Barna Group Discusses the ‘Spiritually Homeless’ and Millennials Who No Longer Want to Be Christian

The Barna Group has just released their version of data on Millennials’ and faith. We know the story — about 30% of people under 30 have no religious affiliation — but Barna tries to put a Christian spin on it by characterizing those who are no longer part of the church as “spiritually homeless.”

… between high school and turning 30, 43% of these once-active[-in-church] Millennials drop out of regular church attendance — that amounts to eight million twentysomethings who have, for various reasons, given up on church or Christianity.

Over half of Millennials with a Christian background (59%) have, at some point, dropped out of going to church after having gone regularly, and half have been significantly frustrated by their faith. Additionally, more than 50% of 18-29 year olds with a Christian background say they are less active in church compared to when they were 15.

So why do people who were once part of the church no longer want to be a part of it? Barna refers to them as “Prodigals” and a fifth of them are very blunt about it: Christianity just makes no sense. Another fifth say that they had a bad experience in the church.

What’s surprising to me is that the church’s stance on the hot-button cultural issues isn’t at the top of the list:

Overall, this is bad news for church leaders (and great news for the community of reason) because they refuse to change their ways. Millennials are going to continue to leave the church as they make friends with atheists, see how the church treats women and gays and people who are of different faiths, and live in more pluralistic communities.

Barna tries to find an upside to this:

Despite the millions of twentysomethings who are conflicted with Christianity and churches, there is still some good news for the future of the American church. That’s because there are millions of Millennial Christians who are concerned for the future of their faith, have a strong desire to connect to the traditions of the church and feel a sense of excitement about church involvement.

That’s a losing proposition for the faith. It might be nice for older Christians that many kids still want tradition and a church community… but it doesn’t address the most glaring problems facing the faith right now — Christianity is untrue and Millennials are becoming increasingly aware of that. Being “Christian” no longer has a positive connotation. The way Christians have responded on cultural/social issues has been awful.

Without those issues being addressed, things will not change and more of us will be “homeless” and proud of it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Wren

    I think you are missing an “s” at the end of “Millennials are going to continue to leave the church as they make friends with atheist”

  • Gus Snarp

    What’s surprising to me is that the church’s stance on the hot-button cultural issues isn’t at the top of the list:

    Or is it that they simply didn’t ask that question? I don’t see a link to the full survey question, and those response categories leave out two fifths of the “prodigals”.

    In addition, we can safely assume that it just doesn’t make sense to some because of it’s stance on LGBT issues, that some have had a negative experience because of LGBT issues, and that some have needs the church isn’t fulfilling because of LGBT issues.

    So three fifths gave one of the answers shown in the graphic, but two fifths did not. Any number of those, and probably some of those who gave other answers, actually were affected by hot button cultural issues (I’m assuming gay rights is at least a significant member of the set “hot button cultural issues”).

  • Gus Snarp

    While I am always pleased to see young people leaving religion, I think a lot of what’s in this graphic is basically that young people stop going to church when their parents stop making them and they start having more important things to do, which hasn’t changed in many years.

  • Phil Tiessen

    I gave up smoking crack last week. Now I am narcotically homeless.

  • blasphemous_kansan

    A well known quote by HP Lovecraft provides a great soundtrack by which to interpret the report:

    “If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences”

  • indorri

    The word “prodigal” means something closer to “spendthrift”. In the parable, it refers to the son blowing his inheritance on hookers and cocaine.

  • sunburned

    This is what I was thinking. Normally when you see polling information from Pew or Gallop they include the questions that were asked. That seems to be missing here.

    Not too mention…what about the other 40% not mentioned in the 2nd graphic?

    Following the link seems more of a pitch to sell a book then decent data to surmise anything.

  • ortcutt

    I prefer the term “spiritually unincarcerated”.

  • JET

    Millennials are simply more educated and less socially isolated than their parents. It’s practically impossible for them to avoid coming into contact with reality and modern social concepts. I think this is what is motivating many fundamentalists to claim they are persecuted. Their children are being stolen away from their church.

  • Richard Wade

    I’ve only recently become aware of the Barna Group as a source of statistical information, and I was hoping it would be useful, but I’m disappointed to see the absurd bias in their labeling. “Spiritually homeless”? try “intellectually liberated,” or “recovered from religion,” or “saw the outside world through a hole in the wall and escaped with their lives.”

    Or better yet, don’t use prejudicial, values-laden and emotionally provocative labels at all. Just say that they left.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    I have to question the data that says 42% of millenials are worried about their generation leaving the church, 41% want traditional christianity and not the more liberal version, and the 30% that are excited at this time in their life about church.

    How many teenagers to 20 somethings are excited about going to church? How many want traditional, judgmental, christianity? I also doubt that almost 1 in 2 of my generation are worried about people leaving the church.

  • Pepe

    You need jeebus!

  • John

    Well yeah, isn’t that what everyone who doesn’t go to church does in their free time?

  • Stonyground

    The word spiritual is one of those slippery words that no-one can really define, I think that every individual must define it in their own way. The ‘spritually homeless’ accusation can only be made if the Christian Churches were to have a monopoly on spirituality, which they don’t. To me it is in the things in life that make me happy, my home and family, my garden, music, both live and recorded as well as my own attempts to play my piano, my motorbike, nature, visiting interesting places. Basically just grabbing hold of life and living it. Spiritually homeless? I would regard Christianity as a spiritual shack, not very good, but a home at least. I, on the other hand, live in a spiritual mansion,

  • eonL5

    How many? Well how many Millenials live in the Bible Belt? /snark

  • Gus Snarp

    Yes, I think it’s pretty clear that they’re biased in favor of Christianity and that, whether for its own sake or due to their profit motive, they’re also extremely opaque. I tend to assume that a secretive polling company that skews their language strongly in favor of Christianity may well be intentionally introducing a pro-Christian bias in their methodology as well.

  • Alice

    I think “traditional” is too vague of a description. Some Christians might define “traditional” as “What the Christian culture was like when our parents and grandparents were growing up” while others might define it as “Let’s get back to the basics of the Bible because today’s church has been too distracted by a million trivial matters.” There could be other definitions as well. Also, this could just be me, but as a young person, I think “hip” has a negative connotation, implying that young people are only doing something to look cool and follow the crowd. Or that “hip” churches are shallow and only doing certain things so they can make a lot of money. It is very difficult to write a neutral survey.

  • Zugswang

    For years I’ve suffered from oncopenia (chronically low levels of
    cancerous tissue) and have been busily smoking cigars on sunny beaches
    to cure myself of this terrible affliction.

  • busterggi

    I’m a boomer so Barna isn’t interested in me but if they had asked me the same question they asked the Prodigals I’d have had to answer d., all of the above.

  • busterggi

    A good quote from one of the best theologians of the 20th century – just look at how many gods he discovered!

  • Yoav

    It’s also possible that the church stance is part of the negative experience mentioned by 20% of the responders. If we assume ≈50% are female then the way the church treat women would definitely qualify as negative experience in the church or with christians some of them may be gay or have friends who are so seeing how the church treat them like garbage can’t be a pleasant experience as well.

  • CottonBlimp

    Anyone else gather they care more about the “spiritually homeless” than the actually homeless?

  • blasphemous_kansan

    Funnily enough, he never discovered one that believed in humanity.

  • Kevin

    I have to wonder if Barna would refer to those three women in Cleveland as “homeless.” Being suddenly free of where you once lived doesn’t mean you don’t have a home.

  • Spuddie

    He let August Derleth take care of that part.

  • WallofSleep

    My poor grandma often laments “Where did I go wrong? None of my children or grand-children go to church anymore”.

    I’m never sure what to tell her, but I often think “Well, we used to go, and that’s why we’re done with that crap.”

  • Anna

    Is it just me, or does the term “spiritually homeless” make anyone else want to laugh? It just sounds so ridiculous.

    I have to be honest; I hate the word “spiritual.” I associate it with woo, and I don’t really understand atheists using it to describe themselves. I’m not even remotely inclided towards spirituality (however it’s being defined). Maybe my brain just doesn’t work that way because whenever I encounter things other people consider “spiritual,” I find them creepy, silly, confusing, or just plain bizarre.

  • Retired Yooper

    Love it! That’s the way I raised my 4 children. Very appropriate phrase.

  • blasphemous_kansan


  • timberwraith

    I imagine that comparing the religious leanings of many Millenials in the survey with smoking crack will attract a lot of those fence-sitting young people to atheism. Let see more of this!

    I think we should take this analogy further and compare pastors to drug pushers and refer to Jesus as “our Drug Lord who art in heaven”. I think this kind of approach will bring in many of the Millenials who fled Christianity because of the hateful behavior manifested toward those outside of the fold.

    Keep up the good work!

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Some people are able to look at a Hubble photograph or an image of the Cosmic Microwave Background and get a sense that the universe is amazing and we are very privileged to be able to perceive all that we do. It can be just as meaningful, if not moreso than a religious revelation.

    Perhaps it even qualifies as a spiritual experience.

  • r.holmgren

    “Overall, this is bad news for church leaders”

    I don’t think it’s bad news. It’s just news that confirms what the Bible has already stated. What I mean is, we’re told in the Bible that as history winds down,
    . There will be a huge migration of people leaving the Church
    . This will happen with a huge rise in atheism which will take place in concert with a huge rise in homosexuality.

    This from a Book that atheists say is a joke. Well it does make me smile to see atheists fulfilling prophecy although the eternal consequences are too joke about.

  • r.holmgren

    More importantly prodigal refers to the Father’s extravagant love of both sons, although only the one who wasted a portion of his life accepts that love. The other, who based his worth on his “goodness” rejects this prodigal love.

    Shame says that because I am flawed I am unacceptable
    Grace says that because I am flawed I am cherished by the most prodigal love in the universe.

  • RobMcCune

    Really, where does it say any of that? Specific citations for specific claims please.

  • RobMcCune

    It’s all about how the questions are phrased, the Barna Group isn’t exactly known for being fair and impartial.

  • Spuddie

    The real joke about the Bible is how Christians can somehow ignore all of the important parts of Christ’s teachings such as charity, humanity, pacifism, and social justice and still claim to be following his word.

  • blasphemous_kansan

    eww gross. If you’re going to insist on masturbating about end of the world fantasies in public, at least have the decency to clean up after yourself. *hands you a kleenex*. That comment of yours was really creepy on its own, but take the fact that signs of the alleged end of history “make you smile”. Whew. You seemed to get a lot of glee from typing your little sermon. Thinking of suffering get you hot, does it? Armageddon fetishes are fine, just don’t whip it out in public and expect everyone to play nice.

    Personally I don’t think I’ll ever understand those who seek out signs of and anticipate the end of the world with glee. But hey, I like life.

    Christianity: 2000 years of “any day now”

  • Anna

    I guess the problem is that I don’t even really understand what “spiritual experience” means. Is it just feeling amazed? I get the feeling that most people intend the phrase to mean something more than mere amazement, perhaps some kind of altered state. But I’m not sure. All I know is that things considered “spiritual” just don’t have any emotional resonance for me at all.

  • Robster

    Jees, being homeless, that’s a worry. Perhaps the biggest worry would be some soldiers from the Salvation Army making contact with pre-packaged bigotry, bibles, trumpets and if you’re very lucky, some food.

  • chicago dyke

    42: are members of Concerned [whatever] of America
    41: hate Hip-pies for all that free love and piece peace crap
    30: love them some guilt-inspired freak on with women who pretend the devil can get them preggers

    21: worry that gays may be having good sex, while married even
    20: know some people who have studied Science!
    19: worry they can no longer discriminate against unbelievers, including those heretical and misguided followers of the Missouri Synod of 1843, as opposed to the completely correct spiritually superior followers of the Missouri Synod of 1877.

  • indorri

    Uh, OK.

  • r.holmgren

    “it does make me smile to see atheists fulfilling prophecy”

    Interesting but mistaken seguay you make to say I’m gleeful about the end. Especially when I call it tragic. I can see how it serves to support your world-view though, so carry on.

  • r.holmgren

    You know the studies that say atheists know more about the Bible than Christians. Do your own homework.

  • RobMcCune

    I found a prophecy about a kid from Jesus’ hometown being called Immanuel, and one about a beast with 7 heads walking out of the water, but nothing about atheists teamin’ up with the gays. Or even that the christianity would get as big as it is.

  • blasphemous_kansan

    So you can’t provide a citation then?

    Who has two thumbs and isn’t surprised at all?
    This guy.

  • blasphemous_kansan

    >>”Interesting but mistaken seguay you make to say I’m gleeful about the end.”

    Hey now, maybe you aren’t used to dealing with people who possess this skill, but I can actually read:

    >>”….the eternal consequences are too tragic to joke about”.

    You never say that the end of the world is what’s tragic, you say that it’s the “eternal consequences” that presumably await the unfaithful that are tragic. Two different things; one of them makes you seem close to human, the other reveals you for the apocalypse loving doomsday cultist that you are.

    Anyway, why would you have anything to fear or any sadness caused by the biblical end of the world? Why would it be tragic to you? I can see how smiling and rejoicing at the thoughts of others suffering eternally serves to support your world-view though, so carry on.

    And where’s my favorite painful blue blog drop at?

  • SeekerLancer

    In general we do. Which is why he’s asking you which passages specifically say those things without jumping through mental hoops to make them say what you want.

    I’ll save you time. There aren’t any. The origin of those “prophecies” start with 19th century preachers, not the bible.

  • r.holmgren

    What difference would it make? If I show you chapter and verse, what difference would it make.

  • r.holmgren

    Who’s Bryan Fischer?

  • r.holmgren

    Anyway, why would you have anything to fear or any sadness caused by the biblical end of the world? Why would it be tragic to you?”

    Because I care about people. I care about you. On the other hand, I should know that when I interact with someone who is more interested in the colour of my blog background that anything else, well, . . .

  • blasphemous_kansan

    I guess we’ll never know, will we?

    *Cue crickets chirping, wind blowing. Enter tumbleweed, stage right*.

    I guess that this enlightened exchange is “fulfilling prophecy” too, right?

  • Spuddie

    You forgot how to use Google?

    Were you homeschooled?

  • r.holmgren

    If I became an atheist, could I become as nice a person as you guys seem to be? Like, are you boys representatives of what atheists mean when they say, “I don’t need God in order to be a nice person.”?

  • Spuddie

    Maybe it will help your reading skills. Heaven knows it doesn’t seem to be important to your religious belief.

    “”I don’t need God in order to be a nice person.”?”

    Of course not. You would rather use God in order to be a self-righteous ignorant asshole.

    I don’t need God as an excuse to be an asshole. I am one by nature. =)

  • blasphemous_Kansan

    Ah yes, all the caring oozes from your self righteous, creepy and masturbatory comments.

    I don’t find your blog color more interesting than anything else, just more interesting then anything you have to say.

  • Agrajag

    Sure. Because when they get to choose for themselves, it’s just not worth it to them, it just doesn’t have priority. It’s true that there was probably always a drop-of in church-attendance the first years “out of the nest”, but this used to pick right back up the moment they start a family of their own. Today ? Not so much.

    Stats are dramatic; in 1990 here in Rogaland 70% of all marriages where done in the protestant church + a unknown amount done in other churches, at a guess perhaps 20% of all weddings where non-church.

    In 2011 (last year I could find data for) 42% of all weddings where in a church (now they’ve got data on all the churches, they didn’t in 1990) — thus the non-church weddings have grown from 20% to 58% in only 21 years. If that’s not a landslide, I don’t know what is.