I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.
Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.
Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.
Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.
KEEPING THE FAITH: Surveys show African American millennials, as well as young adults from other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than whites.
Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.
One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a 2010 report, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.
Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.
Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”
As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
OCCUPYING MAMA’S HOUSE: “There is the fear that if a young adult is still living at home, he or she is not reaching his or her fullest potential,” says one expert. “The idea of leaving home after college may be an antiquated idea.”
There’s a fine line that parents must carefully tread as they rear their children and prepare them for adulthood. Even as they seek to empower their kids for independence, parents must constantly combat the tension of nature vs. nurture. They only have “ownership” of their kids for a relatively brief period, after all. But at what point do parents officially cut the umbilical cord, trust that they reared productive members of society, and release them out into the world?
Is 18 the age when one’s considered grown? If you’re old enough to drive, vote, and serve in the military, shouldn’t you also be gone from your mama and daddy’s house?
“Everyone’s different and we do our children an injustice when we send them out without preparation,” says Charlotte Stallings, a Houston-based financial expert and president/CEO of Getting Smart! LLC.
With the job market flooded with college graduates competing with those who possess more work experience, Stallings says the boomerang effect is common in all communities in lieu of the state of the economy. “People aren’t making enough to make ends meet, so short-term adjustments are taking place,” she adds. “I lived at home while I attended college and stayed at home after graduation for several years because it was cheaper. But my experience taught me how to hustle, to be resourceful, and to appreciate being in school as I took copious notes in class and studied on the bus commuting to and from school.”
Twenty years later, the Minneapolis native focuses on teaching others how to save money and create wealth. She encourages parents to introduce basic financial concepts to their kids at an early age. “Make the conversation about money a part of everyday life, weave it into dialogue and do so starting at an early age,” Stallings says. “Use positive and realistic tones about it and teach by being a positive example.”
Equipping Them While They’re Young
Marita Kinney, a Dayton, Ohio-based life coach and motivational speaker, says some parents feel once children reach 18, they have learned everything they need to know and are equipped to handle all the demands of life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if they are prepared.
“The problems arrive not because of the lack of parenting at 18 years old, but because of a lack of parenting and guidance while they were still children,” Kinney adds. “I believe parents in the black community can be at a disadvantage because some may lack the knowledge to properly prepare their children for the future.”
Stallings believes some parents don’t teach their children about finances because a lack of knowledge about them, in addition to a lack of communication between the parents as well as between the parents and their children.
Isaac Paul Austin III
“It can be an issue because today many children who have children now aren’t prepared to have them and are in a rush to complete something,” says Isaac Paul Austin III, a vocational trainer at the Haymarket Center in Chicago. “They’re not looking at a child as a joy but as an obligation. Some see parenting as a business transaction and the children are financial liabilities. People are divorcing results from effort, and the romanticized view of life we have pollutes every facet of our lives.”
On her own at the age 18, Kinney says she moved to the other side of the country and visited home twice a year, which differs from the experiences of some of her friends and some children today.
“My preparation started earlier in life because I worked in our family business and learned to save to get the things I really wanted,” she adds. “I had friends that had very little responsibility and had never worked, so in the long run, I was prepared for life. My mother always told me that she wouldn’t always be around, so she needed to know I could stand on my own two feet and take care of myself. My husband and I have six children and we’re preparing them to become upstanding, self-sufficient adults as well.”
Stallings says children leaving the house at age 18 isn’t necessarily a bad thing and depends on the family. She adds it’s perfectly fine for parents to help their young-adult children, but not at the expense of them learning self-sufficiency, which happens in some cases.
“I know a couple with two children who downsized their home after both of the children went off to college, put a ‘For Sale’ sign in their yard, and moved into a townhouse,” Stallings says. “I also know a parent who prepared her son to leave her house at 18. He had a car, she saved money for her child and prepared him for years. Her mother did the same for her and gave her $500, which was less than what she said she gave her son. In both family situations, the parents prepared their children for what was to come.”
18 or Bust?
Candice Norcott, Ph.D., a psychologist and center manager for the Isaac Ray Center, Inc. at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, says she grew up in a home where not attending college wasn’t an option.
“There is the fear that if a young-adult child is still living at home, he or she is not reaching his or her fullest potential,” she says. “The idea of leaving home after college may be an antiquated idea of a developmental milestone in a person’s life.”
As she works primarily with women, family issues, and trauma, Norcott says the question in this situation is less of being at home at age 18, but more about why would someone want to be living at home at that age or older.
Ultimately, both parent and child need to be realistic about their expectations and desires. For every family, the transition process will be different — some kids will leave the nest permanently when they take off for college, others may need extra time to find their bearings. But the most important thing is that each family have a plan for moving the process forward.
“With my peers, there was always a desire to pursue higher education, go out on our own, and to be adults as soon as possible.” Austin says. “We craved more responsibility. However, to expect someone to be fully developed at age 18 is a little unrealistic, and even can be destructive. We don’t want to coddle them, but there needs to be a balance.”