Polls can be quite useful. But polls can also cause us to dive down the rabbit hole of interpretation. We often take apart poll numbers and twist ourselves into dialectical pretzels attempting to discern human motivation. At times, our efforts obscure the truth that the answer is quite simple, really. A case in point is Jana Riess’ article for Religion News Service in which she explains why American millennials are leaving religion.
For one thing, Riess points out that among non-white Protestants the numbers have remained stable. In fact, among some identity sets, the number of religious millennials is growing. Protestants have seen 1.6 percent growth among millennials of color who are not black. Black Protestants have seen a decrease of only .6 percent. It’s true that white millennials are increasingly irreligious: a 2.2 percent decrease among evangelical Protestants and a 4.5 percent decrease among mainline Protestants.
Looking at the decrease among white millennials, Riess gives three main reasons for the trend:
- Delayed marriages and more single adults
- The growth of the nones
Riess explains, “One of the biggest demographic trends of our time is that millennials are delaying marriage or not getting married at all. And since there’s a strong correlation between being married and being involved in religion, the fact that fewer Americans are getting married is worrisome news to clergy.”
In reference to low fertility rates, she claims that childless couples are less likely to be religious.
It’s not that Riess doesn’t make valid points; she does. It’s that I believe that there is a more fundamental reason why American millennials are increasingly irreligious. That reason is sin.
Under the “growth of the nones,” Riess hints at the actual problem. She writes:
Some nonbelievers might have stayed in organized religion in previous generations just because it was socially expected, and there were consequences for not joining the religious crowd. The numeric growth of the nones has removed some of those barriers, so that other closeted nones feel more comfortable leaving religion too. There is an infrastructure and support system for them.
It’s not that American millennials are less religious than other generations. They’re more honest than other generations. To be fair, as Riess points out, it’s a lot easier for them to be honest in the area of religious conviction than it was for previous generations in this country. American millennials are now culturally allowed to display their true nature.
In Romans 3:10-12, quoting the Psalmist, the Apostle Paul tells us what our true nature is, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
When the Bible says that “None is righteous” and “no one seeks for God,” that means, well, “no, not one.” We are all born in rebellion against our Maker, and that “we” includes millennials.
Of course, it makes sense that as society puts less external pressure on people to pretend to be religious more and more people are going to openly display their rebellion against God. In a sad way, I believe that’s a good thing. Pastor friends of mine who minister in the Deep South sadly chuckle whenever they express, “Down here, you have to get people unsaved before you can get them saved.”
Over the years, many Americans have assumed that they were a Christian because they grew up going to church and were baptized as a kid. That problem is decreasing with millennials. And the solution is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples. Seeker-sensitive type church programs and churches chasing cultural relevance are not going to reverse the trend. The problem with American millennials is their sinful, rebellious hearts, not that they’re bored on Sunday mornings.