For the last several years we’ve been hearing from all sorts of places about how millennials are leaving or have left the church. In reality at some level church membership and attendance is down across all generations.
This gallup report shows a lot of interesting statistics about church membership. The bottom line however is that it has dropped significantly over the last 20 years. Not only that, but when we look at millennials (those born from 1980-2000 – those aged 19-39), they have lower numbers than previous generations had at their age. Only 42% of millennials are church members.
While the number of millennials who claim a religion at all is lower at 68% than the average of all Americans (77%) their church membership is even lower.
Now we could list a lot of reasons for the drop in church membership – not only for the millennials but for the country as a whole. But there is one reason that I’ve tried to hammer here over and over and yet no one seems to recognize it. That is, that single people, by and large, don’t go to church.
66% of the people that don’t go to church are unmarried. Now obviously this includes divorced, widowed and all types of unmarried folks. But if you consider that half of millennials are age 19-29 and that 80% of them aren’t married . . . well that sort of helps explain part of the situation.
Here’s what used to happen for several generations. People went to church. Then they had kids and they took their kids to church because that is what you were supposed to do. When the boomers got out of high school many quit going to church. For sure, my generation (Gen X) did that. But the part that everyone keeps missing is that when both of those groups (in particular the boomers) got married they came back. They got married in a church. They had kids and then the came back. Heck even if they didn’t want to. They made their kids go . . . at least for a while.
But what we need to realize is that even the “crazy sexual revolution” boomers as a generation got married in their 20’s. In fact over 60% of them did. That meant that while they left church, they did so extremely briefly. My generation got married a little later, but the same thing sort of happened. Most kids of Boomers went to church at least to some degree.
But now, what’s happened, among many other things, is that people are not getting married in their 20’s. In fact only 20% of them are. Assuming I’m even partially right in linking singleness to church attendance/membership there are at least two results. First, even if the previous flow of coming back to church when married with kids were to continue, the church just lost a decade of an entire generation of people coming. But more concerning is the idea that the longer folks stay away from church, the less likely they are to come back. They’ve become adults without it. That’s never happened in America before.
The consequences of that are far reaching because assuming that people still do get married and have kids, or have kids without getting married, they aren’t going to just come back. Not only that, but because of this we will have more and more kids growing up with no church background. That is already happening and is evidenced by Gen Z. They can’t come back to a place they’ve never been.
Here is why I bring this all up. It’s not to discount all the other reasons that people don’t go to or have left church. It is instead to say that if you are a church leader you may want to ask some serious questions about your church. Are you unmarried friendly? I’m going to write a few posts next, that will help you answer that. But first you need to care enough to ask it.
To do outreach in our culture today you must be able to do it with unmarried people. Let’s say that you plant a church. Usually when people do this, it is because they want to reach the unreached at some level. But mostly what I’ve seen happen is married people from other churches or married people who maybe left a church start coming to the new one. If you planted a church to reach millennials you would need to plant one to reach unmarried people. We have to get that in our head.
But beyond that, even at an multi-generational level, 66% of those not going to church are unmarried. The two biggest multi-generational unchurched groups are unmarried people and men. And yet most churches are geared toward neither. Now again, does that mean that is the only reason church membership is down. By no means. But its absolute negligence to not recognize it as part of the reason.
What makes a church unmarried person friendly? Why are we so focused on the nuclear family? More on the way.