02 Engagement with Spirituality & the Church

Engagement with Spirituality & the Church


Faith-Friendly, if Not Faithful



Several nations included in this study are secularized or now witnessing a decline in religion’s influence, something Barna has recorded in detail in previous research specific to the U.S. and Europe. In this study, just over one-fifth of 18–35-year-olds (22%) was raised outside of a religious tradition. Three in 10 (29%) identify as atheist, agnostic or simply irreligious today.

When looking at the whole, however, there are steady, even surprising signs that 18–35-year-olds remain appreciative of or personally receptive to faith. We glean this from some willingness to affiliate—half of this sample (51%) are Christians of some stripe, and one in five (20%) belongs to Islam (8%), Hinduism (4%) Buddhism (4%) or other faiths—but also from favorable, and widely held, opinions of the concepts of spirituality or religion.

A Spiritual Awareness

Overall, 18–35-year-olds around the world express an overwhelming openness to spirituality—or, at least, the possibility of a spiritual dimension. Three-quarters are either certain spiritual forces exist (47%) or admit they think they may exist, even if they are unsure (28%). Only 8 percent reject the idea altogether. Though certainty wanes among young adults who identify as atheist, agnostic or irreligious, nearly half are open to the possibility of a spiritual realm (18% are certain spiritual forces exist, 29% think they might).

These numbers are, predictably, even higher among the one in four respondents who practices a religion (by Barna’s definition, practicing faith extends beyond affiliation alone to an expressed personal value of one’s faith and at least monthly attendance in a community of worship). An embrace of the spiritual is naturally commonplace for practicing Christians as well as those who practice other faiths (94% and 89%, respectively, are certain or think spiritual forces exist), compared to those who are atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated (47%). There is an interesting divergence with non-practicing religious respondents—that is, those who identify with a faith but do not see it as very personally important or do not regularly attend a worship community. While four of five practicing Christians (81%) express complete certainty that spiritual forces exist, slightly less than half of non-practicing Christians (45%) share their confidence. This trend is also present among practicing and non-practicing members of other religious traditions (73% vs. 47%).


Naturally, this correlation between belief in the spiritual and personal religious practice can be seen collectively across religious climates. More than four in five respondents from more religious cultures express openness to believing in spiritual forces (83% Christian, 87% multi-faith), but nearly two-thirds living in what Barna describes as post-Christian or secular environments (62%) share the same openness.

However, there are some barriers to belief in a spiritual dimension—a top one being spiritually engaged people themselves. One in three young adults (32%) says that hypocrisy of religious people causes them to doubt things of a spiritual dimension. Science also challenges respondents’ willingness to believe (31%). In keeping with the generations’ global awareness and inclinations toward justice, more than a quarter of 18–35-year-olds points to human suffering (28%) or conflict around the world (26%) as reasons they might have doubts. All of these factors prove to be bigger obstacles among people who don’t identify with a religion (46% science, 43% hypocrisy of religious people, 35% human suffering, 32% conflict in the world). Though this ranking of reasons to doubt follows a similar pattern among religious respondents, the plurality of practicing members of Christianity (40%) and other faiths (31%) says nothing makes them question the reality of spirituality.


General Warmth Toward Religion

While this generation concedes the existence of spiritual forces—a slippery term that can have a variety of definitions—does this mean they are similarly open to organized, religious understandings of spirituality?


Overall, more than half of the 18–35-year-olds polled (57%) feel that religion is good for people; one in five holds a neutral opinion or asserts religion is bad for people (21% each). Young adults give similar responses when asked about religion’s value to society in general, with more than half (53%) saying it is important, rather than a detriment (24%).

Those who engage meaningfully with their faith espouse the benefits of religion, both for individuals (89% among practicing Christians and 84% among those practicing other faiths) and society (86% and 81%). Non-practicing members of faith traditions fall more in line with the average in their warmth toward religion. Unsurprisingly, more opposition appears among those who do not identify with a faith: Around half of these respondents view religion as bad for people (48%) or a detriment to society (51%). Still, even among the irreligious, one-fifth regards religion as a positive thing for individuals (21%) or societies (18%).

Here, too, we see a pattern across different faith climates. In more religious contexts, two-thirds of respondents welcome religion as a good thing for people (66% Christian, 65% multi-faith) and crucial for society (63% and 61%). In secular contexts, less than half feel the same way (45% say it’s good for people, 40% say it’s important to society), with one-third expressing concern about religion’s impact instead (30% say it’s bad for people, 33% say it’s a detriment to society).


Acting on Spiritual Interest

Do these mostly positive views about spirituality and religion at large seep into the identities or daily actions of young adults? About three in five respondents agree at least in part with the statement “My religious faith is very important to my life today” (35% strongly agree + 26% somewhat agree). These numbers are slightly higher in countries with strong religious climates (73% Christian, 72% multi-faith) and markedly lower in secular climates (42%).

Half of all 18–35-year-olds in the study (51%) say they participate in private prayer at least monthly. These percentages climb for respondents who also call themselves religious (72% Christians, 56% other faiths), but even among those of no faith, 13 percent report praying on their own at this frequency. (Among Christians, particularly practicing Christians, there are boosts in engagement in prayer and a number of other spiritual disciplines, as explored on page 74.)


Media for Spiritual Growth

How does an often device-dependent, hyper-connected generation invest time in learning about faith? Barna presented respondents with several media-driven tools for spiritual growth, asking if 18–35-year-olds use these faith-based resources on a monthly basis:

  • worship music (29%)
  • books (28%)
  • videos or TV (23%)
  • podcasts and radio broadcasts (22%)
  • social media (22%)
  • none (48%)

Naturally, those who don’t claim faith are highly unlikely to pursue any of this content (86% “none of these”). All religious respondents favor these options similarly, with the exception of worship music, which Christians are much more likely to listen to (46%, compared to 22% of people of other faiths). Still, about one-third of members of Christianity (32%) and other religions (35%) doesn’t use any of these media to learn from religious speakers and leaders.


While these responses suggest a dynamic spiritual disposition in this generation, percentages for regular attendance of religious services aren’t particularly notable. Of those who are part of a faith group, slightly more than half say that they attend religious services on a monthly basis (31% once a week + 14% a few times a month + 7% once a month). Another quarter of those who are part of a faith group says they attend at least once a year (12% a few times every six months + 12% once or twice a year). Those who qualify as practicing religious respondents, however, exhibit great consistency: Seven in 10 in these segments attend a religious service on a weekly basis (71% practicing Christians, 69% practicing other faiths).

All things considered, 18–35-year-olds around the globe—though occasionally concerned about or even hostile toward religion—appear to lean into the spiritual dimensions of their lives. And, for a devout minority, these predilections turn into vibrant, rewarding disciplines.


Spiritual Openness

How Religious Context Relates to Religious Practice



In learning about the faith of 18–35-year-olds in 25 countries around the world, Barna wanted to focus not only on personal faith but on faith environments. By looking at religious climates or cultures, we gauge spiritual norms and dispositions for young adults in various contexts.

It’s clear that, in environments where religion is culturally impactful, it is also seen as personally important. (See page 14 for a breakdown of how Barna determined this study’s three religious climates and how the locations included in this study are categorized.) In countries where religion has broad societal influence, 18–35-year-olds are more likely to strongly agree that faith is very important in their life—both in Christian contexts (48%) and in multi-faith contexts (44%) On several measures, we see this expressed value of religion carried out.


Religious Affiliation

Across the religious climates, there are predictable patterns in religious affiliation in young adults’ present lives as well as their growing-up years. Those who live in non-Christian or multi-faith contexts are most likely to say they have always been religious (84%), followed by Christian cultures (69%) and then secular climates (51%). In the last, there is a greater chance of always having been irreligious (28% vs. 12% Christian climates, 8% multi-faith climates) or of having left the religion of one’s youth (14% vs. 11% Christian climates, 4% multi-faith climates). Similarly, if an 18–35-year-old grew up identifying with a religion, there’s a greater chance they were at least somewhat active in that faith as a teen (73% Christian climates, 69% multi-faith climates, 56% secular climates were “very” + “somewhat” active).

Affiliation in secular climates is rather low; 41 percent of respondents in these regions identify as atheist, agnostic or with no faith. In Christian climates, Christianity naturally leads as the majority religion, with two of three young adults in these contexts (65%) claiming the faith. Meanwhile, three-quarters of those in other or multi-religious environments are affiliated, usually with major world religions like Islam (34%), Hinduism (20%) or Buddhism (16%).


Religious Services

Attendance of religious services (other than weddings or funerals) is understandably higher in areas where a religion still has significant cultural influence. In Christian contexts (41%) or in cultures characterized by other faiths (32%), the plurality of young adults who belong to a faith group attends a service once a week or more (compared to 15% of those in countries with predominantly secular societies). More than seven in 10 religious respondents in climates shaped by Christianity (73%) or other faiths (71%) attend at least a few times every six months; less than half of religious respondents in secular contexts (44%) report attending a religious service with this kind of frequency, with as many as one-quarter (26%) saying they never attend.

What brings these 18–35-year-olds with a record of regular attendance into their place of worship? Regardless of their religious climate, most indicate a desire to deepen their spiritual knowledge, a reason that is especially popular in nations that are or were influenced by Christianity. Growing in faith (65% Christian climates, 50% secular climates, 46% multi-faith climates) or learning about God (63% Christian climates, 47% secular climates, 37% multi-faith climates) top the list of motivations. Practicing respondents in Christian cultures continue to emphasize this theme, being more likely to express a desire for wisdom and relevant teachings. (See page 92 for more about why Christians participate in their worship community.) Across contexts, there is a somewhat pervasive sense that attending a place of worship is a means of living out one’s faith (39% Christian climates, 36% secular climates, 28% multi-faith climates) or that it is simply the right thing to do (34% Christian climates, 28% secular climates, 30% multi-faith climates).


Religious Expression

Those in Christian contexts lead across a range of other spiritual practices, including personal and group prayer (65% and 41%, respectively), reading scripture (36%), telling others about their beliefs (30%) and attending small groups (17%)—disciplines that are particularly central to the Christian faith.

A general sense of faith-motivated generosity, however, is important to respondents in all religious areas. Those in cultures shaped by Christianity or other religions are more likely than those in secular contexts to volunteer their time (25% Christian climates, 25% multi-faith climates, 17% secular climates) or give to a place of worship (25% Christian climates, 22% multi-faith climates, 10% secular climates), and those in multi-faith climates are especially inclined to give to local charities (26% vs. 17% Christian climates, 15% secular climates). This could be because those in religious contexts are likely to say their belief system motivates them to give of their time (56% Christian climates, 56% multi-faith climates, 37% secular climates) or their resources (48% Christian climates, 48% multi-faith climates, 30% secular climates) to help others in need. In Christian climates, 18–35-year-olds are particularly inclined to feel concern for others’ welfare (56% vs. 44% multi-faith climates, 44% secular climates) or take a stand against injustice (51% vs. 41% multi-faith climates, 40% secular climates) or corruption (54% vs. 43% multi-faith climates, 33% secular climates).

Ministry Across Religious Climates

A Q&A with Nicky Gumbel, Jackson Ole Sapit and Dr. Jayakumar Christian

Conflicted Views of Christianity



For church leaders, one of the welcome (and perhaps unexpected) findings of this report is the apparent openness that 18–35-year-olds feel toward spirituality and religion (see page 58). But does that warmth extend to Christianity specifically—even in an era when, as other Barna studies note, secularism is on the rise in some countries and many young Christians are reluctant to discuss faith?*

Generally, there is a (mostly) sunny outlook toward the Church in this study. Just about half of young adults say the Church is good for people (55%) and important to society (52%), far exceeding the roughly one in five who sees the institution as harmful to people (20%) or a detriment to society (22%). These proportions aren’t quite as large as those who report similarly positive views of religion, broadly speaking, but still speak to approval of the Christian faith.

Depending on a young adult’s personal religious context, however, this warm regard toward the Church sometimes cools.


*Barna has explored these themes in many studies over the years, mostly in the United States but also some European countries. Recent findings are available in Barna reports including Reviving Evangelism, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, The UK Church in Action, Finding Faith in Ireland and Transforming Scotland.


Young Adults in Secularized Nations Still See the Church as Important

To some extent, views of the institutional Church may be shaped by the religious environment in which an 18–35-year-old lives. For instance, most young adults living in one of the 12 Christian nations in this survey describe the Church positively, as good for people (65% vs. 16% who say it’s harmful) and important to society (63% vs. 18% who say it’s detrimental). There are a number of reasons 18–35-year-olds in these contexts may have a favorable view of the pervasive religion of their nation, whether because they see Christianity as a common good or merely a cultural norm.

In other faith climates, even though there may not be a large Christian presence, there also seems to be a deep respect for the institutional Church. About half of the young adults in multi-faith contexts describe the Church as a force for good, for individuals or society (51% and 46%, respectively). Many also consider it a neutral presence, though three in 10 describe the Church as harmful to people or detrimental to society (14% and 15%, respectively).

In nations that could be regarded as having post-Christian or secular religious climates, responses are evenly distributed and closer to the average. This suggests warm opinions of Christianity may linger even when an environment becomes irreligious, pointing to the power of shared traditions and religious history. These young adults are still inclined to view the Church as both a personal good (45% vs. 26% who say it’s harmful to people) and a public asset (40% vs. 30% who say it’s detrimental to society).


The Church Has a (Mostly) Good Reputation

Zooming in from the national to the personal level, there are other patterns in young adults’ perspectives of Christianity depending on their religious affiliation or practice.

The majority of Christian 18–35-year-olds is assured of the value of their religion (77% say it’s good for people, 73% say it’s important to society). Likewise, members of faiths other than Christianity tend to see the Church in a positive (49% say it’s good for people, 45% say it’s important to society) rather than negative light (18% harmful for people, 20% a detriment to society). Agnostics, atheists and those of no religion, however, are more skeptical of the Church’s benefit (42% say it’s harmful for people, 47% say it’s a detriment to society).

Reviewing responses to a number of other possible descriptors for the Church—negative, neutral and positive—highlights some of the challenges facing the reputation of present-day Christianity. For instance, though plenty of 18–35-year-olds say Christianity is a faith they respect (37% “a lot”) and presents good values and principles (33% “a lot”), one-third describes it as “anti-homosexual” (32% “a lot”).

Naturally, the responses of Christians, especially those who are practicing, significantly buoys the sample’s overall opinion of the Church as friendly, respected and loving. Though, as the chart details, believers seem willing to note some criticisms of Christianity as anti-homosexual, judgmental or hypocritical. Meanwhile, young adults without a religious faith—atheists, agnostics and “nones”—confidently back many of the negative statements about Christianity and express the least agreement with positive statements.


“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

This study looks at not only what 18–35-year-olds around the world believe about followers of Jesus, but also what they believe about Jesus himself. Who do they think Jesus is? Of several options presented, the most commonly chosen is “the Son of God” (57%). Roughly one-fifth calls him “a prophet” (23%), “a historical figure” (21%) or “a miracle worker” (20%). Christians overwhelmingly agree with his identity as God’s Son (87%). Atheists, agnostics and those of no faith tend to see Jesus though a less divine, even fictional lens, as “a historical figure” (29%) or perhaps just “a character from a story” (28%) or “a myth / legend” (23%), though one in four still says he is “the Son of God” (24%). It’s possible this reflects their recognition of how Jesus is regarded within the Christian faith rather than a statement they believe to be true.


Young adults who belong to other faiths, perhaps because they still carry an appreciation for religion, are less critical of the Church’s nature. This could also stem from a general sense that Christian teachings aren’t all that distinctive. Across a number of factors—including national religious climate, religious affiliation and even practicing faith— young adults believe that present-day Christianity, to some extent, teaches the same basic ideas as other religions (overall, 50% “some,” 23% “a lot”).


Non-Christians Identify Christians by Their Church Attendance

In John 13:35, Jesus says that people will know his followers because of their love. So, how do people today know someone is a Christian? What notions or defining traits come to mind when 18–35-year-olds think about members of the Church?

Overall, when respondents were asked to select among a list of qualities or behaviors, the three most frequently chosen indicators of Christian faith are a belief that Jesus is the Son of God (62%), a habit of praying to God (57%) and church attendance (55%). The least frequently chosen indicators include caring for the poor and vulnerable (29%), taking sacraments (26%) and avoiding immoral behavior (25%).

Christians themselves are eager to associate their fellows with all of the possible descriptions— with the notable exception of church attendance, which they are actually less likely than others to see as a marker of Christianity (49%, compared to 63% of members of other faiths and 59% of members of no faith). For these Christians, a concept of genuine faith goes beyond sitting in a service to a (largely internal) adherence to certain beliefs. To those outside the Church, participation in a worship community is the benchmark of Christianity, though there is still a widespread acknowledgment of Christians’ core belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

However they recognize people of faith, non-Christians who personally know Christians believe good things about their faithful friends. The majority either holds a positive opinion (46%) or considers Christians to be no different than anyone else (40%), with only one in eight non-Christians (13%) expressing a negative opinion about a Christian peer. Those who practice another faith are exceptionally warm toward members of Christianity, usually holding a positive (63%) or at least neutral (31%) view of these individuals.


With this generation’s observed degree of warmth toward the Church, at large and especially one-on-one, there is reason to hope that—through personal relationships and the collective efforts of the Church—Christians can better communicate their distinguishing beliefs, expand the conception of their tradition (beyond church attendance alone) and cultivate a fuller understanding of the Christian life.

Young Adults & Christianity Around the World

The Growth of Pentecostalism

A Q&A with Rev. David Oginde, PHD

Connecting Through Worship

A Q&A with Taya Smith

The Continued Impact of Teen Faith



Church leaders longing to understand the religious profile of today’s young adults may need to start with yesterday’s teens. Most 18–35-year-olds who grew up religious weren’t just along for the ride; two-thirds indicate that, during their teen years (for some, a not-so-distant memory), they were actively engaged in the faith of their upbringing (27% very + 40% somewhat active). Further, this experience usually correlates with clinging to one’s faith into adulthood; most of those who were very actively religious in their teens (87%) have neither changed nor left that religion, with small percentages saying they switched (6%) or abandoned (6%) faith at some point down the road. Meanwhile, a much higher percentage of those who were inactive in their faith as a teen (23%) have gone on to leave religion entirely.

This trend holds when looking at Christians specifically. Most of the respondents who have always been Christian were at least somewhat active in practicing their faith as a teenager (32% very + 41% somewhat active). This is especially true of those who regularly attend church and highly value their faith today (53% of practicing Christians were very active in their teenage faith).

Of course, teenage faithfulness isn’t always a guarantee of lifelong commitment; nearly half of young adults who have left the Christian Church still report having been active in their faith during their teen years (14% very + 32% somewhat active). Looking at those who are no longer Christians, there’s a general antagonism toward their late faith (see page 89)—however, divide this group to study those who had a high level of faith engagement in their teen years, and you’ll find a remnant of reverence toward the Church. They are more likely than former Christians whose teenage roots weren’t as strong to continue to call Christianity good for people (34% vs. 25%), important to society (31% vs. 19%) and a faith they personally respect (20% vs. 11% “a lot”). They also more readily identify Jesus as the Son of God (41% vs. 29%). Some aspects of their youthful devotion or theological understanding seem to stick with them even after their religious identity has shifted or faded.


Traits of Continued Commitment

Looking at 18–35-year-olds who have always been Christian, those who were more enthusiastic about their religious practice in their teens show greater conviction surrounding certain faith statements. These active respondents are often about twice as likely to strongly agree with tenets such as the Bible’s total accuracy (52% vs. 24% of those who have always been Christian but weren’t active in their faith during their teen years), salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ (47% vs. 25%) and a responsibility to share one’s religious beliefs with others (36% vs. 15%). Affirming that their relationship with Jesus brings them great joy (61% vs. 32% strongly agree), they are more likely than Christians whose faith was inactive during their youth to say they hope Jesus is reflected through their words and actions (56% vs. 28%).

Though this study doesn’t cover what behaviors, exactly, respondents associate with having been very active Christians in their teens, it does speak to their various spiritual disciplines in the present. In many cases, Christians with fervent teenage faith experiences are exponentially more likely than other lifelong believers to nurture their adult faith. This begins with church attendance, which is the norm for this group of Christians who look back on a faithful youth (39% vs. 16% who attend at least once a week). Beyond services, these Christians’ monthly habits indicate a robust personal and corporate spiritual practice, whether praying on their own (77% vs. 58%) or with others (50% vs. 23%), reading scripture (44% vs. 22%), giving money to places of worship (33% vs. 15%) or attending small groups (23% vs. 9%). They seek out other ways of growing spiritually through media, particularly worship music (53% vs. 27%) and books about faith (44% vs. 22%).

As in other points of this research, the presence of a spiritual network—both then and now—is a factor in depth of discipleship. Lifelong Christians whose faith was already highly engaged in their teens often report having had church friends of older generations during their upbringing (40% vs. 15% of those who have always been Christian but weren’t active in their faith during their teen years strongly agree), and more than half can point to a present relationship that encourages their spiritual growth today (53% vs. 29% strongly agree). Further, spirituality in youth correlates with sensitivity and generosity toward one’s community in adulthood; a majority of these Christians senses a call to give of their time to help people (61% vs. 44%), be concerned about others’ welfare (59% vs. 48%) and stand up against injustice (51% vs. 41%) and corruption (51% vs. 38%).

Teenage faith activity is clearly impactful (yes, even when left behind). However the seeds of adolescent faith are watered—by one’s environment, religious climate, church teaching, relationships or personal diligence—the data underscore the importance of focusing on developing young disciples who will take ownership of their Christian identity for the long term.


The Role of Relationships in Faith Formation



“As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend,” scripture tells us—and this study speaks to the truth of that Proverb. Among 18–35-year-olds who identify as Christians, close to half (46%) strongly agree there is someone in their life who encourages them to grow spiritually. Another third (32%) somewhat agrees with this statement—meaning, however, that a little more than one-fifth (22%) lacks this kind of relational and faith support.


Having a spiritual mentor or encourager is more common among practicing Christians (73% vs. 29% of non-practicing Christians), and those who say they have always been Christians are more likely than those who came to the faith later (46% vs. 34%) to acknowledge a spiritual mentor. This could be due to the fact that they’ve had more time to establish meaningful connections in their faith community. As suggested in the previous article, there may be ties between longevity of faith and the spiritual encouragement of others, particularly during one’s formative years. For instance, those who know someone who supports them in their spiritual development are more likely than other Christians to have been very active in their faith as a teen (36% vs. 16%). Further, four in 10 of those Christians who have spiritual encouragers today (40% strongly agree) look back on having had adult friends in their church while growing up (compared to 10% among Christians who don’t know someone who presently supports their spiritual growth).


Having guides in one’s faith journey correlates with a number of positive experiences or traits. Eighteen to 35-year-old Christians who presently know someone who encourages them spiritually are also more likely to express optimism about the future, feel able to accomplish goals or recognize someone who believes in them. Compared to Christians without a friend who champions their discipleship, they feel a deeper connection to the world (64% vs. 45%) and events within it (82% vs. 70%). Spiritually, they have good things to say about religion in general, the Church at large as well as their own local church, in which they are more likely to find everything from opportunities to serve the poor to leadership training. These trends are more subtle but still apparent among those who had multi-generational community at church in their youth.

The data can’t show which comes first: Are spiritually supportive friends a byproduct of strong faith and faith communities? Or do such relationships truly reinforce one’s ties to both Christianity and church? What is clear is that, for the young adults around the world who cling to Christianity, there is a powerful communal aspect to personal spiritual development.


A Profile of Committed Catholics



In this study, a sizeable proportion of 18–35-year-olds is influenced by, if not a current member of, the Catholic community. One-third of the sample lives in a nation where Catholicism is the primary religious presence. Today, one in four respondents (24%) identifies as Catholic—though one-third says they had a Catholic upbringing (33%). Catholics, even if only in identity and not in regular practice, are still just as common in post-Christian or secular climates as Christian ones (27% each), speaking to the Catholic Church’s strong hold even in secularizing contexts.

Comparing former and current religious affiliation, however, shows a dramatic shift in Catholicism. We see this particularly among residents of Latin and South American nations included in this survey; though 63 percent of young adults in these regions say they grew up Catholic, less than half (47%) identify as such today. Meanwhile, among young adults who now identify as atheist, agnostic or irreligious, one in four (23%) considers themselves a former Catholic. These statistics track with other records that show notable declines not only in membership, but in the priesthood, especially in the wake of institutional scandals.22 Rates of weekly attendance in North America and Western Europe continue to track downward.23 At the same time, some regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, are seeing a surge in Catholic adherents, and there are even striking examples of a growing, diverse group of American Millennials who aspire to become Catholic sisters.24 Clearly, Catholicism is at yet another complex turning point in its long history. And in looking at the Christian expression of 18–35-year-olds in 25 countries, we have an opportunity to create a unique faith profile of Catholics across geographies and cultures—and to learn what drives some of the most active participants in the Catholic Church today.


What Motivates Catholics Who Regularly Attend Services?

Just over one-fifth of self-identified Catholic adults in this study (22%) reports attending a religious service weekly. Another quarter says they attend a few times (16%) or once (8%) a month. Most have more sporadic attendance habits, with 17 percent indicating they do not attend services outside weddings or funerals.

Given the centrality of the mass and Eucharist in Catholic tradition, these attendance rates seem quite low, and on many measures Catholics’ enthusiasm for church engagement lags behind their Protestant peers (44% of whom attend services at least once a week). Even in Christian climates, weekly attendance among Catholics climbs only to 31 percent. But what can we learn from the minority of Catholics in this age group who participate in their churches with great frequency? And in what other ways are they present and practicing throughout the week?

The overwhelming majority of Catholics, regardless of current involvement with the Church or their religious climate, says they were raised in their denomination—but those who attend weekly stand out in that they were also “very active” in their faith as teens (52% vs. 27% of all Catholics) and still regard their faith as “very important” (77% vs. 53%). Today, they are primarily motivated to participate in church to “grow in their faith” (65% vs. 53% of all Catholics) and “learn about God” (62% vs. 49%). Forty-three percent say involvement in a worship community is central to their faith practice; it’s how they “live out their faith.” Through it, they hope to gain “teachings that are relevant to life” (40% vs. 29%) or “wisdom to live faithfully” (38% vs. 27%) and “apply scripture to life” (34% vs. 22%). Specific aspects of the service are also more important to these Catholics, such as worship music (32% vs. 22%), prayer events (32% vs. 22%) and sacraments (31% vs. 22%). Outside of mass, regular attendees remain prayerful and are more likely to study scripture than their peers who attend less often.

So what might hold back 18–35-year-olds who embrace a more nominal expression of their Catholic faith? Among those who identify as Catholic but infrequently or never attend services, barriers relate to the Church’s reputation, as shown in strong resistance to politicization (80% who never attend, 75% who infrequently attend) and corruption in the Church (74% and 69%, respectively). Many also see flaws in church teachings (70% and 62%, respectively). Overall, more than three-quarters of Catholics who have some connection to Christianity but never attend church (77%) say it’s simply not an essential part of their faith—similar to the percentage of weekly attendees who disagree with this statement (79%).


A Collective Effort

Community is crucial for Catholics who regularly attend church. About one in four self-identified Catholics—regardless of the frequency with which they attend services—says they participate in church to be involved in a community or to attend alongside family. They also all agree on the main thing missing from their experiences at church: friends. Still, two-thirds of weekly attenders (66%) enjoy the company of someone who encourages their spiritual growth. These encouraging relationships set apart these more-involved Catholics in secular cultures; 61 percent know someone who encourages their spiritual growth, compared to just 16 percent of those who attend infrequently or never in a post-Christian or secular religious climate.

The power of such community crosses denominational lines: Similar proportions of Protestants who attend church regularly also benefit from spiritually supportive friendships (73%).


There are some signs of a sense of duty among engaged Catholics, who see church attendance as one of the top ways to identify a Christian (61%). But weekly attendees also report being part of dynamic communities of faith that involve them as members and harness their passion for justice. Through their participation in church, they feel inspired to live generously (42% vs. 30% of less frequent Catholic attendees) and gain a better understanding of the needs of the poor (42% vs. 27%) and marginalized (34% vs. 24%), who they are given opportunities to serve locally (34% vs. 24%). They feel like teammates (41% vs. 30%) and see chances to contribute at church (37% vs. 27%). Empowered with a better understanding of their purpose (62% vs. 52%), they are better helped to live out their faith in the workplace, too (42% vs. 33%).

This study can’t say whether these Catholics attend more often because of these positive environments, or if these are some of the benefits of first being more present in a faith community—but the data show that, across religious climates, these are the pronounced experiences of young Catholics who interact with their places of worship frequently and fervently.


The Future of the Catholic Church

A Q&A with Father James Mallon, Father Peter Wojcik and Father Marco Tulio Gómez, S.J.

From the Outside Looking Back



One of the main findings of this research is that 18–35-year-olds around the world are generally warm toward faith, including Christianity, even if they are not religiously engaged themselves. Standing in contrast, however, are young adults who grew up Christian but no longer identify with the religion (a group referred to by David Kinnaman as “Prodigals,” as covered on page 95). Instead, they hold extreme stances against the Christian faith. In fact, they often express similar or even more negative ideas about the Church than do young adults who have never had personal connections to it.


Just 13 percent of the 18–35-year-olds in this study fall into this segment of former Christians, and they tend to live in countries with post-Christian / secular or Christian climates. Their departure from Christianity rarely leads them to another faith; today, this group usually identifies as not religious (47%), atheist (18%) or agnostic (17%). Half (51%) strongly disagree that religious faith is very important to them now.

Four in 10 of these no-longer-Christians are reluctant to say they still hold respect for the Christian faith (41% vs. 39% of young adults who have never been Christians say “not very much”) or that it shows love for others (40% vs. 35% “not very much”). Similar proportions say the Church is actually a detriment to society (43% vs. 33%) or harmful to people (40% vs. 29%).

Other responses from church dropouts offer some clues as to why these adverse feelings exist. A strong majority says they want to distance themselves from the politics of the Church (89%) and that the institution is corrupt (85%). Six in 10 say the Church (61% “definitely not” + “probably not”) doesn’t make a difference when it comes to issues related to poverty and justice. And—much more than those who have never been Christian—those who have left Christianity see it as hypocritical (46% vs. 29% of those who’ve never been Christians), anti-homosexual (44% vs. 30%), judgmental (44% vs. 26%), too involved in politics (32% vs. 20%) and out of touch with reality (32% vs. 22%).

Given that these young adults say their beliefs just don’t align with church teachings (84%), it’s not surprising they also diverge in their perceptions of Jesus. Though about one-third calls him “the Son of God” (35%), those who have left Christianity are more likely than those with other experiences of Christianity to describe Jesus outside of a divine context, preferring to see him as “a historical figure” (35% vs. 19% of adults who have always been Christian, 22% of adults who have become Christian, 19% of adults who have never been Christian), “just a man” (26% vs. 5%, 8%, 19%), “a myth / legend” (21% vs. 4%, 9%, 16%) or even “a character from a story” (27% vs. 6%, 10%, 18%).

As much of this group is now irreligious, there are predictable dips in their likelihood of participating in spiritual disciplines, whether reading scripture (8% vs. 24% of all 18–35-year-olds), volunteering (17% vs. 22%), praying on their own (25% vs. 51%) or with others (9% vs. 29%).

There are some signs that, though they’ve separated from the religion, these once-Christians have not cut off all ties to their former faith community. Even with the unfavorable feelings mentioned above, a majority in this group (88%) still knows someone who practices Christianity—and for the most part, they hold positive (44%) or at least friendly (40% “neutral”) views of these individuals. Interestingly, though many think they do not fit in at church (76%) and that it’s difficult to connect with people there (70%), some still say they may become more active in church later in life (33%).

Should they return, these former Christians will be looking for substance. As it is, they are more likely than young adults who have always been outside the Church to see flaws or gaps in Christian teachings (86% vs. 74%), which they believe cannot address their questions (81% vs. 71%), their day-to-day life (79% vs. 68%) or real issues in society (69% vs. 65%).


Making a Case for Church

A Q&A with Tish Harrison Warren

What Draws Christians to Church?



Just over half of 18–35-year-old Christians in this study (54%) attend church at least once a month, including one-third (33%) who are in the pews once a week or more. Three in 10 (30%) attend less frequently. A small group of Christians (10%) says they used to go to church, but no longer do.

Despite their fairly consistent presence in the pews, almost half of Christians (44%) say that attending church is not an essential part of their faith. Practicing Christians, defined in part by their regular attendance, are less likely to feel this way, though one-fifth in this group (21%) still agrees. But even if belonging to a community of worship isn’t always seen as essential, young Christians who attend church point to many reasons their participation may be fruitful, most of which pertain to personal spiritual development.


Church Is Primarily Seen as a Place to Grow Spiritually

About six in 10 Christians in this study say they participate in their community of worship to grow in their faith (63%) and learn about God (61%). These two options are by far the top responses, though other main motivations also relate to learning, such as receiving relevant teachings (40%), wisdom for how to live faithfully (39%) or wisdom for applying scriptures (35%). This desire for spiritual instruction persists even though four in 10 Christians in this age group (39%) say they have already learned most of what they need to know about faith, and nearly half (47%) say church teachings have flaws or gaps. (Interestingly, among those who have left the Christian faith, negative feelings emphasize the quality of teaching, which a majority in this group sees as irrelevant or unable to address their questions or daily lives. See page 89 for more about this group of church dropouts.)

For some, aspects of the service or liturgy stand out as reasons to engage with a faith community. More than one-third (37%) says they attend for the worship and music—though this is a more popular answer among Protestant respondents (50% Protestants vs. 22% of Catholics). On the other hand, sacraments (selected by 14% of all Christians) receive more emphasis among Catholics’ responses (22% vs. 7% of Protestants). (Read more about how Catholic respondents relate to the Church on page 83.) These groups are similarly likely to see readings and recitations (15% of all Christians) as a driver for their church participation.

Some motivations for attending church speak to a sense of obligation or discipline. Four in 10 (40%) say church attendance is how they live out their faith, and one-third (33%) feels it’s just the right thing to do. One in five notes that they participate in church because of their family (20%) or for their children (18%).


Young Christians Would Like More Company at Church

What do 18–35-year-old Christians who attend church wish was a part of their worship community? Encouragingly, when asked to identify from a list what might be missing from their church, the plurality response (20%) is “none of the above.” However, nearly one-fifth (18%) says their friends are absent from their church experience. This may be partly due to the fact that religious affiliation and engagement has generally declined among younger adults, particularly in secular contexts—but regardless of the religious climate in which these Christians live, friends are still identified as the main thing missing (20% in secular climates, 18% in Christian climate, 14% in multi-faith climates). Relatedly, social gatherings outside of services (14%), relationship workshops (14%) or support groups (13%) are also among the top things lacking from young Christians’ church experiences.

Meanwhile, social aspects of church life—such as community involvement (24%), small groups (14%), multigenerational friendship (14%), support groups (13%), gatherings outside of service (12%) or mentors (9%)—aren’t commonly selected as reasons for participation. Just 14 percent say they attend because someone in their worship community cares deeply about them. The rare mention of these relational reasons for church engagement is perhaps less of a reflection of the stated priorities of young adults and more of a reflection of the perceived offerings of their church environments. In other words, maybe young Christians don’t see community as a primary motivator to be at church because their community doesn’t exist there to begin with. After all, half of 18–35-year-old Christians (50%) say people at church are judgmental, perhaps one reason some of them feel they don’t connect well (35%) or fit in (23%) with a church community.

A similar trend occurs when it comes to opportunities to fight injustice or oppression. This is low on the list of reasons that Christians already participate in their church community (11%), yet comparatively high on the list of things they would like to see more of (17%, just behind the percentage who say “friends”). Still, about one in five does say their church engagement involves caring for the poor and needy (22%), their community (21%) or the world (19%). (See page 112 to learn more about how 18–35-year-olds feel their church is making a difference in the world.)

Clearly, Christians in this study are thinking seriously about their personal spiritual development—but, as members of a connected generation, they hope their community might be included in and improved by this effort. There appears to be a sense that “church life” is distinct from their social circle or even from the issues and problems facing the world. How can churches create attractive environments where spiritual development is better integrated with the whole of young Christians’ lives—where discipleship feels less like self-help and more like a group effort?

Why Resilient Faith Matters



We spend a lot of our time at Barna thinking about and exploring the ways faith is shaped—the positive and negative impact of leaders, the influence of physical places, the meaning of rituals and the stickiness of relationships, among many others. Of course, research has limitations; any good researcher should admit this. Yet social research is better than our best guesses and helps to cut through the clutter of anecdotes.

I have been writing about the next generation for a while now, starting in 2007 with unChristian and then in 2011 with You Lost Me, trying to help Christian leaders prepare for the Church’s future. The data Barna gathered in those studies tell us a lot about what the Christian community, particularly in a U.S. context, was getting wrong when it came to forming young disciples—which is helpful information for making necessary course corrections.

But our team also knew, from conducting over 100,000 interviews with teens and young adults across more than a decade, that churches were getting some things right. But which things? It was time to do more research.

In Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon, my coauthor, Mark Matlock, and I contend that accelerated cultural change prompts us to revive the biblical metaphor of exile as a helpful description of today’s Christian experience. We call this place of exile “digital Babylon”—comparative in size and power to the ancient empire that took God’s people into captivity, but armed with weapons we willingly use on ourselves: our screens.

Like it or not, screens disciple. Yes, they inform and connect. But they also distract and entertain. Increasingly, they are the grid through which we evaluate what’s true or false, what’s real or not. Through their ubiquitous presence and our unthinking consumption, the values of Babylon—power, pleasure, prestige—are discipled right into our hearts, minds and souls.

Mark and I identify four groups of exiles, young adults who share a Christian background: prodigals, nomads, habitual churchgoers and resilient disciples. In adulthood, they demonstrate marked differences in their beliefs and practices. One in 10 U.S. young adults raised in church is a resilient disciple—and by looking at what they have in common, we can observe the kinds of faith-forming environments that are most valuable for passing on vibrant, lasting faith to the next generation.


Introducing Exiles


Prodigals grew up Christian but no longer identify themselves as Christian.

Nomads identify as Christian but do not regularly attend church.

Habitual churchgoers identify as Christian and attend church at least once a month, but do not qualify as resilient disciples.

Resilient disciples identify as Christian and (1) attend a local church regularly and engage with their faith community above and beyond worship services, (2) trust firmly in the authority of the Bible, (3) are committed to Jesus personally and affirm his death and resurrection and (4) express a desire for their faith to impact their words and actions.


Because that’s the hope, right? That our faith communities would raise children and teens who grow into adults who know, love and follow Jesus, and who steward his Church into an unknown future with courage and wisdom. We believe those who are best equipped to do so are “resilient”—that is, they not only maintain faith during adversity but actually deepen their confidence in and commitment to Christ through the challenges they face. They are resilient against superficial Christianity, which inoculates so many churchgoing youth to the power of the gospel, and resilient against the faith-corroding enticements of digital Babylon.

My friend Steve, who spent many years in healthcare, reminds me that to understand well-being we have to study the habits of the healthiest people, not just the maladies of the sick. Similarly, Jesus told the parable of the sower to demonstrate that his kingdom grows from good soil. In that spirit, our research among resilient disciples has yielded “soil samples” we can analyze to find out what cultivation factors contribute to their healthy, flourishing discipleship.

Faith for Exiles details what we discovered in the U.S. When it came time to launch the global research for The Connected Generation, our team wondered if we would observe similar patterns of Christian faithfulness around the world. In short: yes! Resilient disciples can be found in each of the 25 nations included in this study, and across Christian traditions and denominations.

This generation doesn’t just want to know whether Christianity is true; they want to see that it is good. So let’s not breeze by this remarkable fact: God has placed, is preparing and is already using resilient young Christians around the world. If you’re wondering what God is up to and where the Church may be headed in your nation, talk to a resilient disciple.

Resilient Faith in the Global Context

In the global study, we discovered that roughly one out of seven 18–35-year-olds (13%) who grew up as a Christian has the marks of a resilient disciple. One-third of connected generation Christians are habitual churchgoers, who are active in a faith community but lack some or all of the marks of resilient faith. The remaining young exiles are either nomads (37%), who still call themselves Christian but have lapsed in faith practice, or prodigals (21%), those for whom the label no longer fits. (There are far too many in these latter two groups. More than half the global audience of young adults with a Christian background report faith in decline. It’s a holy privilege for us to listen to and respectfully retell the stories of those who de-convert; they are not easy to hear. Even as this chapter focuses on the exemplars of resilience, let’s not forget to pray for and reach out to nomads and prodigals.)

Our team found strong quantitative corroboration of anecdotal evidence we’ve been seeing for years: It is more difficult to be a Christian with resilient faith in a post-Christian or secular climate than in a Christian or even a non-Christian or multi-faith religious climate. As the chart shows, the experience most common to young adults raised Christian in a secular climate is that of the nomads—that is, lapsed faith.

The work of disciple-making is not easy in any context, but barriers are often more easily surmounted in a majority-religious climate. Regular churchgoing and high-priority spiritual life are simpler propositions in a culture that also values religious practice.

These findings are stark evidence that secular climates are hard on resilient faith. Digital Babylon is uniquely unfriendly to exiles who want to follow Christ. Context matters. If you’re in a post-Christian or emerging post–Christian context (such as the U.S.), discipleship faces rough headwinds on the path to resilience. You’ll likely have the wind at your back if you’re in a majority-religious setting, but there are unique challenges for discipleship in those environments, as well. If you want to make and be a resilient disciple, understand your context.


Defining Discipleship

The point of studying resilient disciples is not to draw theological lines but to help us think through how we define discipleship. People from different cultures or Christian traditions may disagree on the merits of the factors we selected to define this group. You may find them to be either too lenient or too stringent; you might have chosen different qualifiers. That’s fine! Even if you don’t use our metric, you need a metric.

How are you defining effective discipleship?

What does resilient faith look like in your context?

One of the things we’ve learned in more than three decades of research is that you get what you measure. If you only measure warm bodies—a church packed with Millennial and Gen Z attenders—you get spectators to the faith. You get young people who are not prepared to be in-but-not-of the world. You get young adults who say they are Christian but are not wholly transformed by the light of the gospel or the power of the Spirit.

You get nomads, prodigals and habitual churchgoers.

Resilient young disciples, as we define them, don’t happen by accident. What are you measuring?

There are times and places where faith is at the center, and times and places where faith is pushed to the margins. In digital Babylon, where information and things are instantly available at the godlike swipe of a finger, Almighty God has been squeezed to the margins. This transition—from faith at the center to faith at the margins—is nearly complete in post-Christian climates such as the UK, Canada, Germany and Australia, and fully underway in still majority-Christian United States. In order to make disciples in this newly unfriendly culture, we have to adapt our methods and priorities. With that in mind, Faith for Exiles offers the following as the goal (and, therefore, a metric) for discipleship: to develop Jesus followers who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion and who live a vibrant life in the Spirit.

Though we’ve had tremendous international collaboration and input for this specific research effort, I am conscious of our team’s perspective (and limits) as a group primarily made up of American Christians. But I believe this definition of discipleship, even though it’s coming from a particular cultural reality that is not shared by everyone, can be helpful to Christian leaders in many different cultures. Let’s unpack each of the component parts.

To develop Jesus followers. Our ultimate aim must be to make deep, lasting connections between young people and Jesus, “who initiates and perfects our faith” and endured the cross and its shame to joyfully redeem the world (Hebrews 12:2). Those who follow him also undertake his joyful mission of redemption.

Who are resiliently faithful in the face of cultural coercion. Resilience is a hot topic in business circles, and for good reason; it’s what a person, team or company needs in order to emerge from inevitable challenges not only intact but also with refined skills and deeper wisdom. In the realm of faith, resilient disciples grow more like Jesus, not in spite of but because of their location in a society that exerts enormous coercive power, as in digital Babylon.

And who live a vibrant life in the Spirit. These Jesus-centered, culture-countering people adopt a way of life that is obviously different from the powerful norms of go-with-the-flow life in the screen age.25 Here is the great news: Some of these disciples already exist.

Connection & Resilience

What can we learn from the spiritual lives and inputs of resilient Christians around the world? They are growing into faithful adults and, among the majority, church experiences have something to do with it. Nearly six in 10 say they were “very active” practicing Christianity in their teenage years (56%), compared with 28 percent of other self-identified Christians (nomads and habitual churchgoers). They also tend to strongly agree they had adult, non-family friends in their church when they were growing up (61% vs. 28%), so parents and grandparents weren’t their only models of adult faithfulness.

Asked about their current church, resilient disciples and habitual churchgoers—who are, by definition, equally likely to attend worship services—report quite different experiences:

  • My church has helped me better understand my purpose in life (78% resilient disciples vs. 55% habitual churchgoers).
  • At church, I have learned how the Bible applies to my field or interest area (63% vs. 38%).
  • My church has helped me to better live out my faith in the workplace (63% vs. 36%).
  • I have been inspired to live generously based on the example of people at my church (57% vs. 35%).
  • My church has helped me better understand the needs of the poor (55% vs. 32%).

From this list it’s clear that resilient discipleship is much more than what happens in church. It’s also about what happens by virtue of faith outside the sanctuary, in the world—in the workplace, in the arena of calling and vocation, in the realm of generosity and money, in serving others. That’s one of the clearest demarcations of resilient disciples: Their faith compels them to be much more than dutiful, nice, smiling-emoji churchgoers.

There is ample evidence that their faith is vibrant in other ways, too. For instance, most young resilient disciples strongly agree there is someone in their life who encourages them to grow spiritually (84% vs. 39% other Christians). Regular attendance at worship services is important for maintaining faith, but it’s not enough to reliably grow faith—at least not on its own. For faith to grow, church must be the place where young Christians practice following Jesus alongside other believers who help them discover how to bring faith into every area of their lives.


Unsurprisingly, given the consistent expressions of relational and spiritual well-being from resilient disciples, these young Christians are significantly more likely than exiles in the other three groups to score as “strong” on the connectivity index—and much less likely to score as “weak.” (For more on this concept, read “From Chaos to Connectivity” on page 20) And though they are just as apt as others to fall in the middle of the index, they tend to score closer to strong than weak. In other words, resilient disciples display some of the healthiest levels of connection overall: They are more globally connected, relationally connected, personally empowered and outwardly oriented than most of their peers. Their faith commitments make a positive, discernible difference in their lives.

Cultivate Resilience

Faith for Exiles proposes five practices that grow resilient faith—of course, it took Mark and me an entire book to unpack them, and I have a word limit for this chapter! But here are four next steps to get you going:

  1. Be encouraged. God is alive and at work, changing the hearts and lives of millions of 18–35-year-olds around the world. Young resilient Christians are to be found in your context. What can you do to learn from them, to invest in them—not just to solve problems, but to journey together and launch them into their God-ordained destiny? Don’t simply try to attract and entertain young Christians; engage them in the work. It’s not church for them. It should be church with them.
  2. Understand your context. Take stock of your surrounding religious climate. What are the forces at work that arrest or accelerate disciple-making where you are? Be ready to adapt your methods and priorities accordingly.
  3. Measure the right stuff. You get what you measure. How do you measure effective discipleship? What metrics are you using to evaluate the kind of disciples your ministry is cultivating?
  4. Search the scriptures for inspiration about the kind of resilient people God is calling us to be. Stories of exile are the place to start: Daniel, Esther, Joseph, Jeremiah, 1 Peter—the biblical witness of faithfulness in exile is a reliable guide for resilient faith.



Resilience Around the World

Connect the Dots:
Engagement with Spirituality & the Church



See the whole.

  • Most teens and young adults sense there’s more going on than what they can see with their eyes. They are aware of spiritual realities beyond the material stuff of life, and many express warmth toward spiritual engagement.
  • This generation is not only interested in whether Christianity is true; they also want to see that it is good. Hypocrisy, suffering, wars and science are sources of doubt for many young people who might otherwise be drawn to faith. The data show there are Christians across the globe who are living good stories, who have a strong sense of connection with the world and with others around them.
  • The overall religious climate of a particular culture matters when it comes to sustaining resilient faith into adulthood. In places where regular religious practice and high-priority spirituality are not the norm, disciples need extra support from their community of faith.


Take Time to Pray.

  • For God to reveal himself to young people who are already sensitive to spiritual realities; for young Christians to sink deep, sustaining roots into the scriptures, their church family and a life of prayer.
  • For the particular challenges of your religious climate; for leaders to act with wisdom to end wars and human suffering; for Christians to act and speak with integrity and compassion.
  • For your community to live out the way of Christ without hypocrisy; for wisdom to engage well with questions of science.


Create what’s next.

  • Listen. Find out what spiritual experiences young people are already having. What issues or experiences are keeping them from faith?
  • Think. How are you and your community showing that Christianity is both true and good? What needs to change? How can you partner with other groups and organizations in this good work?
  • Act with integrity and sincerity. Share—and live—the gospel in ways that make sense culturally and relationally.
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