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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Young Adults: Too Many "Nones"

Last time, we talked about "church" in an economic sense, suggesting that it has "costs" and "benefits" that help people assess the value it might hold for them. Our discussion centered less in identifying what those costs and benefits might be, and more in how they are manifest in patterns of growth and decline in individual churches. At the conclusion, though, we expressed some distress at recent surveys that show a significant number of today's young adults see little value in "church" as a whole, that it has too few benefits to be relevant to their lives. The implications for the future of "church" and of society more broadly would seem to mandate that we explore and understand this condition. We see, in the end, that "church" in fact has enormous benefits for young people and we also see that we, in the context our own individual churches, can help deliver them.

Differences in Generations
I suppose every young generation that comes along is seen by its elders as "unique" and "different", presenting challenges to older and younger alike as we all seek to integrate into a repeatedly reshaped adult world. The current experience is unique historically in having so many different generations active in work and in life at the same time. Their various backgrounds mean they have differing outlooks on how to move forward. Sociologists and business management experts remind us, for starters, that older generations came out of the aftermath of World War II: these people are accustomed to top-down management systems in fixed institutions in which they put great store; they are rules-oriented in setting priorities and in devising methods of accomplishing tasks[1].

Baby-Boomers were teenagers in the Sixties and filled with idealism and possibilities; they saw opportunities for growth and expansion and competed to be on the top of those developments. But their children, the young adults of today, see that, rather than coming out on top, a good portion of the Boomers got laid off; the younger people saw or lived through more and more of their parents divorcing. They observed or were even the victims of scandalous behavior by government, business and religious leaders. For today's Millennial Generation, then, perspectives are different; "institutions" aren't so trustworthy anymore and the rules of the game change frequently. These twenty-somethings thus tend to believe in getting while the getting is good. They don't have to wait for anything nor do they want to wait, seemingly, with instant communication, immediate gratification and generous amounts of feedback and stroking from their elders. They are ethnically diverse and believe much in their lives is subject to their own choices, not something they have to take on someone else's authority.

What Are "Nones"? -- and Why?
More pertinent to our discussion, fewer young people are growing up with religion and many who do, drop out. Among sociologists, these people who have no religion (regardless of age) are referred to by the moniker representing their response on surveys: "what is your religious preference, if any?" They are "the Nones". According to the widely followed biennial General Social Survey[2], "the Nones" doubled as a share of the population from 7% in 1991 to 14% in 2000. Within the Millennial Generation, ages 18-30, the proportion rose from 11% to just over 20% in 2004. Later data from this and other surveys indicate that as many as 25% of young adults are presently outside religion.

We could go on at length here about possible reasons for this falling away, but we'll just emphasize what we see as the most significant. Some "issues" are rooted in the rigidity of some organized religion, which clashes with young people's evolving flexible and discretionary approaches to life and work. The biggest single factor outsiders named in the Barna Group's unChristian survey work in 2006[3] is the anti-homosexuality that predominates in conservative denominations, along with judgmental attitudes the young people perceive in those churches.

Some simpler, more objective reasons are centered in immigration. An influx of Chinese and other Asians and of Hispanics makes this generation more ethnically diverse than older generations. The Asians in particular and even the Hispanics have come with less religious background[4].

Most basically, though, fewer kids are being raised in church-going families. The General Social Survey includes a question about what religion its respondents were raised in. These results are reported by year of birth. Of the Boomers born in the 1950s, 95.6% grew up in some kind of religion, making the Nones a mere 4.4% of that population cohort. By the 1970s, almost 10% of children born then were Nones and of those born in the 1980s, Nones reached 13.5%. By contrast, the proportion of kids raised as Protestants fell from 60% for the 1950s generation to 50% in the 1970s and just 45% of the 1980s group.

It's Important To Bring Them in Early -- For Their Own Benefit
This dwindling in the share of religious kids is ironic, isn't it, since in the previous article, we noticed how the visible presence of children contributes to growth in churches. Further, the study of psychology highlights how important to someone's entire lifespan are the lessons and habits formed early on. Even economists (!) have learned that expenditures on early-childhood education bring gains much later in someone's earnings potential and also minimize later public spending on remedial learning and law enforcement.

In that regard, we thought as we envisioned this commentary that we'd be talking about ethical lapses in society that might result from a less-churched population. An increase in those may well be the case. Certainly, there is increased risk behavior among younger people – more casual sex, more binge drinking, more violence [5]. But our Google-searches on this topic turned up a much deeper phenomenon: the formation of one's identity is helped in a significant way by having a religious affiliation. Young people who are religious are connected to society in other ways, while those who are not religious have fewer attachments of all kinds.

This revelation comes to us from just about the opposite end of the spectrum from the Evangelical-oriented surveying by the Barna Group. Now, we're reading a 2005 study from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR), an organization some of you may know from their election polling for liberal Democrat political candidates. This current work, titled OMG! How Generation Y Is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era, was sponsored by Reboot, a Jewish organization concerned about the young people of that faith[6].

Religion Intricately Intertwined with Who I Am
Personal identity has traditionally been associated with family, gender, ethnic origin and birthplace, all factors derived "naturally" as givens in our individual lives. Now, though, as the report explains, with society in flux and people more and more mobile, identity has morphed into something we acquire. The report cites leading religion sociologist Robert Wuthnow: identity is "increasingly achieved rather than something ascribed to us." [7] In these data, family remains far and away the most significant aspect of identity, but political beliefs and job are second and third, even several points ahead of gender. Ethnic origin and where you live rank lower down. Religion has a fairly neutral rating, taken alone, but it interacts with other factors, making it a catalyst.

The GQRR survey was conducted in the autumn of 2004 and covered 1,385 people aged 18 to 25 from all over the country. Additional numbers of Jews, Muslims, Asians, Blacks and Hispanics were included in "over-samples". Of the base group, 26% were Protestant, 20% Roman Catholic, 14% "other Christian", 2% Jewish, 2% Muslim; the remainder were a collection of Eastern religions and "other". The Nones comprised 23%, that is, more than Catholics and almost as much as Protestants. The definitive finding in the study is best expressed in the report's own words [8]:

"Importantly, religious youth have a stronger sense of themselves than less religious youth. In other words, among the less religious, religion is not supplanted by a stronger ascribed or achieved characteristic. In fact, less religious youth are less strongly identified with anything at all, which suggests that religious group involvement is mutually reinforcing of other identities, or that a feeling connected to a religious community or tradition heightens all other aspects of self-understanding. Religious adherence, in other words, builds social capital not just in terms of participation in civic life, but also in terms of connection with family, self-esteem, and self-understanding. And then, as Christian Smith [another well-known religion sociologist] finds in his study of teenagers, religious youth ranked higher than less religious youth on every measure of self-esteem."

This reminds us of something we heard ourselves say last time. Hear it again: "These [aspects of church life] – community, worship and openness – are unique qualities of a church. It reaches out to people and wants to help them lead better lives. It has no ulterior motive . . . . its under-girding raison d'etre is to lift up its people for their own sake."

Where this happens, it works, we see through this Jewish-led study of young people. It works for our kids at the most sensitive times of their lives. Our quest this Lenten season is to find ways to be an inviting church. It seems that we have a lot of work to do. But then what a celebration of Easter we could have. Amen.

* * * * *

[1] Generation characterizations come from a definitive work in this area: When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc. 2002 and 2005. Lancaster is a Baby-Boomer and Stillman a Generation X-er.

[2] National Opinion Research Center. University of Chicago and other universities. Sample size about 4,800; latest polling 2006. See for all the detail.

[3] David Kinnaman and Greg Lyons. unChristian. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2007. Associated websites: and the Barna Group:

[4] "Reboot Frequency Questionnaire". Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research: h
ttp://, Survey Results, pp. 1 & 6. Accessed February 17, 2008.

[5] The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press. A Portrait of Generation Next:
How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics
. January 9, 2007. Accessed February 11, 2008.

[6] Anna Greenberg. OMG! How Generation Y Is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era. Accessed February 16, 2008. ["OMG!" = "Oh, m'God!" If you didn't know this text-messaging acronym, you probably should really read the report!] See other supporting material on the GQRR website. GQRR gives this stuff away; no email or other identifying registration is even necessary. So does the Pew organization, for that matter.

[7] Greenberg, p. 13.

[8] Greenberg, p. 15.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Economics of Church

Back in the fall, in discussing Mrs. Astor's support of stained glass window restoration, we applied economic thinking to the world of art. We talked about the factors that give value to art: its ability to touch our hearts and souls, to bring us beauty, to make us aware of life beyond the scope of our ordinary rational thinking, to help us recall our past and so on. While "economics" is often thought of in terms of jobs and money and material possessions, it also has this deeper meaning: just how do we assess what we value? How much value do we place on costly – or perhaps in this case, optional – aspects of our lives?

The same way of thinking can be used to look at "church". The US is known to be the most religious nation in the world, but even so, many Americans choose not to participate. And of those who do, they can choose among a wide array of religions and, within those, numerous variations and nuances of practice and style. How and why we make these choices are issues currently being examined by sociologists and, yes, even economists, using statistical and quantitative tools. In this and a following article, we will appeal to some of their information in hopes of casting some light on directions and forces in church participation today and what they might portend. This will not be an altogether optimistic exercise, but that's precisely why we need to spend time with it.

Episcopal Church Decline -- AND Growth
We can start by looking at some simple numbers. In 1985, there were about 2.74 million Episcopalians. In the latest count, tabulated from congregations' Parochial Reports for 2006 by the Research group at the Episcopal Church Center[1], there were 2.15 million. But before we jump to the conclusion that this decline automatically means people value the Episcopal Church less than they used to, we need to note that a substantial proportion of its individual churches are growing. What's going on? Most notably, what are the churches doing that are growing? Why, for instance, would I get up on Sunday morning and go there to church, rather than stroll down to Starbucks for a latte and the New York Times?

There are some straightforward, objective measures that we can take from another product of the Episcopal Research group, FACTs on Episcopal Church Growth, by Director Kirk Hadaway.[2] Perhaps the most obvious is location; the old saw about business success can apply to churches too: "there are three factors in growth: location, location and location". Churches in growing neighborhoods grow, and there is indeed church planting in new and expanding suburbs. A number of cities are spearheading revitalization of downtowns and other urban areas, and these are the second most prevalent setting for growing congregations. Churches that have more families, more men and more children are growing. A sizable proportion of multi-racial churches show gains, as well as many that have largely non-white membership. Churches that have more than one service of a Sunday and cater to varying tastes among parishioners also bring in more people. Good clergy are important, too, of course, but not just those who are experts in Biblical studies and spirituality. These characteristics are perhaps "givens" for parish priests and don't make much difference, statistically, to growth or decline. But in places where the clergy are dynamic and inspire enthusiasm and facilitate action and activity among the members, there is growth.

The Feeling of "Being Church" Is Inviting
This last brings us to a more subjective, qualitative approach to growth and decline: community. Other scientific work in this field highlights this aspect of church life. Deborah Bruce, a researcher for the Presbyterian Church, USA, has written about why people in a congregation invite others to church.[3] According to the survey data she works with, this happens where the people "experience community", participate in "meaningful worship", perceive their church as a "welcoming place" and where "leadership" is "empowered". Spiritual growth is a plus, her study shows, but it is not significant, based on standard statistical measures, as a defining feature of an "inviting" congregation.

These items – community, worship and openness – are unique qualities of a church. It reaches out to people and wants to help them lead better lives. It has no ulterior motive: it is not fundamentally in business to lobby for better housing or support a symphony orchestra or raise funds for disaster relief. It may engage its members in activities related to betterment of local living conditions, promoting local arts organizations or baking cakes for the upcoming bazaar. But its under-girding raison d'etre is to lift up its people for their own sake. Churches that do this with a clear vision of caring and joy show growth, the denominational data specialists and their studies indicate. The churches' own spirit and presence make their members want to share this part of their own lives with others.

But Some Big Questions for the Future
We find ourselves moved by our own words here, and we wish they could be the punch-line to our story. But there is more. The opposite is also true. Our numerical information tells that churches that get fuzzy about their true purpose and mission or that get side-tracked with their own politics seem not to grow. Churches whose worship style is perceived as stilted or even "reverent" tend not to capture the hearts of their worshippers in contrast to those whose services are more joy-filled and include something new or different.

Of specific interest as we look to the future, churches whose congregants are older tend not to grow, in contrast to those that not only welcome children, but give them roles: a children's choir or youngsters who read lessons or have other visible parts in a service or program evidence a substantive concern with children's growth and development. This is a key concern. We see in broader data on church attendance and religious preference by age group[4] that participation by younger people is flagging. An increasing share of young adults have not been growing up in a church at all. We need to pay attention to that trend for more reasons than the sizes of our churches; we need to consider what it means to our society of tomorrow. Stay with us on this topic. We'll consider young adults in more detail next time; we think you'll be surprised at some of what we've learned.

The economics of church: What does church "cost"? And what are the "benefits" that bring it value, especially to young adults? A surprising number of them say there aren't any . . . .

* * * * *

[2] FACTs on Growth is based on the national Faith Communities Today survey, first taken in 2000 and updated in 2005; it polls clergy or other leaders of individual congregations. Kirk's paper can be found on the Episcopal Church website, and also on the FACT website,, which is a program of Hartford Seminary.

[3] Deborah Bruce works with the US Congregational Life Survey; it was first collected on an April Sunday in 2001 from more than 300,000 church attendees of many denominations around the country. A smaller update of it was done in spring 2006 and that included an "over-sample" covering 41,000 Episcopalians. This survey is available at

[4] Religion and church survey work comes from numerous other sources. Two we accessed here are the "General Social Survey" conducted every other year by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center,, and the Barna organization's market research, which we mentioned in our Advent Reading List post about the book unChristian. See for more information. A whole collection of the academic survey data can be found on The Association of Religious Data Archives,, managed by Penn State University. If you want demographic data on your own zip code, that too, including maps, can be found on The ARDA.

We have become acquainted with these data and statistical tools at annual conferences of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion; the latest, where we heard presentations from Kirk Hadaway, Deborah Bruce and numerous others, took place in early November in Tampa, FL.

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