Why Are Millennials (and others) Leaving the Church? Thoughts on a Rachel Held Evans Post

Demographic studies tell us that Millennials (our current group of young adults) are leaving the church in droves.  Those of us serving in leadership at smaller mainline churches already know this to be true. In fact, for many of our churches it's not the Millennials who are missing, it's the GenXers who seem most absent (at least this is true in my congregation).   

So, depending on who you listen to or read, the reasons given vary, but the fact is -- fewer young adults are attending church than in previous generations (I should not here that when we look at trends it's quite likely that the 1950s was an anomaly).  Whether in church or not, many still seek to be spiritually-oriented and even see themselves aligned with specific religious categories -- but as for the church as a body -- not so much.

It's not a new conversation, but a posting today at the CNN Belief blog Rachel Held Evans sought to answer the question:  Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.  She has a clip of the longer article on her blog -- http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/millennials-church-cnn, where you will find a rather lengthy set of comments (including a few of my own).  This posting is being shared fairly widely on Facebook, garnering a lot of comment and not a little angst.  

In my initial response to Rachel's article, I noted that the reasons given for why Millennials are leaving the church largely have to do with the evangelical church -- where the most young adults happen to be hanging out!  The reasons given for leaving the church have to do with sex (especially anti-gay attitudes), the anti-intellectualism that accompanies the faith/science debate (can you be a Christian and believe in evolution? -- by the way, I say yes in my latest book Worshiping with Charles Darwin).  Then there's the politics issue.  On this one should note that while the nation as a whole still seems to trend moderate to conservative, most Millennials are trending the other direction.  Millennials are also telling survey takers that they're not all that attracted to edgier worship -- read contemporary -- and are even attracted to more high church options (Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal).  They apparently see this as more authentic (though growing up Episcopalian I'm not sure this is true).  

In my response I noted that you'll find much of what Millennials seem to like in Mainline Protestant churches -- sort of like mine -- but they don't seem to be stopping by.  In Rachel's response, she noted something that I've known for some time:  These days, when people leave conservative leaning churches they don't try out the more moderate/liberal versions.  They just leave and have no interest in trying out the other options.  Whether they'll come back later is unknown.

One of the the critiques of moderate/liberal churches is that while we may not welcome LGBT folks, believe in evolution, and pursue social justice, we're not nearly as good at connecting these commitments to our faith commitments.  In other words, we don't seem all that different from other non-profits.  So, they seem to wonder why they should bother.

For churches like mine, going "high church" isn't likely in the cards -- we're not a high church tradition.  At the same time, we're not going total contemporary, which I sense is like chasing squirrels.   Now, I should note that we do have young adults at Central Woodward Christian Church.  Most were raised in the church. We have attracted a few others who weren't raised in the church -- but they have connections to long term members.  I'd love more.  And as for whether they have a say in the life of the church, we have made a concerted effort to bring young adults into leadership.  Not just committee members but leaders.  One of our most active 20 somethings was elected as Vice President of the Congregation and as an Elder (he's a youngish Elder, but he's still charged with spiritual leadership).  Is everyone totally comfortable with younger leaders?  Maybe not -- but as pastor of the church I am committed to making sure that the opportunities are there for those ready to answer the call.    

So, what is the take away?  I think it is this -- we need to connect what we're doing with Jesus.  There has to be some theology not just sociology in the conversation!  

Here's another thought.  While many are leaving.  Maybe we should also ask:  Why are many staying?

In the end, I would simply like to invite Millennials who are disenchanted by narrow theology and politics, but who aren't enthralled by techno-worship -- to come gather with churches like mine.  Join us in building a new future.  Yeah, a majority have gray hair.  I have gray hair.  But we're not dead yet.  And many of our older people welcome the presence and leadership of younger generations.  So, come along and join us!!


Martha Spong said…
We are definitely not dead yet! Not even close.
Baptist said…
I wish every young person would leave every apostate church there is. Get out from under the teaching and influence of ungodly men and women.
And no Bob, it is not possible to be a Christian and an evolutionist. Christians believe that God made the universe and life on earth is six days, just like the Bible says he did.
John McCauslin said…
I think that it is I portent to be representative, especially on the elders. I don't know if that was so true, at least with respect to age groups 50 years ago, but church's and their elders risk losing touch with the younger age groups if they do not give a voice in the most intimate work of the church. The different age groups need to be heard so that the church can continue to respond to their needs in this ever so dynamic culture of ours. Moreover, in this age which places so much value on youth, there is the risk that Grayhairs will be ignored by younger generations as out of touch. Younger "elders" not only keep the Grayhairs in touch with cultural issues and generational perceptions, but they are a way of maintaining relevant to the younger church members whom they serve.
Ron Amundson said…
Grayhair here, but I wear a hat!... and play in worship bands, yet prefer high church. :) Sometimes I ever play electric with a pipe organ LOL

I tend to think high church approaches tend to be perceived as more of a tangible connection to Christianity on a wide scale, past, present, and future... not generational per say, but more of a cosmic and worldwide connection. To some extent it almost seems a logical counter-reaction to the semi-pelagianism that pervades much of US evangelicalism. Low church approaches within the context of a liberal theological context can swing almost the another way, if not gnosticism, perhaps NGOism with a Christian sounding name.

On the inside within a low church environment we know such is not the case, but I think most of us do a pretty poor sales job... to a visitor, its likely they will walk out the door thinking, yep same old same old never to return. Theology and practice of pretty much every church I've been at (hundred+ over the years as a church musician) easily support a worldwide and time wide theology, so that's not the barrier.... but it rarely gets communicated very well.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thanks for the comments! As a former Episcopalian, now Disciple, who was also a Pentecostal, I've learned to play in all of the arenas. My concern is that the move to high church will prove a disappointment in the long run. A couple decades back droves of evangelicals went on what Robert Webber called the "Canterbury Trail." Interestingly enough, they discovered that Episcopalians were also liberal and many had a fit about the liberal theology. What they failed to reckon is that the liberal theology was already there before they got there. After all, Bishop Pike, was Bishop of California at the time I was born -- 55 years ago!
Ron Amundson said…
I think you are right on that for the most part as to the short lived nature of the high church thing. The authenticity I think many are searching for is a rarity irrespective of liberal, conservative, high, or low... and it can be a bugger and then some to find, even for us insiders. It can also be killed pretty darn fast in the pew. Fwiw, I've also played in pretty much all areas... literally as well as in the pew :)

The reason I bring up the high church bit, is that its an easier mode of entry for some folks... but the staying part is another story. I fear your response is correct.

I wonder if part of the answer is making authenticity, if it exists less of a headache to find? I found an amazing level authenticity in an amazing Catholic priest... we had many a long discussion, and some of the things I asked I thought we just too far out there... only to find he had asked the same questions in Rome! The thing is, outside his office, that sort of thing was pretty much non-existent. I think it needs to be a congregational thing too, rather than near exclusively pastor centric. How do you get there?
Robert Cornwall said…
Ron, I'm wondering if authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Or, perhaps, it requires more discernment than most of us are willing to engage in. Most of us wear masks because we're afraid of being rejected or hurt. Congregations have been burned. Seekers have been burned. Clergy have been burned. So we mask ourselves, and only allow the true self to be seen over time.

Authenticity is revealed in community, but community takes time to build. If all we're willing to give is one or maybe 2 impressions, then it's unlikely we'll discern what we're seeking.

You may be right that the high church thing is more initially accessible because it has a distinctive pattern -- and a book -- that can be followed. It also lends a sense of being connected to what is ancient. But, then all of us are in our own way!!

By the way, my area of expertise is 18th century high church Anglicans and the nonjurors (the ultimate adherents of what is ancient!!).
Jeffery Agnew said…
I'm a gen-Xer, and what I see as needed in most of my generation is a nuts and bolts how to build your own theology. One that looks at the options of approach and asks more questions than it answers and is comfortable with doubt and more concerned with process than with results. Basically, workshops in post-modernist along side of more traditional theologies as a spiritual endeavor.

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