Millenials, Church Decline and the Family Factor

The recently released Pew Research survey data on the religious affiliations of the so-called “Millenial” generation in the USA – those born between 1981 and 1996 (or those aged between 19 and 34 in 2015) has been widely reported in Christian circles. According to the research, 35% of adult Millennials in the USA are religiously unaffiliated, and the older Milennials have becoming increasingly so since the last survey (in 2007). The “unaffiliated” share of the Millenial cohort is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17%) and more than three times the share of the members of the Silent Generation (11%). This indicates a growing “secularisation” of American society, in line with the long term trends already strongly evident in other so-called “Western” countries. For instance, Roy Morgan research results released in April 2014 reported that in just two years (2011-2013) the percentage of Australians reporting no religious affiliation increased from 29.2% to 37.6%, with just over half of the population (52.6%) now identifying themselves as Christian.

So, what is up with the Millenials, both in the USA and in other so-called “Western” countries? Most of the discussion these past weeks has focused on the generation itself and what the church can, might or should do in response to their drift away from faith and the life of the church. Little focus has been given to the broader milieu of relationships, values, practices and experiences which has shaped this generation, its beliefs and its connections with institutional church. A bigger, deeper question is, “What has caused this generation to be religiously different from those which preceded it? Many factors are clearly involved, but one which warrants attention is the manner in which changes in the lives of families and in family structures have disrupted processes of generation-to-generation faith transmission. In his recently released book, Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century, John Roberto provides some important observations and reflections on this wider picture:

‘Family religious transmission and socialization are the foundation for the development of faith and faith practices in children and for participation in church life and worship. As Christian Smith observes, “teenagers with seriously religious parents are more likely than those without such parents to have been trained in their lives to think, feel, believe, and act as serious religious believers, and that that training ‘sticks’ with them even when they leave home and enter emerging adulthood. Emerging adults who grew up with seriously religious parents are through socialization more likely (1) to have internalized their parents religious worldview, (2) to possess the practical religious know-how needed to live more highly religious lives, and (3) to embody the identity orientations and behavioral tendencies towards continuing to practice what they have been taught religiously.” Significant indicators, such as religious identification as a Christian, worship attendance, marriages and baptisms in the church, and changing generational patterns, point to a decline in family religious socialization across all denominations, but especially among Catholic and mainline traditions. Religious practice among the next generation of parents (young adults in their twenties and thirties) is especially influenced by marrying, settling down, having children, and raising them. Since individuals who marry are more likely to attend religious services than are those who delay marriage, the postponement of marriage and childbearing has contributed to the decline in church attendance. Complicating this picture is the fact that an ever growing percentage of Christians (at least 30 percent) are not getting married in a religious ceremony. The less contact that young adults have with the Christian tradition through participation in a local church, the less family religious socialization that is likely to take place when they marry and have children. We also see a decline in religious traditions and practices at home. There are a variety of reasons for this, such as the complexity and busyness of everyday life, but one of the major reasons is the religious literacy and religious experience of today’s parents. Many parents did not grow up in families where they experienced religious traditions and practices. Many were away from a church for ten or more years before returning with their children for baptism or the start of Sunday school or first communion. They simply do not have the fluency with the Christian faith tradition or the confidence to share it with their children.’

Roberto highlights two important contributors to Millenial faith decline. The first is the spirituality of their parents. When and where parents become less engaged with the practice of faith, their offspring typically follow suit (and often become even further disengaged). It is highly likely that, in many cases, the seeds of Millenial religious practice or non-practice were sown in their child and teenage years through the interplay between faith and family life. A recent analysis of data from the Monitoring the Future and American Freshman  surveys bears this out: ‘In just the 13 years between 2000 and 2013, 87% more college students chose no religious affiliation (15% vs. 28%). Compared to the early 1970s, four times as many reported that their mother had no religious affiliation, and more than twice as many reported that their father had no religious affiliation. The gap between student’s affiliation and parent’s affiliation has grown; this suggests both that more students grew up without religion and that more are abandoning their parent’s religion by college entry.’

Secondly, Roberto nominates some wider societal trends which are disrupting family religious transmission and therefore child, youth and young adult spirituality. These trends include divorce in religiously-affiliated families, and spiritually “mixed” marriages or defacto partnerships. These trends are certainly a product of secularisation, but have also become its producers through their effect on faith formation and transmission in the home.  My personal anecdotal observation is that the latter aforementioned trend has become particularly problematic for the church in Australia. Increasingly, young men and women of faith are partnering with persons with little or no faith background. Very often this results in a decline in their church participation, and faith transmission to the next generation is significantly affected. The “mixed messages” which are communicated to children and young people in such situations make it less likely that they themselves will grow up to “own” and practice the Christian faith.

My reflections on the relationship between secularisation and family life across time have also been stimulated by Mary Eberstadt’s book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. The central thesis of her book is that ‘family decline is not merely a consequence of religious decline, as conventional thinking has understood that relationship. … The causal relationship between family and religion—specifically, the religion of Christianity—is not just a one-way, but actually a two-way street. … Family formation is not merely an outcome of religious belief, as secular sociology has regarded it. Rather, family formation can also be, and has been, a causal agent in its own right—one that also potentially affects any given human being’s religious belief and practice. The process of secularization … has not been properly understood because it has neglected to take into account this “Family Factor”—meaning the active effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice. … The ongoing deterioration of the natural family itself has both accompanied and accelerated the deterioration in the West of Christian belief.’  Eberstadt uses the image of the double helix to describe the relationship between family and faith in society.

Faith and family are ‘two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.’ Family and faith operate in lockstep. ‘One spiral in the double helix is only as strong as the other.’

Eberstadt traces the decline of the family in the West back to the Industrial Revolution. Workers left behind strongly family-centred rural communities to seek work in the cities. This movement from country to city split people off from their extended families and created new pressures on family formation. For example, patterns and rhythms of urban life affected the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions (a factor which gave famously gave rise to the Sunday School movement in the 1780s). Eberstadt contends that moving to cities made people ‘less likely to have and live in strong natural families—and that intermediate, unseen step may have been what really started them down the road toward losing their religion, at least some of the time.’ The ‘destructive effect‘ the Industrial Revolution had on the family ‘somehow made it harder for people to believe and practice their Christian faith.’  Eberstadt suggests that the sexual revolution that exploded in the 1960s has been similarly disruptive and destructive. Various outcomes such as the postponement of marriage and childbearing, marriage breakdown, and a decline in the birthrate have together impacted on the spiritual formation of persons within families and extended families, and religious decline has come as a result.

‘People are social beings. They learn religion the way they learn language: in communities, beginning with the community of the family. And when family structure becomes disrupted and attenuated and fractured, as it is for many Western people today, many families can no longer function as a transmission belt for religious belief. In addition, many people become insulated from the natural course of birth, death, and other momentous family events that are part of why people turn to religion in the first place.’ (from an interview posted on

Interestingly, Eberstadt suggests that there are some aspects of family life that serve to cultivate a greater receptivity of the transcendent, or play a functional role in leading people towards engagement with communities of faith. Experience of childbirth, for instance, can evoke in people a deeper spiritual awareness. ‘Consider what the experience of childbirth itself does to almost every mother and father. … The sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an experience that many people describe as religious or sacred—or as close to those states as one can get.’ More generally, Eberstadt proposes that sacrificial commitment which undergirds the intimate sharing of life together in a family through the ups and downs of existence from cradle to grave ‘has the transcendental effect of raising one’s focus beyond the immediate individual horizon.’ We sense, learn and experience something of the divine and the divine presence in family life that is not accessible in other life settings. ‘Family love gives individuals an extra incentive to contemplate eternity. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too are there fewer inside the nursery as opposed to out of it—and the same for the critical care unit.’ On the other hand, Eberstadt wonders if a poorer experience of family life across time dulls spiritual awareness and receptivity. ‘Might it be possible that detachment from those people most closely related to oneself—those most evocative of one’s personal creation—might somehow make it harder to see the Creator?’

At a more “practical” level, Eberstadt submits that ‘children drive parents to church in various ways’. With children in tow, adults may have more reasons ‘to find church‘ e.g. for purposes of religious instruction, to connect them a wholesome peer group, or to affiliate with a like-minded moral community. It follows that where society is characterised by “looser” family structures and smaller families the drive to engage with church will be weaker.

So, returning to where I started, I believe that analysis of the Millenial “retreat” from Christianity can and must consider the “family factor”. Religious decline and family decline are bound together, as are religious flourishing and family flourishing. To understand the faith lives (or otherwise) of Millenials – or any other generation for that matter – we must look beyond them, to the dynamics of family life that shaped who and what they are. Each generation is “generated” by that which preceded it, and it cannot be understood apart from them.

Lest I be charged with being so theoretical in this post so as to be of no practical help, I want to humbly suggest some ways forward for congregations:

  • Focus on the Millenials who are actively associated with your church. Give them a strong sense of “family” by drawing them into the centre of your faith community. Be for them a bigger, second family or perhaps the family they have never really had.
  • Focus on tooling parents in your faith community with understandings, skills and resources for passing on faith. Do not assume that their own upbringings have provided them with personal experiences to draw upon in raising their own children in faith.
  • Focus on ensuring that the children and youth in your congregation have a rich web of intergenerational relational connections to supplement their family and extended family relationships.
  • Focus on building genuine, caring and helpful connections with new parents and parents with infants.  Be attentive to the spiritual awakenings and reawakenings which may be evoked in parents through the birth of a child.
  • Focus on helping married couples in your congregation maintain positive, healthy relationships and to work through their conflicts.
  • Focus on ways in which your congregation can act in the wider community to bring families together in good and healthy ways, and to support them to live together healthily.

As always, your comments are very welcome!  …

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