Millennial myths and the real reasons people leave the church

mm-logoby Shane Raynor

Attention Christian bloggers and columnists. I have a favor to ask. Could you please stop speaking of young people as if they’re a homogeneous group with a single opinion on every issue?

I’ve been guilty of it too. Christian writers are notorious for using Barna surveys and Pew polls as licenses to paint various groups of people with broad brushes. Readers of Rachel Held Evans’ blog, for example, probably have a good chance of coming away from her site thinking that nearly all millennials are progressive on creationism/evolution, homosexuality, and other issues. (To be fair, Rachel usually includes some kind of disclaimer about exceptions and about some of the trends applying to other generations. But those points often seem to get lost in the discussion.)

The fact is, millennials disagree among themselves on theology, religious practice, and controversial issues as much as any other age group. That’s been my observation anyway. The big difference I see is that younger people tend to feel less of a need to persuade those who disagree with them, and they’re less likely to break fellowship over a disagreement. I’m not sure if it’s because of their age (meaning they’ll change as they get older) or if it’s distinctive of Gen-Y and will remain a defining characteristic throughout their lives, but there certainly seems to be more of a “live and let live, think and let think” attitude among this generation. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re of one mind on much of anything.

Besides, if churches with more conservative, traditional views on sexuality, creation/evolution, and Biblical inerrancy are really such a turnoff to the millennial masses, then why aren’t liberal mainline congregations teeming with young adults?

Perhaps millennials leave the church for the same reasons many others leave:

    • They don’t feel like they’re encountering God. Seriously, who wants to leave a place where they’re genuinely experiencing God’s manifest presence?


    • They want to be equipped to improve their lives, not wallow around in brokenness with perpetually broken people. A Christianity that isn’t changing individuals won’t change the world either. “Misery loves company” works for bars, but it’s not a good long term growth strategy for churches. Maybe people figure that if Christians are as messed up as everyone else anyway, they can just stay messed up while sleeping in on Sunday mornings.


    • They’ve found other ways to connect with people outside of church, including social media. So if the church isn’t offering relationships with substance, why would they want to stick around? There are a million places on TV and the Internet to hear good preaching and teaching, without feeling the awkwardness or pressure that can come with attending church. Now more than ever, the “people factor” and genuine community are important for churches to get right, because people don’t need church to connect anymore.


    • Sometimes people leave because they’re backsliding. Churches can be doing everything right and still lose some people because of this. And although I don’t have a poll to prove it (Has Barna surveyed any backsliders lately?), I’d guess that young adults are more likely to go through seasons of rebellion than older Christians. The question is, how much do some of the other factors listed above encourage a culture of backsliding in a congregation?


    • They don’t feel challenged. Some of us have tried so hard to meet people where they are that we’ve made church too accessible. Most people want to grow spiritually, and it’s hard to do that in churches that spend an inordinate amount of time catering to the spiritual lowest common denominator. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to offer plenty of on-ramps for new believers, the lost, and the unchurched, but salvation doesn’t stop after justification. People who don’t feel they have opportunities to move forward spiritually may leave church simply because they’re bored.


The more I observe the alleged church generation gap, the more I think most of the handwringers are exaggerating it. Our problem isn’t generational as much as it is cultural. Rather than engaging the culture and challenging the culture, maybe we’ve become a little too obsessed with following the culture. If anything, the church probably needs to become more countercultural, not less.

But that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the culture either. Cultural withdrawal is an equal opposite error to hyper-relevance.

What about you? Have you ever been tempted to leave the church? If so, what were your reasons? Do you think the “millennials leaving church” problem has been overhyped or do you think it’s a real crisis?

Ministry Matters

Ministry Matters™ is a community of resources for church leaders. Ministry Matters™ was launched in 2011 by The United Methodist Publishing House, based in Nashville, Tennessee. With thousands of original articles and blogs, unique book reviews, and weekly worship and preaching helps in our This Sunday area, Ministry Matters provides both community and inspiration to Christian leaders of all denominations–or no denomination at all!

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Ministry Matters

Ministry Matters™ is a community of resources for church leaders. Ministry Matters™ was launched in 2011 by The United Methodist Publishing House, based in Nashville, Tennessee. With thousands of original articles and blogs, unique book reviews, and weekly worship and preaching helps in our This Sunday area, Ministry Matters provides both community and inspiration to Christian leaders of all denominations–or no denomination at all!

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn 

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11 Comments on "Millennial myths and the real reasons people leave the church"

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Thank you so much for your article! It’s nice to see someone write about Millenials without placing them at social/political/denominational extremes but focuses on bigger issues. I am smack dab in the middle of the millennial generation and grew up in an ELCA Lutheran church. I stopped going to church almost entirely for a number of years because I couldn’t find God at any church I tried despite searching earnestly for Him. I recently found a new church (still Lutheran, but more charismatic in nature and unaffiliated with a synod) where I find God’s presence in every moment that I’m… Read more »

[…] one: I’m sick of the topic of Millennials and the church. And so  much  has  been  written on it lately. Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply about the topic. I wish there […]

Dan Hansen
It’s very simple….people of all ages, not just millennials, are leaving for the same reason I did. They read something in the Bible, or hear a sermon, that doesn’t make sense to them. They Google the subject, up come ideas and facts that are contrary to what they’ve been taught in church. For me, it was initially science-based (evolution, the flood, Creationism, etc) that convinced me that the Bible was errant. I would have to turn my brain off to believe what the Bible says in Genesis. But then I read what the Bible said about homosexuality, polygamy, slavery, and… Read more »

[…] Faith note: This list is part of an article recently posted on Ministry Matters, entitled Millennial Myths and the Real Reasons People Leave the Church. His article is a response to the multitude of articles regarding millennials and why they are […]

Shane, Your article was forwarded to me by a friend…and I have to tell you that it's great to read about others with a deep passion for the church. I think those 5 points are all great…and I guess I'd humbly like to add one more… 6. People leave because the church is not giving them a vision for what it would can look like to drop everything and follow Christ. Many of the points were essentially 'Me' focused. I'M not making friends. I don't want to be around sad people. I'M not being fed…and those are all true reasons… Read more »
I am 50 this year but what you said about not developing deep relationships in church resonates with me. In the last 16 years I have belonged to two churches and in that time may have developed one or two deep relationships. My friends generally are not church people. What made it worse was when I needed help with something and I asked church people to a person they were too busy but when I asked my friends they helped right away. Another issue that resonated was that you have differing oppinons but it does not severe the relationship. I… Read more »
Hi Shane, I (a millennial lay ELCA/liberal Lutheran) generally agree with the five bullet points you lay out herein. I also agree that not everybody in my generation is socially liberal, although I do think we generally lean that way, in re: Biblical interpretation, LGBT acceptance, et al. I do disagree with the idea (herein and found in many other similar writings) that the liberal mainline church should be teeming with young adult Christians who hold liberal beliefs. The national church polity may publicly pronounce progressive theology, or the history of a denomination may be filled with those who have… Read more »
Shane Raynor
Taylor, My problem with polling and marketing research is that it almost never tells the whole story. Research is a valuable tool, but it has its limitations. We should take it into account, but if we throw our own observations out the window because they don't line up with the latest Barna poll, I think we're being foolish. My beef in this piece isn't as much with polling as it is with people who treat polling as a "thus says the Lord" and use it to overgeneralize or stereotype an entire generation of people, especially when data from these polls… Read more »
Taylor Burton-Edward


I agree with your observation that "generational talk" is often overgeneralized.

However, Pew and Barna (whom you particularly called out) do undertake research to establish their observations, and they typically reveal their questions, methodology, and size and composition of their datasets to establish some objective basis for more general observations.

Where is the research (questions, methodology, size and traits of datasets) to underwrite your conclusions?


A college student who stands up to an ardent atheistic professor.

The new young apologists working hard for the faith. Hats off to them!

Some young people really do what the movie portrays.

“God’s Not Dead “

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