Why Young People are Leaving the Church in Droves

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. 


Add yours →

  1. i do not agree! You have certainly identified some evidences why young people are not following Jesus, but this is not unique
    to any generation. The circumstances in relation to a cultural generation may change, but the reasons why young people do not follow Jesus
    is the same for every generation. I am a pastor and a baby boomer but the reasons why my generation, when they were young, did not follow
    Jesus is the same as yours: 1. John 6 :60-67 – they do not believe and know Jesus is the Christ – so they are offended and leave
    2 John 8 : 54-56 – Since they do not know Him, they do not know his word and will not keep it (apart from
    cherry-picking a few verses)
    3. 1 John 2 ; 12-17 – Without knowing Him – the love of the world overtakes them

    If a solid foundation is built on Christ and his word, they will not leave; no matter what the reasons. God’s blessing to you in Christ

  2. Bridget Lennon April 1, 2015 — 4:40 pm

    Why are young people leaving church? Because no one, particularly 20 somethings who are living at home, in school, or in the early stages of their career, wants to pay 10% of their income so they can be bored to tears for an hour a week. Oh and then there’s the fact that most churches are seen as oppressive towards the LGBT community. Millennials don’t like that

  3. Lucia Butterfield April 2, 2015 — 12:57 am

    Re umber 5; one “sows” wild oats, or any type of grain, one “sews” cloth. The main reason people leave the church is because it is all untrue- an old fable, touted for years so the powerful could control us. The contents of the bible are make-believe, and people are educated enough now to realise this.

  4. Hi there,
    Well written article though as a non beleiver I think one of the major reasons (and the reason I personally divorced myself from all monotheistic religions) is a simple lack of evidence. We now live in a world where the sum of human knowledge expands daily yet all Christianity can offer is a book translated several hundred years ago and based on events two mellienia past.
    Please don’t take my tone as dismissive, I think you make some excellent points why religion as a whole is hemorrhaging young people but the lack of evidence is a facet that must be faced.
    Very sincerely

    • Thanks for your thoughts Tim. Are you familiar with Timothy Keller, a pastor in NYC? He has some helpful stuff on what you are describing. His book Reason for God is insightful on that topic. Appreciate you stopping by.

  5. doctor perverso April 3, 2015 — 2:05 am

    The people who do the most damage to the Church and work the hardest at driving people away from it are the right wing evangelicals, with their religion based on fear, paranoia, hatred, and bigotry. They either don’t know or choose to ignore both the teachings and example of Jesus and the fact that the U.S. government is based on the Constitution, not the Bible. Young people avoid that kind of religion for the same reasons they avoid the KKK. When I introduce one of my Christian friends with the warning that ‘he’s a Christian but he’s a nice guy’, we both laugh, but it’s really not that funny. I’ll admit that I’m prejudiced. Although I’m not a Christian-that’s my choice and I stand by it-my mother was an old fashioned Christian from the hills of Kentucky and she believed that you were supposed to live your faith and that God did not serve you, you served God. She also believed that God sees everyone as equal and it behooves us to follow His example. Perhaps if young people saw more Christians like my mother and fewer KKKreeshtuns like Joel Osteen and the governor of Indiana, more of them would commit to the Church.

  6. DS Westervelt May 6, 2015 — 11:51 pm

    Brandon, Excellent, thoughtful post! I’m neither a millennial nor did I grow up in the Bible Belt–but I couldn’t agree more with your appraisal. I became a Christian in the early 80’s, went to seminary in the 90’s, and have been in the church for 35 years. I love the gospel as much as ever, but not Christianity, for the same reasons you’ve expressed here. Many thanks! NOTE: I found you bc. a friend read your book and mentioned that it seemed quite similar to my sentiments. Hat’s off to you! Dale

  7. I think that the reason why young people like me are leaving church is for a lot of reasons but I’m Including the following. The reason why young people leave church is because:

    Some churches forbids you to go to movie theaters, drink wine, kiss a girl (if you have a GF or bf), can’t listen to worldly music (which is why we have a sub culture christian movies, books, etc), can’t go to night club, dance.

    The most shocking thing that is affecting millenials since we are living in a world that is changing towards opening minded ideas is that Christians can’t hang out with friends of different beliefs (Muslims), can’t marry non_believers (so where does the phrase meaning go “love is love??) So all these things are driving us out from church..

  8. I’m not a pastor, but did preach and lead worship in outreach efforts at hospitals and nursing homes. Whenever I focused on the Gospel and a relationship with Christ, God moved. People were coming to Christ and were being miraculously healed. I learned to focus on the Gospel, to let the Spirit lead, and to step out of God’s way. I didn’t prepare as much as I wanted to. I don’t have years of experience in ministry. I am quite the ordinary person. I was amused because I didn’t really do anything (rather, I pointed people to Christ and God took care of everything else). When I preached on other topics, these sort of things did not happen.

    I think that many churches have lost their focus on the primary message, which is the Gospel and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (this message trandcends, age, culture, music, or any other trivial thing). As a result, there is a spirit of complacency, emptiness, devisiveness, a lack of relationship, and a feeling of disconnect. God will move when we allow Him to and when we remove our own egos from the process. Instead on focusing on the primary message, we are now being inundated with things like the prosperity gospel. People falling away is nothing new, this was a significant struggle within the early church, and the underlying problem was false doctrine that distorted the Gospel.

    IMO, the problem is a spiritual one, and the knowledge of God (that is knowing God on a personal level) is not being transmitted to subsequent generations.

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