Why Millennials are Leaving the Church

When I started this article, I was going to join the droves of people who’ve added insight to why millennials are leaving the church.  Then I thought, many of these reasons probably apply to people in general.

Before you commit to reading the article, you might wonder, what makes me such an expert? I’ll say something that risks making me sound like my dad, “Life.”  Life makes me an expert because these same reasons have made my faith wane from time-to-time.  As I say in my article 9 Ways to Grow Your Relationship with God, when we hit spiritual brick walls, we’ve got to climb over them instead of letting them stop us from continuing the journey. Let’s get our hands dirty…

1. Often, we are taught religion instead of how to have a relationship with God.

When just religion is compared to the life people can have without religion, it pales in comparison. Church life without a changing relationship with God is irrelevant.  So often, many superficial things have been emphasized in our lives that have stood in the way of relational things being emphasized. Church life, without a relationship with God, is just a show. [Tweet “Church life without a changing relationship with God is irrelevant. @readfishfood”] If church is just about a religion for show, even God himself, the star of the show, isn’t interested.  Matthew 6:1-4 (Message) says,

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.”

We should think instead about being authentic in our private time with God; it will make us authentic in our public time with God.  Share that authentic relationship with others.  Share how you’ve struggled or you’re struggling.  Don’t paint a picture of perfection for people.  This makes Christianity seem aloof and unobtainable.  Jesus came for sinners.  Share with others how God is working in your life, and if you don’t feel like He’s doing anything, tell God all about it, and take your relationship back to the drawing board.

2. Some see having a relationship with God as a replacement for religion and church attendance

Because of how some have seen “the church” act, they believe having a relationship with God is a replacement for religion.  They claim to have an independent relationship without church.

I won’t lie.  There have been long periods of time in my life when I haven’t attended church.  My relationship with God was off the charts.  I was praying, studying the Bible, fasting and having a really deep and intimate relationship with God. Even still, I felt completely convicted that I needed to attend church. And it makes sense.  Jesus told his followers, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35 (NLT)

While I do consider myself to be lovable, I don’t think Jesus is commending me for loving myself.  Christianity is about doing life together, learning how to love the unlovable (and if you don’t know any unlovable people, then you might be the one they’re talking about.♥)

As I recently heard Ed Stetzer say at the Christian Media Australia Connect 15 Conference, “You can’t love Jesus and hate his bride (the church).”

3. As a follow-on to Point 2, they don’t realize church is sandpaper in our Christian experience

I think many people see church as irrelevant to their lives. A quick peruse of Twitter makes this evident. Many tweeters say they’d rather have a relationship with God instead of religion.

I believe a relationship with God precedes religion, but doesn’t replace it. Part of religion is practiced through church attendance. I see church as a sandpaper experience, where we as members rub one another the wrong way and have to deal with it and work it out. So often these experiences, (when we come in contact with one another) have been viewed negatively instead of being seen as the experiences we need to mold our characters. We forget God put us in community for a reason. This is what makes church relevant. I don’t think we have emphasized the fact that community is an essential part of Christianity because God said so.

4. Why Millennials are Leaving the Church? They haven’t experienced true Christian love

People don’t wanna hear about how good God is and that He is love.  They want to experience it. Think Jerry Maguire, SHOW ME THE LOVE!  Don’t tell me about it.  Don’t read me a Bible verse about it.  Show it to me.

Deeply embedded in this is the church’s treatment of certain sins. At times it’s felt like church folks’ public protests morphed into public stoning.

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit – you choose. Proverbs 18:21 Message


Once again, SHOW ME THE LOVE. Jesus was radically different because of how He mingled and loved. People want to experience that kind of love.

Think about it, when people don’t show up at church, often, members don’t check on them.  When people do call, it’s to invite them to Visitor’s Day, Youth Day or Bring-a-Friend-to-Church Day.  When I read about the early church in the book of Acts, I struggle to see the resemblance sometimes to our modern day concoction.  This is something that really struck me the first time I read Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love because he challenges the way our modern westernized churches look and act.  Jesus seems to have a problem with all of this too, as we see in James 1:26-27 Message

Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

5. They want to change the world, and they don’t see the church as the place to do it

Research shows that millennials want to be part of a big movement.  This makes sense within the context of Christianity. After all that’s the mission of God’s church, but often times the church is just doing patchwork instead creating a new pattern.  What Jesus called the disciples to was revolutionary.  It was something beyond themselves. It was outreach; it was authentic; it was uncomfortable. So much of what we do as a church is not that. It’s comfortable. It’s often about giving money and not giving of ourselves. Could it be we’re not dreaming big enough?

According to a Crains Chicago Business article published in March 2014,

“For millennials — who, at 86 million strong, make up the largest population group the U.S. has ever seen — social responsibility is the new religion.

For the generations that came before Gen Y, as millennials are often called, their family activities and social network often revolved around the family church. Yet the Pew Research Center reports that fully 1 in 4 members of the millennial generation — those about 12 to 33 years old — are unaffiliated with any particular faith.

Why Millennials are leaving the church. Look at Crain's article about corporate social responsibility, which they believe is millennials' new religion

I can only imagine if Jesus were walking the earth today, He’d have a long line of Millenials following Him.  He was the biggest advocate for the social outcasts of His day.  He ate and socialised with those society rejected and mistrusted.

Why millennials are leaving the church? Well, church has never been about the building. It's always been about the people.

6. Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church? They are not given responsibilities in the church or the space to share and implement their ideas

I work for a church organization.  Recently, I’ve begun to internally question the way our ministries are structured.  There is a ministry for youth, which creates programs, outreach and outings.  Everything they’re doing is good.  Then, we have ministries that are for Women, Outreach or Evangelism, Communications, Children, Stewardship and things like that.  I’ve begun to wonder, at what point are we integrating Youth Ministry, which is primarily geared towards an age-group, with the other ministries, which focus on particular areas of ministry.  Youth can do outreach, work with children, communicate, work on health initiatives and the similar things. As Kayla from Swinging from Grapevines blogs says,

Another positive thing about youth groups is that they give teenagers a voice. They speak their minds, they state their preferences, and they are heard. When we graduate and head out into the big bad world of grown-up church, this changes. We’re still “kids” in the congregation’s eyes – usually until we’re married or we’ve had children or whatever arbitrary rite of passage it may be – but we no longer have a pastor whose primary job is to listen to our needs and concerns as young people and respond. We have good ideas – we’ve been developing them since we were in youth group – but no one seems to care.

The church leadership is still dominated by those of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations (a fact that likely contributes to the other issues discussed in this post), and the hierarchy is usually pretty entrenched. So we’re back to square one, having to work our way up through the ranks in hopes of maybe one day having our voices heard and being able to change the status quo. Or not, because that sucks. Which is when leaving starts to look pretty darn attractive.

7. They’ve lost their sense of wonder

Bethel Music and Amanda Cook sing a song called Wonder on the You Make Me Brave album.  The lyrics are,

 “May we never lose our wonder.  Wide-eyed and mystified.  May we be just like a child, staring at the beauty of our King.  You are beautiful in all your ways.  King of Kings.  You are beautiful in all your ways.  You fascinate us with your love.

It may not fit nicely into any survey, but sometimes people just lose their wonder.  They lose their desire.  They’re just plain not interested.  This is a hard pill to swallow but it’s sometimes true. Life gets busy. Work calls in and asks you to work on the same day as church and the next thing you know, it’s just not that important after awhile.

[Tweet “May we never lose our wonder @bethelmusic @readfishfood”]

8. They’ve reasoned their way out of the mystery of faith

It logically doesn’t make sense anymore. As humans, and especially as Americans, we’ve reasoned our way out of our true condition of helplessness as humans. We’ve lost our sense of helplessless and dependence. I’m not suggesting me all depend on the government to take care of us, quit our jobs and wear diapers. I’m saying, as humans, because we’ve become so proficient at so much, we’ve lost our sense of dependence on God.

We actually can’t control very much of anything in this life.  We are dependent on God’s love and mercy but we just don’t realize it.  We’ve reasoned our way out of it. We’ve assumed complete control.

I recently experienced a universal moment that is a great equalizer in the human experience – hitting turbulence in an airplane.  With the seeming glut of stories about planes mysteriously falling out of the sky as of late, the moment an airplane hits bumpy air, silence seems to blanket the plane.  Computers are off.  Heads are rested against chairs and fingers are gripping the armrests.  That collective moment where everyone is holding their breathe.  Fear is internalized but not expressed.  That feeling is a feeling of helplessness.  That lack of control that is actually our reality.

9. Single people feel left out 

Why millennials are leaving the church
Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1nQ93Qw

Even as a married person, I don’t believe many churches are geared to fully include singles.  When I was single, I often wanted to avoid church because of the awkward parting after church when everyone went home to their families.  It was easier, simpler and less painful for me to watch church on a livestream online than endure the pain of after-church parting and alone-ness.

10. They no longer believe in it all 

We all question our faith.  We all wonder if it’s really true, if God is who He says He is.  For me that questioning brings me back to what I know to be true.  It brings me back to the myriad of experiences I’ve had with God.  It brings me back to the evidence of God interacting in my story.

For others, this line of questioning leads them straight out the door.

11. They hit a spiritual brick wall 

A spiritual brick wall is when a spiritual leader falls, you find out something unbelievable about a Christian friend, you find that people in church don’t do what they say, or you find yourself bored in your relationship with God. While some people climb over them (with God’s help) others stare blankly at them, decide not to exert the effort because of hurt or disbelief and they walk away.

How is this idea of why millennials are leaving the church relevant to me? 

If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re either an interested Christian, a curious skeptic or you completely don’t believe and you’re waiting til the end to rubbish it all.  As the church – those who claim to follow Jesus – we have a responsibility. These are the people I’d like to address.  Just as the Marines, we should embrace this idea of no one left behind.

No Marine Left Behind” – A mantra that speaks to teamwork, loyalty and brotherhood that exists between Marines. Marines will intentionally risk their own safety to aid wounded comrades, or to retrieve the remains of fallen comrades

  1. Take an interest in those around you.  Notice the people who don’t show up to church and check up on them.  If this seems overwhelming, choose a few people who you’ll keep on your radar.  Check on them throughout the week.  Be a friend – not to “win them over,” not to get a prize for bringing someone to church – just because that’s the way Jesus would have shown love. When we’re doing something or we’re all in, it’s hard to understand why someone else wouldn’t be. It’s hard to understand what’ keeping them out.  By stepping back a bit, it can all become more apparent.
  2. When we’re part of the church, we talk about it like it’s some distant cousin twice removed on our mother’s side and we surely don’t want to be associated with him.  We are the church.  It begins and ends with us.  If the church seems unfriendly when you walk in, what are you doing to make it friendlier?  If the church seems judgmental, what are you doing to make it a more loving and accepting environment?
  3. Start observing Jesus.  Read about his life in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Start asking the question, “What Does Christian Love Look Like?”  I’m asking this question myself.  I want desperately to be more loving, but right now, all I can see is myself.  So I’m on a quest to learn what Christian love is all about.
  4. Previously when I hit spiritual brick walls, I would walk away from my relationship with God, because I didn’t know how to deal with them. I’ve found that climbing over the brick wall is part of the growth process. It’s the same concept you face when working out. You will eventually plateau, and at this point you must address the problem and adjust your workout plan in order to keep growing. You must increase the weight or increase the reps.The same is true in our spiritual lives. We can’t stay in the same spiritual spot all of our lives. Realize that people make mistakes and fall. Be forgiving and move forward. Get involved at church. Read a book of the Bible that you haven’t read before. Tell your testimony, or what I like to call your “battle story.” How has God worked in your life? Share it with those around you. Ask God to help you fight through the spiritual brick wall and to take you to the next level in your relationship with Him.

Just as a disclaimer, I’m not negating the power of the Holy Spirit or his ability to affect change in the church.  This is to discuss some of the ways we put people off. Some of the ways we’ve changed God’s intent for his church.

Add your reasons to the mix.  Why don’t you go to church anymore?  Why don’t your friends go?  Is church attendance important to you? Let me know what you think.


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