Guest Column: Young People Will Come Back to Church, Right?
I’m sure that many people have gone to church growth conferences or seminars that include lengthy discussions surrounding young people and how they fit into the future of American Christianity. A lot of those discussions likely center around making sure they come back to the church that they grew up in. That’s a key part of a church maintaining its membership, attendance and budget. Without the younger generation returning to faith, a church is left with a difficult growth strategy: winning over new converts. It’s incumbent upon churches to carry their legacy forward among the next generation.
It goes without saying that a healthy church is one that contains a good mix of age ranges. However, many vibrant churches look like a two-humped camel. They have a large and active youth group and a significant population of people who are either retired or close to retirement age. But what about those in the middle: people in their twenties, thirties or forties who often have children?
Understanding the Life Cycle Effect
Social scientists who study the relationship between age and church attendance have come up with a term to describe the way people move in and out of church as they grow older: the life cycle effect, visualized below.
If you’ll allow some generalizations, the life cycle effect is commonly explained like this: Typically, young people attend church at a fairly high rate as they move through their grade school and high school years. Often, this is because their parents require their attendance, though many also enjoy youth group trips and activities. However, as they graduate high school and move into college or career, large shares of them begin to drift away from home and many of the social institutions that were crucial in their early development. A young person’s twenties are usually filled with lots of volatility. We can assume this season often includes a lot of moves, job changes and romantic relationships.
Eventually, the lives of these young people begin to stabilize. They find a long-term partner, often marry, and usually have children. As their children move into school age, they want them to have the same type of moral foundation that they grew up with, so they head back to church. What happens to the parents as those children grow up and become adults? Either they realize that the Church fulfills a crucial role in their spiritual and / or social lives and become even more committed to their faith community—or they can’t wait until their kids move away so they can stop going to church on Sunday morning.
This life cycle effect is something that many pastors and church leaders bank on. They say to themselves: “Oh, don’t worry about those twentysomethings. Wait until they have kids. They will eventually come back.”
But is that really what’s going to happen? What does the data say?
I broke the General Social Survey into birth cohorts, which are five-year windows in which individuals were born. The theory here is that these groups of people experienced the same world events at basically the same age. (The Great Depression probably had a much different psychological and political impact on a 20-year-old than a 60-year-old, for instance. Cohort analysis takes that into account.) Then I calculated the average church attendance for each birth cohort in age groups ranging from 18–25 to those 65 and over. That’s displayed below with 95 percent confidence intervals indicated by the shaded ribbons. This graph is just the “Baby Boomer” generation.
Notice anything consistent? There’s that trademark hump when each birth cohort moves into the 36–45 age range. That’s exactly what the life cycle effect would predict: People settle down, they have kids, and they return to church. But what about the younger generations?
The graph below are the birth cohorts from 1965–1969 to 1980–1984. Notice anything different about these lines? The hump is there in the oldest birth cohort, just like it was in the prior graph. But things started changing around 1970. That trend line is completely flat—those people didn’t return to church when they moved into their thirties. You can see the beginnings of a hump among those born between 1975 and 1979, but in the next birth cohort the hump is actually inverted. That trademark “return to church”—which pastors and church leaders have relied on for decades—might be fading.
Intentionality Is Key When Reaching Young Adults
This should sound an alarm for people concerned with church growth. Many pastors are standing at the pulpit on Sunday morning and seeing fewer and fewer of their former youth group members returning to the pews when they move into their late twenties and early thirties. No church should assume that this crucial part of the population is going to return to active membership as their parents once did.
I think one path forward is for churches to become intentional about providing welcoming and engaging spaces for parents of infants and toddlers. Things like free childcare during the worship service should be just the beginning. Events that allow exhausted parents the chance to talk to other people their age without having to watch their children like hawks would be a welcome relief. Churches should be encouraging groups like “Mothers of Preschoolers” (MOPS) to meet in their spaces. If young people think that going to church is just going to consist of trying to keep their toddler from screaming the entire time, then staying home seems like a good option. And, if they find a church to be a welcoming space when their children are still toddlers, it stands to reason that they will be more likely to continue their attendance as their children grow older.
The data is speaking a clear message: the assumptions that undergirded church growth from two decades ago no longer apply. If churches are sitting back and just waiting for all their young people to flood back in as they move into their thirties, they are likely in for a rude awakening. Inaction now could be creating a church that does not have a strong future.
Dr. Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He has published over a dozen articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well co-founded the website Religion in Public (https://religioninpublic.blog), which is a platform for social scientists to make their work accessible to a wider audience. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.