My generation, the Millenials (ages 18-29), have been dubbed the “lost generation” of the church. If you were to look at a nationwide swath of people gathered in churches on Sundays you’d see a noticeable absence of my people. They are increasingly elsewhere and disinterested. Research shows that the Millenial Generation is falling away from church in numbers never before seen in American history.
As a Millenial who grew up in the Bible Belt, I have a few thoughts on why they are leaving the church with the frequency they are.
1. They Equate Christianity with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
The author of this post interviews professors at Christian colleges about professed Christian students, and they express deep concern over what their students are claiming as Christianity.
I went to a Christian college in the South and LET ME TELL YOU I feel them.
If you are unfamiliar with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it is a term coined by some Christian sociologists that describes the sort of fluffy religious system that comes about when the gospel is either assumed or divorced from teachings that are loosely based on the Bible. Moralistic = “Be good!” Therapeutic = “It’s all about you and making you feel better!” Deism = “God’s up there and He’s watching, but He’s not really involved in any significant way.” You know, like Santa Claus.
And here’s what those college professors are describing: a bunch of these kids have come from churches that assumed everyone knew the gospel for the most part, and then moved on to “deeper” matters of obedience. But, of course, obedience is intended to be desired in response to grace, not begrudgingly followed in order to get some blessing. So these kids are operating off of a gospel-less mindset of a distant God who will make their lives better if they are good. It’s a kissing cousin of the prosperity gospel–er, the prosperity not-gospel would be more correct.
So these kids. They try to be good. For the Santa Claus god up in the sky. So he will like them and make their lives better.
Except their lives get harder. Because that’s what life does. Every year, hard things happen. And when the Santa Claus god up in the sky who is supposed to be protecting you from all the hard doesn’t, what’s he good for anyway? They walk away from Jesus because they are confusing Him with the fat man in the red suit. (By the way, read this excellent post when you are through here.)
This is a straight up mess, not just in the Bible Belt, but in our entire country (and around the world I’m sure).
2. They See Church as an Irrelevant Hobby
Church? You mean that thing my parents dragged me to for years? Why would I want to go there? Sure, youth group was fun sometimes. We played some games and ate some pizza, but I’m sure college parties will one-up Wednesday night at the (insert creative youth group name here).
I am, of course, not saying that churches, or youth groups doing attractional ministry and doing fun stuff with kids is useless. But I am saying that if a youth group becomes nothing more than a four year holding tank with pizza, college will offer something far, far better. Kids learn to see church as a hobby in this environment, and once they get out from under mom & dad’s roof, they identify more appealing hobbies.
Church was designed to be a quite compelling community of believers who are on a mission together. One that’s well worth hanging onto and digging into during college and your twenties. But a lot of Millenials don’t know that or have never seen that in a church.
This is a much bigger conversation, but many kids learned to view church as a hobby not just from youth group and a community and mission-less church, but also from their parents. If church involvement doesn’t mean anything other than this thing we occasionally attend–if it is not a family, a community, a shared mission–then that thing will be easily replaced later on. However, when kids see their parents living as if their faith really means something–if it actually reorients their lives and the dynamic of a family–that has a higher probability of sticking (of course, that is not foolproof).
3. They See the Growing Unpopularity of Christianity.
It is, perhaps, the most uncool it has ever been in American history to be a Christian living under the authority of the Bible. Don’t think teenagers and twenty-somethings don’t know that–their entire lives revolve around trying to be cool.
This is no excuse. It’s simply getting harder to get cool points with the “cool crowd” of society while also being a Jesus-following Christian and letting Him be the authority over your life.
4. They Have Found Avenues to Help Make the World a Better Place, and They are Not in the Church.
Millennials are maybe the most cause-driven generation that’s ever existed. Starting or working for a non-profit is exceedingly cool and respectable. Millennials are always on the lookout for organizations to parter with, give to, work for, and travel with to help improve the conditions of our world.
Historically the church has always been at the forefront of the non-profit sector, but more and more options are becoming available disconnected from any religious affiliation. And truth be told, Millenials don’t care who is doing good work as long as good work is being done. Many are finding their place to serve outside the walls or vision of the church.
5. They Want to Sow Their Wild Oats.
Young Jimmy is a good kid, but he’s off to college now, so he’ll do his own thing for a while. He’ll test the waters. Then I’m sure when he settles down and gets married and has a kid, he’ll come back around to his faith.
This. This familiar story. It’s told so often that it almost feels undeniable. Except, it’s not. It’s a tired old story built on so many faulty assumptions that couldn’t stand up to a light breeze.
To be sure, it is a thing. At least in practice. But what I see more and more is that Jimmy doesn’t return to his faith when he settles down like the familiar story goes, because if something isn’t worth holding onto why is it worth picking back up? Ages 18-25 are some of the most formative years of a person’s life, so whatever is put down then will be much harder to pick back up in a meaningful way. And whatever is picked up has a much higher probability of sticking.
Of course, young people are restless. Many rebel just because they can. This is part of life and growing up. But let’s don’t assume that this should be the norm, because you might as well encourage your college freshman to throw down their Bible and pick up a bottle of vodka if this is the expected story you are perpetuating.
Despite these dismal statistics, our church family here in Columbia, SC has seen unbelievable growth in the amount of Millenials participating in our church (and I know of many others like us). We are over 80% Millenial (under 30)–and while that’s certainly NOT because we’re super smart and IS because God has wanted to bless us with hordes of young people–next week I’ll offer some thoughts on why I think so many of this generation have been drawn to our church family.
Do you have any thoughts on why Millenials are leaving the church? Feel free to comment below if so.