The Survey Says... Pew Report on Millennials: Implications between the Lines

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Pew Report on Millennials and Religion is now available for viewing and analysis online. There's lots of interesting data on the surface. You can see the full report here:

But there's even more interesting stuff if you go a bit beneath the surface.

White Protestants are more likely to be unaffiliated (whether de-affiliated or non-affiliated) than other religious or ethnic groups measured in the US. Millennials overall are substantially more likely than GenX to be de-affiliated or non-affiliated (an escalating curve). Meanwhile, rates of re-affiliation after de-affiliation or non-affiliation have stayed steady at around 4% for nearly 70 years.

Put all of that together and you might get this: No efforts by white Protestants in the US to address de-affiliation or non-affiliation (i.e. to "win converts") have actually been game changers for 70 years. Not "revivals" (post-WW II). Not "the charismatic movement" (1960s-early 1980s). Not "church growth" (1970s-2000). Not "conservative resurgence" (1980s-2000). Not "contemporary" or "seeker" worship (1980s-present). Not "new church starts" (all decades, especially 1990s-present). Pretty much all these have done is to "reshuffle" the existing cards into other decks-- not actually do all that much toward including "cards" that never were in play.

It's frankly too early to say whether the "emergent" or "missional" approaches among white Protestants in the US will have fared any better at moving people from unaffiliated to affiliated when scaled up. And I'd tend to think they might not have on a 20 year scale. I say that because given the escalating rate of de-affiliation among white Protestants in the US, it's going to take decades, not years, just to "decrease the increase" in non-affiliation.

There are no silver bullets here, no quick fixes.

But we might learn something from those whose rate of decline in affiliation appears statistically low or nil. I'm talking about historically Black Churches, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims-- i.e. pretty much everybody else except white Protestants. There's no way to know from these data exactly what makes the difference, but there are some real differences. None of these less-declining groups has fundamentally embraced Cartesian dualism or Enlightenment epistemology in the ways that white Protestants have. All of them have encoded faith primarily as practices-- not primarily theological specifics or beliefs (Evangelicals) or "mere toleration/belonging" (Mainline)-- though all of them certainly have strong beliefs and have a strong sense of belonging as well. And they've passed on those specific practices with beliefs embedded in them-- whether in liturgy, or community process, or family life-- fairly consistently over time.

And it gets a bit more fun-- because all we're talking about in the Pew Report is how people identify their affiliation-- not whether they are living as disciples of Jesus and actively participating in God's mission in the world.

Read the report-- and share what you think!