NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Despite recent media reports that young adults are running from churches in droves, the beliefs of many younger unchurched people are more connected to historic Christian beliefs than many suspected.
More 20-somethings than people 30 and older believe in the God of the Bible, the resurrection of Christ and the uniqueness of the Christian God, according to research of unchurched individuals released by LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Unchurched 20-somethings are more open than their older counterparts to hear more about Christianity — though they do tend to hold negative views of the church, according to the research.
The data is reported in a new book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them, by Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research director; Richie Stanley, team leader at the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research; and Jason Hayes, LifeWay’s young adult ministry specialist.
Hayes said the study, conducted via two telephone surveys in 2007, disputes “much of what we’ve read, heard and even told ourselves” in recent years about unchurched young adults being disinterested in Christianity. In reality, he said. “They are open to Christianity.”
Stetzer, Hayes and Stanley pointed out that church attendance among young adults hasn’t dropped off as much as previously thought. According to surveys conducted between 1972 and 2006 by the General Social Survey, a biennial research project, church attendance among young people is higher than it was in the 1990s and no more than 10 percent below its peak in the early 1970s.
The screening question for the study — “Have you attended a religious service in a church, synagogue, or mosque, other than for special events such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past 6 months?” — produced a sample of 900 unchurched respondents age 20-29 and 502 adults over 30.
For the most part, the theological beliefs of unchurched 20-29-year-olds are closer to historic Christianity than the beliefs of older generations who are unchurched. According to the study: More than 4 out of 5 of the younger group (80 percent) believe in God — 8 percent higher than unchurched adults 30 and older. Additionally, 57 percent of 20-somethings are more likely to say “there exists only one God, the one described in the Bible” — nearly 10 percent higher than older adults.
Unchurched 20-29-year-olds also affirm the uniqueness of the Christian God at a higher rate than their elders. While 67 percent of unchurched individuals over 30 say the God of the Bible is no different than the gods of other religions, only 58 percent of 20-somethings agree.
Unchurched 20-29-year-olds even affirm the central doctrine of Christianity — the resurrection of Christ — at a higher rate. Two out of 3 individuals (67 percent) in their 20s say they believe Jesus rose from the dead. Only 54 percent of older unchurched adults believe this.
“Unchurched young adults are open and believe many of the things that Christians believe, but they still need to be reached for Christ,” Stetzer said. “The challenge today may not be convincing them that there was a resurrection, but convincing them there was only one that brings them new life — and that new life is lived out in a community called ‘church.’“
While 20-29-year-olds hold some more historically Christian views than their elders on a variety of core teachings, many also have nagging concerns about the church. Nearly 40 percent of respondents in their 20s believe the church wouldn’t approve of their lifestyle choices. Thirty percent of older adults have the same concern.
“We need to have an accurate understanding of exactly who we’re hoping to reach,” Hayes said. “Churches wanting to connect with this (younger) generation need to be informed and prepared.
“The world is watching, and young adults are looking to see a real and authentic faith from Christians. It’s not enough for the church to simply believe the right things. Our actions must be connected to these convictions as well.”
The LifeWay Research survey carries a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error is 2.5 percent.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Perry is an Atlanta-area writer.)