There is a very popular narrative you will hear among young Christians—that the millennial and zoomer generations have embarked on an effort to return the Christian Church to its former glory, overthrow the stagnant failures of contemporary Protestantism and vernacular Catholicism, and reaffirm the older ways of Traditional Christianity. They claim that there is a gigantic movement of young, radical Christians who are putting down their Hillsong CDs, man-buns, and electric guitars to cross the Tiber, swim the Bosporus, or walk the Canterbury trail.
Anecdotally speaking, there is no shortage of stories that affirm this narrative. I’ve met many Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican converts in the past few years who all share the same story—they were raised Evangelical, grew to dislike it, fell away, got depressed, became addicted to drugs or porn, discovered liturgy, and turned their lives around by dedicating themselves to confession, fasting, and practicing daily offices.
As one convert told The American Conservative: “When I look at a Protestant service, it lacks the mystery and power of the body of Christ. The whole life of the church, the prayers of the desert fathers, the blood of the martyrs, is more intimately connected in the Orthodox life than a mere stylistic change that a Protestant church can do.”
Even just this past month, while attending an Anglican parish on the campus of Wheaton College I saw a clear divide between the old and young. The younger Anglicans genuflected and kneeled on the hard ground, without padded kneelers, while the older ones sat down. There is a thirst among the younger generation of Christians for a more meaningful Christianity than the one they were raised in, the narrative goes.
There is only one problem with this narrative—it’s not exactly true.
Religion in the Bible Belt
If I fully trusted these anecdotes, I would be led to believe that I myself—as a convert to the ACNA—am part of a massive movement to return the High Eucharistic Liturgy to its rightful place and that the refugees of modernity are beginning to grow and outpace the failed experiments of Rock and Roll Christianity. Frankly though, I don’t think the evidence is there to prove that statement. If anything, the evidence points in the opposite direction.
When I first moved to the Bible Belt for work, I was still decidedly Evangelical and I visited several megachurches near my apartment. The one I briefly settled into for two months was a large Baptist church that offered traditional services (meaning hymns and a full choir) and contemporary services. The split between the two was stark. The traditional services were totally empty, but the contemporary services—with cliche smoke machines and rock music—were cramped full in a sanctuary with two floors.
This experience went against what I had heard about the rise of the “Zoomer Trads” and the overpowering resurgence of demand for the old rites. It was only anecdotal, but it seemed to speak to where the cultural Christianity of the Bible Belt truly existed. In one of the most overtly religious and Christian regions of the Earth, churches have an easier time filling Pentecostal Tent Revivals than they do even a traditional Baptist Chapel, let alone an Orthodox or Lutheran parish.
The statistics bear this out. 73% of my state of Tennessee adheres to evangelical Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, or historical black Protestantism. Roman Catholicism only accounts for at most 4-6% of the state’s Christians. Only about 10 Catholic parishes in the state of Tennessee even offer the traditional Latin Mass, usually in major cities like Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Franklin, or Memphis. Nationwide, only about 4% of Parishes offer the Latin Mass, and many do not publicize it.
And before it sounds like I’m just picking on our Roman Catholic friends, it’s likely that you could fit the entire Anglican and Lutheran populations in my state of Tennessee into one of Nashville’s line-dancing bars. We’re a drop in the bucket. There are roughly 30 ACNA parishes in the state—five Anglican Churches within an hour’s drive of my apartment, while conversely there are five Baptist Churches within walking distance. My parish has about 40 (mostly older) parishioners, and the megachurch down the street has twice that many full families.
Regardless of tradition, it would appear that over time the upcoming generations are growing less liturgical, not more. A 2018 study from Barna Group shows 38% of American Christians are largely or totally unfamiliar with liturgical prayer. 44% of Evangelicals have never even heard of the Book of Common Prayer. 35% say liturgy is an important part of their faith, but over time the number is trending downward. 43% of elders born before 1945 approve of liturgy, compared to 29% of millennials.
Orthodoxy has seen some notable gains. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of millennial Orthodox parishioners grew from 18% to 26%. But this is growth in a denomination where the majority of American states are less than 1% Orthodox. The 2020 census found 1% of all Americans are Orthodox. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese even reports a 22% membership decline in the decade from 2010 to 2020.
Where Does This Narrative Come From?
The more I’ve talked with priests and pastors though, the more it seems that this narrative of the resurgence of liturgy is a driving force of hope for a lot of liturgical Christians. My former rector once told a story of how he was pulled aside by a pastor at Willow Creek Church on a tour, one of the largest megachurches in the United States, and told him quietly that their model was unsustainable—which considering the leadership collapse the church suffered subsequently, may have been fortuitous.
I recently spoke with Bryan Wolfmueller, a Lutheran YouTuber and Pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Austin, TX., and he shared that he’s observed a growth in his ex-evangelical parishioners. “We have a very large and active young-adult group. Many are newly baptized. Many have come from non-liturgical traditions. All of them are rejoicing in the Gospel and the Lord’s kindness. They are also drawn to the unchanging liturgy, something solid in a liquid world.”
I also spoke with Fr. John Rickert, a Catholic member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and he has seen a large movement of young Catholics moving towards the traditional Latin Mass:
Many of our apostolates doubled in attendance in 2020 due to various reasons, and interestingly, even in post-pandemic times have either maintained their numbers of younger members or continued to grow. I think that at least some of our younger people are drawn to the Latin Mass precisely because it is so different from what they are surrounded by every day in the world at large.
These aren’t untrue statements, but they may be deceivingly optimistic news to the ears of those yearning for a national, liturgical revival. By all rights, what we appear to be witnessing is not some revival but a form of self-selection among a minority of young Christians. This appears true for Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Latin-Mass-only Catholic converts—who are all seeking a more sacred, beautiful, reverent, and precise form of worship than the ones many of us were raised in. Many congregations have been filled near to capacity in recent years by these movements, but they are still spread out thinly.
“The idea that Catholics are pining for the Tridentine Rite is the trend story that never dies,” writes David Gibson at the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. “The tendency of the Latin Mass fans to self-select, to gather intentionally and often with greater effort than many parishioners, is a natural function of their passion and that’s a chief reason why they can project an image of a growing cohort. They are visible and they are often outspoken about their beliefs.”
Pope Francis vs. The Trads
If Pope Francis is any indication, the structure and hierarchy of mainstream Christianity seem to be actively disinterested in traditional forms of worship at the moment, and more generally against the culture of Zoomer Trads. The late Pope Benedict had to fight to reopen the Latin Mass, and his gains were immediately rolled back by his successor.
The sitting Pope made this very clear when he imposed restrictions on the practice of the Latin Mass in 2021, a move that infuriated conservative Catholics who have pushed for nearly sixty years to restore the Latin Mass to its original place.
His criticism wasn’t without merit though. As he wrote, “I don’t see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the council—though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so—and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform.” In other words, if one believes the Roman Catholic Church is inerrant, it is illogical to believe the church would reform its own liturgy in a way that is heretical.
The decision barely fazed most American Catholics. 65% of Catholics weren’t even aware that Pope Francis had imposed greater restrictions on Latin Mass. 23% who had heard either approved or didn’t care. Only 12% of American Catholics disapproved of Pope Francis’s decision. Some studies even show that decline in attendance paused after the introduction of the Novus Ordo in the 1960s. The Roman Catholic Church’s decline began as it hemorrhaged parishioners starting in the late 1950s before the introduction of vernacular mass headed off the decline, mostly stabilizing until the past 20 years when attendance dropped again following the 2001 sex abuse scandal.
David Johnson is an English Professor at Kennesaw State University, and he published a study last year about the popularity of Latin Mass from a linguistic perspective—regarding how much preference or nostalgia for the latin language played a role in liturgical attendance. He found a strong preference for Latin Mass among younger Catholics and a surprising disinterest from older Catholics. Only 40% of Catholics he sampled over the age of 75 preferred Latin Mass according to Johnson:
The older generation didn’t like Latin Mass, and didn’t want to bring it back. The older people who grew up with the Latin Mass—who grew up before Vatican II—found it boring, and didn’t understand what was going on. Most people were content with vernacular mass, except for an undercurrent below the surface that has exploded in the past ten years.
In some ways, Pope Francis’s move was done as a means of shoring up the Roman Catholic Church against the negative tendencies of its most fanatical devotees. The Trad movement tends to be explicitly political, as Latin-Mass-only Catholics swing very conservative, with 98% being anti-contraception and 99% being against abortion. These are perfectly in line with Roman Catholic dogma, but some Trad groups trend towards toxicity, aggression, and conspiratorial thinking that turns off outsiders and political moderates. With the majority of Catholics being agnostic towards the papal decision, this appears to be a minor victory for Pope Francis. In the battle of Church vs. Trads, the Church wins.
A Tepid Defense of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism
On the flip side, there is a fascinating trend to be seen among contemporary evangelicals, in that they seem to have a less challenging time preserving values, traditions, and family structure over time. The cultural Christianity of American Evangelical-Protestants—if problematically tied to contemporary nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and conspiracy thinking—is yet a better holdout in defense of the traditional family and anti-abortion activism than many Catholic, Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant Groups.
While Left-Right politics is not a clean measure of family stability or cultural transmission, it does loosely correlate with issues such as pro-life activism and pro-family formation policies. As Pew notes, the most “Republican” religion in America is the Church of Latter Day Saints (70%), followed by Southern Baptists (64%), and Missouri Synod Lutherans (59%)—compared to only Catholics (37%), Orthodox (34%), and Episcopalians (39%) leaning “Republican.” While the most aggressive traditionalists lean very “Republican,” the general trend in most liturgical churches is not towards traditionalism, as they see it.
It is curious that a denomination so liturgically diverse would be such a strong bastion of preserving traditional religious ideas, but this is true of any rural population. Secluded farmers and tightly-knit communities are always better at preserving the ideas of their group than large urban Dioceses that have to cater to inner-city populations of academics, diverse populations with different backgrounds, and unchurched young people.
Amish Protestantism may well be a better bulwark against modernity than Novus Ordo Catholicism, precisely because it is nearly impenetrable.
As it stands, Roman Catholicism has a problem with ideological breakaways and cultural Catholics who don’t know or understand the mysteries or liturgy they’re raised with. This is a trend we can see in some Catholic countries. Italy is one of the most culturally Catholic countries in the world with 83.3% of the population identifying as Roman Catholic—while 77% of the country is pro-choice, 83% are pro-same sex unions, and only 20% of the population regularly attends church, with most of the regular parishioners also being over the age of 75.
The statistical trends are actually moving in Evangelicalism’s favor at the moment. According to Pew Research, the population size of Evangelicalism overtook Mainline Protestantism between 2007 and 2014, and remained the only major religious group in the United States without a shrinking population. Evangelical churches grew 1.7% in a time when Roman Catholicism shrank 3.1% and Mainline Protestants dropped 3.4%. As of 2014, the Catholic Church lost 6.5 people for every new member.
While the story of Evangelicals converting to liturgy is all too common, what’s less commonly discussed is lapsed Catholics converting to contemporary worship. This is very much the story for thousands of people who leave the church as well—even Novus Ordo liturgy can be alienating if it isn’t taught well.
Daren Snow is the lead pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Aurora, IL, where I was baptized in October 2019. He’s observed that many members of his congregation are former Catholics and Lutherans:
The liturgy didn’t really mean much to them even though they appreciated it. It was all just something that they did, because that’s what they were taught to do, but it didn’t mean a whole lot to them. They were searching for more, and that’s how they end up in a lot of Bible churches. They are simply hungry for biblical truth.
The Institute for Family Studies states:
[American] conservative nondenominational movements have seen extraordinary growth: they only need to have about 0.8 children per woman to grow, yet in fact have around 1.9. This means they will more than double in size over the next generation, even without immigrants. Pentecostal churches will grow, with actual fertility (2.1) substantially above needed fertility (1.8). On the other hand, [American] Catholic and Orthodox churches will see appreciable decline, with an average of 1.9 children born per woman nowhere near high enough to offset high rates of conversion out of these faiths, yielding a needed fertility rate of 3.1. Roman Catholic Churches can expect a 40% decline in the next generation unless immigration can offset the decline.
And that’s only in the United States. The fastest-growing religion in the world today is Pentecostalism, largely because of mass conversions in South America, Africa, and Asia. Islam and Hinduism are two of the largest growing groups, due entirely to high birthrates, but Pentecostalism is converting as many as 35,000 people per day. It is expected to overtake Anglicanism as the third-largest denomination in the near future and could increase to 10% of the world’s population by 2050, according to Premiere Christianity.
That isn’t to say the evangelical church is doing particularly well. Recent studies have suggested 71% of Evangelicals don’t understand the Trinity. A 2022 study from The State of Theology found 43% of Evangelicals agree with the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.”
While the political conservativism of Evangelicals has been useful for preserving family values, it has also been marred by its complex relationship with partisan politics. The proliferation of nationalist tendencies and cult-of-personality political candidates marks a statistical indicator of mass secularization, which could indicate that religion is becoming banal or watered down to the point that it is just another part of some people’s worldview alongside or beneath their political identity, rather than a sincerely lived-out faith.
At the same time, only 28% of Catholics understand the idea of the real presence of the Eucharist. 89% of Novus Ordo Catholics approve of contraception and 51% approve of abortion. The Roman Catholic Church is shrinking, and as a result it is currently facing a shortage of nuns and priests that will rapidly kneecap its ability to operate in the coming decades. These statistically negative indicators are church wide and mark a clear decline in the overall passion and influence of Christianity.
The Decline of the Church and Why Not To Despair
The mass degeneration of the church is not so easily tied to some nominalist heresy, or the machinations of Martin Luther, the enlightenment, or the Freemasons, as some Trads have alleged. We are in a particularly low moment for Christendom. Though the faith grows in Africa and Asia, Europe and the United States have become totally apathetic or hostile to religion.
The liturgy movement likely is growing but it is mostly growing in clustered areas within the church that are already sensitive to the encroachment of modernity. At the same time, the mainstream, evangelical church is, superficially at least, humming along and staying strong—at least if all the full parking lots I see on Sunday mornings in Tennessee are any indication.
I don’t say any of this to be discouraging, but merely to offer some appropriately measured context and realistic expectations. As much as many of us crave an American religious revival on par with the Great Awakening, we aren’t witnessing one at the moment. Instead, we are witnessing a form of ossification. Uncompromised Christianity is becoming a minority in our culture and the remnant is growing zealous and legalistic, eager to cut through the confusion and evil of our times through radical solutions.
And for us in the remnant, this may be ideal. Religious revivals always begin with one man—St. Paul, St. Francis, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, etc—and grow outwards from those zealous and uncompromised people. A revival can begin with a single prayer and grow like a mustard seed. If the recent, controversial Asbury College revival can teach us anything, it’s this lesson.
As Pastor Wolfmueller notes:
Only the Holy Spirit working through the Word can draw young people back to the church, but it is important for the church to be who we are, to speak and teach with Biblical fidelity, even when the Lord’s Word is a rebuke to the culture.
In the meantime though, we need the honesty to say that is not yet what we are living through. A country so deeply rooted in Puritanism and Anabaptist assumptions isn’t suddenly going to start attending the Latin Mass or a 1662 BCP parish if we don’t put in the effort first. It’s not enough to merely be theologically correct. As St. James reminds us, faith without works is dead—and a faith that isn’t putting in the effort to meaningfully reach the world is decaying.
My fellow Liturgical Christians should heed the caution that we are but a small remnant. We shan’t hold our light under a bushel but we cannot pretend that the world is ready to join us at the altar quite yet.
Ours is a culture of apathy and ignorance with regard to religion and faith. The basic tenets that come easily to Christians and knowledge our grandparents would’ve considered cliche are total mysteries to young people. There is an opportunity for liturgical Christians to offer a fuller vision of the world through the beauty and order of liturgy, to light the fire among this generation, and teach them the truth.
At the moment, this ongoing liturgical revival is mostly operating as a group of young terminally online dissidents, gathering in cloistered parish halls and Discord communities—potent enough to annoy the FBI but not enough to spark a change yet. That is all it is for now, but if properly fostered it could grow into something more—a church that could irrigate these deserts of lost souls.