On Sailing Sinking Ships, pt. II of III

You may have walked away from my last post thinking I sounded pretty darn pessimistic and maybe not a little alarmist. I hope I just sounded realistic, so here's a recap of what I said:
  1. Christianity is experiencing a crisis of "youthfulness," especially with Mainline Protestants (including Episcopalians) and Catholics. All but three Christian groups are above the median age of the US population at large, and Mainline and Catholic Christians are substantially above the average age. 
  2. Sounding this alarm of crisis comes first from these churches failing to mirror the age composition of the general public. It is also because Catholic and Mainline churches are losing people under 35 (often raised in these traditions!) to religious non-affiliation (the so-called "nones") at an alarmingly high rate. This claim of crisis is not (intentionally) some idolization of youth or young people.  
  3. We do not solve this problem by comparing how much less unhealthy we are with other denominations in roughly our same situation; instead, we need to learn whatever we can from those traditions that are doing a good job of retaining and attracting young members. 
Let me say this upfront: I'll primarily focus on Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, and the Orthodox, but I'll also draw on data about the Churches of Christ and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), both of which are only older than the median age of the general US population by two or one years. 

So first let's address the correlation that does not appear significant (read the Pew report here). There does not appear to be a strong correlation between the median age of a particular tradition and its political leanings (I'm excluding the Jehovah's Witnesses here since they are largely unaffiliated politically). It's true that the Mormons are hands-down the most Republican leaning tradition (having both the largest percentage of Republicans and the lowest percentage of Democrats: 70% R and 19% D). However, the Church of God in Christ is almost the political mirror image of the Mormons, with 71% of their members identifying as Democrats and only 14% identifying as Republicans. 

It's not just a matter of extremes, either: the Churches of Christ boast 50% Republican Affiliation and 39% Democrats, which, to the surprise of some readers, is actually 8% more Democratic than the Mainline United Methodist Church (54% R / 35% D). Both 7th Day Adventists and the Orthodox lean centrist Democrat (both have 10% more of their membership identifying as Democrats rather than Republicans, which is the same as the Episcopal Church). 

To further show that there is no significant correlation between political affiliation and youthfulness, you have all three categories (strongly Democrat, strongly Republican, and moderate) among the significantly less youthful traditions. The Southern Baptists and the Church of the Nazarene (median ages of 54 and 53 respectively) are the second and third most Republican denominations after the Mormons. 27% more of the UCC's membership, with a median age of 59, are Democrats rather than Republicans. Finally, the PCUSA, also with a median age of 59, is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans (44% R / 47% D). 

It would be unfair to point to broad political affiliation of these groups but not look at one of the principle dividing issues in the US church: LGBTQ acceptance. Here these youngest Christian denominations are all less accepting of homosexuality than in any Mainline denomination, and especially the Episcopal Church: In 2014, 83% of Episcopalians considered themselves accepting of homosexuality, while the Orthodox came in at 62%, COGIT at 38%, Mormons at 36%, Churches of Christ at 35%, and 7th Day Adventists at 27%. What seems just as important, though, is that there is no strong correlation between a growing acceptance of homosexuality and youthfulness. The Orthodox increased a staggering 18% in acceptance of homosexuality between 2007 and 2014 while the 7th Day Adventists and Churches of Christ increased by only 4%. However, it is worth noting that almost universally all Christian groups showed an increased level of acceptance of homosexuality between 2007 and 2014 (see the full report here).

Second, there does not appear to be a strong correlation with any particular style of worship or liturgy and youthfulness. The 7th Day Adventists and Mormons both grew out of Second Great Awakening revival traditions and often have traditional evangelical-holiness revival style liturgies (hymn singing, proclamation of the word, and testimony). In fact, Mormon worship is both extremely low-church and extremely formal. In the words of a Mormon-turned Anglican friend and colleague, worship is not what keeps people Mormon since "Mormon worship is the worst thing they offer." The Churches of Christ, coming from the hyper-protestant Restorationist heritage have a similar worship tradition. The Orthodox couldn't be farther from these traditions with an emphasis on the formal, visual, tactile, and sacramental aspects of liturgy that outpace most Anglo- and high Roman Catholic congregations. Finally, you have the Church of God in Christ, which, being historically Pentecostal, inclines strongly to high energy music, faith healing, and spontaneity. 

Now, I'm going out on a limb because I don't know as much about Adventist and Mormon worship as I should, but the structural differences between these traditions betray a commonality of spirit: they are all more likely to be rooted in their distinctive, historical worship traditions and are less likely to have given into "trendy" or alien worship traditions as is the case in many contemporary, avant grade, or emerging Church forms found in other evangelical, Mainline, and Roman Catholic churches (for a fascinating look at this, see this article on "Authentic Adventist Worship;" the author is no in principle opposed to contemporary praise band style worship, but didn't "feel" worshipful in a setting that felt too much like entertainment; this is in some ways an inversion of much evangelical/non-denominational worship rhetoric). My sense is that worship in these traditions, despite their significant structural differences, gives younger people the authenticity, community, and historical-rootedness that many of them are seeking and that many of the more polished and trendy forms of worship lack (definitely look at this Barna research on Millennials and liturgical space).  

Third, its important to note that the denominations with a low median age are roughly the same size as the Episcopal Church. Adventists and the Orthodox are about .5% of the population, COGIC is about .6%, Episcopalians are about .9%, Churches of Christ 1.5%, and Mormons make up about 1.6%. So we're not dealing groups that are significantly larger (like Southern Baptists, 5.3%, or Catholics, 20.8%), but we're also not looking at groups so small that marginal changes in membership would have dramatic impacts on median age. In other words, I'm comparing the Episcopal Church to denominations that would conceivably be "peers" from a size comparison, indicating that in principle a more youthful Episcopal Church is possible while at least staying relatively stable in our current numbers. So no excuses for declining numbers. What this may also indicate is that there could be a ceiling in our post-Christendom world for denominations that attract and retain young people. So, some excuses may be warranted for not having dramatic numerical growth. 

But other than being in that .5%-1.6% of the population size window, are there any deeper commonalities between these most youthful of traditions? 

I'm glad you asked. Because there are, and gosh are they significant. 

First, almost all of these traditions can boast the most involved members in US Christianity (involvement is here construed as a combination of regular worship attendance, church membership, and regular attendance at small group gatherings). Mormons come in as the most committed of all Christians in the US (with 67% of Mormons are highly committed to their communities, compared to 43% of Evangelical Christians, 30% with US Christians in general, 20% of Mainline Protestants, and a paltry 13% of Episcopalians). If you want an extremely well done look at Mormon membership expectations, especially youth, take a look at Kendra Creasy Dean's Almost Christian. 7th Day Adventists have the highest rate of participation among Evangelicals and would be the fourth most involved among all US Christians (at 57%). The Church of God in Christ boasts the highest rate of involvement among either charismatic/Pentecostal or historically Black denominations, and would be third most involved among all Christians in the US (see all the data here). You can dig through all the specifics of regularity of prayer, worship, bible reading, and belief, but I'm going to let you in on a secret: they line up more or less the same. These most youthful denominations give the Episcopal Church a wooping when it comes to member involvement. 

You may be noticing a pretty glaring exception here. Orthodox Christians, who represent the most youthful of all Christian denominations in the US, seem to completely buck the trend of being more involved in their communities. Orthodox Americans are slightly more involved than Episcopalians, but they are just about equal with Mainline Protestants in general. So what are we to make of this information? 

Well I'm sorry to disappoint the Orthodoxophiles among my readers, but I don't think it's a matter of the superiority of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Instead, I think we can look to much more pedestrian statistics. 63% of Orthodox Christians are first or second generation immigrants, which in itself is correlated to high youthfulness (look to the relationship between immigration and Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and youthfulness in US religiosity) Orthodoxy has the highest percentage of first or second generation immigrants of any Christian denomination. You combine this with the stronger than normal belief among Orthodox adults in one's cultural superior and that being Orthodox is part-and-parcel of national identity, and you begin to get the sense that Orthodox affiliation may be determined significantly more by a desire to hold on to national or cultural identity as it does with practicing true Christianity (note: I'm not trying to say that Orthodoxy is less productive of authentic Christian belief and practice either. I mean, they are still doing better than the denomination I chose to affiliate with. Just be careful that your infatuation with Orthodoxy isn't a matter of Orientalism, exoticism, or otherwise romanticizing a tradition). 

So what's the takeaway? 

The most significant correlation between retaining or gaining young members is high involvement in personal and congregational practices of faith and life. Churches that have the highest levels of involvement, adjusted for our Orthodox outliers, are the youngest communities. Now, I'm not willing to say what the causal direction is here, but my guess would be that these traditions have strong cultures of expecting active participation. While this may seem counter-intuitive to many people, it shouldn't: having high expectations of people communicates that what you're participating in matters, and one of the things younger people are most desirous of is the sense that they are making a difference and investing their time wisely. 

The bad news is that we as Episcopalians are doing a really crappy job on the expecting things of our members front. We aren't the worst of all US Christians when it comes to congregational involvement, but we're pretty close. 

The good news is that local congregations don't need to feel the pressure to be something they're not. Because there isn't a strong correlation between either worship style (other than expressing something that is authentic to one's community) or political affiliation and youthfulness, high-, broad-, low-, conservative, moderate, and liberal Episcopal Churches can all provide a welcome home for young people. But they have to resist the natural self-preservation urge that says that expecting things of people will drive them away. Instead, attracting and retaining young people may actually be a matter of ramping up our membership expectations. Imagine that. 

In my next post, I'm going to step back and take into consideration some of the significant caveats to looking at Church vitality primarily through a lens of quantitative growth. Stay tuned for that.  

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