American Twentysomethings

Margaret Feinberg is an award-winning journalist, speaker, and writer. Her new book, Twentysomething: Surviving and Thriving in the Real World, offers an insightful perspective on the challenges inherent to living through your twenties. thESource interviewed Margaret to provide further insight into being twentysomething and American. Read on to learn more!

@: From your perspective, would you agree or disagree that today’s “twentysomethings” are the least churched generation in America? If agree, why do you think this is the case? If disagree, why do “twentysomethings” carry this stigma?

 Margaret: Studies show that twentysomethings are one of the least churched generations. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 39 million twentysomethings in the United States. Of those, an estimated 10 million twentysomethings (or 25 percent) are attending church and active in their faith. That compares with those ages 40 and older, of whom 50% are active church goers. In essence, twice as many people over age of 40 go to church as compared to twentysomethings.

Barna Research has shown that that church attendance bottoms out during the late 20s when the vast majority of students have transitioned from education to the workforce. Just 22% of those ages 25 to 29 attended church in the last week. The scary fact: Many twentysomethings are reversing course after having been active church attendees during their teenage years. As teenagers, more than half attended church each week, according to the Barna study. That represents about 8,000,000 twentysomethings alive today who were active church-goers as teenagers but who will no longer be active in a church by their 30th birthday.

These are big numbers, but there’s another little demographic trend taking place in our generation as well. Twentysomethings are getting married later. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, since our parents’ generation, the median age of marriage for men has risen from 22 to 27, and the median age of women has risen from 20 to 24.

The church has not kept pace with this demographic shift. Most churches are designed for the family. You have Sunday school and youth group. There is support for mothers of preschoolers and men who want to become better fathers. You have marriage retreats and other events which are designed for people who are generally married and/or have kids. When a 25-year-old never married twentysomething walks into that church, it’s hard to figure out exactly where they fit in. They are too old for the youth group and two young for the singles group, which often consists of oddballs or people shopping for a date–neither of which is very comfortable.

In a perfect world, you don’t go to church in order to serve yourself. But the reality is that most twentysomethings need to have something or someone in a church that they can really identify with that will keep them attending. They need a group of people or a ministry outlet that says “This is me.” When they don’t find it, they find better things to do with their Sunday mornings.

@: In general, how do today’s twentysomethings see God? Who do they say that He is?

 Margaret: Today’s twentysomethings see God and their Christian faith different than their parents generation. The baby boomer generation often has maintained what I like to call a “fortress mentality” when it comes to issues of faith. In other words, they want to protect their children and their beliefs from any outside influence that could cause harm. Many twentysomethings today are busting out of the fortress mentality and looking for ways to engage culture and look for ways to dialogue with the world about the basic tenants of Christianity.

As a general example, the fortress mentality would encourage believers to stay away from all R-rated movies without exception, avoid reading The DaVinci Code and attend only Christian schools. Many twentysomethings today are coming along and looking for ways to use films–including some R-rated ones–as a way to dialogue with unbelievers about themes. They’re reading the The DaVinci Code so they can rebut the mistruths and they’re signing up for secular schools because they want to influence their world.

@: In your book, Twentysomething: Surviving and Thriving in the Real World, you mention the “twentysomething crisis.” For the sake of our readers, what is this crisis? How does this crisis translate into a twentysomething’s relationship with God?

Margaret: The twentysomething crisis is a time that happens when those of us who have gone through nearly twenty years of a semi-sheltered home and school setting released into the real world to sink or survive on our own. It’s the struggle that emerges when there is no obvious or definitive way of getting from point A (graduation) to point B (living successfully on your own). While some find the challenge invigorating, many twentysomethings find it downright overwhelming. The twentysomething crisis is what happens when you begin asking all the questions that can’t be resolved in a 3am couch discussion including “Who am I?” “What the heck am I going to do with my life?” and “Where is God in all of this?”

The twentysomething crisis provides a real faith testing point with God, because it emerges during one of the first times in life that you’re on your own. It usually hits between the ages of 23 and 25, though some twentysomethings encounter it earlier or later. Basically, you’re on your own and you have to determine how the God of the Bible is the God of your life. In other words, how do all those Bible stories you read and the life of Jesus translate to your roommate situation, your job place, your longing for a mate, your dreams, your fears and your blue moments. It’s the moment when you wake up and realize that Sunday school pat answers don’t cut it any more and you need to know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for yourself.

@: You mention that many twentysomethings struggle with concepts of purpose. How does current American culture add to this problem? In your opinion, what are some practical things a church worker could do to minister to this lack of purpose in a twentysomething’s life?

Margaret: Purpose is an enormous issue for my generation. We long for it, largely because it provides an anchor for our souls. It gives us tracks for the journey and reminds us of where we’re heading even when we feel like we’ve lost our way.

Church workers need to address the issue of purpose whenever working with twentysomethings. It’s important to dialogue with this generation rather than provide easy answers. Talk about what the Bible says about purpose. Challenge twentysomethings to pray about their purposes. Create activities which help them solidify and map out their purpose in no uncertain terms.

@: What cultural factors impede a twentysomething’s journey to the Church? What, if any, of those same factors can be used to draw twentysomethings into the Church?

Margaret: Recently, someone was trying to tell me about a street in a town I had only visited a handful to times. He said, “It’s Village Street.” I didn’t recognize it. “It’s the one by the golf course,” he explained. I looked at him blankly. “It’s the one that the Factory Outlet Malls are on.” “Oh!” I said excitedly. “I know exactly where that is.”

The person was giving me the obvious information, but I needed him to express the information in terms that I could understand. Many twentysomethings today walk into church and find the experience dry, boring and irrelevant. The truth may be presented, but it’s being done in a way that doesn’t connect and doesn’t make much sense. The look in the pews or seats and see people who aren’t their age, listen to music they don’t like and a message they don’t understand.

The church can be more sensitive to twentysomethings by making sure the message presented isn’t too churchy–and can be understood by anyone who walks in off the street. Cultural cues–whether it’s a reference to a show on MTV or VH1 or the latest episode of Survivor–can go a long way to provide an “aha” moment for a twentysomething. The quality and the style of music can be upgraded. And most importantly, a warm community can be created that will make any twentysomething feel welcome.

@: If you had to guess, what do you think American culture will look like in 30 years, when today’s twentysomethings are at the reigns of this nation? Will it be better? Worse? Unchanged?

Margaret: I think the answer to that question rests in how the church responds to this generation today. As the statistics in the first question demonstrate, we’re losing this generation. It’s not too late. We can win them back. If we–as the future leaders of this country–are anchored in Christ and have another 30 years to grow in our relationship with Him as a part of the church body, then there’s no telling what kind of wondrous things God will use us to do. But if we lose this generation–and possibly the one to come–then we’ll be losing a lot than just some church attendance. There’s really a lot more at stake.

To purchase Twentysomething: Surviving & Thriving in the Real World, click here!

(NOTE: This link is provided as a service to thESource users and should not be considered an endorsement of the site. A new browser window will open and you will be redirected away from the LCMS Synodical server.)


Published October 1, 2004

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