Religious Conversion and Emerging Adults

This is a little bit different post than I usually do on my blog, but these are things worth thinking about.  I hope you think so too.

Christianity Today recently selected Christian Smith’s book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, as a book of the year. Smith has done a follow project on the study previously released as Soul Searching.  The first book was a survey of American teens, this book is a follow-up study on those same teens as they enter early young adulthood (18-23).

The part I want to talk about here has to do with how denominations are doing among this age group.  Other sections of the book would reveal that emerging adults in every denomination are less likely to attend worship weekly, pray on their own, or read the bible on their own.  But the kind of Christianity which they find attractive is also significant. The four categories of Christians discussed in Smith’s book in the section on religious conversion are Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, and Roman Catholic.

Here are some summaries.

Of those who were Mainline Protestants at age 13-17, by age 18-23 they will be
51% Mainline Protestant
19% Conservative Protestant
1% Black Protestant
1% Roman Catholic
26% Non-religious or indeterminate

Conservative Protestant teens will be
64% CP
10% MP
2% BP
3% RC
20% Non or Ind

Black Protestant teens will be
55% BP
21% CP
2% MP
3% RC
19% Non or Ind

Roman Catholic teens will be
66% RC
6% CP
3% MP
<1% BP
23% Non or Ind

These are all rounding to the nearest percent, so the numbers may not add up to 100%.  I also didn’t include the other religions because combined they equal less than 1%.  (Except for, interestingly, Mainline Protestants who were 2% likely to be a non-Christian but religious person.) He also includes some denomination specific numbers, but frankly these numbers are insignificant because the representative sample from any given denomination is small.  Some relatively large samples that changed are (Methodists decreased by about 23%, Baptist lost 19%, independent/nondenominational increased by 44%).

(All of these numbers come from my calculations based on the weighted numbers from his chart on 109.)

The first observation is that all of these groups have a net loss, which isn’t reflected in these percentages but is in Smith’s chart.

The rest of it is not very surprising.  Only about 1/2 of Mainliners will stay there.  Roughly the same amount will become a more “conservative” Christian as will leave religion altogether.  My conservative friends have long said that the lack of teaching and commitment among Mainline Protestants will leave young people spiritually bankrupt.  But they may be surprised to find that these young Mainliners are just as likely to find their way into a different kind of Christianity than to find their way out of it.  The inculturation of being a Christian worshiper, in any form, helps prepare them for the evangelical message of more conservative Christians. This may not be of any comfort to Mainline churches who are struggling to survive however.  The fact that they are being faithfully Christian somewhere else doesn’t help keep the lights on.

Conservative Protestants have a higher retention, but they are far more likely to move to non-religious than to another kind of Christianity.  This is likely due to the premature “crisis” of faith which evangelical Christianity often creates when they pressure young people to make a commitment of faith.  It introduces an either-or proposition that will sometimes lead to a negative.  Imagine the teenager who experiences a weekly altar call for 18 years, but is not yet sure of their faith.  It becomes pretty easy to simply run when they are no longer required to attend church by their parents.

Roman Catholics have similar retention to the Conservative Protestants, but their young people are far more likely to be non-religious young adults, almost to the same extent as Mainline Protestants.  While they too have a more clear either-or distinction which creates a certain amount of loyalty, Christian education among Catholics and Mainliners is not emphasized nearly as much as among conservatives.  The religious education seems to make a difference in retention.

Frankly, I don’t know enough about Black Protestantism to make significant contribution, except to say that sociological barriers  mean that the small number of converts to Roman Catholicism or Mainline Protestantism is not surprising to me.

Looking at these numbers from another perspective can also be illuminating.

of the Mainline Protestants at age 18-23, when they were age 13-17 they were from
53% Mainline Protestant
29% Conservative Protestant
2% Black Protestant
9% Roman Catholic
1% Non-religious or indeterminate

Conservative Protestant emerging adults were
71% CP
8% MP
8% BP
6% RC
7% Non or Ind

Black Protestant emerging adults were
79% BP
10% CP
2% MP
2% RC
6% Non or Ind

Roman Catholic emerging adults were
90% RC
4% CP
1% MP
1% BP
4% Non or Ind

The most surprising thing here was that almost no one converts to Roman Catholicism during this age group.  Experience tells me that the 4% of Conservative Protestants who convert to Roman Catholicism do so on very heady and theological grounds.  Roman Catholicism long history of theological discourse is appealing to some evangelicals who have experienced relatively shallow theological discourse.

Almost no non-religious persons find their way into Mainline Protestantism.  Some Conservative Protestants will land there after being disillusioned with their own tradition (which is my reading of the significant number that come to Mainline Protestantism from Conservative Protestantism).  But nearly no young people  who are non-religious find enough appealing in Mainline Protestantism to be converted.  This is not a good sign for MP leadership.  If MP leaders are going to take “church growth” seriously among these young people, it seems that “catching” falling Conservative Protestants is a legitimate call. I know that many become disillusioned with their bible churches or charismatic churches and they need somewhere to go if they are not to give up the faith altogether.  I think Mainline Protestants just need to embrace that calling at this time in their history and make what they can of it.  The plus side for them is that many of these people have been patterned into high levels of commitment and involvement, both of which are needed among young adults in Mainline churches right now.

Of course, the non-religious people didn’t convert to ANY of these traditions in significant numbers.  The higher numbers among more evangelical churches (BP and CP) is not a surprise. But even they saw relatively small numbers (6% and 7%, respectively). At the same time, the nonreligious and indeterminate categories together more than doubled (324 as teens to 690 as emerging adults).

Its hard to say much about Conservative Protestants in this regard, except to say that they are equally likely to see their potential converts come from Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism as they are non-religious.

OK….this data seemed more interesting when I started it.  Now that I have done some analyzing, it seems that the only significant thing that I learned is that Mainline Protestantism has a significant ministry among the 36% of Conservative Protestants that leave that category.  This may be the most important growth opportunity among young Mainliners as well.  They actually need these CP folks who come into MP churches.  How will Mainline churches reach out to them?  How will they cast their nets in that direction.  The other thing that I learned: Roman Catholicism either needs to take their “new evangelization” more seriously or change their tactics.  Again, I don’t know enough about RC to say for sure.  My hunch is that Roman Catholics are doing very little to evangelize non-Catholics.  Its time.

What other observations do you have that I have left out?  Do you think any of my analysis is off base?


  1. says

    I see this as insightful and accurate. I ended up in a MP denomination after my CP (southern baptist) rejected me for based on my sexual orientation (not on any act-just the orientation.

  2. says

    Sometimes, denominations die as a result of not depending on the Holy Spirit. The problem with most people is that they probably weren't presented with the Gospel properly. Today, most Gospel presentations don't present our inherent sinfulness and forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ alone, or they offer a universalist, works-based approach. Some people do hear the Gospel and decide that their favourite activity (usually sex) is more important than their relationship with Christ. Many do not surrender to the Holy Spirit in conforming them to the image of Christ. Too many people do not take the Word of God seriously and begin questioning any part of the Bible (whether Leviticus or Romans), because of their being taught Bible "stories" in childhood; it then becomes viewed as a collection of stories and how we relate to these "stories," rather than letting God speak to them by His Word; and while we are on the subject of Biblical illiteracy, He sometimes calls our favourite activities Sinful.

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