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Vail Daily column: Why millennials skip church

Jack Van Ens

Blame late-arriving babies as the primary reason their Millennial parents, born between 1981 and 1989, don’t fill church pews. The decline in church attendance directly relates to couples who push child-bearing to the biological limit.

Millennials have children much later than when parents and grandparents started families. Back then, dating couples married shortly after high school graduations. Or, lucky students attended college, which also served as a match-making marriage mill. Couples who completed college then got jobs.

Babies arrived to these early twenty-something parents. Needing child-rearing help, parents went to church and presented infants for baptisms. Such sacred events served as entryways into years of church loyalty. Couples believed those who worshipped together had stronger chances of staying hitched, plus their kids benefited from moral education.



Within a few years, adolescent teens transitioned into adults with family responsibilities. Churches capitalized on this strong social trend for dating, getting married and then mating. Young married couples with children regularly attended churches in the first half of the 20th century. Denominational church strength crested in the 1950s, when traditional families flourished during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, from 1952-1960.

Religious social trend-watcher Christian Smith traces how this church-going boom started turning into a bust during the early 1970s. Whereas couples previously married in their early 20s, by 2006, the average marriage age for men was 27 and women at 25 years of age.



These Millennials took breaks after high school, pushing off college. After college graduation — seldom earned in four years — they went backpacking in Europe. Taking the rest of their 20s to settle into jobs, they delayed getting married. After making the turn on 35 years, they got hitched and had children, before wives’ biological time-clocks shut down.

Trend-watcher Smith, in “Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults,” (Oxford University Press, 2009) describes these Millennials as “emerging adults.” They slide into adulthood over years, whereas their parents and grandparents acquired adult roles in the early 20s by honoring tight timelines of getting married, starting a career and welcoming babies.

Smith says Millennials act like hybrids—no longer youth but not fully adult—for several years. They live independently and then camp out in their parents’ basements to save money.



Their parents, growing up, drifted from church-going after youth group pizza parties felt less filling. But, within a few years, they footed the bill for pizza by returning to church with babies for baptism. These parents stayed in-step with church-attendance rhythms.

In contrast, youthful Millennials often show haphazard worship attendance, disappear from church at 16 years and get married at 36 years. Then babies come to these non-church-going Millennial parents.

Mike Hout, a New York University social demographer, reports Millennials aren’t joiners. Political parties, masonic lodges and churches are in decline because Millennials lack interest in them.

These nothing-in-particular folks, writes Hout, “Don’t vote, don’t marry and don’t have kids,” at the same rate as did previous generations. “They are allergic to large, organized institutions—mass media, religions, big corporations and political parties.” So the Big Three networks lose market shares, corporations are forced to offer new hires flex-time, political party loyalty plummets and churches decline because young families don’t fill pews.

A 2015 Pew Research Survey shows how massive the decline is. The number of Americans who distanced themselves from churches climbed from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. Millennials avoid organized religion, as if it were an extinct civilization’s artifact.

At 44 percent, less than half of older Millennials say religion is very important to them. They’re not intellectually against Christian belief, but feel isolated from churches playing any role in their lives.

What can churches do to attract Millennials? Learn from what Major League Baseball is doing.

Baseball officials are alarmed that fewer black athletes play sandlot ball. Little Leagues are dwindling because African-Americans play basketball or football instead. Countering this downward trend, the Major Leagues recondition inner-city ball fields and mentor young athletes. Retired stars bring a human touch to baseball. This connection, given time, may bring Willie Mays-types back to ballfields.

Churches are well-stocked with seniors. Have them adopt next-door young families and serve as mentors to children whose parents scurry because of crammed work schedules.

Churches that extend the human touch attract newcomers. Offer day care. Build Habitat for Humanity homes. Open after-school programs for children of working parents. Invite community service groups use of church meeting rooms, charging minimal fees.

Isn’t this how God acted, extending His hand through Jesus’ one-on-one empathy with people he met?

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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