Young Americans Abandoning Cars and Churches
Fewer young adults have a drivers license. What does that mean for commuter churches?

What does the church have in common with the auto industry (besides big-haired salesman)? They're both failing to engage Millennials. Reports show that younger Americans aren't buying cars like they used to, and it may be more than the economy to blame. A closer look at the trends may have something to say to church leaders and not just auto executives.

The American auto industry has made a remarkable comeback in the last few years. After a nearly fatal collapse in 2008, the car markers are seeing record sales. But the boom isn't evident among the young who are failing to buy cars at the same pace as earlier generations.

An article in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann reveals that automakers are struggling to connect their products to teens and twenty-somethings. The problem isn't the cars, or even the economy, but driving in general. Fewer young people are getting drivers licenses. In 1998 nearly two-thirds of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license. In 2008 it was less then half. It's hard to believe, but trends indicate young people in the 21st century no longer view a car as the symbol of adolescent independence. As one Toyota executive noted, "Many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver's license."

What's the explanation for the shift away from the car culture most of us remember from our teenage years? Cities. Millennials are much more likely than earlier generations to live in large urban communities where cars are unnecessary or even an expensive liability. Weissman writes:

About 32 percent reside in cities, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X'ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center report. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in an urban environment. When they're forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities like Bethesda, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia, which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation to nearby Washington, DC.

If the Millennials truly become the peripatetic generation, walking to the office, the bus stop, or the corner store, it could mean a longterm dent in car sales. It's doubly problematic if they choose to raise children in the city. Growing up in the 'burbs was part of the reason driving was so central to Baby Boomers' lives. Car keys meant freedom. To city dwellers, they mean struggling to find an empty parking spot.

April 03, 2012

Displaying 1–10 of 16 comments


May 30, 2012  6:34pm

Had we lived in the time of Jesus, we could have taken a look at Him after hearing of all the miracles He did and all the wisdom He spoke with and thought to ourselves, "Man!! This is God walking among us!! Lets all follow Him and see where He can take us!!" But the amazing reality was that even in His hay day, many quit following Him and crowds gathered at His mock trial and shouted, "Crucify Him!". Again, the bible says 2Ti 3:1 ¶ But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! Sure seems to typify this people we live among. I have to ask myself, is it the churches fault that people aren't stampedeing to get in the doors, or is it the fact that they love the world more than Jesus and His people?

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John L

April 09, 2012  7:59am

"there is no silver bullet solution to getting young people in the church." Fewer young people want to "join the church" as an identity marker. The very idea of "getting someone into the church" is becoming an archaic concept. Younger people are understanding that "following Jesus" has very little to do with "joining" someone's idea of religion, and everything to do with being like Jesus.

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David Rupert

April 04, 2012  10:04am

Kids aren't driving as much anymore...and that's a good thing. But there isnt a connection to flagging church attendance, unless you want to make the isolation connection. Many come to church for community – but if your community is on Facebook, why bother ?

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Ann Phillps

April 03, 2012  10:14pm

Okay, I have an 18 year old son, who is dying to get a hot car. But he says most of his friends just aren't that interested in cars, though most do have licenses. We live in a mid-size city of around 300,000 people. The busses, if you happen to be near a bus route, often run only once an hour and never on Sundays. As far as I know, these kids are looking toward college, not urban ministries. There seems to be a paradigm shift happening, but I'm not sure exactly what it is. It is however, logical to assume that if an entire generation seeks out walkable urban neighborhoods, that many suburban churches may decline. In fact, in our area there are a couple of churches that built large complexes during the 80s and now have fewer that half of their former numbers in attendance.

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April 03, 2012  9:39pm

Let's all repeat together: post hoc, ergo propter hoc Cuz that's the fallacy of this entire post.

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Matthew Smith

April 03, 2012  6:34pm

I'm unsure of what the main point of this article was. If I had to state what the main point seemed to be, its that as young people are steadily caring less about cars and seeking urban environments a church outside of this range will dwindle, or at least have very little attendees from this group. If that is the point then I feel like there is some validity to it, but that issue won't be solved by getting more young people cars and licenses. People go to church because that's where their social group is. If you want to hear great preaching you can hear the greatest preachers in the world for free on a multitude of sites that host such videos, honestly you could acquire for yourself pretty much anything that a church could provide but in better quality from somewhere on the internet. The reason people are going to come (whether they have to carpool or take a long walk) is to experience the community they find at your church. To worship or learn or have fellowship with the people they have come to love. If you want to have young people in your church you should focus your efforts on having a congregation that is a loving open welcoming community. If you have that then people of all ages will find a way to be there, car or not.

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April 03, 2012  4:04pm

Well, I see the trends he's referring to, but I think it's being solved by God Himself working through that same generation. We have had many of our young folks called by God to go, plant churches, and live organically in those same urban environments. So the gospel is being shared there and God is redeeming His people. This article seems far more concerned about "yeah, but what will happen to us?!?!!" as in self-preservation. I'd say God has kept His promise to you as well. Why do we believe we need to shoe-horn these young believers into cars so they can drive to the "crystal cathedral"? One last thought, of the urban planters I know, they could care less about "mega" anything. They want to know and follow Jesus where they are and with whomever they are with...and for that I praise God!

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April 03, 2012  3:48pm

When the car I am driving ends, I hope to put the money I monthly spend on an automobile to more important things, take a bus whenever I can, and rent a car for a day or a weekend if I have to. I've been living without a car for all practical purposes for the last 2 years and I still find a way to get where I need to go. I frankly don't see the connection between the two. And I thought "big-haired salesmen" was funny, because I've seen them at both car dealerships and churches.

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April 03, 2012  3:32pm

"...Or maybe I missed the main point." I think we're in the same boat together of missing the point, and I'm pretty sure there is a point...I...I just don't know what that is.

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April 03, 2012  3:28pm

"2. The young men of today a maturing much later in life than in generations past. There is no need to earn a living to support a wife and family as the government will take care of a man's progeny today. Girls are content to have babies without marrying the father because they have a government funded network to replace the husband and thus they don't need to bother with the difficulties inherent making a marriage work." None of this is new in America...what you point out here has been going on for the past two hundred years, so it's not a recent event.

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