Ask a 20-something a few generations back what their religious affiliation was, and chances were the answer would fall within predictable lines: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Jewish, for example.
Ask the same question of today’s young adults, otherwise known as “Millennials,” and you might hear something new.
“I’m spiritual,” they might say, or “I believe in a higher power, but I’m not religious.”
That’s because Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are more comfortable than any other generation in identifying their religious affiliation as “none of the above.”
In fact, about 35 percent of adult Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew Research Center.
So does this mean young people are leaving the church in droves?
That “depends on what churches we’re talking about,” writes Glenn Stanton, Focus’ Director of Family Formation Studies, in his latest Focus Findings report.
If you’re looking at mainline churches, then yes, young people are “running for the exits, just like adults.”
But those young people who were raised in solid, Bible-teaching churches by actively-engaged Christian parents are “highly likely” to “retain the faith of their parents.”
So what’s going on? Why are the “nones” increasing in number?
The answer is that the vast majority of these “nones” aren’t abandoning a meaningful or viable faith. “They are simply identifying themselves differently,” writes Glenn.
In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
So where generations ago someone without a personal faith would self-identify by whatever their family or cultural faith was, today’s young people are comfortable being straightforward in their answer.
And 89 percent of those young adults who have “left” their faith admitted they didn’t have a real faith as a child.
And as Glenn points out: “Our kids don’t retain what they never really had.”
And that’s what religious “nones” teach us about raising kids who keep the faith: children need to have a real faith if they are to retain it as adults.
And this leads us to a second question: What helps a child develop a real, lasting faith? According to Glenn, four things work together to help develop a child’s faith. They are:
1. A Mom and Dad who live out what they believe.
“You can’t over-emphasize how essential and influential parents are,” says Glenn.
There’s no need to have a “perfect” faith. What matters is that parents model a faith that is integrated with their everyday life. Something as simple as driving by a car accident and saying, “Kids, let’s pray for them” helps kids to realize that faith is important to their parents.
Modeling an authentic faith also means parents should resist the temptation to water down biblical teaching in an attempt to “sell” faith to their kids. On the contrary, says Glenn, “Young people want to be called to discipleship. Families should attend a church that faithfully teaches Scripture.”
2. “Satellite” adults who confirm what their parents believe.
It benefits children to know adults outside of their home or family who share their parents’ faith.
When they see a committed youth pastor, Awana leader, or a godly family friend live out their faith, it serves as an outside confirmation of what is happening inside the family.
3. Seeing God at work.
Children who see evidence of God at work in their lives are more likely to keep the faith as adults. Practically speaking, this means families can pray for things together and watch as God moves and answers those prayers. This also means going to a church that takes faith seriously.
4. Mild persecution because of their faith.
A child’s faith is strengthened when it is tested. Kids get elbow-deep into the dough of their faith when they have to come to terms with being teased for their pro-life beliefs or their virginity. They are forced to think through what they believe when they might lose a friend because they hold to a biblical view of gender and sexuality. When these things happen, a child might ask tough questions and wrestle a bit with their faith – but that shows they care about their faith. Parents need to support their children through it.
When these four conditions are present in a child’s life, even imperfectly, parents have a “remarkable chance” that their kids will remain strong Christians and will continue their faith into adulthood.
I hope those moms and dads who have read the reports of the increasing “nones” and have wrestled with fear about raising children in an increasingly secular culture can take hope in what I’ve shared today.
To be sure, the challenges are many – but God is faithful. What we’re seeing now is a clarification of things – people who might have been content to be nominal, cultural Christians before are merely upfront about what they truly believe.
What matters most for your children is what has always mattered: that they see steadfast, genuine faith modeled and taught at home and at church.
I’d like to hear from you: what do you think about the growing category of “nones”? How do you model your faith to your kids and grandkids? In what way have your children experienced persecution for their beliefs? Do you have children or grandchildren who have wandered away from the church? Please et me know your thoughts in the comments section, below.