Almost two decades ago, a small group of sociologists embarked on a longitudinal research project called the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame, NSYR researchers tracked the faith lives of America’s youth for a full 10-year span, from early adolescence into emerging adulthood. Their findings were reported in three books: Soul Searching (2005), Souls in Transition (2009), and A Faith of Their Own (2011).

The culmination of this mammoth project comes in Back Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults, coauthored by Melinda Lundquist Denton, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

CT spoke with Lundquist Denton about the dramatic drop in church attendance among young adults and what it means for the discipleship going on in our living rooms, classrooms, and sanctuaries.

(Click here for a companion interview with Christian Smith, coauthor of Handing Down the Faith.)

Before we get into the details, I’m interested in your personal take. As you look back over these years of research, what is your reigning sentiment for the future of the church?

We didn’t study congregations, we didn’t look at churches. We looked at individuals and their connection with or not with churches. That said, we can say we learned some things about that by talking to this cross section of young people. Big picture, I think if this group of young people is any indication, then ongoing lifetime commitment to religious organizations is going to be more and more precarious over time. I do think that the church is going to struggle to maintain future generations. I don’t think that’s a news flash for anybody.

No, it’s not. But you’ve seen it up close.

I don’t think it’s even an issue of, “Oh, just be relevant to figure out this generation.” I think that the relationships within institutions are changing as a whole, and emerging adults don’t see the church tracking with where their lives are going. So there is a lot of intersecting things we could talk about.

Let’s talk about what you call the “committed” category of emerging adults. How, exactly, does that group split out?

On the religious side, we make this distinction between people who are regularly committed and religion is part of their life and those people who are only marginally attached to religion. And among the regularly committed, there are two subgroups. There is a very small group, where religion is what we call the driver of their life. It’s the driving force of their lives; everything they do is informed by their faith and it’s part of what’s motivating their life choices, their careers, their education decisions. That’s a very small group of people. We did see some of them but not many.

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Melinda Denton
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Portrait Courtesy of

Melinda Denton

But then you have this group of regularly committed religious young people where religion is part of a larger package. It’s not that religion drives the rest of their lives, it’s that religion complements the rest of their lives. So it’s like, “I’ve got a job, an education, a family, and religion, and they all sort of fit together into this version of the good life.”

Religion is important inasmuch as it’s an important part of this larger package of their lives. It’s become more routinized. So they are willing to stay committed. They are attending church regularly, and faith is part of their identity. But it’s a different feel in terms of the role that that faith has relative to the rest of their life.

But on surveys, both groups show up as religiously committed. They’re all going to church semi-regularly, they all believe in God. They look the same on surveys, but it’s in our interviews where we really hear this difference between the routinized committed with religion as one of many aspects of their lives, and the highly committed for whom religion is really the driving force in their lives. So we wanted to make that distinction; even though from survey data they kind of lump together in the same group, there really is a distinction there.

You spend a big part of Back Pocket God focused on those who haven’t left the faith and may in fact be increasing their commitment. Tell us about this storyline—what you call the “stable high category.”

There is a group of young people who are religious or committed to their faith, they are still regularly attending, and faith is part of their identity. And that group seems to be stable over time.

When we say that the commitment is getting stronger, there are two explanations for that. The first is attrition—the weeding out of those who were less religiously engaged to start with. So as a group, they look more religious because you siphoned off the less religious individuals of that group. That is certainly part of what is going on, that the group itself might be smaller but it’s the committed core.

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There also does seem to be some evidence that those who stay in that committed core then become more committed. As they grow through adolescence and into adulthood—and that was the title of the second book, A Faith of Their Own—they’re having to go through this process of making this faith their own, deciding, “Am I keeping it or not?” So over time that religion becomes more embedded in their lives.

So because of those two things, when we compare the committed evangelical protestants of Wave 4 [the last phase of the study] with the committed evangelical protestants of Wave 1 [the first phase of the study], we see slight increases in things like importance of faith and belief in God and that sort of thing.

It sounds like there’s a hollowing out of the middle. So when nominal Christians leave, those still in church are on the high end of religious engagement.

Yes. I will say I don’t want to oversell that story, in a sense, but I think that’s true. I would not say what that means is that these people are just on fire in their faith. There are some, but I think the bar for everyone has gone down.

They’re still at the top; the ones who haven’t left are committed. Among that group, you have the small segment for whom faith is the driving force in their lives, and they are digging in deeper and this is becoming more and more of a focus for them.

But for the majority of the people who are still in church, there’s an instrumental aspect to their religious commitment. The commitment might be driven by religious fervor, but more often it seems driven by the idea that “This is the life I want to live” or “Faith facilitates the life I’ve chosen.” For some, it’s part of this larger package of life. It very much has an American Dream feel to it, and religion is just part of the package. But that being said, because they are committed to that package, they are committed to their faith.

There’s some pragmatism there. And the bar is lower, so those who are on the high stable end are still operating under a bar that we would have expected maybe 20 or 30 years ago. Is that right?

In terms of participation in organized religion, those expectations are lower over time for this group, certainly. I think comparatively as well, there’s just not the expectation to be in church every time the doors are open or to be highly active in a religious congregation. Those sorts of things.

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I just pulled a quote from the book that says, “Reports of never attending religious services have increased 33 percentage points over ten years from 18% of the sample in 2003 to 51% of the sample in 2013.” That’s a notable drop in church attendance.

Correct. When we look at all the other measures, there is not that level of change. It’s attendance where we see the major change. Even I, having followed this study all the way through, when I saw that 51 percent, I recalculated because I was sure it was not correct. I thought, “That’s huge.” 51 percent of our sample never attend religious services. That means basically half of all these young people never set foot inside of a religious congregation. Which on the one hand isn’t that surprising but it’s a huge change, from 18 percent to 51 percent over ten years. It’s dramatic.

That’s really dramatic. It reflects the hollowing out of the middle but from the other end of the spectrum.

Yes, it’s a large gain in the never attenders, and those never attenders are coming from the sporadic-attender categories. The weekly attenders dropped almost in half, but the biggest shift was among the never attenders.

Over the ten years of this study, you’ve seen a correlation between church attendance and the reported significance of faith in daily life.

Yes, there is a relationship between those two things; they are not entirely independent of each other. And I think that it’s disingenuous to think, “It’s okay, this generation can walk away from organized religion but they’re still going to have this vibrant internal spiritual life.” They’re not. That’s not happening. They might say on surveys that God is important to them, but in the practical everyday, being part of a religious community matters for that cultivated spiritual life.

Practices and perspectives do go together.

What does that mean for thought leaders, parents, and pastors?

Well, we have to maybe reimagine what participation in church looks like. I think we are moving beyond “If you build it, they will come.” They’re not showing up. And that matters.

The flip side of that coin is that there is a window of opportunity. They are not opposed to being engaged, they’re not opposed to faith, they’re not opposed to religion. There is skepticism about the church, but there is not a lot of animosity toward the church. So what we said when they were young was, “Don’t give up on engaging them; they’re willing to be engaged.”

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We don’t have this group of young people who have said, “Oh, the church, I want nothing to do with it.” It’s just not at the top of their list of priorities. Therefore, even when they’re not attending or really engaged, there is an opportunity to reengage at that level. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.

It does, yes.

What we see is that people are shifting into the “never attend” or “not religious at all” categories, but that’s not happening overnight. So you have this window between when they are no longer participating regularly but they’re still open religiously.

The young adults you studied can self-report an allegiance to faith, but can they articulate specific doctrinal beliefs?

Not really, but to be fair, adults can’t do it either.

That’s true.

We’ve said from the beginning, “Here are all our findings, but please hear us that we are not picking on this group of people.” We don’t think that they are alone in lacking articulacy. But they happen to be the age group we studied.

In the first round of the study, we had pushback from people saying, “Well, they’re 13 to 17, of course they’re not articulate.” But it doesn’t seem to be about cognitive ability. It doesn’t seem to be about age. As they get older, they’re not getting any more articulate about their faith.

It doesn’t seem to be something that they particularly feel like is important to be able to articulate. Their answers are good enough for them. Every few years we come along and poke and prod and ask them to explain themselves, but other than that nobody is asking them to explain their faith. So the articulation of faith is something that we did not see change significantly over time.

Given what you’re seeing with this inability to articulate doctrine, what compensatory measures do you recommend, if any?

Some of it depends on your context. I don’t know that the solution is any different than what we said ten years ago, which is that this is like a second language and you learn by immersion. So if it’s not part of what’s happening in our congregations, and what’s happening in our homes, with their parents, if they’re not hearing this language on a regular basis, then it’s not something I think you can just teach at a catechism class or as a separate thing.

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You have to be part of the culture of the religious group for it to be picked up on. I’m not sure it is effective to say, “Let’s have a training or let’s have an additional class or something like that.” I think it has to be part of the culture of the religious tradition. And by culture, I mean the church culture but also the family—if their parents are talking about it in that way.

Your colleague Christian Smith coined this now-well-known concept of moralistic therapeutic deism. Is it more prevalent than it was ten years ago?

We do see it playing out in Wave 4 of the study. We actually called it “moralistic therapeutic deism 2.0.” In the original conception of it, the idea is that God is a butler. There’s a divine being out there, and when I need him I can ring my bell and call for his services, and the goal of life is to be happy. But now there has been a shift. The deism piece has shrunk a little bit, and that’s referenced in the title of the book. We went from God as divine butler to God in my back pocket, and God’s role has become even more conscripted.

So I think those impulses are still there, with the role of God being somewhat shrunk even more down to just when I need him, or if it’s useful. It’s a much more instrumental perspective. But I don’t think the change is dramatic; I think it’s just a morphing of that original concept.

And what about the adjacent relationship between the church and the public square, between faith and the practice of faith in politics?

When I hear the young adults talking about organized religion and the church, I hear them saying, “Well, they’re sort of out to lunch on all these issues that are important to me. And to the extent that they are engaged, I don’t really see how religion makes them any different and in some cases it makes it worse. I can be a good person, I can love my neighbor, I can be welcoming and accepting of other people without religion.”

So there is a sense that religion is either out of touch or not distinct. The question is: How do we engage those issues that are important to them in a way that’s distinctive yet not alienating?

It’s a huge enigma for church leaders and parents to be thinking through.

Yes. We have to face two difficult questions: What does the church have to offer that emerging adults can’t get anywhere else? And how can they take what the church has to offer without it dividing them from the world that they want to be engaged in?

Read the companion interview here:

[ This article is also available in español and Português. ]