Editor's Note: A recent Gallup Tuesday Briefing article noted that over the last 10 years the growth of mainline Protestant congregations in the United States has not kept pace with that of the overall population (though evangelical congregations have seen rapid growth). That trend may change as congregation leaders learn more about how to better engage their members -- but as George Gallup Jr., notes below, a 21st century resurgence could be helped by other factors as well.
Three key demographic groups in the United States appear to be poised to revitalize religion during this century: African-Americans, the "Millennials," (those born between 1982 and 2003) and the "pre-retirement army" (people between the ages of 50 and 64). Other highly religious groups -- such as Hispanics, Asians, and women -- could certainly play a role as well, but the sheer numbers, level of spiritual energy, and focus of members of the first three makes it likely that they will be the vanguard of any spiritual renewal.
1. African-Americans. African-Americans are among the most religious people in the country, as indicated by a wide range of Gallup measures on church membership, attendance, importance of religion in one's life, the ability of religion to solve the problems of the world, and the like.
In a book I wrote with Tim Jones, The Saints Among Us, we reported that blacks are twice as likely as whites to fit the profile of "highly spiritually committed." Furthermore, churches in predominantly African-American communities to provide important social outreach programs (see "Black Churches: Has Their Role Changed?" in Related Items).
2. The Millennials (labeled as such because the first wave graduated from high school in the year 2000). This group -- which includes all of today's school children -- is a group to watch simply because of its sheer numbers. Approximately 40% of the world's population is aged 19 or younger. In the United States, there are currently more children and youth in school than at any other time in U.S. history.
But it's more than numbers. Perhaps reacting to what might be described as the excesses of their parents' generation, young people today (teens and those in their early 20s) are decidedly more traditional than their elders were, in both lifestyle and attitudes. Gallup Youth Survey data from the past 25 years reveal that teens today are far less likely than their parents to use alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. (See "Teens and Substance Abuse: Generation "No" in Related Items.) They are less likely than their parents to approve of sex before marriage or having children out of wedlock. And they overwhelmingly seek spiritual growth in their daily lives. This is coupled with a keen interest in helping people who are less fortunate than they are, especially in their communities. (See "Teen Volunteerism: A Model for America".) Today's youth appear destined to make a strong impact on religion and spirituality in the decades ahead.
3. The Pre-Retirement Army Sometimes called "the Builder Generation," this high-energy group accounts for about one fifth of the U.S. population. Despite their advancing age, Gallup data indicate that almost half of this group describe their health as excellent or very good -- only slightly less than the figure for the nation as a whole. One-fourth have graduated from college and half of those have done graduate work.
People in this age group -- about 50 to 64 -- are among the most religious segments in society. Seven in 10 say that religion is either the most important or a very important influence in their lives -- a higher percentage than that recorded for younger Americans. Compared to all other age groups, those in the pre-retirement army are most likely to say that their lives "belong to God or a higher power."
Many churches have given little thought to the enormous impact that this changing demographic can have, if called forth to share their time, talents and considerable material abundance. This group's potential looms large if its members can abandon the mindset that they should be winding down and instead grasp the concept that their lives and careers to date are only a prelude to what is to come.