The Great Generational Divide: Religion

Murray, KY – Transcript:

29-year-old Chris Haynes regularly attends Christian Fellowship Church in Briansburg, Kentucky. He says although there's a mix of all ages at the church, older members make up the congregation's main base, affecting everything from the songs played at services to the anecdotes in the pastor's sermons.

Haynes -- When your church members are of an older age they typically fight change. Can you work in video presentations? Can you work in quick changes in your church service, and not upset your main church base to draw in younger people? You know, that's the question.

Haynes' experiences at Christian Fellowship Church illustrate many of the differences between young and old. Haynes says although he was raised a Christian, he struggled with his beliefs during a brief period of his adolescence.

Haynes -- I, like many people, spent some time going through high school maturing and immaturing,' I guess you could say where you digress in your walk. It wasn't until after I graduated I decided this is not the lifestyle that I want to live because it doesn't reflect the gift that I'd been given.

The gift he refers to is a lifestyle he says leads to a good life. However, some would say Haynes is going against the grain among a generation of young adults trending towards secularism.

Parker -- This generation of young people is the least religious, most secular generation of young people that we've seen in a while and that's created a bigger gap between old and young in terms of their religious faith and religious practices.

That's Kim Parker, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC, who co-authored a new study on the gap. She says this generational difference is the product of generational replacement; the transition from an older generation to a younger one along with its unique traits. Parker outlines other differences: older people are more likely to pray and say that religion is an important part of their life. Also, an older person's connection to their church seems to enhance the overall quality of their lives.

Parker -- For older people, church attendance is actually linked to overall happiness but that's not the case for young people, for young people marriage is linked to overall level of happiness.

Chris Haynes identifies with this finding.

Haynes -- I have my faith regardless of my church family. Now, they are definitely an aid to it, but my faith is not based on others. My faith is between me and God. I prize my marriage and my own family above my church family.

For older people, involvement with their church or congregation tends to make them feel more connected with a broader social network of people they can turn to for socializing or needs. Despite these differences, most people of all ages have something in common: they say their religious faith has remained consistent throughout their lives.

Parker -- We thought maybe that older people would say it had gotten even more important as they had aged, but the only older people that said that, were older people who were dealing with some of the difficult issues that can come with aging, such as a serious illness or loneliness or depression.

The American Religious Identification Survey has tracked religious trends in the U.S. for nearly 20 years now. It found denominations losing ground over the last nineteen years with more people claiming no religion. Parker says it may be more socially acceptable to claim no religion than in the past.

Parker -- People who were maybe just Christmas and Easter Christians, but not really practicing Christians, would say that they are religious or have an affiliation and nowadays it may be that people are more comfortable saying that they don't.

Mark Whit is the chairman of the United Campus Ministers Association at Murray State, a group of Christian campus ministries at the university. He agrees that more of today's youth are not buying into the vision of the church and are even less involved in congregations. However, he says, the students he interacts with are more committed to their faith and spirituality than when he was their age some 15 years ago.

Whitt -- I think there's not as much in-between anymore with this generation of students. I think students for a long time have seen a cultural Christianity that they're tired of, and so therefore they're all in or they're all out. There's not much in the middle anymore.

Whitt says it may be because more of their peers are non-religious that students have further developed their religious identities and strengthened their beliefs. He says churches may be to blame for the decline among younger followers because they've been resistant to cultural change and haven't communicated effectively with young people.

Whitt -- Over the past 20 years, we've been trying to hand a generation of students 8-tracks when we're in an iPod world The church really needs to understand the message never changes but how we share that message with this generation may look just a little bit different.

Whitt can often be found at a coffee shop on campus, which he considers a second office. He says it's a great way to connect with students because it's where they are. In spite of the numbers, Whitt says he feels positive about the future.

Whitt -- I know studies sometimes give a very negative output of what the church is going to look like in 25 years from now. But I think our message is a message of hope so I can't be a naysayer and say that it's going to be bad.

Kim Parker says there are no historical indications showing where the trend is headed. Chris Haynes thinks the trend is just temporary. Only time will tell if the gap between young and old, and their differing ideas about spirituality, will continue to widen.

For WKMS News, I'm Chris Taylor.