritual instruction persists even though four in 10 Christians in this age group (39%) say they have already learned most of what they need to know about faith, and nearly half (47%) say church teachings have flaws or gaps.
For some, aspects of the service or liturgy stand out as reasons to engage with a faith community. More than one-third (37%) says they attend for the worship and music—though this is a more popular answer among Protestant respondents (50% Protestants vs. 22% of Catholics). On the other hand, sacraments (selected by 14% of all Christians) receive more emphasis among Catholics’ responses (22% vs. 7% of Protestants). These groups are similarly likely to see readings and recitations (15% of all Christians) as a driver for their church participation.
Some motivations for attending church speak to a sense of obligation or discipline. Four in 10 (40%) say church attendance is how they live out their faith, and one-third (33%) feels it’s just the right thing to do. One in five notes that they participate in church because of their family (20%) or for their children (18%).
Young Christians Would Like More Company at Church
What do 18–35-year-old Christians who attend church wish was a part of their worship community? Encouragingly, when asked to identify from a list what might be missing from their church, the plurality response (20%) is “none of the above.” However, nearly one-fifth (18%) says their friends are absent from their church experience. This may be partly due to the fact that religious affiliation and engagement has generally declined among younger adults, particularly in secular contexts—but regardless of the religious climate in which these Christians live, friends are still identified as the main thing missing (20% in secular climates, 18% in Christian climate, 14% in multi-faith climates). Relatedly, social gatherings outside of services (14%), relationship workshops (14%) or support groups (13%) are also among the top things lacking from young Christians’ church experiences.
Meanwhile, social aspects of church life—such as community involvement (24%), small groups (14%), multigenerational friendship (14%), support groups (13%), gatherings outside of service (12%) or mentors (9%)—aren’t commonly selected as reasons for participation. Just 14 percent say they attend because someone in their worship community cares deeply about them. The rare mention of these relational reasons for church engagement is perhaps less of a reflection of the stated priorities of young adults and more of a reflection of the perceived offerings of their church environments. In other words, maybe young Christians don’t see community as a primary motivator to be at church because their community doesn’t exist there to begin with. After all, half of 18–35-year-old Christians (50%) say people at church are judgmental, perhaps one reason some of them feel they don’t connect well (35%) or fit in (23%) with a church community.
A similar trend occurs when it comes to opportunities to fight injustice or oppression. This is low on the list of reasons that Christians already participate in their church community (11%), yet comparatively high on the list of things they would like to see more of (17%, just behind the percentage who say “friends”). Still, about one in five does say their church engagement involves caring for the poor and needy (22%), their community (21%) or the world (19%).
Clearly, Christians in this study are thinking seriously about their personal spiritual development—but, as members of a connected generation, they hope their community might be included in and improved by this effort. There appears to be a sense that “church life” is distinct from their social circle or even from the issues and problems facing the world. How can churches create attractive environments where spiritual development is better integrated with the whole of young Christians’ lives—where discipleship feels less like self-help and more like a group effort?
This article is adapted from the newly released The Connected Generation book. Purchase the report or access a suite of related resources at theconnectedgeneration.com.
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About the Research
This study is based on online, representative public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. A total of 15,369 respondents ages 18 to 35 across 25 countries were surveyed between December 4, 2018 and February 15, 2019. See full details of sample distribution based on continent and country at theconnectedgeneration.com. Unless otherwise noted, all data referenced in The Connected Generation were collected by Barna, among a nationally representative sample of the population identified. For this study, Barna relied on online collection methods, including mobile phone users. The study used online national consumer panels that are representative by age, gender, region and ethnicity. Respondents were fully verified by the representative sample sources. Additionally, quality control measures checked that respondents were completing the survey at an appropriate pace and paying attention to the questions asked. The survey was offered in nine different languages, (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Romanian, Korean, Indonesian and Taiwanese), translated by a trusted translation service and verified by local partners in every country for context-specific nuance. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base, the CIA World Fact Book and available census data from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Philippines and Singapore, quotas were designed to ensure the final group of adults interviewed in the study reflected each country’s distribution of adults nationwide based on age, gender, ethnicity and region. Online surveys necessitate literacy and an internet connection, which means the sample reflects adults who have those capabilities and does not reflect those who are unable to read or lack connectivity to respond to online surveys. Thus, in spite of a robust methodology, this sample is not meant to be representative of entire national populations, regions, continents or the world. The countries selected for this study were based on countries and regions where Barna and World Vision receive frequent requests for research-based insights. These and other concerns or limitations were respectfully considered while interpreting the data.
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Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2019