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Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church | Provoketive Magazine
27 Dec 2011

The Author

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of articles ranging from church history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions, as well as the forthcoming book from Chalice Press, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, [D]mergent.org, and blogs at his own site, The Company of the Eudaimon (http://drdlpenwell.wordpress.com), as well as at the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-penwell/). You can also find him on Twitter at @reseudaimon.


Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church

The church where I serve made a decision this past year to support its ministers in refusing to sign marriage licenses until the rights of marriage could be conferred upon LGTBQ couples. The decision brought national attention–the overwhelming majority of which was positive.

One group in particular who responded to the decision surprised me. I never saw it coming. Some of the most gratifying reactions came from the adult children of some of the older members of our congregation, which is to say, from young people who had dropped out of church a long time ago. From across the U.S. I got word from these displaced folks. They emailed, called, messaged me through social media, and, the ones who still live close by, button-holed me on the street. Their comments shared one thing in common: “I’m so proud to tell my friends that the church that did this cool thing is the church I grew up in.”

Then, a couple of them proceeded to say something that was hard to hear: “I never thought I’d see a church do something so Christian.”

Embedded in that response, I think, is something worth hearing about the way an increasing number of young people experience the church. According to a recent article on Sojourners Blog, Millennials are headed for the exits–even among Evangelicals. Why? According to the article, which cites research by the Barna Group, “Research indicates younger people are not only departing from their elders on ‘social issues,’ such as same-sex marriage and abortion, but on wealth distribution and care for the environment, as well.”

One way to look at the difference Millennials represent on these kinds of social issues is that they’ve been seduced by an increasingly secular society. From the time they were young, this thinking goes, the culture has offered Millennials a vision of human life that is often at odds with the vision claimed by churches, one focused less and less on God. Politically, “liberals” have successfully appealed to youthful passion and idealism, rendering them dewey-eyed woolgatherers who know little, either about God or about how the world “really” works. As a consequence, Millennials come to their convictions about the purpose of human life and its just embodiment either as a result of theological ignorance or theological rebellion. The implication is that if they really new about Christianity, they wouldn’t believe such outrageous things about marriage and economic equality and environmental responsibility.

There are a couple of different responses that come to mind, if this is the way you frame the problem of the disappearance of young adults. On the one hand, you could just tell young people they’re wrong, and they need to get right. In many cases, this was the strategy employed by the Greatest Generation when Baby Boomers started questioning organized religion in the 1960s and 70s. For those who think this kind of “unvarnished truth” strategy is the way to go, it might be helpful to contemplate its success when used on an earlier generation–take a look at The Big Chill, for instance.

On the other hand, you might look at the exodus of Millennials as a failure of relevance. Churches got sidetracked, started focusing on stuff Millennials found pointless–stuff like bigger buildings, keeping up social appearances for the country club set, right wing politics, etc. If you interpret irrelevance to be the reason young people don’t want anything to do with the church, you have an easy way to address the issue … be more relevant. Find cool looking people to play cool sounding music. Say “dude” a lot. Make sure you know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte. Easy.

There are couple of different branches of über relevance available, too. If you’re sympathetic to the whole mega-church movement, sprinkle some Jesus over the top of ordinary stuff young people like, and voilà, instant relevance. Christian rock climbing. Christian aerobics. Christian skateboarding. Christian Screamo bands. The possibilities are endless.

If you find an emergent emphasis more to your liking, you’ll need another set of accoutrements. Tattoos are good. Piercings and ear gauges add a nice touch. Make sure to do some outings in a pub, with lots of locally micro-brewed fare. Relevance isn’t too far off.

And while I happen to think the emergent movement is much more theologically interesting for a whole host of reasons other than just those things that accessorize it, like the mega-church stuff, if it’s just a marketing strategy for obtaining relevance, I think it’s doomed to drive Millennials away. Millennials have been socialized to be amazingly aware of being marketed to, and they react poorly to such poses adopted solely for the purpose of “winning” their spiritual “business.”

I find all of these ways of reading the departure of young adults from the church dismissive, sharing a common misconception that what’s wrong, what’s driving Millennials away from the church, resides somewhere outside the church (either with Millennials themselves or with the culture that produced them)–or that if it is the church’s fault, the problems are merely cosmetic, easily remedied by superficial tweaks here or there.

There’s another way of reading the generational tea leaves, however, one that places responsibility on the church not for failing to be relevant, but for failing to be faithful to the Jesus found in the Gospels. Maybe the problem is that Millennials hear about Jesus and then take him at his word. Maybe they really believe that stuff Jesus says st the beginning of his ministry in Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then, they go to church, and instead of hearing about how to live with those who’ve been kicked to the curb, how to be Christ to a world caving in on itself, they hear about how the church’s job is to maneuver itself into positions of power, respectability, relevance, etc. They hear about committee meetings and deficit budgets and why it is imperative that we “keep Christ in Christmas.” They hear a baptized politics that exhorts them to be good moral “individuals” who seek a “personal relationship with Jesus,” but their relationship to the poor and the powerless, their relationship to an economic system designed to serve the interests of those already on top at the expense of those on the bottom, their relationship to a government that starts preemptive wars based on a conceit, their relationship to God’s creation–these are largely matters of indifference to the church. These young people go to church and hear why (if they happen to be at a conservative church) gay people are going to hell, or (if they happen to be at a more “progressive” church) why it might upset the ecclesiastical apple cart if we were to say that gay people are created in the image of God–exactly the way God wanted them.

All of which is to say: Maybe it’s not Millennials who’ve left the church, so much as that the church has left Jesus–and Millennials are the only ones brave enough to recognize that the emperor has been parading about without the benefit of clothes. If that’s the case, the church would do well to quit worrying so much about whether Millennials are leaving the church, and start investing time and effort and resources into looking more like Jesus. Then Millennials might finally see something for which it would be worth sticking around.

“I’m so proud to tell my friends that the church that did this cool thing is the church I grew up in” isn’t the same as, “How do I sign up to get back into church?” For any number of really important reasons, though, it’s a step in the right direction.

  1. Right on.

  2. I think Barna’s research is quite compelling. I also believe its “all of the above”, and not so simplistic as people might imagine. I think millenials are enigmatic and I’m pretty confident that, after working with teens, twenty’s and thirty’s for the last 3 decades, young people are particularly searching for authentic “connection”, vertically and horizontally. I think liberals and conservatives both tend to focus on peripheral/secondary issues. “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”, and I think the main thing is the longing for deep intimate connection with the Godhead, and to be loved unconditionally by people. Isaiah 61 also manifests the burning desire in every heart to see people experience freedom on a personal and individual level, as well as the transformation of society that includes social justice issues. Thanks for stimulating an important conversation.

  3. Asking a community like a church to change its core beliefs is a waste of time. They will not change. Trying to work within the existing cultural and theological structure is pointless, at least 90% of the time, of course there are exceptions. Most churches that make a wide shift normally just split, thus so many sects of Christianity in the country.
    What we need are new examples of whole scale change and not just tweeking. It is time to invest in new experiments in being followers of Christ, not just Sunday gatherings for various styles of worship, but places to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick and live/love out the gospel in actions not just in proclamations and doctrine. Just do Jesus I guess would be a good rallying cry.

  4. These analyses always leave me cold because. . . guess what? One can become a liberal democrat without needing a church membership. You can volunteer, and Occupy, and be a good person who cares about the poor and favors gay marriage– without Jesus.

    Lots of people say they like what Jesus said, and they like authentic Christians okay. But maybe they don’t believe in God, or don’t think Jesus is really all that more compelling than the drum circle or the Sunday Times.

    The liberal church acts like it is all just a big musunderstanding, and if only young people knew how Marcus-Borgy, MoveOn.org-y we were, they’d love us. They’d come back. But maybe they just wouldn’t hate us so much, though they wouldn’t find us all that compelling either. So go ahead and hang the rainbow flags outside your church — just don’t think young people are going to come flying in.

    Churches need to face the truth: young people are just not that into us.

  5. I’ve been to many churches in my life. The church I remember most fondly was the First Presbyterian Church (http://www.fpcnyc.org/) in NYC in the late 90’s. I was a paid chorister there. It was a big beautiful old stone church with a long history and an incredible music program, whose Scottish pastor gave inspiring intelligent sermons advocating for the poor and outcast. I was in my twenties and fully welcomed there. First Church in New York was a revelation to me for I had been to various churches in my teens (the 80’s) here in Kentucky but recoiled at the hateful ignorant lies being spread by these churches about gay people like me and the dumb pseudo-religious arguments being passed around by these churches about basic fundamental rock solid facts of science, like evolution – the basis of modern biology. My intelligence was insulted as was my sense of fairness and what was moral and right. I think something like that is happening now for more and more young people, generally.

  6. As the mother of 3 teens, 18, 16, and 13, I have seen my girls respond to these exact issue. My eldest has rejected the institutional forms of the church because of the hateful treatment of the GLBT community. My middle daughter said she can’t be a part of anything that would require her to ignore scientific facts like evolution and my youngest is just starting to here and understand the conservative views on homosexuality and can’t reconcile that with the way we raised her. As a minister working in the urban context this is exceptionally hard for me to watch. My kids see me and my husband as anomalies on the fringe of the tradition and I fear they will never give any church a chance. They are all compassionate and all dedicated to living like Jesus. I pray for new wine skins for this generation that truly loves like Jesus.

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful engagement. I appreciate your ideas, and I offer my sadness to those who have been witnesses to or recipients of, what I take to be, the church’s misplaced attention. There are a range of comments here, so let me respond with some broad observations.

    First, I take Frida’s critique seriously about the fact that what I’m proposing could easily be taken for a baptized version of liberal/progressive politics. It’s easy to think that the means (partisan politics) are the ends (faithfulness to Jesus). However, what I’m suggesting is not that churches become more “Democratic” in order to appeal to young people; in fact, just the opposite–churches need to worry about aligning themselves with Jesus, rather than the correct political programs. If those programs are congruent with the aims of the gospel, using them thoughtfully is defensible. It’s a subtle distinction, but on which my argument turns.

    As to whether doing all the right stuff (Marcus-Borgy, MoveOn.org-y) will “work” or not in bringing young people back isn’t my primary point (some will come back, some won’t–for a variety of reasons that often don’t have much to do with the church–which is my sympathetic response to Wendy, since I have a teen going through the same stuff). My point is that churches should be fundamentally concerned with being faithful–and the rest will take care of itself (or not); but that’s really God’s area of responsibility. Congregations need to act like Jesus not because it’s successful, but because it’s right.

    Second, as to Bob’s point about the kind of change that is necessary, I’m inclined to agree that the easiest way to accomplish this is through new manifestations, since congregational transformation is painstaking work. However, I’m being primarily descriptive here–which, I think, means that my concern has less to do with faithfulness gets embodied than with it gets embodied. As Bob says, and as i say i the article, tweaking is a distraction.

  8. Hearily agree with the spirit of this. Well said. Reminds me of anothers statement I read, not sure who to attribute it to, “whenever religion and politics mix, it’s religion that looses.” I believe that’s proven true here in the USA. It kills me that the response of many in the mainstream evangelical church seems to be to either deny the problem, or blame it on the culture. I don’t feel it’s ever helpful to blame culture, because culture simply “is.” Accept it, learn to operate within it, seek to influence it, even confront it in pursuit of radical reformation, but don’t blame it. I’m not suggesting culture is always right, but to make it the scapegoat for your problems is simply not helpful.

    • Your instinct to resist blaming culture per se, as you might guess, seems right to me. Culture is too complex to “blame.” Blaming or defending culture seems to me to be the equivalent of blaming the air for holding the pollution people pump into it or defending the make up of air for having the right constituents to support human life.

  9. Derek,

    I really appreciated your thoughts in this article. Many of your thoughts resonated with me and many of my friends. We are all Millenials who have left the Church/Christianity/organized religion. Too much of church boils down to tweaking and chasing fads with a consumeristic mentality. I fear that even many Emerging/Emergent churches/communities are following in the same mentality and may result in just another cosmetic layer of the same faulty foundations. I hope we can move forward and really address the root issues that have resulted from the Church leaving Jesus behind and not just keep addressing the symptoms that this departure has caused.

  10. Derek, thank you for your very thought-provoking article. I used the key points of your thoughts in my New Year’s Day sermon to challenge the congregation to think about their claim to being Christian. We are also going to discuss your article on Thursday during our Interfaith Clergy meeting for, whether we’re talking church or synagogue, the core of the concept is whether or not we are truly living our respective faiths in the insightful eyes of young adults. Thank you for some very rich food for thought.

    • How incredibly kind of you to write, Pat. Thank you. I’m glad you find this stuff useful!

      I’m especially interested to know how this comes across in an interfaith context. Please do let me know.

  11. Honest question: Are millennials really leaving church or is this only true on the mainline side of things? I guess it’s hard for me to believe that, because I see enormous “Bible” churches under construction everywhere I look. People in postmodernity starve for community. I worry more that millennials are going to end up in ginormous churches with bad theology that have “strong, successful singles programs.”

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