Millennials and Leaving Church: Really?

Millennials and Leaving Church: Really? August 3, 2013

This is an old post about information some today are simply choosing to ignore: it’s been said too many times to pretend public speakers and authors don’t know about it. The best evidence by competent sociologists suggests, now hear this, that Millennials are not in fact leaving the church.

Are today’s youth abandoning the Church? Is there cause for alarm? Or is the condition with youth in the church today about the same as always? These are questions that many people are asking and many people are also answering them. Often in uninformed ways.

For about a decade I was listening to apocalyptic warnings, and while I tended to minimize such, I was on the bandwagon. I, too, believed the reports. But this year two valuable books came out that chased some of this away as myth-making and fear-mongering.

Before you either quote the reports or the responses to the reports, read Brad Wright’s book: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media.

Here are some highlights from Wright’s 3d chp, one asking if we (think we) are losing our youth.

Josh McDowell: “It is clear that we have all but lost our young people to a godless culture.” Josh’s statement is typical.

It’s also not in tune with good social-scientific data. For instance, there was a widely circulating rumor (I heard it) that said 4% of our evangelical youth will be evangelicals when they get older. Wright chased the number into bad stats. Here are some better ones:

1. Young adults are less religious, but what does this mean?
2. 12% in the 70s and 80s were unaffiliated; now 25% are. But this is the same number as with other age groups.
3. Currently, 22% of young adults are evangelicals; that’s up from 21% in the 70s but down from 25% in the 90s.
4. Negatively, unaffiliated has increased for young adults.
5. Positively, the number who are affiliated with churches has remained the same.
6. Those affiliated with Evangelicals, Black Prots, and RCC are the same as in the 70s. (Mainliners are down.)
7. No sign of cataclysmic or big changes.

Big point: young adults have always been less affiliated; when they get married and have children they return to their faith. Part of the life cycle is reflected in this.

Can he predict? Wright throws sand in the eyes of those who want to predict. There is one chart, a good one on p. 71, that would indicate that current young adults will be as religious as their parents and grandparents when they become older. He, however, says predicting is a fool’s game and he won’t join the game. But there is no compelling evidence for a cataclysmic change.

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  • John Hawthorne

    I have to respectfully disagree. I haven’t read Brad’s book, but I have looked at his blog periodically. I like what he does in debunking popular thinking about modern evangelicalism. But sociologically, I’m not at all confident that millennials will stay engaged in church once they’re married with children. For one thing, the growth in the non-religious population creates a space where non-participation isn’t frowned upon. While a proportion of today’s young evangelicals are still engaged in their local evangelical church, they do so with more questions. They are less separatist than their predecessors were and more likely to see complexity arising from personal story and less comfortable with the prior answers. Obviously, this is one of those “wait and see” questions. We’ll know in 10 years if millennial young evangelicals follow life-cycle patterns of prior groups. But I don’t want to presume that and find myself on the wrong side of that question.

  • mattdabbs

    The problem here is that he may be working under a faulty assumption. From what you posted here (haven’t read the book) it sounds like he is assuming generations have pretty typical patterns that actually are predictive of what the next generation will do. So on one hand he says it is a fools game to be predictive then on the other hand he goes on to predict.The problem is, this generation and their worldview is different from previous generations in some very fundamental ways.

  • scotmcknight

    No, he’s not assuming anything; he’s got numbers for each conclusion. From the best evidence we’ve got from social scientific studies.

  • I get the sentiments that come from articles that talk about people leaving the church, but I don’t feel that human tendencies like this can be accurately “analyzed”; at least to the point where one could possibly come up with a formula to determine “leaving rate”, so to speak. There are so many different variables: faith being shaken, pastors leaving, parents dying, never really developing a faith foundation to begin with, etc. I think the important thing, in my opinion, is to figure out why people are wanting to distance themselves from the Christian community in WHATEVER form that may be and see if these are things we can be working on as a whole, or if they are reasons that will be sussed out in due time (such as faith crises, etc). But hey, I don’t have a PhD or anything; what do I know? 🙂

  • @mattdabbs:disqus He might, though he does show in the book that such an assumption is should be the default one, as the data shows a pattern of “distance from faith” while liminal and a return when life solidifies with prior American generations.

    Therefore, unless something happens to disrupt the cycle, then it is appropriate to think that it will continue.

    It is reasonable to assume the pattern will hold unless it is disrupted by something.

    @johnhawthorne:disqus brings up a possible disruption and as he admits – only time will tell.

  • mattdabbs

    Before being in ministry I took about 50 hours of stats and research design and worked on some large grant-funded research projects. So I know how to do research and I also know that numbers are helpful but aren’t perfect. We all still do have assumptions and those assumptions can impact findings. I will have to read the book to get the whole picture.

    The last paragraph of the post says we aren’t going to be good at predicting but that the chart on p.71 indicates what they will do in the future and how little different it will be from previous generations. That can be the case if there aren’t any variables in the mix that change the outcome for a given population. Change the culture, change the worldview, change their presuppositions, values, etc and through those variables you can most definitely change the trajectory of their faith, religion, etc.

  • mattdabbs

    The first thing I should have said was thank you for pointing out this book and this study. I really appreciate it.

  • mattdabbs


    I agree. The question is, has something changed that will disrupt the pattern?

  • Richard

    Two years have passed since Bradley’s book. Do any more recent studies help us extend the data point a bit more?

    For example, the Pew Report “Rise of the Nones” ( has the religiously unaffiliated at 34% for the youngest Millennials, which is higher than Gen X (30%) and older Millennials (30%), and higher than the 25% per bullet point #2 above. The relevant table:

  • scotmcknight

    Hello Richard, I think the claim being made is that there is a higher, and therefore more significant, proportion of young evangelicals leaving the church than in the past. I’m not sure the number of Nones changes that claim, and from what I read the evidence doesn’t support the apocalyptic fears arising with the claim in the so-called increase in leaving the church.

  • Max Kmeck

    But Scot, this data only compares the 1970’s to now. Is that what you mean by ‘always’? What about the 50’s, 40’s, earlier? Remember, this is the generation that taught us the value of social organizations:

  • Richard

    That’s true, these numbers don’t break things down by Christian tradition. I was mainly trying to point out that time is passing and it might be time for Bradley to take another look, a second edition. His data on the unaffiliated broken down by religious affiliation (p. 64) ends in 2005.

    Also, numbers don’t make anything scientific. A lot boils down to interpretation, a huge point made by Bradley in the book. For example, when I took a look at the data in Chapter 7, because my name is mentioned at the start of that chapter, I came to the exact opposite conclusion (same data) as Bradley ( To be clear, I’m not saying I’m right (and Bradley may have rebutted my analysis at some point). Just saying that a second edition might be warranted given the age of the data being cited and rival interpretation of the data.

    BTW, looking forward to meeting you at ACU next month!

  • Naomi Jackson

    This exodus is a young adult issue, not necessarily a millennial. I think millennials are just the new generational scapegoat.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, that’s surely true — the data need new considerations as we get newer studies. I hope we can spend some time over coffee, Richard.

  • Dan Kimball

    When we planted our church, we did an extensive survey of our County. We found that 95% of college age in our County were not formally part of any local organized church (we may have missed house churches) but even so, that is a high percentage. Even saying 90% is high. And we called every single type of church evangelical/Catholic/mainline etc. for this survey. We need to do another one, as that was 10 years ago, but it was enough to then rally us and move us to plant a new church which we did in 2004. So I do agree with the Josh McDowell cry of warning, and I feel that urgency, although have to look at perspective and history of course and local vs. national statistics and positive things happening.

    I have grown to not use national surveys too much as almost every time I then compare them to a local survey they aren’t matching. I know I am in a small progressive college beach town in northern CA, so that represents a difference from other places. But in terms of millennials leaving the church, I was very much in the “Generation X is leaving the church” discussion and it is the same thing for the most part being discussed. You can almost take the articles from 1995 when “Generation X” was being discussed and put “millennial” there and it would be the same we are reading now. We now have a new term “none” being used, although back then we said “Cultural Creatives” as a sort of “none” extra category, which I think was there also back in mid-90’s but perhaps more so today.

    I do believe it is valid thinking to be saying there are more and more of younger generations who have never been part of churches where 20 years ago, that might have not been the case as much. But that actually is a thrilling thing, and I am amazed to be talking to many younger people who never have heard a sermon, never have read the Bible, never been part of a church. So their background understanding of Christianity and church is overall negative due to media and other valid reasons. But then the opportunity to speak about Jesus and the story of Scripture is so open. We have to build trust first, but then to me this is extremely exciting times. I also see the opposite of this trend happening in cities like San Francisco or Portland where thousands of young people aren’t leaving the church, but returning or going for the first time. When churches pay attention to what is happening and think mission, I believe things change. Unlike 20 years ago we were paying attention to if there was organ music, or if preaching was relevant etc. and now those aren’t the questions I hear that keeps younger generations away as so many haven’t been to a church. Their question isn’t style of worship, it is whether Christians are hateful and unintelligent (even about their own Bible).

    I have to admit, that when I read articles or columns about how “my generation is leaving the church” etc. it shows me that the person generally may not understand theology, as you can’t “leave the church”. You can leave a local church sure, but then I don’t believe you are part of New Testament Jesus Christianity if you are not immersed in a local church body of some sort, whether a house church or a mega-church. So the way you then retreat to a self-shaped understanding of church that isn’t a New Testament church which does have appointed leaders, elders (or whatever someone may called a leadership structure), weekly meetings etc. I get to hang out with many church leaders who are actively serving in mission to young generations and I can tell you they would of course say how difficult it is in ministry today and the facts of all the tough things we face in our culture today. But they are so filled with hope and optimism and many of their churches are seeing new life, new believers, and Christians who may have given up returning. That is what I hope the conversation focused on in the future. The churches who learned lessons and now are focusing on mission and new generations following Jesus.

  • Richard

    You’re going to be very busy sir. I’d love to if we could, but you’ll likely see me in a line waiting for you to sign a book. 🙂

  • mattdabbs


    That was exactly my point above about data and numbers and how our filters of assumptions and presuppositions can skew what data we collect, what questions we ask, how we ask them, what questions we don’t ask, etc. If you use a .05 statistical confidence level and plug away with all sorts of calculations one can come up with a false positive 1 in 20 times. So they can claim all sorts of statistically significant results by running hundreds of calculations that are actually just due to chance. I am not saying he is doing this. I am just saying it is possible and that is why our assumptions are important and, in academic work are typically (if not basically universally) expected to be stated on the front end. That is why, as you and Scot both know, we don’t shoot in the dark when it comes to research, we start with a thesis that has a basis in the literature to guide our approach and that gives our results some credibility.

    Thanks for weighing in…I went to Harding and hope to make the ACU lectures at some point.

  • Joel Mayward

    With the conclusion of “young adults have always been less affiliated; when they get married and have children they return to their faith,” does Wright acknowledge the changing tide of marriage and sexual norms (more singles and co-habitation, the average marriage age now around 27, etc.) the sociological phenomenon of emerging adulthood, and our globalized and technology-driven culture? Because those factors certainly aren’t anything like the 1970s. Does he address the religious/spirituality studies done by Christian Smith and Kara Powell, which also agree that the 4% staying with their faith is a false stat, but have strong evidence that around 40% are leaving the American church, or at least on the fence?

  • HgsDctr

    I will read the book-already ordered the Kindle version. Very provocative ideas, and I respect social science scholarship (hey-I’m a psych professor!). Until I read it, it will be hard to reconcile the apparent discrepancy in the statistics presented. However, I will point out that the populations sampled differ for Wright and McDowell (as examples of the “no crisis” and “leaving” positions). McDowell (I’m really more familiar with Barna) appear to be surveying evangelical youth, so their population is the fraction of the younger generation in America, whereas all the statistics in McKnight’s post appear to be based on samples of all of society–not just the subset of “churched” kids. Thus, is it possible that overall reduction in % “churched” during the 18-28 age cohort has not radically changed from decade to decade even though the % of “churched” who convert to “unchurched” during emerging adulthood is high? That is, a large % of emerging adults appear to leave organized religion (according to some) and that has to be accounted for. Furthermore, globally there are large trends in church affiliation. The Catholic church has lost a surprising number of people in Brazil, and no one disputes that the Pope’s recent visit was designed (in part) to shore up support for the Catholic church. To the non-statistician, it appears that Europe is post-christian, America is on it’s way, and Canada is in between. Thus, against the backdrop of an apparent shift away from participation in organized religion in the West, the argument that the young are not drifting away is a tough sell, especially when there are plenty of anecdotes people such as myself encounter in our interactions with college students (admittedly not valid evidence of population statistics). I’ll read the book and see if that helps.

  • scotmcknight

    Not sure it is fair to say “scapegoat” but perhaps “the latest example” of what you call the “young adult issue.”

  • Chris Logan

    Just read this … seems to have contradicting data … but a better explanation than others …

  • josenmiami

    great discussion. I see references to a book by “Bradley” but did not catch the full name or the book title. Could someone enlighten me?

  • RJS4DQ

    I just added the link in the post. This should answer your question.

  • Naomi Jackson

    I say scape goat, because I hear almost nothing positive said about Generation Y. I can’t look at a news source without seeing the word “millennial” coupled with “entitled” or “narcissistic” While that’s a separate issue altogether, this just feels like one more generalization piled on by people who aren’t Gen Y.

  • Map Forward

    I wish I could easily find the citation and provide a link, but when I looked at all of this research 5+ years ago, the main challenge I saw was that once a generation is unchurched or “none”, the likelihood that they will bring their children to church is very low — like in the 30% or lower range. So minor to moderate fall-offs in church attendance within every generation have an exponential effect.

  • ampope

    Read a view from the UK here