There’s no dispute. There are no conflicting reports. They all independently show—and anecdotal evidence confirms—that millennials who grew up in the church are leaving the church in droves.
According to Rainer Research, 70% of youth, who were active in youth group, leave the church by the time they’re 22 years old. Based on the current rate of departure, Barna estimates that 80% of those raised in the church will be disengaged by the time they’re 29 years old. Sever other studies and surveys confirm the trend: Millennials (18-29 year olds), who were raised in the church, are leaving the church in droves (see Kinnaman, You Lost Me). According to one “dechurched” person, “I guess the church just sort of churched the church out of me” (Packard and Hope, Church Refugees, 14).
In a sense, this shouldn’t be surprising. If you’ve paid attention to the religious decline in America, it shouldn’t be too shocking that our twenty-somethings are sick and tired of church. I know we’ve all heard that 40 or 50 or even 80% of Americans are Christians, but this is a bunch of bull and I’ve suspected this for years. According to a bunch of independent studies, only 7-8% of Americans are actually Evangelical Christians, meaning that they believe in the authority of the Scriptures, they attend a church regularly, and they believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation (See Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession). Sure, there are other Christians who don’t fit these criteria, but they are in the minority. Some people will say they are “Christian,” but they only go to church on Easter and Christmas and they don’t believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. I’d hardly consider these folks genuine converts.
Anyway, if we accept these studies, we would affirm that only 8% (about 22 million) of Americans are genuine believers. This is a rather significant decrease from previous decades. In fact, if the trend continues—and the research on millennials shows that it’s continuing—only 4% of Americans will be genuine believers in 30 years from now (Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession, 34)
The point: We’re not doing a super great job at fulfilling the great commission here in America. Whatever faith we’ve inherited, we’re not passing it on very effectively. And if you still grumble and complain and think the statistics don’t mean anything, I’d argue that you’re part of the problem.
Some people yawn at the statistics. “Young people have always been less likely to attend [church] than are older people,” writes sociologist Rodney Stark . When they grow up and have a few kids, they’ll come back. They always do. No need to fret or change the way we do church.
But that’s just it. They’re not coming back. Even though 18-29 year olds often have the lowest rate of church attendance, things are different today. First, millennials are dropping out of church at a much higher rate than ever before. Second, the way 18-29 year olds live their lives is much different than previous generations. Fewer are getting married, even less are having kids. If we’re waiting for them to settle down and return to church, we may be waiting for a while since fewer are actually settling down in the Leave It to Beaver sort of way. Third, our millennials, unlike previous twenty-something’s, are growing up in a world much different than previous generations. They are growing up in the age of the internet, which has produced unparalleled shifts in how people live and think. Many sociologists have compared these shifts to those that took place with the printing press back in the 15th century. Just as information and literacy spread at the speed of sound in the wake of the printing press, now information and power has spread at the speed of light with the invention of the internet. And we have little clue about the social, mental, spiritual, and civil impact this will bring. We stand right smack dab in the eye of the storm.
There’s little evidence that our millennials who once sat at the feet of godly men and women in Sunday School will ever darken the doors of the church again.
Not everyone who flees the church is the same. And it’s important for the church to get this. We shouldn’t broad brush this mass exodus of dechurched folks. They are different. Their stories are unique. And this is what I want to address in the following few blogs. I want to unpack the different reasons why these “Dones” were once active church-goers and now have nothing to do with the church.
Some of them are what David Kinnaman calls “Nomads.” That is, they “walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians” (You Lost Me, 25). Others are “Exiles” who “are still invested in their Christian faith but feel stuck (or lost) between culture and the church” (Ibid., 25). Then there are the “Prodigals” who have lost “their faith, describing themselves as ‘no longer Christian’” (Ibid., 25). Interestingly, this last group—those who no longer affiliate with Jesus—is the smallest of the three. This means that most people who leave the church haven’t left Jesus. They’ve simply left the church. They’ve left institutional Christianity. Why?
Because they’ve seen a massive disconnect between the church and Jesus. “They sense that the established church has internalized many of ‘Babylon’s’ values of consumerism, hyperindividualism, and moral compromise instead of living in-but-not-of as kingdom exiles.” They feel “caught between the church as it is and what they believe it is called to be” (Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 77).
Many dechurched millennials—the “Dones”—were hungering for Jesus and didn’t find him in the church. They longed for rich, intense, honest community. They wanted to love their neighbor and enemy alike. They’d didn’t understand why 5% of church budgets (at best) went to help the poor when Jesus said to give it all away. And—contrary to what some of you are thinking—they actually wanted more Bible, more depth, more substance than what they were being fed. And here’s the real convicting thing: They hungered for more intergenerational relationships and didn’t experience these in the church.
They desired an honest encounter with Jesus, and they didn’t find him in the pizza and games that cluttered the youth room. When they visited “big church,” they didn’t see much resonance with the Jesus who’s revealed it the four gospels.
There are many other reasons way people are fleeing the church in droves; fleeing in search of Jesus. Stay tuned for more.