Welcome to the club, Christians

In an article in Christianity Today titled “The Leavers,” author Drew Dyck informs the fairly conservative Christian readers of that periodical that young Christians are leaving religion behind:

At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace, released last month. They reported that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”

There has been a corresponding drop in church involvement. According to Rainer Research, approximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29….

This is not a new trend for us Unitarian Universalists — at a rough estimate, only 15% of the people raised as Unitarian Universalists stay with it as adults. Welcome to the club, conservative Christians! (Oh, and by the way, could you please send the folks who leave your churches our way? — some of our best Unitarian Universalists are people who were born into conservative Christian churches, and left as young adults.)

4 thoughts on “Welcome to the club, Christians

  1. Steve Caldwell


    The demographic trends described in the article should be of concern for Unitarian Universalists.

    First, as you mentioned, a large number of our adult convert members are recruited from those who have left traditional Christianity. If Christianity is shrinking in North America, then this source of potential Unitarian Universalists is also shrinking.

    Second, the increased acceptance of the unchurched option in our communities means that humanist, atheist, and agnostic membership numbers in Unitarian Universalism may also drop. Prior to the 1960’s, regular church attendance and membership were expected community norms and our congregations benefited from this expectation.

    I blogged about this several months ago:

    “UUA Demographic Trends and ‘Tipping Points'”

    If the rest of the US follows the New England trend for religion and Unitarian Universalism decline where our culture becomes something like Denmark or Norway, we may want to ask ourselves how do we market Unitarian Universalism in an increasingly non-religious culture.

  2. Dan

    Steve @ 1 — Yes, these trends should be of serious concern. I’m definitely concerned. However, I’m also amused that some conservative Christians are just now catching up with this social trend towards a non-religious culture. Having said that, I’m also amused that some Unitarian Unviersalists haven’t yet caught up with this trend. Denial is a wonderfully powerful force.

  3. Tom Wilson

    Before getting too caught up in schaudenfreude about conservative Christians – do we have sub-demographics about what the leaving rates are by flavor of Christian? Even if Chistianity Today just discovered the trend, I had the impression that this was worse problem for the liberal/mainstream Christian churches.

  4. Dan

    Tom @ 3 — Christana Wille-McKnight was doing some research on this a couple of years ago, when she got interested in comparing Unitarian Universalists to mainline Protestant denominations for the percentage of adult members who grew up in the denomination. It’s very hard to get these numbers, and several denominations she contacted simply couldn’t give her any meaningful info, while others could only estimate. But among the mainline Protestants she contacted, the lowest retetntion rate was the United Church of Christ (our closest denominational relative), which retained about 45% of the people who grew up UCC — UUs, by comparison, stand at about 15%, much worse than UCC.

    As far as whether this is worse for mainline churches — the 2009 Yearbook of the National Council of Churches reported a decline in the Southern Baptists, who previously grew nearly every year. Of the top 25 largest denominations, only four actually grew. The Yearbook says in part:

    “According to the 2009 Yearbook, among the 25 largest churches in the U.S., four are growing: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.63 percent to 5,873,408; the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent to 2,863,265); Jehovah’s Witnesses (up 2.12 percent to 1,092,169); and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. (up 2.04 percent to 1,053,642).

    “There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline, says Editor Lindner. ‘Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers — the “Gen X’ers” or “Millenials” in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them.'”

    Summary of the NCC report is here: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/090130yearbook1.html

    In summary, two basic points: UUs retain an appallingly low level of people who were born UU; and it looks like the declines in membership that mainline and liberal denominations ahve been getting used to are finally hitting many of the conservative denominations.

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