A new Barna Group study found eight out of 10 young Americans don’t think church is important, but a comprehensive review of current literature on the topic reveals that the majority of millennials from Christian homes actually keep their faith.
The Barna study results seem grim: “Looking to future generations does not paint an optimistic picture for the importance of church going.” The survey found more than a third of millennials—adults age 30 and under—take an anti-church stance and 59 percent have dropped out of church at some point.
But Glenn Stanton, director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and a research fellow at the Institution of Marriage and Family, said that while Barna does very good work, it isn’t looking at the big picture. In order to draw the largest and sharpest conclusion, it is important to look at the whole body of leading information, not just one study. And that picture is much more promising.
Stanton and Andrew Hess, a professor at Colorado Christian University, recently completed a review of current literature regarding young people’s faith retention. Their review indicates that 58 percent of millennials keep their faith, 4 percent come to faith as they get older, and 20 percent switch churches, usually from one Christian denomination to another. That totals an 82 percent faith retention.
Of the 18 percent of today’s young adults who say they were raised in a religion but now have no church affiliation, nearly all come from homes with lukewarm or nominal faith. These young adults, Stanton and Hess said, are leaving something they never had a good grasp of in the first place: “This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting.”
Many Christian parents read the doomsday predictions in the media and worry that passing faith on to their children is unlikely, Stanton said. But children who grow up in a home where faith is strong and consistent are likely to hang onto that faith in adulthood, even when their parents don’t get it perfect.
Stanton believes there are three concentric circles that encompass passing faith on to children: First, family needs to be core, with no competitors for the influence of parents. Second, children need to see the faith of their parents’ friends and that needs to be backed up by the church. Children need to see that it isn’t just their parents, but faith means something to other adults too. Third, children need to learn how to defend their faith. They don’t need easy answers from the latest Christian apologetics book. They need to be helped to think it through on their own. Faith is actually strengthened when children persevere through persecution for their countercultural stances on issues like abstinence or abortion.
Young people can see through churches’ flashy marketing and prefer churches that are authentic and teach a costly grace, Stanton said. Churches need to call young people to something worth living and dying for, a message their search for meaning draws them to.
Stanton also encouraged parents not to fear that their faith will die with them. “The Kingdom of Christ has faced all kinds of difficulties, but the sovereignty of God continues to march on through every generation,” he said. “The Kingdom of God will not be thwarted.”