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Guest Column: Young People Will Come Back to Church, Right?

Barna - Tue, 22/10/2019 - 3:38am

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.

Feature image by Helena Lopes on Pexels

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Opinione pubblica europea a tre decenni dalla caduta del comunismo

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 8:38am

(Traduzione da una versione in inglese) WASHINGTON, D.C. (15 ottobre 2019) – Trent’anni dopo la caduta del comunismo, un nuovo sondaggio del Pew Research Center rivela che poche persone nell’ex blocco orientale si rammaricano dei cambiamenti epocali avvenuti tra il 1989 e il 1991. Eppure non sono neanche del tutto soddisfatte della loro attuale situazione […]

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Az európai közvélemény három évtizeddel a kommunizmus bukása után

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 8:30am

(Fordítás angolról) WASHINGTON, D.C., (2019. október 15.) – A Pew Research Center a kommunizmus bukásának harmincadik évfordulóján készített új felmérése megállapítja, hogy a korábbi keleti blokk országaiban kevés ember bánja az 1989–1991. között végbement változásokat, annak ellenére, hogy nem teljes mértékben elégedettek a jelenlegi politikai vagy gazdasági helyzetükkel sem. Hasonlóan a nyugati társaikhoz, a közép- […]

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Europejska opinia publiczna po trzech dekadach od upadku komunizmu

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 8:16am

(tłumaczenie wersji w języku angielskim) Waszyngton, D.C. (15 października 2019 r.) – w trzydzieści lat po upadku komunizmu nowe badanie przeprowadzone przez Centrum Badawcze Pew Research Center pokazuje, że niewielu mieszkańców byłego bloku wschodniego wyraża ubolewanie z powodu fundamentalnych zmian, jakie zaszły w latach 1989–1991. Jednocześnie nie są w pełni zadowoleni ze swojej aktualnej sytuacji […]

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Opinión pública europea tres décadas después de la caída del comunismo

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 8:05am

(Traducción de una versión en inglés) WASHINGTON, D. C. (15 de octubre de 2019) – Treinta años después de la caída del comunismo, una nueva encuesta del Pew Research Center revela que pocas personas del antiguo bloque del este lamentan los cambios monumentales que se produjeron entre 1989 y 1991. No obstante, muchas no están […]

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Modest Changes in Views of Impeachment Proceedings Since Early September

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 7:55am

Most Americans have not changed their views on whether the House should conduct impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump since early September, before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would conduct an impeachment inquiry of the president. But about one-in-ten adults (9%) who had opposed the House opening impeachment proceedings last month now […]

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Methodology

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 7:53am

The American Trends Panel survey methodology The American Trends Panel (ATP), created by Pew Research Center, is a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults. Panelists participate via self-administered web surveys. Panelists who do not have internet access at home are provided with a tablet and wireless internet connection. The panel is being managed […]

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Evropské veřejné mínění třicet let po pádu komunismu

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 5:01am

(Překlad z anglické verze) WASHINGTON, D.C. (15. října 2019) – Podle nového průzkumu Pew Research Center jen menšina lidí z bývalého východního bloku lituje třicet let po pádu komunismu převratných změn z období mezi lety 1989 a 1991. Lidé nicméně nejsou spokojeni ani se současnými politickými a ekonomickými poměry. Významná část obyvatel střední a východní […]

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L’opinion publique européenne, trois décennies après la chute du communisme

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 4:36am

(Traduction depuis l’anglais) WASHINGTON, D.C. (15 oct. 2019) – Trente ans après la chute du communisme, une nouvelle enquête de Pew Research Center conclut que peu d’habitants de l’ancien bloc de l’Est regrettent les changements monumentaux intervenus entre 1989 et 1991. Toutefois, cela ne signifie pas qu’ils sont entièrement satisfaits de leur situation politique ou […]

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In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 2:52am

The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip, with both Protestantism and Catholicism experiencing losses of population share.

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Acknowledgments

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 2:52am

This report is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of the following individuals. Find related reports online at pewresearch.org/religion. Research Team Gregory A. Smith, Associate Director of Research Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research Besheer Mohamed, Senior Researcher Elizabeth Podrebarac Sciupac, Senior Researcher Becka A. Alper, Research Associate Kiana Cox, Research Associate […]

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Methodology

Pew Research - Fri, 18/10/2019 - 2:52am

Each year, Pew Research Center conducts several random-digit-dial (RDD) telephone (cellphones and landlines) surveys about political topics.6 Most of the analysis in this report is based on aggregated results from the complete set of those surveys conducted in each year beginning in 2009 and continuing through July of 2019; in total, the analysis includes interviews […]

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Die öffentliche Meinung in Europa 30 Jahre nach dem Zusammenbruch des Kommunismus

Pew Research - Thu, 17/10/2019 - 3:23am

(Übersetzung einer englischen Fassung) WASHINGTON, D.C. (15. Oktober 2019) – 30 Jahre nach dem Zusammenbruch des Kommunismus zeigt eine neue Studie des Pew Research Center, dass nur wenige Menschen in den ehemaligen Ostblockstaaten die tiefgreifenden Veränderungen von 1989 bis 1991 bedauern. Allerdings sind auch nicht alle mit der aktuellen politischen und wirtschaftlichen Situation vollständig zufrieden. […]

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Pastors of Larger Churches More Likely to Regularly Counsel and Disciple Members

Lifeway Research - Wed, 16/10/2019 - 3:50am

By Aaron Earls

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Meetings often fill the calendars of office workers, but pastors say their days are often full of meetings as well.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research asked 1,000 Protestant pastors if they regularly have any of six types of meetings. Virtually every pastor (99%) says they regularly have at least one of those work-related meetings.

“Churches are people, and church ministry is people ministry,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “It is not surprising that pastors participate in many meetings, but the nature of those meetings varies.”

Nine in 10 pastors (90%) say they regularly meet to counsel church members.

Pastors of churches with attendance of 100 to 249 (94%) and those with 250 or more (94%) are more likely to say they have these counseling meetings regularly than pastors of churches with attendance of 50 to 99 (88%) and those with less than 50 in attendance (83%).

In an earlier LifeWay Research study on mental illness, 10% of pastors indicated they have a graduate degree in counseling or psychology and 38% had taken graduate school courses in counseling.

Another previous study from LifeWay Research found that 76% of pastors say they refer church members to a professional counselor if they require more than two counseling sessions.

“Pastors have opportunities to give spiritual counsel as well as advice on many other life issues,” said McConnell. “Pastors of larger churches have more people under their care. While they may have additional staff, the senior pastor is still the first person a churchgoer confides in during difficulties.”

Close to 9 in 10 Protestant pastors (88%) say they regularly meet to encourage members to step into leadership roles.

Pastors 65 and older (82%) and those in churches with attendance of less than 50 (79%) are the least likely to say this is a regular part of their ministry.

More than 4 in 5 pastors (84%) say they meet with individuals one-on-one to personally disciple them.

Pastors age 45 to 54 (90%) are more likely to have these meetings regularly than those 55 to 64 (82%) and those 65 and older (80%).

Around 4 in 5 (82%) say they meet with visitors or new attendees.

Protestant pastors in the South (85%) are more likely to do so than those in the Midwest (79%).

Pastors 65 and older are the least likely to regularly meet with those new to the church (73%).

Presbyterian or Reformed (86%) and Baptist (85%) pastors are more likely to say they have these meetings than Pentecostal pastors (74%).

Pastors are also extremely likely to say they lead a small group Bible study (80%).

Those who lead the smallest congregations (73%) are the least likely to say this is part of their regular ministry.

Pastors younger than 55 (82%) are more likely to lead such a small group than those 65 and older (74%).

A clear majority of Protestant pastors (63%) also say they have regular meetings with two or three individuals to personally disciple them.

Again, larger church pastors, those of churches with attendance of 100 to 249 (68%) and those with 250 or more (67%), are more likely to establish regular small group discipleship meetings than those at churches with less than 50 in attendance (55%).

“Some may think pastors of larger churches spend less time directly with people, but they are just as involved in ministry meetings and more of them actually meet regularly with people for counseling and small discipleship groups than in smaller churches,” said McConnell.

Aaron Earls is online editor of Facts & Trends and a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Methodology:
The phone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted Aug. 29 to Sept. 11, 2018. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size.

Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population.

The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2%. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.

Download the research

European Public Opinion Three Decades After the Fall of Communism

Pew Research - Wed, 16/10/2019 - 2:50am

Thirty years ago, a wave of optimism swept across Europe as walls and regimes fell, and long-oppressed publics embraced open societies, open markets and a more united Europe. Three decades later, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that few people in the former Eastern Bloc regret the monumental changes of 1989-1991.

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Appendix B: Governing party categorization

Pew Research - Tue, 15/10/2019 - 9:22am

For this report, we grouped people into two political categories: those who support the governing political party (or parties) and those who do not. These categories were coded based on the party or parties in power at the time the survey was fielded, and on respondents’ answers to a question asking them which political party, […]

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Methodology

Pew Research - Tue, 15/10/2019 - 9:22am

About Pew Research Center’s Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey Results for the survey are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted under the direction of Gallup and Abt Associates. The results are based on national samples, unless otherwise noted. More details about our international survey methodology and country-specific sample designs are available here. About Times […]

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