Millennials’ Reasons for Leaving the Church Don’t Hold Up

HERE GOES—I MEAN AMEN

This article from Faithit is characteristic—almost to the point of satire—of the Internet’s most exhausting genre: 20-somethings explaining “why millennials are leaving the church.” Sam Eaton writes that the 59 percent of millennials who were raised in church and have dropped out are sending a message, and it’s the church’s responsibility to shape up to meet his generation’s demands. What are those demands?

“Jesus was insanely clear about our purpose on earth,” he writes. “‘Love God. Love others. Task completed.”

In Eaton’s telling, the church is failing miserably at this two-part command, which he calls “the heart of the gospel.” (It’s actually the heart of the Law, but put that aside for now.) We’ve heard all of this before—most notably from Rachel Held Evans, who conflates fighting poverty with taking progressive stances on politics and theology, and contends that if churches would only adopt such stances, they would start growing again. Unfortunately, these authors tend to undermine their own case.

For instance, Eaton writes: “Let’s clock the number of hours the average church attender spends in ‘church-type’ activities. Bible studies, meetings, groups, social functions, book clubs, planning meetings, talking about building community, discussing a new mission statement. . . . Now let’s clock the number of hours spent serving the least of these. Oooooo, awkward.”

Well, it certainly would be “awkward,” if it were true. According to research cited in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, two-thirds of people who frequently attend religious services make regular charitable donations, and 60 percent give to religious and nonreligious charities other than churches, especially basic social services for the needy, combined purpose charities (like United Way), and health care. By contrast, fewer than half of those who don’t attend regular religious services support any charity.

According to Philanthropy Roundtable, those who volunteer for religious charities are “dramatically bigger donors of money” than those who volunteer for secular charities. “Religious practice,” they write, “is the behavioral variable consistently associated with generous giving. Charitable effort correlates strongly with the frequency with which a person attends religious services.”

“Evangelical Protestants,” arguably the group whom Eaton and Evans are complaining about, are particularly strong givers. Not only are religious Americans  “much more likely” to give to secular as well as religious causes, but according to sociologist Robert Putnam, half of all American personal philanthropy and volunteering is distinctly religious in character. Most surprisingly, religious Americans with low income match the giving of the rich in terms of income percentage, and even exceed the generosity of middle-class churchgoers (who nevertheless give much more in absolute dollars).

Responding to this charge that the evangelical church is obsessed with the culture wars and skimping on the poor, Ross Douthat writes in The New York Times that “it would be too kind” to call it wrong. It’s “ridiculous.” Religious resources earmarked for pro-life and pro-marriage organizations and causes total “just a few hundred million dollars.” In contrast, Douthat points out that the budgets of religious charities, schools, and hospitals in this country “are tabulated in the tens of billions.”

But Eaton isn’t finished. He wants churches to “stop creating more bible studies and Christian activity,” yet demands that they “create regular outlets (forums, surveys, meetings) to discover the needs of young adults both inside AND outside the church,” “hire a young adults pastor who has the desire and skill-set to connect with millennials,” “create and train a team of . . . people whose purpose is to seek out the outliers on Sunday mornings or during other events,” assemble “a database of adult mentors and young adults looking for someone to walk with them,” and start “a young adults program that transitions high school youth through late adulthood rather than abandoning them in their time of greatest need.”

For a guy who wants fewer Christian activities, Eaton sure is good at proposing some to benefit himself and his fellow millennials.

He goes on to claim that churches aren’t doing enough to help the poor, but also complains that millennials are “tapped incessantly to help out.” He wants churches to “intentionally train young adults in how to lead a godly life,” but simultaneously needs “the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are.”

But coming from progressive Christians, none of this is surprising. Sociologist George Yancey recently conducted two studies on the attitudes of progressive Christians toward politics, theology, and their fellow believers. Published in the Journal of Religion and Society and the Journal of Research on Religion, these studies found that those on the left wing of American Christianity showed “emotional animosity” toward their fellow Christians who were politically conservative, but displayed “emotional warmth” toward those with progressive politics, regardless of their religious beliefs. In fact, progressive Christians were generally more accepting of atheists who shared their political views than they were of other believers who didn’t.

Yancey summarizes: “Their political disagreement with fundamentalist Christians matters more to progressive Christians than their theological disagreement with atheists.”

This data suggests that most outspoken millennial critics are driven not so much by concern for the marginalized as they are by the desire to establish a distinct theological identity—a gospel based on “our purpose on Earth”: “Love God. Love others. Task completed.” Thus, BuzzFeed rounded up a gaggle of twenty-somethings to ask “Questions Christians Have for Other Christians.”

“Why do you feel like I have to constantly be preaching in order to be a good Christian?” one young woman asks. “Is showing my friends love and grace not allowed to just speak for itself sometimes?” By “love and grace,” she presumably means affirming every culturally fashionable choice her friends make.

Another, forgetting that this was supposed to be a video dedicated to questions, asserts: “In the end, the grand message [of Christianity] is that you’re supposed to love one another. And I’m sorry if I sound like a Hallmark after-school special, but it’s the truth.”

Overlooking the mishmash of TV genres, this woman could scarcely have given a clearer summary of the progressive gospel so many outspoken millennials have embraced, and are currently hawking to the evangelical church: Doctrine, especially doctrine that’s unpopular with the broader culture, is unimportant. What matters are deeds that advance the cause of social justice. Christianity is not a set of historical propositions with theological and practical implications, but moral maxims for the betterment of society. That is why so many progressives seem to believe that charitable atheists are closer to the heart of the faith than conservative doctrinaires who decry abortion and same-sex marriage.

But here’s the punchline: The strategies that Eaton, Evans, and BuzzFeed insist will bring millennials flocking back to church are consistently destroying congregations and denominations that implement them.

Twenty years ago, John Shelby Spong wrote a book predicting that churches which gave up a literal reading of Scripture and adapted to the changing times would grow. His title, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” could be the rallying cry of millennials telling us what they want out of church. But so far from swelling membership rolls, Spong’s formula was a kiss of death. In 2015, Pew reported that mainline Protestant churches—the archetypes of progressive, social-gospel Christianity—are hemorrhaging a million members annually.

His own Episcopal Church, which performs gay marriage ceremonies, supports abortion, and long ago gave up anything like a serious reading of the Bible, plunged from 3.4 million members in 1992 to 2.3 million in 2002. According to the National Council of Churches, the decline has continued at a rate of almost 3 percent annually. Today it’s at around 1.75 million members. If nothing drastically changes, the Episcopal Church could be functionally extinct within decades.

Meanwhile, evangelical denominations have thrived, adding 2 million members from 2007 to 2014. David Haskell reports in the Washington Post that for Protestants, conservative theology strongly correlates with church growth, while liberal theology predicts decline. Pew puts this in vivid terms: Mainline denominations lose 1.7 members for every new convert, while evangelicals gain 1.2 converts for every departure.

In the supreme stroke of irony, conservative evangelicals have more children, two thirds of whom remain in church. Mainline Protestants have fewer children than ever, half of whom give up on church. So few young people remain in progressive churches that David Roozen, Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, proposed renaming the Mainlines the “Oldlines.”

It’s difficult to imagine how the church-abandoning millennials could be less in touch with reality. Their theology is subservient to their politics, their demands are contradictory, and half a century of evidence proves that the solutions they’re touting only leave churches empty. Changing the millennia-old faith to suit millennials won’t draw them through the doors. They can get social justice teaching from BuzzFeed. What they need from church is Christianity. Anyone my age who says otherwise is making a grave mistake.

Image courtesy of drferry at iStock by Getty Images. 

G. Shane Morris is assistant editor of BreakPoint Radio.


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  • Zarm

    Wow. A little vicious in writing style, but the biting commentary also has a ring of truth to it. God is unchanging, as is His word; while the church may stray from it and need to change in either approach or theology, it is only to come back to the timeless standard and truth that He generously provided us. Any suggestion that involves changing those standards, or the practices based upon them, to conform more closely to another source- be it a culture’s standards, or a generation’s desires, is doomed to failures. The only call for change in the church should be for greater fidelity to the Way entrusted to us… and that way is guaranteed by the creator of the universe to bring forth fruit.

    • Missy

      If you are not willing to change or adapt then don’t be surprised when less and less people follow your religion.

      • Zarm

        If the religion is truly from God, trying to change His ways is an exercise in folly. If it is not truly from God, then no one should be following it in the first place.

      • Edyta Tehrani

        True Christianity is not a religion. It is a personal relationship with The Truth, and the Truth does not need to adapt. The point of this article is the reality that those churches who forsake the truth to adapt to culture are becoming empty while those who don’t are growing, so it is an exact opposite.

      • JPZ

        Dear Missy, I agree, the Church needs to constantly, prayerfully, with diligent study of God’s word challenge their practices and make needed changes to align with the guidance of our Savior. God’s standards do not change, but people’s views and perspectives can blow with the wind if not anchored in the truth of God’s word. We need to conform to God, not attempt to make God’s unchanging Word of truth conform to current societal thinking.

  • Edyta Tehrani

    So true. What all people need is what is Real, solution to their emptiness, and the Bible provides it. Watering it down doesn’t. people can find all kinds of feel good stuff in the world, but what they really need is the Presence of God and the Truth. Every Church that gives it will grow. Give spiritual bread and the hungry will come.

  • rtgmath

    Okay, so you think the reasons millennials don’t go to church are invalid. They still don’t go to church and you can’t make them.

    You refuse to listen with any regard to what they have to say, and you clearly do not respect them in any way, shape, form, or fashion. You have set yourself up as the Know It All, and you know better than they do, so why aren’t they listening to you?

    Why should they listen to you?

    You don’t have their welfare at heart. They may not know exactly what it is about the Church that has turned them away, and you may find their current reasons don’t “hold water.” But you aren’t even remotely interested in finding out what the real reasons are. You don’t want to go to them. You want them to come to you. Let me remind you that Jesus went to those who would not have come to him by themselves. He met people where they were. He did not denigrate them. He loved them.

    And you clearly have a problem. But like Laodicea, you think you have it all, so why should you change? Why should you reach out to others? Just remember what Christ said the True State of Laodicea was!

    You pat yourselves on the back thinking, “We Evangelical Churches are thriving!” while mainline churches languish. Your thriving is an illusion. Your congregations are getting older. Smaller churches are dying. The megachurches, like black holes, gobble up the members of the smaller churches where they fade into oblivion or stop attending altogether. But who pays attention to the church members who fall away from the megachurches? The megachurches are too big to notice.

    You know you’ve got a problem. If people aren’t coming then their problem is your problem. Time to stop judging them and start finding out what the real issues are.

  • Logan Roush

    It’s incredibly frustrating how much you have missed the point on Sam’s article. Truthfully, there was some roundabout thinking to his writing, especially in regards to “form fewer bible studies.” But to compare Sam’s suggestions with John Shelby’s church is a complete nonsense connection. Sam and Christian Millennials are not calling for churches to stop teaching scripture, they are begging for the exact opposite.

    Millennials are frustrated with the the fact that no pastors will preach about the difficult subjects. Millennials are angry that so many churches are disrespectfully homophobic. When we refer to scripture such as Galatians 3:28, we are not asking you to begin holding ceremonies for homosexual weddings, we are trying to show you that it is UNACCEPTABLE to speak such hatred toward the gay communities. When you do, it does nothing but divide us further and make the church look more and more like the Westboro Baptist nuthouse. We are sick and tired not of the doctrine itself, but of how the church enforces that doctrine. It is not being done in a loving manner to even the slightest degree.

    Millennials are leaving. 62% of non believers left the protestant church before they turned 18. (PSSI) For every one person who enters the Catholic church, six leave. (Pew Forum) You can sit here and write these articles about how Millennials simply have an “attitude problem,” but in the 30 years, you will not have a congregation.

    The church is a bucket of water with holes in the bottom, and rather than trying to patch the bucket, you stand on a pedestal and say, “We are using the bucket just as we should.” But here we sit, watching the water drain out the bottom.

  • TMom

    While the total numbers of evangelicals grew between 2007 & 2014, evangelicals as a whole still lost nearly a full percentage point relative to the overall U.S. population, going from 26.3% to 25.4% ….in other words, it’s shrinking, too. And the number of Millenials who identified as Evangelical dropped precipitously, by nearly 9%, during that same time period.

    Which pretty much completely undermines your (and other’s) argument(s) that the problem is the theology of liberal churches and that the evangelical churches are doing just great. They’re not.

  • Phil Zona

    I think your point about theology being subservient to politics is a little dismissive.

    For most people, these two are deeply interconnected. I’m not talking about moral issues either – political views overlap strongly with the material well-being of the less fortunate. You raise some great points about charity giving, but you’re talking about giving on an individual level (not to ignore work done by churches as a group, of course). Political views encompass these material issues as well.

    Churches will nearly always support conservative politicians, but what comes with that, exactly? Of course their views align morally, for the most part, but what about economically? Conservative politicians (any many church goers) have a specific way of thinking about these issues that involves cutting entitlement programs and reforming taxes in a specific way. If you look at it closely, it usually does not align with the church’s view of charity.

    This isn’t really about politics, of course – it’s about attitudes. Most churches, in my experience, just don’t offer a way for young people to feel involved at a large scale. I hate to generalize about social media and technology, but it does give people a sense of their place in the country and a context for the things they can do to make a difference. Food drives and volunteer work are great, and I don’t want to minimize their effects on local communities. But many young people feel part of something bigger, in addition to their local communities – they see a chance to effect real positive change. The church’s job is not to be a political force, and I get that, but the ways it chooses to align itself is something people notice. And right now, those views and alignments seem really dissonant to a lot of people.

  • Bill Knapp

    The author of the article raises an important point – and it is worrisome – the fact that people are more inclined to be warmer people with common political ideology rather than with people of common faith … according to the article for people who identify as “progressive” Christians – mostly younger people ..

    but I think it could also be true for people who identify as “conservative” politically and conservative evangelicals .. look at the distain by certain US evangelical leaders that support Trump on those US evangelical leaders who do not support Trump eg. Robert Jeffress said that John Piper should be ashamed of himself for being very critical of Trump …. and I think there were more harsh words exchanged among US evangelical leaders over politics ….. politics at least in the US seems to be more important than faith among some evangelicals …

  • Samuel Ballatine

    Thank you for the thoughts. I read the Eaton article and had some–but not all–of the same reactions. I think Eaton does a good job of identifying the problem: many Millennials are not in church. The reasons, however, are sometimes contradictory ( Example: don’t judge me, but preach to me about difficult subjects….ever try to talk to a Millennial when they’re doing something not aligned with the Gospel? Oi weh…”DON’T JUDGE ME! is the softest response one gets usually). What to do with all this?
    .
    We can all argue about why churches are shrinking and whose fault it is, but I think the first constructive step is we ask, “Are the churches being faithful to our calling?” If yes, then the number of posteriors in pews on a given Sunday is irrelevant. As a student of history, I find it interesting that modern audiences think the only time “the church” has seen a decline in membership is during the past 40 years. Hah, FALSE! Read up on the early Church of England when persecutions ran wild under Henry VIII, the Eastern Orthodox struggles with Rome, and the disciples themselves in the time of Christ (from that point on, many disciples left Jesus…John 6:66). Or for you Old Testament fans, recall that for the 500 or so years of the Judges and the Kings of Israel how God’s chosen people repeatedly rebelled against his ways and got into some serious trouble as a result. Think of Elijah complaining about how he was “the only one left”…and God answering him, “I have reserved for myself 7000 who have not kissed the feet of Ba’al….” And Israel at the time had a population of at least several hundred thousand if not 1 million+.
    .
    Perhaps we’re too arrogant sometimes in believing that the problems we face today have never, ever been faced before. But think of this…
    .
    Did the Baby Boomers reject the ways of the Greatest Generation? Yep. “Kids these days…back in MY day!”
    .
    Did the Gen Xers reject the Baby Boomers ways? Yep. “Kids these days…back in MY day!”
    .
    Etcetera. I confess it will be amusing some day to see the Millennials hear the same words from their kids as they say they are hearing from us (I’m a Gen Xers) today. Heh, we never learn to communicate with our parents as well as when we become parents ourselves. Then we become allies when we humbly confess we don’t know everything.
    .
    So what I think is more constructive than try to find the latest “solution” to what is essentially a problem as old as dirt (different generations wanting to change things or hold fast to old ways), we instead start with the Bible and ask, “Is the church being FAITHFUL to our calling?”
    .
    Can a church be faithful with multiple Bible studies? Sure. Can the church be faithful while being socially active in helping out with community needs? Sure. I think the problem comes when one group looks around and says, “This other group’s way of doing things is why we’re so screwed up.”
    .
    Ever hear the old saying that when you point a finger, there are 4 fingers pointing back at you? (wink)
    .
    Are we an Acts 2 church? Do we devote ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of the bread, to fellowship, and to prayer? If the answer is a resounding “Yes”, then i think we have no charge to bring against Christ’s bride, the church. Can we do better? I think there are different ways, tones, and ways of speaking that we can use so long as we don’t compromise the fundamental purpose of the church: to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world until he returns.
    .
    So maybe it’s not about posteriors in pews. Maybe that’s the wrong methodology to measure if the church is fulfilling her calling. How about we measure forgiveness, love, gentleness, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, and the like fruits of the spirit? How about we measure if the Sacraments are administered faithfully? How about we measure if the Word is proclaimed joyfully?
    .
    Then let the Holy Spirit take that and do with it whatever he will?
    .
    All the best, a servant of Christ Jesus.