Millennials leave the church.
You’ve seen us, with our man-buns and wrist-tattoos. We’ve lurked in the corners of your church coffee-shops: girls with half their hair buzzed away, boys with blooming beards. We come after college begins, on our breaks. Then, we don’t come back.
Why don’t we come back?
By now, it’s no secret that non-religious millennials have no interest in Christianity. In fact, at least 35% of millennials are anti-church. But what about us? The youths you raised? We’re the ones who attended youth group regularly. We laughed hysterically while racing Oreos off our foreheads. We listened to sermons. We cried at youth retreats. With hands lifted high, we professed Jesus Christ and said: though none go with me, still I will follow.
We don’t follow.
Somewhere between 18 and 21, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, millennials quit Christianity. Of the roughly 80% of young millennials (1990–1996) who were raised in religious homes, only 56% remain to call themselves Christian. Many of us, even if we return, leave for a time. At some point after high school, we try to stand face to face with an invisible God…. and we see nothing there.
What’s causing this Millennial Exodus? Many propose that it’s our colleges. Our culture. Our friends. Our lack of church guidance post-high school.
Churches are doing their best to get us back. Their congregations are filled with graying heads: pews of elderly Christians waiting to die. We are the future, and we’re not present. In order for the Church in America to survive, millennials have to come back.
Several books and blog posts have been written, proposing strategies for returning millennials to the fold. Suggestions vary from cheap candy-bribery (coffee shops, hipper bands, a church app) to more complex strategies for restructuring church ministries (a college-age group, campus outreaches.) In all of this debate, the voice of the millennial has been strangely silent. While some great millennial-written blogs exist, few of the definitive books on millennial drop-outs were written by millennials. A separate group of people is speaking for us, explaining why we leave, and what it will take to bring us back.
Rather than asking scientists what a strange alien species is thinking, why not ask the alien species itself?
We know we seem like aliens. Plaid. Buns. An obsession with coffee and craft beer. We thrive on art and empathy, and where witnessing attempts are concerned, we’re apparently less likely to respond to logic than the previous generation. In many of these millennial drop-out books, we’re practically called an alien species. We’re called confusing, perplexing, a new breed of human.
Like scientists poking a lab specimen, you crowd around us and ask… how do we get it to eat? How do we get it to drink the water of life?
Do we offer it coffee?
Should we hire a pastor with more tattoos?
Hello, friends. We’re not apes, you know. The reason we’re staring blankly back is that, frankly, we’re insulted. We don’t want coffee. We don’t want multi-colored stage lights.
We want Jesus.
And we can’t find Him in your churches.
The Real Disease
I’m a millennial. You’ve probably gathered that by now, from all the “we” talk. By age 14, I was sure I was going to be all about Jesus forever. I experienced personal miracles. I had powerful faith. I didn’t just obey all the rules of Christianity; I thrived on the heart of it. I was deep. I was in. I was sure that nothing, nothing on earth, would take my God away from me.
And by age 21, I was curled up in the library reading an article in Psychology Today. The article examined pre-death visions, why people may see “God” or “angels” or “heaven” or “hell” at the foot of their bed. The problem was, the article was full (as I recall) of non-Christian experiences. As a kid, I’d been taught to feel pride over these “heaven is real” glimpses. They proved my God was the right God.
So if the Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims are all seeing God at their deathbed side, where did that put me?
For the first time in my life, I actually, completely, doubted the existence of God.
I craved the non-existence of God. I was tired of the guilt. I was tired of the confusion. I was tired of not belonging and silently half-hating my faith.
What had happened? What had happened to the girl who loved God enough to, really and truly, die for Him?
I was on my way to becoming Anything But Christian, a term many millennials would apply to themselves post-high school.
For me, my crisis of faith had nothing to do with college influences.
I didn’t attend a university.
For me, my crisis of faith had nothing to do with my friends.
All of my friends were still Christian.
For me, my crisis of faith had nothing to do with an absence of church and bible studies.
I was still entrenched in church ministries.
I still wanted to stop believing in God.
There were many, many things that had broken in my faith. I’ve had three years now to return to my faith and start doing an archaeological dig — what went wrong?
If it wasn’t the culture,
wasn’t a lack of resources,
wasn’t straying friends… then why did a girl whose faith was so strong… stray?
Why would her heart seize with longing at the idea that God wasn’t there?
For years now, I’ve slowly warmed back up to God. In those three years, I’ve been sulky. I’ve been angry. I’ve been ready to flee at the first sign of betrayal. But I can say with joy and wide-spread arms, yes. Life is here. This has changed my life.
Because for me, and so many millennials like me, that’s the problem. Why should we be Christian? We see Christian fathers who still verbally abuse their sons. We see Christian women so shriveled and insecure we wonder if there’s still a person left in there. We see Christian pastors who molest girls and boys in their congregation.
This is what we see: Christ has done nothing for them — or at least, not enough.
Many of the non-Christians we know are far more loving, far more alive. If no-Christ has made them people we’d love to be, while Christianity creates people we beg to never be… then why should we be Christians?
Christianity hasn’t changed those Christian’s lives.
We don’t want social circles. For generations, the American Church was more of a social institution, like a country club, than anything. We don’t need that. What we’re looking for in religion is an experience so real, so gripping, it knocks us breathless.
We want our lives to be overturned. The world is cruel. We battle with fear and hurt on a daily basis. We tread water, desperate for the answer to life. We want something that will finally give us the answer. We want something we’d suffer torture for. We want something more real than a thesis in our heads.
And Christianity? It seems to offer cute coffee mugs and a be-happy club. In the churches we see, Christianity doesn’t change lives. It alters behaviors. It does not make new.
We crave the divine. We crave power. We crave something infinitely-beyond human. We crave God. When we walk into your churches, we are on tiptoe, dying of thirst, willing to die for a finger-brush with the divine.
There is no God.
I believe that, when it comes to the Millennial Exodus, we have it backwards. The Millennial Exodus is not a disease. It’s a symptom of the disease. The church in America has a plastic prop-up of Jesus Christ. We’re not interested in your churches because — as much as we need Him to be — God is not there. Don’t get me wrong, you have something nice. But it’s not enough to make us drop our nets. We are looking for Him elsewhere because we are not finding Him with you.
Furthering the Discussion — Companion Articles:
1. Barna Group, FRAMES project, conducted May-August 2013, https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD
2. Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study, conducted June 4 — Sept. 30, 2014, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
3. Larry Moyer. “Five Characteristic of ‘Country Club Christians.’ ” MinistryTodayMag.com, March 26, 2015. https://ministrytodaymag.com/leadership/235-culture/21660-5-characteristics-of-country-club-christians