Narratives of decline surround American evangelicalism and American religion more broadly. Within these narratives, a special sort of skepticism is reserved for twentysomethings. Much has been said about their flight from the pews, the rise of the “nones,” and the lack of institutional commitment among millennials. While we’ve been wringing our hands about the millennial generation, we must acknowledge that Generation Z snuck up on us. They are increasingly filling the ranks of the twentysomething cohort.
As a Gen Xer, I remember a similar fretting for my generation of youth. We were the “latchkey kids”: A lack of supervision inevitably turned us into the sort of rebellious teens depicted in films like The Breakfast Club.
Given the relative novelty of emerging adulthood as a developmental stage, it’s easy to come down hard on twentysomethings. This new phase in the American experience, marked by delays in attaining traditional markers of adulthood (marriage, home ownership, full-time employment, and so on), provides fodder for sweeping critiques of twentysomethings, including their faith.
In The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, sociologist Tim Clydesdale and religion scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley acknowledge the prevailing stereotypes: “Today’s twentysomethings,” they write, “have been labeled the ‘lost generation’—for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, ‘kidults’—for their alleged refusal to ‘grow up’ and accept adult responsibilities—and the ‘least religious generation’—for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality.”
Are twentysomethings really such a “lost generation?” Clydesdale and Graces-Foley give us reasons to be much more hopeful.
There are plenty of recent books covering the lives, experiences, and perceptions of twentysomethings, addressed to their parents, to curious outsiders, or to members of that age cohort itself. Good examples include The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay, and How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims.
On the subject of young adults’ faith lives specifically, research from The Barna Group, led by David Kinnaman, has yielded important volumes like unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith, and Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.
The Twentysomething Soul widens the scope of this discussion with the authors’ original research, which draws from hundreds of interviews and thousands of surveys of twentysomethings across the nation. Their analysis focuses on the 91 percent of American twentysomethings who identify as either Christian (Catholic, evangelical, or mainline Protestant) or “religiously unaffiliated.” (Twentysomethings of other faith traditions are not considered in this book.) Clydesdale and Garces-Foley distill their work into seven major claims:
- Contrary to popular opinion, the beliefs and practices of American twentysomethings reveal far more continuity than decline.
- One in three twentysomethings attend worship regularly, but they cluster within young-adult friendly congregations.
- The religiously unaffiliated are a diverse group, consisting of atheists, agnostics, and believers.
- Today’s American twentysomethings adopt one of four approaches to faith: They prioritize it, they reject it, they sideline it, or they practice an “eclectic spirituality.”
- American twentysomething spirituality groups into two camps: traditionally religious and nontraditional.
- Those American twentysomethings who prioritize religious and spiritual life are more likely to engage in a certain set of practices: marriage, parenthood, college graduation, employment, voting, community engagement, and social involvement.
- American twentysomethings view institutions differently than their elders: As the authors explain, “Today’s twentysomethings experience the world less as sets of institutions prescribing standard life scripts and more as nodes on a network from which they can freely choose cultural symbols, strategies, and interpretations.”
The book devotes a chapter to each Christian subgroup and an additional chapter to the religiously unaffiliated. Within each Christian subgroup, the authors further disperse twentysomethings into three categories: active, nominal, and estranged. Such a framework provides a more nuanced understanding of each subgroup, countering the notion that evangelicals are more active than their Catholic or mainline Protestant peers.
As a group, twentysomethings are a thoughtful, religious, and praying tribe. Clydesdale and Garces-Foley find that among their respondents, two out of three evangelicals, one out of three mainline Protestants, and two out of five Catholics attend worship services regularly. They are right to highlight this as “a remarkable rate of voluntary attendance—especially when we consider that twentysomethings are the least well-established in their work lives of all adults and have the fewest discretionary hours and dollars of all adults.”
For evangelicals, The Twentysomething Soul provides insight into the lives and faith commitments of our Catholic and mainline brothers and sisters, offering a perspective we too often lack. In addition, the authors’ treatment of evangelicalism takes the reader beyond the anecdotal to listen to the voices of American twentysomething evangelicals, carefully analyzing the complexity without wandering into political polarization or theological debate.
Highlights within their findings include much worth celebrating. Among their respondents, three out of 10 identify as evangelicals. Compared to the other Christian subgroups, evangelicals can claim the highest percentage of black young adults. Eight out of 10 evangelical twentysomethings pray at least weekly. Ninety-seven percent believe in God with certainty. Those that self-report as evangelicals attend worship regularly. “Active” evangelicals seek out church communities when they relocate. Based on the authors’ findings, evangelicals seem poised to hold their numbers over the next few decades.
However, there are also areas for concern. While evangelicals are the most “religiously fervent” of the Christian subgroups, 50 percent are labeled “nominal”. Most twentysomething evangelicals worship in churches without great racial diversity, and most attend a smaller number of young-adult friendly congregations. Twentysomething evangelicals are decidedly unhappy with the image of religion their spokespersons relay to the public. Evangelical leaders should take note.
Vibrant and Diverse
As someone who also studies twentysomethings, I’m appreciative of the authors’ thorough and hopeful work. They portray a vibrant and diverse young evangelicalism that counters many portrayals. But this vibrancy and complexity is less apparent in the evangelical churches and institutions that evangelical twentysomethings are seeking. I find an expectant hope in today’s twentysomething evangelicals: They aren’t ready (for the most part) to give up on the church, despite their frustrations.
We already know from Census Bureau data that Generation Z is the most diverse generation in American history. Barna Group data tell us that the church’s lack of diversity is a stumbling block to church engagement from members of Generation Z. This raises an important point. Too often, when American evangelicalism is discussed, it’s a conversation about white evangelicals. Clydesdale and Garces-Foley clearly see a young generation of American evangelicals that exhibits a much broader diversity. This is where my hope lies for the future of evangelicalism: in a diverse, fervent group of Christ-followers poised to reflect God’s kingdom.
If twentysomethings are diverse, complex, religiously minded and spirituality oriented, then evangelical churches and institutions must engage this group more effectively. The authors highlight a few evangelical congregations as exemplars. They profile New Life Fellowship Church in New York City, a multi-racial congregation perhaps best-known for the leadership of its founding pastor, Pete Scazzero, and his many books relating faith and emotional health. They also explore the multi-generational nature of the Consolidated Baptist Church, a historically black congregation in Lexington, Kentucky. These, however, are more the exception than the rule.
The church can’t bemoan twentysomethings’ lack of religious interest. Perhaps it’s more accurate to conclude that the church is frustrated with how twentysomethings want to express that interest and experience the spiritual search that accompanies it. This is where the dissonance lives.
The Twentysomething Soul is a helpful, broad-based study on the religious lives of American twentysomethings. It’s best, however, to consider it a baseline study, which means further exploration is both required and encouraged. The book provides a general hope that would be enhanced and clarified by exploring some additional questions. How, for instance, are American twentysomething evangelicals engaging the pressing social issues of our day, in areas like sexuality, abortion, and political affiliation? And how can we measure their involvement in churches beyond the metric of attendance—inquiring, say, into rates of leadership, volunteerism, and giving?
These are crucial questions beyond the scope of this book. However, they are essential to understanding evangelicalism in America. I kept pondering them as I studied the data. I hope The Twentysomething Soul inspires further research that helps us fill in the gaps, for the sake of both scholarly clarity and the future of the church.
Drew Moser is dean of student engagement and an associate professor of higher education and student development at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He is a co-author of Ready or Not: Leaning into Life in Our Twenties (NavPress) and a co-editor of Campus Life: In Search of Community (IVP Academic).