As I was finishing my master's degree in public policy I needed to find a topic for my thesis. For several years, I had been interested in the differences between baby boomers and the generation I grew up in that has been called generation X, baby busters, mosaics, etc. Around that time, I read a variety of articles about how my generation voted at lower percentages than their parents did at their age. I decided to take that on as my thesis topic. I was going to discover what shared life experiences and attitudes of my generation was driving down our voter participation. Not too long into my research, however, I had to throw out my original hypothesis and start over. While popular news articles kept speculating that my generation wasn't voting because of various cultural influences, the research pointed strongly to another less publicized factor--life stage. People who are married and have children have more tangible motivations to vote. They are motivated by what some call "bread and butter" issues related to property taxes, schools, safety and other day-to-day issues that tend to be of less interest to singles. The drop in voter participation tracked fairly neatly with the generational delay of marriage and starting a family. As my generation has gotten around to these life stages, we've improved on voter participation.
Something very similar is going on in churches. Increasingly, churches are concerned about what some call the "graduation evacuation"--the tendency of people who were raised in Christian homes to disconnect from church shortly after graduating from high school and not finding their way back. As young adults show greater detachment from the church, all kinds of theories are proposed about what's keeping them away and what churches can do to get them back. Many of the speculations are similar to the ones I read back in the nineties about my generation and their voting habits--all focused on various generational attitudes that needed to be addressed through creative ministry engagement such as coffee bars, cool music, casual services, movie clips, etc.
In his book, After the Baby Boomers, Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow shows the shortcomings of this approach:
In the absence of solid information, speculation about the religious needs and interests of the next wave runs rampant. Self-styled cultural experts have been arguing that young adults will be the leaders of a great spiritual revival. ... Other forecasters are placing their bets on technology. Persuaded that religion is somehow a function of gadgets and electronics, they predict an Internet revolution in which congregations will be replaced by Web sites and chat rooms. Still others see in their crystal balls that young adults will flock to jeans-and-sweatshirt ministries where everything is warm and supportive -- as if that were something new.
The truth is, these futuristic speculations make headlines, but seldom make sense. The reason is that they are the product of someone's imagination, rather than being grounded in any systematic research -- or, for that matter, a very good understanding of young adulthood and social change. Pastors and interested lay leaders can titillate themselves reading such speculation in religious magazines. But they need to realize how flimsy this sort of information is.
Wuthnow goes on to show what research actually reveals:
Religious involvement is influenced more by whether people are married, when they get married, whether they have children, and how many children they have than almost anything else.
Similar to voting, marriage and kids give young adults more direct reasons to connect to a congregation. I like how Dr. Leon Kass puts it in the book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar:
Marriage and procreation, are, therefore, at the heart of a serious and flourishing human life, if not for everyone at least for the vast majority. Most of us know from our own experience that life becomes truly serious when we become responsible for the lives of others for whose being in the world we have said, "We do." It is fatherhood and motherhood that teach most of us what it took to bring us into our own adulthood. And it is the desire to give not only life but a good way of life to our children that opens us toward a serious concern for the true, the good, and even the holy. Parental love of children leads once wayward sheep back into the fold of church and synagogue. In the best case, it can even be the beginning of the sanctification of life--yes, even in modern times.
For pastors, parents and mentors who are praying for spiritual formation in the twenty and thirtysomethings they know, it appears that an investment in family formation is the better investment.