I turned 50 this year; it’s a perspective-giver. I distinctly remember starting out as a young lawyer for a large firm here in downtown Dallas, newly minted law license proudly hanging on my tiny office wall. We worked like dogs back then. One partner, an old guy (though probably younger than I am now), always criticized our little troupe of baby lawyers, talking about how our generation stood for nothing—a bunch of nihilists, untethered from the bedrock values of those who went before. I remember how angry that guy made me, because the ancient faith of our fathers, even then, was more important to me than it was to him. That guy didn’t know me. Our little band of neophytes purposed that when we got older, when we became “the Man,” we would never be grumpy old men, falling prey to generational prejudice.
And, yet, here I find myself: “the Man.” Several months ago, a school head colleague of my vintage complained to me, “These Millennials. They drive me nuts. Can’t commit to anything. Weak faith. And these tattoos. I’m not going to hire any of them who have a tattoo. I hate tattoos.” I smiled, thought back to the old partner in my firm, and told my friend that I applauded his plan: culling an entire generation of talented young teachers, sight unseen, based upon whether their skin was inked, was a brilliant way to ensure his school died a slow, painful death. Then I asked if he would forward me the resumes of any talented, Christ-loving, scandalously imprinted young teachers he happened to come across.
We have become our fathers. Those of you who are younger, and who are mocking us, just wait: you will, too.
Millennials, like the generations before them, are a sometimes feared and maligned group, yet they are a self-evidently emerging segment of our school family population. There’s no doubt some of the concern we have is simply cross-generational snobbery and fear of the unknown. But research performed recently by ACSI and Barna, the Pew Research Center, and others show that this new parent group will, in fact, change the way most Christian schools do business—at least those who see remaining in business a part of their future. They will push and challenge us, but if we’ll prayerfully listen and adapt, I think God will use this emerging parent generation to make us more distinctly Christian in our missional focus.
What the Research Says about Millennials: Pitfalls
Much of what I’m sharing with you comes from a joint ACSI and Barna study of Christian school parents performed this past year: “Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Choices in a Changing Market.” First, let’s define “Millennials”: the Millennial generation covers those currently 18 to 31 and born between 1985 and 1999 (you just graduated the last of them, and most of their children are just beginning to hit your early kindergartens); the Pew Research Center notes they are currently the largest generation in the United States, with 75.4 million people, surpassing even the Baby Boomers. Millennials in the U.S. continue to grow as new immigrants of this generation come to our shores.
We all know that the United States as a whole is becoming less Christian, and Millennials are doing so at a more accelerated rate than others. A Pew Research study shows that, whereas the total number of adults describing themselves as “nonreligious” rose over the past seven years, from 16% to 23%, 36% of young Millennials (18–24) and 34% of older Millennials (25–33), described themselves as religiously unaffiliated in that same period. Fewer than 6 in 10 Millennials identify with any denomination of Christianity, compared in more than 7 in 10 of older generations.
Those Millennials who come from a Christian background also have a higher church dropout rate than their forebears. David Kinnaman of Barna notes 59% of young adults from Christian homes no longer attend church, and 57% describe themselves as less religiously active today than when they were at 15 years old (Kinnaman 2011, 24). Two-thirds of twentysomethings with a Christian background say they have gone through a season of serious doubt in their faith. We may say, “That’s nothing new. Twentysomethings do that sort of thing all the time. But, when they have kids, they return to the church.” However, this familiar, common-sense trend has not been happening in the past decade or longer.
What the Research Says about Millennials: Promises
We are probably all aware of these things; you may be seeing them begin to play out in your own school. Barna opines from the research that Millennial parents choosing Christian school for their children could become increasingly exceptional as their kids come of school age. That said, in 15 years as head of Grace Community School, I’ve seen the repeated goodness and graciousness of God; He’s on His throne and advancing His kingdom. And, I think this new group of parents provides some encouragement and opportunity for us.
Despite the fact there’s a larger number of Millennials who are religiously unaffiliated relative to others, Kinnaman (2011) observes most young Christians are struggling less with their faith in Christ than with their church experience, meaning they still worship Jesus—they describe themselves as faithful to Christ, committed, and ready to engage the world for the gospel—but they’ve been burned or otherwise disenchanted with their church experience. They are still looking for meaningful and authentic community, both for themselves and for their children—there’s opportunity there that I’ll discuss.
While the number of Christians overall in the U.S. seems to be shrinking, one group seems to be growing slightly: Evangelical Protestants, expanding from 59 to 62 million adherents over a seven-year period. Kinnaman (2011) observes this overall trend somewhat mirrored among Millennials, in that the more theologically conservative group of young, Evangelical Christians is not shrinking at the rate of more notional (cultural) and mainline Christians, which seems intuitive based upon what we know of our faith (27). There seems to be a premium on deep faith among these young adults, perhaps even more than among previous generations. So we seem to have emerging parents who may be smaller in number but more profound in faith, and who provide great promise for Christian schools.
Millennials are also more likely than previous generations to have had Christian schooling in their own backgrounds, together with other types of education. As many as 8 out of 20 children in a classroom will have at least one parent who attended Christian school, which is certainly more than I’ve ever had in my classes before now. That can be good and bad, depending on the quality of those experiences. Positive schooling experiences are likely to affect young parents’ educational decisions. The ACSI|Barna Report says personal educational experience matters; parents are more likely to choose an education for their own children similar to what they had, assuming it was a good one. This tendency is even greater among Millennials, with 81% choosing schooling for their children similar to their own.
Millennials: What We Know Related to Christian Schools
In summary, we have fewer Millennials identifying as Christian, but those who do describe their faith and values as the most important indicator of the schools they choose for their own children, and they are more likely to choose a Christian school if such schooling is in their background—and they are more likely to have Christian schooling in their background than any previous generation. These tendencies, coupled with the younger parent generation’s desire for authentic biblical community, create tremendous opportunities for Christian schools.
Here are some other demographic trends concerning Millennials that potentially impact how Christian schools respond to parents in this generation:
- Millennials are more culturally diverse than previous generations. A Pew Research study reveals that 4 in 10 Millennials have racially mixed marriages. And young immigrants are constantly being added to the American Millennial generation.
- Millennials have a lower average household income than previous generations, averaging $75,000 per year for current ACSI school families, and $60,000 per year or less for prospective school families, according to the ACSI|Barna Report. That could change, but in the current economic climate they are not likely on the whole to make more over their lifetimes than the Baby Boomers, when adjusted for inflation.
- Millennials are more likely than previous generations to be influenced by their own parents (22% v. 10%) and by their pastors (21% v. 10%) as to how to educate their children, according to the ACSI|Barna Report. Millennials are more likely than other generations to consider homeschooling an option.
- Again according to the ACSI|Barna Report, Millennials are more familiar with a broader group of schooling options than previous generations, having had multiple types of schooling in their backgrounds. They are, therefore, both more school savvy and more likely to consider options other than Christian education for their children, whether they are current Christian school parents or prospective parents.
Given that young Millennial parents are only beginning their parenting journeys, it is too early to predict how their faith and parenting perceptions will change as they age—and, consequently, too early to know how to respond to the impact Millennials will have on our schools.
There are, however, some things I think we can learn from Millennial parents, things that God may be using them to teach us that are good school practice, whatever the generation. In my next post, I’ll share with you how I believe Millennial parents present tremendous opportunities for us to be truer and better Christian schools.
- Download the Barna/ACSI research report.
- Use the report to generate discussion among your leadership team and board regarding the impact of Millennial parents on your school.
Kinnaman, David. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, The Head and the Heart. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.