The Numbers Game

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Within the church there’s a temptation to wield statistical claims as weapons in an ongoing culture war.

Modern life is filled with statistics. From the percentage of Americans who approve of the president to the number of dentists who recommend Trident gum, we are awash in numbers. The ascendency of social science employed by the media, politicians, and marketers means that our current historical moment requires us to navigate authoritative—and frequently competing—claims to social knowledge.

In the noise of these competing claims, where it often feels as if elites have their own agenda to push, it is easy to become a cynic. Some people, it seems, have decided that the best strategy is to simply tune out. It is not uncommon, particularly among the young, to hear that statistics can be made to say just about anything. And the other extreme, uncritical consumption of statistics, is clearly no better. A healthy dose of skepticism is no doubt warranted.

It’s easy to chastise the media, marketers, and politicians “out there.” But those of us in the church are producers and consumers of social science as well—some it good (although rarely excellent), a lot of it not so good. Within the church there’s a temptation to adopt the modus operandi of marketers and politicians and wield statistical claims as weapons in an ongoing culture war. While this may rally some of the faithful, it often furthers existing divisions and pays little regard to the truth of the claims being brandished.

On the other hand, practicing good social science, even of the basic descriptive sort, can be an important tool to finding out about the world. The end goal should be to uncover what is fundamentally true about the world, regardless of whether it fits with our preconceived notions. Ideally, those in the church should be known for the very highest-quality, most rigorous, most carefully executed statistical analysis. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at one of the most pressing matters the church is dealing with: the next generation of Christians. Young people, we have been told, are leaving the church in droves. We often hear claims that 60 percent, 70 percent, or even 80 percent of formerly churched young adults no longer adhere to the faith of their youth. This, we are also told, is unprecedented in recent history. While no one maintains that the teenage years and early 20s were traditionally the apex of faith, young people born after the 1980s (sometimes labeled “Millennials”) are supposedly a new breed of apostasizers. It is alleged that more of them are leaving the church than ever before, and the fear is that they will not return.

Much of the concern expressed in the church has been over the rise of the so-called religious “nones”—those without a religious affiliation. Figure 1 (above) illustrates this. Starting around 1990, a shift begins to occur. An increasing number of young people stop identifying with any religious faith. Recent estimates put this number a few percentage points shy of 30 percent among those under 30. When we map out the other major Christian traditions, we see that two groups have been on the decline: Mainline Protestants (since the survey first started measuring them in 1972) and Evangelical Protestants (since around 1990).

We immediately assume that the rising number of “nones” is occurring at the expense of these Protestant groups—that young people are leaving the Evangelical and Mainline churches and becoming “nones.” But this standard “exodus” narrative is wrong. A closer look at the data tells a different, more complex, and ultimately more promising story. Let me begin by countering the rise of the “nones” with a few different statistics:

  1. The percentage of all emerging adults who regularly worship at a Protestant church on Sunday mornings has remained virtually unchanged for the past 40 years (between 12 and 14 percent).
  2. The percentage of those who pray daily remains steady at slightly higher than 40 percent since the mid-1980s.
  3. The percentage of those who strongly identify as Protestant has consistently hovered around 15 percent of this age group.

How is this possible? How do we square these statistics with the rising religious disaffiliation of young people? We need to understand that the increase of those who are disengaged from organized religion has not come at the expense of the committed core of young people who regularly practice and identify with their faith. Rather, it has come almost exclusively from those who are marginally committed.

Powerful social forces have brought about a cultural disestablishment of mainstream religion over the past few decades. Being nonreligious once carried with it a social stigma. Among younger generations, this stigma is rapidly fading. Those who once would have claimed a nominal religious affiliation no longer feel compelled to do so.

We can see this quite clearly in Figures 2-4 (above). The percentage of emerging adults who strongly identify with and practice their faith remains steady across the decades. The decline, as we can see, is occurring almost exclusively among those marginally attached to a religious faith. For all three measures—identity, church attendance, and prayer—the number of emerging adults we might classify as nominal believers is less than half of what it once was. We need to ask ourselves this question: Are we really “losing” these young people, or did the church ever really “have” them to begin with?

When it comes to the next generation of Christians, perhaps it is time to reevaluate our situation. Maybe it is time to stop obsessing over the numbers and embrace the new opportunities that this “post-Christian” landscape allows. Might the slow disappearance of nominal Christians actually pave the way for a more robust, vibrant, and faithful engagement of the church with the modern world? Does the shifting landscape open up new space for authentic expressions of faith and the spread of the gospel, now less burdened by cultural baggage and compromise?

Maybe it is time to stop lamenting this so-called “exodus” and instead start to think of it as a blessing in disguise!

About the Author

Jonathan P. Hill teaches sociology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. He is coauthor of Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Churchand is a member of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

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