From books like Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, we were led to believe that this generation born after 1982 was more altruistic and socially-minded than baby boomers and Gen X’ers.

Not so, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education

The study by sociologists Jean M. Twenge, Elise C. Freeman, and W. Keith Campbell shows that there is actually a decline in civic interest, concern for others, and being a part of something larger than themselves. If anything, Millennials are more individualistic than their boomer parents.

Jean Twenge published a book on the subject, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. In fact, she discussed her conclusions in this book on the White Horse Inn a while back. “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.” They’ve been raised in a culture that places “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” according to Twenge. “‘The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special,’ she says. ‘It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.’” Individualism certainly encourages more tolerance, but it undermines a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. “‘Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems of the nation and the world, are generally good things,’ she says. But Ms. Twenge does not believe this is happening. People are ‘more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t bode well for society in general.’”

There is always a danger in carving society into generational niches and stereotypes. However, these findings are substantiated elsewhere and it’s evident in church trends.

Back in 2007 USA Today (8/6/2007) reported a study showing that “7 in 10 Protestants ages 18-30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30.” Reasons? “Many don’t feel engaged or welcome.” LifeWay Research’s Ed Stetzer reported that those who stay or return later in life had several things in common: they were raised by parents had both been regularly involved in church, there were meaningful and engaging sermons, “and church members who invested in their spiritual development.”

‘Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza,’ Stetzer says…These findings fit with those by other experts. ‘Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt,’ says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow…Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are ‘significantly less likely to believe that a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. This life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.’

Over the last two decades, self-identifying Protestants (mainline and evangelical) have fallen in the US by over 10%.

In 2006 the Barna Research Group reported its findings. The most startling among them was that of those reared in committed church-going families, 61% were “disengaged” from church. Only 20% of churched teens are “spiritually active” by 29, although three-fourths say they were involved in some sort of pagan spirituality (“witchcraft”) in their teen years. As many as four-fifths say they attended church for at least a 2-month period as teens, but evidently did not find it compelling. This matches similar findings by others (here and here).

According to Barna director David Kinnaman,

Loyalty to congregations is one of the casualties of young adulthood: twenty-somethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they ‘cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.’ They are also significantly less likely to believe that ‘a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.’ These attitudes explain other anomalies of twenty-something spirituality. Much of the activity of young adults, such as it is, takes place outside congregations. Young adults were just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. Interestingly, there was one area in which the spiritual activities of twenty-somethings outpaced their predecessors: visiting faith-related websites.

In terms of beliefs, affirmation of key evangelical tenets falls steadily with each generation: 12% of those over 40, 6% of twenty-somethings, and 5% of today’s teens. And yet, 44% of those over 40 say they’re “born again,” with 36% of young adults fitting this description.

From the data, Kinnaman concludes,

Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole- heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.

Ministering to Youth vs. “Youth Ministry”

Youth ministry is about 150 years old. Arising at first as a way of reaching out to troubled teens especially in highly industrialized urban centers, parachurch ministries like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sought to provide safe activities and education in basic reading along with evangelism. Throughout the nineteenth century, parachurch organizations mushroomed. Attempting to create a Protestant Empire that transcended confessional differences, the Bible societies and Sunday School movement increasingly supplanted the ordinary structures, resources, and content of particular church traditions. According to the movement’s leaders, it’s what all evangelicals profess that matters, not what distinguishes Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and other denominations. Of course, there had always been catechism instruction for the young and new Christians. Now, however, Sunday school increasingly isolated the younger generations not only from the older but also from the wider confessional tradition to which they belonged. The Sunday school curriculum shared by all Protestant youths, not the catechism, shaped faith and practice. The “youth group” emerged as its own “church-within-a-church,” distinct from the public ministry and worship.

And so it has become increasingly easy for one to go from the nursery to children’s church to youth group and on to college ministry without having actually belonged to the local church. Young people may still drive with their family to the church campus, but from the parking lot they scatter to their own target-marketed groups. For many, the church is more a cafeteria of ministry offerings than a communion of saints. So is it really surprising that a good local church doesn’t figure into things when deciding upon a college and many don’t even join one because, after all, they have their campus ministry? I know of some instances, in fact, of such groups holding their meetings during the regular time of Sunday services.

From childhood, many have never know what it is like to go from catechism to profession/confirmation and first Communion with all of the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Their memories of church are actually recollections mainly of youth-oriented (i.e., fun, exciting, entertaining) substitutes of the ordinary public service that their parents and grandparents attended on the same property. Is it any wonder that they feel alienated from the church, that they sense a lack of investment by older people in their spiritual growth, and that they do not know what they believe or why they believe it? Are they really dropping out of church in their college years? Or did they every really belong?

“Generation Me” is alive and well in our churches. Narcissism cuts across the generations, of course, but if in our own churches and families we are worried about the individualism that isolates young people and cuts them off from genuine community—with its attendant responsibilities as well as treasures, then should we really blame them? I don’t think so.

Nor can we place all of the blame on youth ministers. Some are doing a terrific job. Besides, it is as lazy for us to drop our children in their lap and expect them to do all of the Christian nurture that families and churches provide. Yet, it’s not just that we are not operating here on all cylinders, but in many cases, not even on one.

We are living off of the legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Believing that salvation is in our hands, Charles Finney naturally thought that the only criterion for the methods we use is “whatever is fit to convert sinners with” or “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” As Sunday school replaced catechism, Finney’s “new measures” replaced the ordinary means of preaching, sacrament, and pastoral care. Once upon a time, the pastor (his name doesn’t matter—it was his office that counted) taught you catechism, made regularly-scheduled pastoral visits to the home, dropped in on Grandpa at the hospital, married and eventually buried you. I realize that a lot of social factors make this “so yesterday”: we are a more mobile society. The realities of life and work uproot us from the network of extended families and communities. However, revivalistic evangelicalism has made uprooting a spiritual imperative. Now the model for ministry was the efficient revivalist. Extraordinary “new measures” invented by clever entrepreneurs, not ordinary means of grace commanded by our Lord, became the new normal.

Writing against the “new measures,” John Williamson Nevin—a Reformed pastor and theologian contemporary with Finney, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” .1

Like the revivals of Finney and his successors, the “new measures” of the church growth movement have been treated by many as science, like the law of gravity. Those who fail to adopt these new models of ministry will be left behind in the spiritual marketplace. It is a small step to the view of Christ’s sheep as “self-feeders” who need a “customized work-out plan” and, finally, to George Barna’s celebration of the “Revolutionaries”—those now who seek their “spiritual resources” online, at Christian concerts and conferences, and in specialized groups rather than the local church. Narcissism, pragmatism, and individualism converge in a spirituality that is not only worldly but is unchurching the church.

In the next post I offer some suggestions for ministering to youth. Click here to read part two.


1. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (London: Taylor & Francis, 1987), 2-5. [Back]