Why Millennials Are *Really* Leaving The Church

“Why are millennials leaving the church?”
They asked, and they pondered and prayed
But the problem, it seems, that they had with their search
Is, they asked a millennial… who stayed.

Over at CNN, there’s a piece by Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church“. Young people are leaving the church in droves, and the church wants to know why. In this story, the author (who has not left the church) points to the the slick packaging of today’s religion, the selling of sizzle rather than steak, and opines:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

And a bit later:

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

But there’s a problem with her analysis, and much of it I suspect comes from her own personal experience. After all, she did not choose to leave. She chose to stay. Having made a decision, we (at least we WEIRD subjects of the psych experiments examining the process) tend to justify our decision–we focus on the elements that support our decision, and minimize the elements that would have favored the path we did not take. What the church needs to do is ask the people who left… and then they need to actually listen. (I had two links for that sentence, illustrating what I mean, and for the life of me I can’t find them. If I do, I’ll update, and it will be worth it.)

But I suspect the CNN piece actually has the answer, hidden in plain sight:

At 32, I barely qualify as a millennial.

I wrote my first essay with a pen and paper, but by the time I graduated from college, I owned a cell phone and used Google as a verb.

I still remember the home phone numbers of my old high school friends, but don’t ask me to recite my husband’s without checking my contacts first.

I own mix tapes that include selections from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I’ve never planned a trip without Travelocity.

The thing is, it’s easier to find answers than ever before. The church no longer controls the information about the church, and has long ago lost the ability to control the information about the rest of the world. The plain truth is, there’s nothing the church can provide that clubs, schools, stores, and the internet cannot provide–except god… and there is less and less use for a god with every passing day.

If the restaurant you are sitting in turns out to have absolutely nothing on the menu… it’s not really surprising if you leave.


  1. hotshoe, now with more boltcutters says

    That christian, what a goofball. She can’t even keep her thoughts straight within three short paragraphs.

    But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

    In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

    Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

    Poor little Rachel, not smart enough to see that the seemingly “unpretentious” “authentic” style of the Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopalian services is instead the epitome of Church-As-Performance which (she says) she wishes to leave. It’s performance art honed, ritualized, stylized to a higher degree than most of us will see outside of an opera house.

    And yet, she thinks she has a highly sensitive BS meter and is not easily impressed with “performances”.

    Bwahahaha. She’s just more meat to the hucksters of the Church.

  2. Aliasalpha says

    Surely its less a case of the restaurant having nothing at all on the menu, its more that its the same old stuff you get everywhere else but with a bitter aftertaste and double the price

  3. raven says

    It’s just a puff piece, propaganda.

    AS CF pointed out, you don’t ask someone who stayed in the chuch why her generation has escaped.

    She blames the packaging. It’s not that.

    It’s the content.

    And FWIW, people are leaving the so called High churches too. In the last few years, the RCC has lost a huge 22 million, 1/3 of the US membership. Half go Protestant, mostly fundie. Half remain unaffiliated.

  4. raven says

    Rachel Evans:

    Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc

    Oh really? How many is “many” here?

    On Attendance Declining in Russian Churches in the West : A …
    www .pravmir. com › Contemporary Issues‎

    Mar 23, 2011 – Why is Attendance Declining in Russian Churches in the West? … while those trying to remain Russian and Orthodox have problems in bringing … world” and on the people around us – that is, on others and not on ourselves.

    Fr. Andrew J. Barakos — The Greek Orthodox Church in America …
    www. orthodoxytoday. org/articles8/Barakas-Greek-Orthodox-Church.php‎

    Mar 5, 2008 – 1.5 million, faithful Greek Orthodox in the United States means that … In 2000, the annual number of baptisms declined to 7,300 – a drop of 27%.

    Episcopal Church reports lowest membership in 70 years :: Catholic …
    www. catholicnewsagency. com › News › US‎
    Nov 1, 2011 – With a total membership of 1,951,907 in 2010, the Episcopal Church has … have seen their typical Sunday attendance decline by over 10 percent since 2006. … Controversy has plagued the main U.S. branch of the Anglican …

    FWIW, Rachel Evans is apparently delusional, not in contact with the real world.

    The US Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopalian churches are losing members too. A lot of members.

    As an ex-xian, I know more than she about why people leave the religion.

    In my case, it was because of….xians. People like Rachel Evans, a delusional moron.

    When xian became synonymous with liar, hater, moron, loon, terrorist, and killer, a lot of people didn’t want to be one any more.

  5. says

    hotshoe, now with more boltcutters wrote:

    Poor little Rachel, not smart enough to see that the seemingly “unpretentious” “authentic” style of the Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopalian services is instead the epitome of Church-As-Performance which (she says) she wishes to leave. It’s performance art honed, ritualized, stylized to a higher degree than most of us will see outside of an opera house.

    That also seemed to me like a statement strongly clashing with the pomp and ceremony characterizing these church traditions. I was quite startled to read that.

  6. carlie says

    Is she the one who got a lot of backlash from other Christians for that piece? Not even her own people bought what she was selling, but they blamed her saying what the problems are for the fact that problems exist.

  7. grumpyoldfart says

    – Back in the 1950s the church blamed rock’n’roll for the departure of young believers.
    – In the 1960s it was the cultural revolution
    – In the 1970s it was New Age spirituality
    – In the 1980s it was the selfishness of the ‘greed is good’ mentality
    – In the 1990s it was the Information Super Highway
    It’s always something…

    [Actually it’s education. God is hiding so deep in the gaps that fewer people find him each decade]

  8. Moose7271 says

    Dear Cuttlefish,

    I am a Gen-X pastor who is actively trying to listen – hence, how I came to read your article. I greatly appreciate your candor in this well-written, well-thought out piece, and so I would like to ask some questions. You make a great point when you write, “Having made a decision, we tend to justify our decision – we focus on the elements that support our decision, and minimize the elements that would have favored the path we did not take.”

    Doesn’t this mean that what the church hears (when we do listen) from disenfranchised millennials are simply those justifications?

    Here’s the theory from which I’m proceeding: the complaints about hypocrisy and the church stance on cultural issues (i.e., abortion, LGBT issues, drug legalization, etc.) are the justifications for a choice to believe in a way that is contrary and contradictory to Christianity. Even with regard to the whole “religion vs. science” debate, people from all walks of life become fideistic to the point of view that best suits the life / lifestyle they want to lead. But since the claims and the beliefs of Christianity are diametrically opposite to these choices, the disenfranchised seek to “minimize the elements that would have favored the path [they] did not take,” which culminates in the effort to be rid of all Christianity – not just the close-minded minority who embarrass us all.

    So here’s my follow-up question: how do we get beyond the justifications and talk about the real issues?

    Thank you very much, I would appreciate your feedback.

  9. Cuttlefish says

    An excellent point in your first two paragraphs, pastor–the same psychology works both ways. Polarization of opinions is one of the fundamental characteristics we find in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic–basically the population you and I are talking about, fortunately) social psychology. Fortunately, we do know how to study the polarization process, and there are people making careers out of just that. You get beyond our flawed lenses by systematically varying, by controlling conditions, and by following the data. (Recent research, for instance, points to decline in religious belief as a function of thinking analytically, rather than intuitively. Critical thinking, and access to evidence, can both be facilitated by technology–of course, so can anecdotes, feel-good stories and fuzzy thinking, so learning how to evaluate evidence is critical.)

    Your third paragraph, though, suffers a bit from myopia. “Christianity”, as much as “atheism”, is a very broad category. The vast majority of the Christians I know would disagree with your claim that these cultural issues are “contrary and contradictory to Christianity”. My lesbian former neighbors, I am thrilled to report, have finally tied the knot, and did so with the full blessing of their church. There are thousands of Christian sects (many, but not all, of which claim to have the correct interpretation of Christianity’s beliefs), many of which have traditionally fought with one another (this, of course, the impetus behind the first amendment). So, the bottom line is, you do not speak for all of Christianity, and (to bring it back to the original point) you may well have (not merely you, but your sect as an institution) interpreted your bible as a part of the justification process–that is, your faith does not determine your prejudice, but rather your prejudice determines your interpretation of Christ’s lessons.

    Oddly enough, in reviewing that paragraph of yours, I can see that I could interpret your own beliefs as going in either direction–in, say, being pro-choice and saying that a “close-minded minority who embarrass us all” have interpreted Christianity as being pro-life, or in the polar opposite. I’ll leave my second paragraph as is, because my point was that “the claims and beliefs of Christianity” include interpretations that are polar opposites of one another–and either way you meant your paragraph to go, you do not speak for all of Christianity.

    And just out of curiosity… what, to you, are “the real issues”?

  10. Moose7271 says

    To be honest, I believe you have articulately (if not inadvertently) expressed my point. I was not trying to take a stance one way or the other on a particular issue, nor was I trying to speak for all Christendom. Rather, I was trying to illustrate that the use of a stance on a cultural / societal issue is a response, a justification, which is a mask for a deeper issue or concern.

    I am not questioning that both sides engage in this practice. Like you said, this goes both ways, but that includes the statement that “your faith does not determine your prejudice, but rather your prejudice determines your interpretation of Christ’s lessons.” Furthermore, the very next sentence of your post says, “I can see that I could interpret your own beliefs…” Pardon me for being blunt, but that shows a bias being read into my statements that did not exist, particularly in light of your admission that I didn’t explicitly state where I stood.

    Quite frankly I believe we agree on many of the philosophical and psychological issues here: we’ve both said as much and that’s why I wrote my first post. The “real issue” is seeking how to speak to where people are in need, where they are hurting, for a generation that I believe has turned its back to the church for reasons we don’t talk about. Instead of talking about what matters, we fall back to the justified rationalizations we have developed in our own minds.

    I want to be done with wasting time on jargon and justifications, and instead to explain the love of God through Jesus Christ for hurting people. This is the goal of the church and why we are concerned about the loss of millennials. (I acknowledge that I can’t speak for the entirety of Christendom, but I believe this is the goal of the true church.) The problem we face is not only from within, but also with a society that we perceive is increasingly unwilling to allow this voice to be heard.

    Please allow me the indulgence of a personal example. When I was in high school I received a series of harassing phone calls from a gay man. In a moment of what I would call spiritual grace, I said something that allowed “the wall” to drop, and this man spoke to me openly and honestly. We developed a friendship over the course of a few years where he asked questions and expressed his opinion, and I had the opportunity to explain God’s love, even if we didn’t agree and even if I didn’t do a great job. There was no agenda in this discussion, just a chance to speak openly and honestly to one another. He did not become a Christian, but I still cherished the opportunity for grace.

    To me, that is the real issue. People are hurting and the church has a message of hope. Are we perfect? Hardly. But I believe with all my heart that this is a message the millennials – and all generations – need to hear, and then make a decision.

  11. Cuttlefish says

    “The” message of the church for hurting people…? But, as you acknowledge, there is no unified message. Christian churches are for and against gay marriage, for and against reproductive rights, for and against Obamacare, for and against birth control, for and against the teaching of evolution, for and against environmental issues, for and against any given issue, while calling the stand they are in favor of “the goal of the true church”.

    In an information age, it’s easy to see the conflicting views. They cannot all be messages of hope, can they? Which messages are we supposed to attend to, and which ignore? And if the churches disagree on these worldly questions, how is that supposed to give confidence in the answer to even more ambiguous ultimate questions?

    “The church” no longer is one voice; it is thousands, that disagree on crucial views. Cacophony may as well be no message at all, let alone a message that all generations need to hear. (And if the “message” is Christ’s sacrifice to forgive our sins, remember you are offering to cure us from something only you diagnosed, can you blame us for seeking a second opinion?)

  12. Moose7271 says

    Thank you again for your thoughtful response. So here’s the last point I’d like to make: if Christian churches are so broad in scope, and there’s room for every one and every opinion, then why are the millennials still leaving? For example, shouldn’t the church that supported your lesbian friends’ marriage be swamped with LGBT people? Maybe individual congregations see such growth, but as has been mentioned ad nauseum the churches are shrinking whether they compromise their beliefs or not.

    The answer is that millennials don’t come and they don’t believe because they don’t want to. If evolution was proven false, would flocks of atheists come to church?

    I believe that we truly have answered this question, and the reality is that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Every generation believes that their predecessors were inferior, and the millennials are no different. Oh sure, they have better toys, but people are people.

    Again, thank you for this opportunity and for your insights.

  13. Cuttlefish says

    While the many voices cannot, logically, all be right, it is quite possible that they are all wrong. So long as all Christian churches are claiming the “Christian” mantle, the contradictions will continue.

    It certainly is the case that believers have migrated from one sect to the other (when the Anglican Church became too tolerant of gays, the Catholic Church was there to scoop up the nearly-faithful– http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2009/10/28/anglican-catholic-horizontal-transfer/ ). But with each move, it appears that some leave just decide to leave the ride altogether.

    “They don’t believe because they don’t want to” is not an answer–any toddler can remind you, the next question would be “but why don’t they want to?”. And if evolution was proven false today, there would still be not a lick of positive evidence on the church’s side–it is a logical fallacy to suggest that if evolution is wrong, the church is right. Ideas need their own evidence, not just a lack of evidence for one of many possible alternatives.

    If your answer is “because they don’t want to”, then I utterly disagree that the question is answered (as per above). Things staying the same is a bit of a stretch, when you compare on pretty much any time scale–years, decades, centuries, millennia–the questions that religion can answer are fewer and fewer, and our access to answers has increased.

    The sort of answers (“people are people”) you offer are non-answers; they don’t say *why* things change or stay the same. Fortunately, those are the sorts of questions science likes to ask. And actually answer.

  14. Bryan Vovan says

    Being an ex-Christian millennial I can truly say the reason why we are leaving the church is because it has nothing to offer us. We come to church because we want to believe in something greater than the stressful and uncertain world we live in. Yet, when we go, we see more of the same and often worse. Hate and hypocrisy run rampant and compassion and empathy scarce. It has become an us vs them mentality, as Christians are on defense, and increasingly isolated from mainstream society.

    Millennials still yearn for something good and noble to be a part of, but until that shows up we will do our best on our own.


  1. […] That’s if your kids believe this bullshit, and it’s terrible if they do. But your religious compatriots have been wringing their hands over the present crop of kids who’ve grown up and slammed the church doors behind them, never looking back. Why oh why have they been leaving? the faithful cry. And a lot of answers are shoved forward, like the fact that kids these days just aren’t as much in to the gay-bashing and misogyny and disregard for social justice and suchlike things as their parents were. But for all that, so few of you are willing to admit that the reason a lot of kids don’t accept your brainwashing – excuse me, Biblical teaching – is because they know it’s bullshit. […]

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