Going to church is now a minority activity

Confessions of a young, churched Baby Boomer: 10 signs the world has changed
Part 1 of a series

Dec. 4, 2022

By Rev. Rick King

Are you familiar with the Beloit College Mindset List? Actually, it’s now being compiled and published by Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, but UCC-affiliated Beloit College originated the list and published it every August from 1998 to 2018 to help college faculty understand the experiences and mindset of students matriculating at colleges and universities in the U.S.

The title of the book that came out of the Mindset List in 2011 gives you a pretty good idea of the list’s purpose: “The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal.”

Let’s start with church attendance habits and people under age 25. Church attendance is now a fringe activity, and what we mean by the term “regular church attendance” has actually come to be characterized by IRregularity.

Post-pandemic, we all remember how tentatively people came back to in-person worship. Well, according to surveys of religious affiliation and behavior even before COVID-19 upended everything, fewer and fewer people were attending public worship, and attending less frequently than in prior decades.

The 2020 Census of American Religion, published by the Public Religion Research Institute, gives you a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.

All our old assumptions about religious community, and worship in particular, are falling to the reality of the mindsets of people our churches SAY they want to reach–but are unequipped to do so.

For example, just because we now livestream our worship each week doesn’t mean we’re reaching people who don’t share any of the formative experiences of older generations–for example, people for whom movies have always been distributed on the Internet, who don’t use a checkbook or have ever had to lick a postage stamp, or for whom hybrid and electric vehicles have ALWAYS been mass-produced. (I’m indebted to Carey Nieuwhof for these items cherry-picked from the Mindset List.)

What’s more, over 10 years ago I noticed that what counts as “regular church attendance” had dropped from three out of four Sundays a month in the mid-1990s to once a month in the early to mid-2000s. People are searching and seeking, but remain uncommitted to a faith community a lot longer than a decade ago, IF they ever commit to a single community.

There are many more of these trends which we’ll be looking at in the coming weeks, but the big takeaway for us should be twofold:

  • Our church is not alone in experiencing the ramifications of these massive, profound cultural shifts and generational differences; and
  • Part of being a faithful member of a religious community involves, to quote that prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “seeking to understand, rather than to be understood.”

We need not be frustrated or baffled by these mindset differences and the challenges they present to the survival of American religion—but the Holy Spirit is up to something equally massive and profound in the midst of all that has changed and is changing.

What do YOU notice in the people under 25 whom YOU know? (DO you know people under 25?)