Survey shows fewer millennials are affiliating with the Christian church

Kayla Drake


Photo by Kat Owens

A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute shows America’s religious identity is undergoing a major shift, especially among Millennials.
Photo and illustration by Kat Owens.

Kayla Drake, Editor-in-Chief

For Derek Cote, the concept of humans being sinners was the last “nail in the coffin” in his exploration of faith.

Cote said the belief is flawed and often is misused to explain why people die young or suffer. 

“That is alluded to in a lot of religious ideologies, that there is this inherent brokenness in being a person,” the Lindenwood psychology major said.

Examples of violence and prejudice against women he saw in the Bible also troubled him, he said, and led him to the conclusion that even if God does exist, “it is not a God I would want to know.”

He now is an avowed atheist because he said that “seems to be the only sensible way to go.”

Cote is an example of today’s U.S. college students, who are more than twice as likely as their parents to shun religion.

Those who do are part of the nearly one-quarter of Americans who identify as unaffiliated — atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.

The findings are part of last fall’s study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which showed that America’s religious identity was undergoing a major shift.

The rise of the internet, an increase in education, legalization of gay marriage, abortion rights, the postponement of marriage and parenthood — and even Donald Trump’s election — are some of the theories offered for the retreat from religion.

43% of Americans identify as white and Christian. In 1976 roughly 81% of Americans identified as white and Christian.

Associate Professor of Sociology Suzanne Stoelting said in the past, religion played a significant role in socializing people, more so than for spiritual purposes.

“The church was … a place that you congregated, outside of seeking religious fulfillment,” she said. “It was social fulfillment. It was a way for families to connect. It was often a day care facility. The church really was the center of community for a long time, and people rarely went outside of their own religious affiliation.”

Stoelting said that many parents today are too busy to take their children to church, while others simply want to spend Sundays — one of their days off — at someplace other than church.

Millennials recognize that religious identities often come packaged with stereotypes and stigmas, and they desire to stray from those labels, she said.

“Millennials are … a generation that does not appreciate being confined and restricted and forced to identify with anything, frankly,” she said. “We’re seeing more and more millennials push the boundaries of these boxes they have to attach to their identities.”

Lindenwood Chaplain Nicole Torbitzky, who holds a doctorate in the philosophy of religion, said the church is failing to meet the needs of people under the age of 30.

“There is a wide variety of needs, opinions, beliefs and experiences,” she said. “And the Christian church in general isn’t doing a good job of addressing how this wide diversity of people approaches religion.”

Declining faith on campus

The Public Religion study, which surveyed 101,000 people, found that 38 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds identify with no religion.

Light shines through the stained glass in St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Parish Church on a sunny day last fall.
Photo by Kat Owens.

Lindenwood’s chaplain, campus ministry organizations, professors and students all said they have noticed attitudes on campus shifting to an emphasis on spirituality and away from religion.

Evan Collins, a religious study major who is president of the campus Meditation Association, said he thinks some people reject Christianity because they’re looking for something different.

“I think a lot of times people are trying to reject heaven and hell entirely,” he said. “There are … in Hinduism, realms similar to Christian heaven or hell, but they’re not eternal; you’re not like trapped there forever.”

Collins said strong religious traditions have faded from American families, through a combination of factors like divorce or simply a busy schedule, and millennials care less about religious doctrines.

“I’m not putting it all on their parents, but I think a lot of stuff comes from the home,” Collins said.

Student Katelyn Marshall, vice president of the Students for Reproductive Rights and Gender Equality club, was raised in the Presbyterian church but is now unaffiliated. Her education in social work influenced her beliefs, she said, and made her realize issues like abortion are not black and white.

“Jesus was like ‘You treat everyone as your neighbor and everyone the way you wish to be treated,’” she said.

“I’m all for reproductive rights. I’m nobody’s boss, and I don’t think I should be.”

A Pew Research study on millennials found them to be more liberal and open toward issues like interracial marriage and same-sex marriage than older generations.

For example, another study by Pew released in November revealed that 63 percent of U.S. Christians say a person’s gender is determined by his or her sex at birth. About the same percentage of the religious “nones” said the opposite.

46% of Americans who identify as LGBT are religiously unaffiliated – twice the number of Americans overall who are religiously unaffliated.

Student Chris Brueggeman, who is gay, said he still attends the Southern Baptist church from his childhood, and once he got older and did his own research, his faith actually got stronger.

“God doesn’t make mistakes; God wouldn’t make you just to condemn you,” he said. “God doesn’t make trash.”

Brueggeman is in the minority, though; the Public Religion survey found that LGBT Americans were more than twice as likely to be religiously unaffiliated as all other Americans.

But rejecting his faith just because he disagrees with its teaching on sexuality was not something Brueggeman said he wanted to do.

Diversified faith

Part of Public Religion’s survey found that America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian: Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. At least one-third of Muslims (42 percent), Hindus (36 percent), and Buddhists (35 percent) are under the age of 30. Together, though, the religions represent a small fraction: less than 1 in 10 Americans combined.

Stoelting said millennials outnumber any other generation in college graduates. She emphasized that in college, the current exposure to those who don’t practice Christianity is greater than ever.

“That’s a totally different world than our parents and grandparents experienced,” she said.

Collins said young Americans often romanticize eastern faiths, thinking they are more egalitarian in nature. Collins’ club began last year with a focus on Buddhism but has since moved to center on meditation. He said since 2016, the Meditation Association’s members on Involve U have doubled to 19 people.

“[Buddhism is to] eliminate your desires and fulfill your own self, and you can reach enlightenment, so that’s really appealing to a lot of people,” he said.

Collins said compared to other eastern faiths, Buddhism is more intuitive and relatable for him.

“Chinese religion appeals to personal interaction amongst people, whereas Western religion is about your interaction with God,” he said.

Even though Collins is deeply interested in studying Buddhism, he identifies as a Roman Catholic.

While other religions are growing in America, Christianity is on the decline with only 12 percent of millennials under 30 practicing it.

Rise of the internet, politics

Internet use has contributed to the rise of unaffiliated Americans, according to a study by the University of Chicago.

Cote said that technological advances have “planted seeds of doubt” in people’s minds by providing unlimited access to knowledge and alternatives to religion.

“What religion tends to rely on … is basically just faith,” he said. “And it’s a lot easier to make somebody believe in this abstract absolute if they don’t have access to other information.”

Professor Andrew Smith, who teaches media literacy courses and has co-authored a book on the topic, said the internet has provided access for millennials to see other lifestyles besides American Christianity. That has caused the generation to empathize with a more diverse world on social media.

“The Expanding Circle Theory is Steven Pinker’s concept that even though social media divides us, which it definitely does, it also has this way of getting us to understand what other people’s lives are like, and we gain more empathy for them as a result,” he said.

14% of Democrats 18-29 identify as white Christians, while 40% identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Collins said Christianity has become so intertwined with politics that Americans do not see a difference anymore between the two, and it is turning off young Americans to faith.

Ryne Brewer, a staff member for student ministry organization Campus Outreach, said that the election of Donald Trump as president, who has been divorced twice and accused of sexual harassment, has amplified distaste for Christianity.

“You see the more conservative [media] outlets saying ‘The evangelicals came out in full force to elect Trump,’” he said. “And you see who Trump is, and you think ‘What the heck; you’re a Christian, and you’re putting this kind of guy into office.’”

Brewer also said he thinks that media outlets have played a role in the rise of the unaffiliated.

“The mass amount of media and news … exposes people to things that say religion is narrow-minded; it’s divided and bigotry in a sense,” he said.

Change in store for the church

Torbitzky, the campus chaplain, said the survey numbers that show active Christians are aging do not prove “that anything is dying,” despite the desperation of older leaders within the Christian church.

“You see so much panic from people above my generation,” she said. “You see so much hand-wringing, ‘Oh the church is dying.’ The church isn’t dying. The church is changing, and it will be OK.”

Brewer said relationships are the key to the church’s survival in America. He said his evangelical approach to students is not preaching to them but being relational.

“[People have] been open to those conversations because I have built a relationship with them, rather than me just jumping in and being like ‘Hey, this is what I believe and think, and you should consider this,’” he said.

Torbitzky said the church will survive in America only if it “allows young people to explore and create the way they worship.”

To the right, Jesus Christ is etched into the stained glass at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Parish Church.
Photo by Kat Owens.

She said she sees her “responsibility as encouraging the leaders in the religious groups … to participate in and spread their faith as they see fit to do that, rather than me telling them how to do that.”

Sociology professor Stoelting said if anything were to surpass religion, it would be science and education.

“When we ask questions, we expect science and education to answer those questions,” she said. “I think we’re at a place where religion does not hold the clout that it once did.”

But Stoelting said the historical presence of Christianity would be impossible for America to disassociate from the faith.

“I still believe that there will be things that are rooted in Christianity: messages, values and morals that we will continue as a culture to respect and value,” she said. “Even if we’re not associating them directly with Christianity.”

Brewer said a “moral compass” is no longer rooted in faith for Americans, but evangelism is still relevant because “people are looking for some sort of absolute truth to be able to rest their life on.”

Torbitzky said that despite the survey’s findings, “religion is here to stay” because it impacts everyday life.

  “It is religion that motivated the civil rights movement,” she said. “It is religion that brought down two buildings on 9/11. It is religion that motivates how people vote, spend their money, how we expect laws to look.”

Editor’s Note: The version of this article that appeared in the February 2018 issue of Legacy Magazine misidentified a quote from Katelyn Marshall. This was incorrect, and has been updated in the online version of the story. We apologize for the error.

Clarification: The printed version made it appear that Evan Collins, the Meditation Association’s president, was Buddhist, when in fact he is Roman Catholic.