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In this chapter, Wuthnow provides an analysis of the different religious traditions to see which ones are best reaching the younger generation. Wuthnow breaks down the religious traditions this way:

  • Evangelical
  • Mainline
  • Black Protestant
  • Catholic
  • Jewish
  • Other Faith/Nonaffiliated.

The charts reveal how important younger adults are to the major traditions. At least 40% of the adherents of every major faith tradition are between the ages of 21 and 45. Still, younger adults make up a smaller proportion of the adherents today than they did a generation ago.

Evangelicals have done well in retaining a good percentage of younger adults, but the proportion of evangelicals in their twenties has dropped dramatically. It’s even worse for the mainline denominations – from 1 in 6 in the 1970’s to 1 in 10 today.

Catholics, black Protestants and Jews have maintained a high proportion of younger adults and show remarkable stability. (Wuthnow offers some reasons later in the chapter to explain why this is so.)

Wuthnow believes that media reports have exaggerated the “tremendous growth, vitality, and rising influence” of American evangelicals. Among younger adults, the proportion of those who identify themselves as evangelicals has not risen. Compared to the mainliners, evangelicals have indeed done well in successfully attracting new recruits. But the result of evangelical growth has not come from mainliners (in fact, the number of younger adults switching from mainline denominations to evangelicalism has decreased), but from former Catholics.

Evangelicalism has seen dramatic shifts in recent years, most notably in the move from the small towns and rural areas to the suburbs. One of the key reasons why evangelicals have grown is because of their outreach to new movers. 66% of converts to evangelicalism have moved somewhere other than where they were living when they were 16.

Evangelicals and mainline Protestants have faced the same social changes, but evangelicals have definitely adapted better.

Evangelicals have the upper hand also when it comes to retaining younger adults. Why is this the case? First, geographic mobility is higher for people in mainline denominations, causing doors to other denominations to open more readily. Secondly, the two traditions differ in the timing of marriage (evangelicals marry younger). Also, the education level of evangelicals is 30 years behind their mainline counterparts.

I won’t go into as much detail regarding the black Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Suffice it to say that the Catholic numbers, at least, have been bolstered by immigration.

Regarding other faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) and the non-affiliated, these numbers are rising sharply. Retention rates are very high (above 90%), as many immigrants hold on to their religious identities as they come to the United States. 25% of those in the “other faiths category” have converted from another faith.

On Monday, we pick back up and take a look at recent trends in religious beliefs.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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