New surveys have revealed one thing: the church has her work cut out for her.
A new study titled “The Great Opportunity” was recently released, and it estimates at least 35 million youths raised in Christian homes will abandon the faith by 2050, and in a “worst-case scenario,” 42 million youths will disassociate from Christianity.
If 35 million youths defect from the faith, Christianity in the U.S. will make up 59 percent of the population by 2050, compared to 73 percent today, and 30 percent of the population will be religiously unaffiliated. If that number rises to 42 million youths, the Christian population will decrease to 54 percent and the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans will rise to 35 percent.
“The bottom line: the next 30 years will represent the largest missions opportunity in the history of America,” the report stated. “It is the largest and fastest numerical shift in religious affiliation in the history of this country.”
The report continued: “While it is hard to find clear data, as far as we can tell, this is the single largest generational loss of souls in history who were nominally raised in the church and no longer call themselves followers of Jesus.”
These numbers are estimations arrived upon by experts at the Pinetops Foundation and The Veritas Forum, both nonprofits focused on cultural trends as they relate to Christianity. The study relies heavily on data from the Religious Landscape Study from the Pew Research Center (2007 and 2014); the Baylor Religion Survey (2007-2011); a September 2016 study from the Public Religion Research Institute; and the Gallup Annual Religion Surveys (1992-2016).
Despite the dismal outlook, these findings present a wonderful — or, in fact, great — opportunity for the church moving forward. It just means we have our work cut out for us, and things might need to look a little different than they do today.
The study stressed the need to double or perhaps triple the current rate of church planting in America. There needs to be more than 215,000 new churches planted over the next 30 years in order to maintain the status quo.
Also, the way churches reach out to youths needs to be overhauled.
The models that served us for the last 50 years are empirically becoming less effective in our current climate,” the study stated. “Even a modest improvement in the rates of disaffiliation will dramatically alter the future of the American church.”
“Historically, the church has often grown by the mission effort of the youth, making them both the largest missions opportunity and the largest missions resource,” it continued. “The majority of the disaffiliated did not go through a crisis of faith or intellectually reject church teachings. They left because they just weren’t interested in the Christian life they saw.”
And that shouldn’t be surprising. In 2015, research found a majority of young people are turned off by so-called “seeker-friendly” churches, whose services feel more like Friday night concerts than Sunday morning worship gatherings.
Data compiled by Barna Group found 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church setting over a “trendy” one. And 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” While they still shied away from “traditional” (only 40 percent preferred it to “modern”), millennials are yearning for authenticity, and the seeker-friendly approach just doesn’t feel genuine much of the time.
Overall, Christians should be encouraged. Just because our approach may need to shift doesn’t mean God is not moving and working in the next generation — my generation. As much as we can forecast, we are not God. We have only one thing to do: make ourselves available in authentic and genuine ways, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us.
Greg Laurie, founding pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, recently hosted his annual Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. More than 100,000 people attended, and 63 percent of them were under the age of 30. Young adults in America are still interested in faith, but as Laurie said, their journeys might just look a little different than the paths of those from previous generations, and the church needs to rise up to meet those changes.