Six Reasons Millennials Leave the Church
Written by Gabriel Rench on August 1, 2017
Part two in the series “A Church for the Next Generation”
In my last post, I took a quick look at church attendance among young people and concluded that the fear-mongering about young people leaving the church was wrong and misplaced. For example, I showed that the demographic rise of “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated people, did not come at the expense of faithful church attendance. The “nones” were previously “nominals”–people who had a loose association with the church, but not much else.
So the picture is not as black as it’s been painted. There has always been turnover within the church, and this generation is no different. But even if there isn’t an exodus from the church that’s particular to this generation, it’s still worth exploring why some young people do leave the church. A lot of churches don’t talk about it, but they feel it deeply and they see the empty pews.
I’ve seen this in my own life. I grew up going to a small six-room private Christian school in a rural area. As I got older, I noticed with dismay that something was happening to the kids who graduated from 8th grade and went on to the high school: they were losing their faith. Perhaps more accurately, they were revealing that their faith had never been serious. Many of them drank, smoked pot, and slept around just like the other kids.
There were exceptions, faithful people who I know and respect to this day. But the number of committed young Christians at my school and at the church across the street where I attended from age 7 to age 18, was dwindling. At churches like the one I went to, the childcare room is full during the service, but there aren’t even enough singles to pretend that the church has a “singles ministry.” This is also due to the church being in a rural area, where there are families and older folks but not a lot of jobs or colleges for younger folks. But it’s also true at many churches throughout the country. So let’s look at why.
In a 2011 post, David Kinnaman, president of the Christian polling outfit Barna, lays out six reasons why he thinks millennials are leaving the church. Briefly, here they are:
- Millennials see churches as overprotective and legalistic
- Millennials see churches as boring or shallow
- Millennials see churches as overconfident about matters of faith and science
- Millennials have had simplistic and/or conflicting teaching about sexuality from their churches
- Millennials see the church as too exclusive, and as a barrier to their secular friendships
- Millennials see the church as unfriendly to doubters and people with mental or emotional issues
I think that, on balance, this is a strong list. It’s important to note that some of the things on this list are largely the fault of churches, some things are largely the fault of millennials themselves, and some of these things are avoidable misunderstandings. Let’s look at each reason in more depth.
Reason 1: Millennials see churches as overprotective and legalistic
The Church: guilty. Millennials: guilty. Churches across denominations tend to have rules that stem from the legalistic fundamentalism rather than the gospel (no drinking, etc). But millennials are often more interested in watching ultra-violent soft-porn TV shows like Game of Thrones, which churches rightly condemn. The legalism of churches, and the license of millennials, are both problems here.
Reason 2: Millennials see churches as boring or shallow
The Church: Guilty. Millennials: Guilty. Churches dumb down their message and relax the standards of righteousness to which Jesus called us, in an attempt to avoid Reason #1 (legalism). This attempt to appeal to a wider demographic often fails to get across the breadth and depth of our faith. The result can be shallow and boring. Millennials shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting a message that isn’t (to a normal young person) deathly boring. Millennials need to hear that our faith is not just a set of ideas to believe and something to do on Sundays, but the power and salvation of God for this world, and for all who believe in His Name. But to hear that, millennials need to listen. This is not known to be one of the strengths of our generation.
Reason 3: Millennials see churches as overconfident about matters of faith and science
The Church: Guilty. Millennials: Not Guilty. I don’t want to open a huge can of worms here, but Christians need to be more open about, and comfortable with, the fact that we are saved by faith. Yes, faith brings knowledge, and yes, Christian faith is epistemologically sound (cf. Alvin Plantinga, Mitch Stokes). But my faith in Jesus is not the same thing as my belief that I have two feet. One is vastly more important, but the other is more obvious to my sense perception. Churches, as a defence mechanism against aggressive secular science-idolatry, have claimed for too long to have The Answers on matters of science. The recent documentary Is Genesis History? is a praiseworthy step because it at least examines matters of evolution with intellectual integrity. Millennials (and all church-goers) deserve more humility from the church–not a humility of message, but a humility of authority. Our mantra should be, “Come join us! Jesus has the answers,” rather than “Come join us! We have the answers.”
Reason 4: Millennials have had simplistic and/or conflicting teaching about sexuality from their churches
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Everybody is guilty in this matter. No one is righteous; no, not one.
Reason 5: Millennials see the church as too exclusive, and as a barrier to their secular friendships
Church: Not Guilty. Millennials: Guilty. To my peers, I will say this: you are the Weird Church Kid. You are not the Cool Kid. The sooner you embrace this, the less this will be the problem. Sure, some of the Cool Kids might shun you once they realize this, but that is most likely because they think you are unlikely to smoke a joint with them after Gym class. So you’re not missing out on much. Please, please, please resist peer pressure in this matter. On one hand you have the precious faith of Jesus which saves you from sin and hell, and gives you a life forever that you can’t even begin to imagine. On the other hand, you have the “sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads.” You’re not Ferris Bueller–they’re not going to love you. But you will be a righteous dude.
Reason 6: Millennials see the church as unfriendly to doubters and people with mental or emotional issues
Church: Guilty. Millennials: Not Guilty. People don’t talk about doubt much in church. It’s Not Okay to have doubts in a lot of churches. Doubt gets in the way of your faith–no one would deny it. But doubt can also be a side effect of a growing commitment to Christ. If you are teetering on the edge of devoting your life to Christ, then all this stuff sure as heck better be true. It makes sense to give the truth claims of Christianity more scrutiny in this situation. Also, Millennials are anxious and depressed, and the Church is in denial about this and needs to do more to help them.
The Church needs to improve in five of the areas listed here, and millennials need to improve in four of them. There is plenty of blame to pass around, but that’s not the Christ-like thing to do. The Christ-like thing to do is to think about the issues in the church and think about how to fix them. As Paul put it, “I appeal to you, brothers,by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10)
In the next post in this series, we’ll look at how churches can help millennials, and how millennials can help churches. Passing on the faith of Jesus Christ is the greatest thing we can do with our lives. Let’s get serious about it.