Why are millennials leaving the church? Whose church?

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, July 29th, 2013

g9510.20_Millennials.CoverAfter seeing it shared more times than I wanted on Facebook, I finally decided to read Rachel Held Evans’ CNN post, even though I’m not that keen on recent efforts to define generations of human beings before they have lived most of their existence. I myself have never really fit the descriptions of Generation X.

At their best such descriptions point one in a direction like someone saying, “have you seen my dog? He’s black and brown and medium-sized.” They give you some generic descriptions, but that’s about it. At their worst, they trade in stereo types or labels that then get perpetuated. “You’re a millennial, Oh, you MUST be like this!” Just ask those who reacted to Joel Stein’s portrait of millennials in TIME.

What makes these descriptions even more bothersome is that they tend to be based on poll-like surveys that can only provide a snap shot of what a small sample of a much larger group of people were thinking at a particular moment in time given a set of questions asked and how well they were asked. I’ve read some persons who write about millennials, for example, by making the disclaimer that they are talking about younger persons and this age difference may account for a difference in outlook on a host of issues like finances. Really? You mean younger people in general think differently about their finances than, say, older people? Things that make you go hmm!

All that aside, however, I find a host of problems with the idea of millennials leaving the church, beginning with this question: whose church?

In one respect you could respond to Rachel Evans by saying that millennials, on her own admission, are not leaving the church if by that term one meant an institutionalized form of Christianity. Instead, they are leaving one form for another: low church for high church, baptist for episcopal, or whatever.

There remains a popular misconception that evangelicalism constitutes a church when it does not and never has. If I cease to be an evangelical Baptist because I prefer liturgy and become an Anglican does that mean I have ceased to be evangelical? Well, not according to a lot of Anglicans I know. The same could be said of Lutherans. And, if George Weigel is correct, the same could be said of Catholics.

In addition, I wonder just how the claim about moving to more liturgical forms of Christianity squares with the rise of networks of churches like Sovereign Grace Ministries or Calvary Chapel . This is another trend that seems somewhat counter to the movement into liturgical Christianity. I might also add that such networks like the Association of Vineyard Churches are actually having a pretty large impact on liturgical forms of Christianity. Just ask anyone about Holy Trinity Brompton, the largest Anglican church in London, how much the Vineyard has impacted charismatic Anglicanism in England.

In another respect, one wonders whether most who use the term millennials (or Gen X or any other generational designation) realize just how western, even–dare I say it–American(!) it is. It says nothing about global Christianity in the southern hemisphere.

It says nothing about the resurgence of Christianity in say, France. I was talking to a colleague the other day who informed me that the kind of Christianity that is vibrant and growing in France is largely charismatic Christianity regardless of whether it’s Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, or something else. For example, the largest church in Paris is Charisma Eglise Chrétienne, which runs around 7,000 every Sunday.

It says very little about Central and South America. And how much does it actually say about Latinos/as or African-Americans in this country? Instead of taking my word for it, however, read the introduction to Diverse Millennial Students in College and you’ll get a sense for how “white” some of these descriptions are.

None of this is to say that we don’t learn anything from generational studies, but it does suggest that we need to take such studies and those who rely on them with a wee bit o’ salt.



Tags: , , , ,

Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Monday, July 29th, 2013 at 1:03 pm and is filed under Church History, Spiritual Formation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “Why are millennials leaving the church? Whose church?”

  1. Daniel Alvarez says:

    I like your global insights, Dale. It puts it all into perspective. I do think the US context is in need for more of a thorough description like you are giving. I think the “leaving” is less of a matter of style and more of a matter of a deep hunger for truth. It is also a matter of interpersonal relationships. I think the disconnect has to do with generational differences. These kids are more connected to each other than previous generations, but I think there is a relational element in many churches that has broken down so that it is easy for them to disengage and walk out.

    • Yes on the issue of finding answers to one’s questions, but this phenomenon is not unique to any particular generation. It’s just that movement becomes easier with industrialization, urbanization, and the new patterns of immigration they facilitate. One can go farther in one’s quest to find the truth.

  2. Dan,
    Thanks for the great post. I agree that much of this discussion is largely ad hoc and based on parameters that are hard to properly define. As well, there is almost always a lack of perspective on the global situation. Christianity continues to grow and flourish, maybe not just in America.

    Over at my blog (a shameless plug) I’ve discussed these issues about Millennials supposedly leaving the Church. The most current research is indicating that that Millennials are not in fact leaving their faith, but that their patterns of attendance and engagement post-high school look different from their generational predecessors. Millennials consider themselves connected if they show up 25% of the time. There are some who leave during the moral Rumspringa that is college, but many return.

    Similiarly, I don’t see this wave of movement from low church forms to high church, liturgical forms. In fact, I’d point out that of the Millennials who do return to regular patterns of church attendance and involvement (2+ times a month) are attending large, progressive worship evangelical churches.

    All this to say, I just don’t buy the argument that “Millennials are leaving” and definitely don’t buy the argument that they are returning gender inclusive and gay inclusive churches that some writers make without any documentation to support their claims. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for the comments Garet. I think the movement to large, evangelical churches is more on target although I think we have to keep in mind regional differences (more megachurches in the southeast and midwest for example than the northeast) and rural/urban differences. Many of the emerging evangelical churches are in urban contexts (think of all the large churches in Atlanta).

      The patterns of behavior sounds interesting too although I’m not always so sure about whether that’s a millennial phenomena. Because in America Christianity is always about voluntary association, you can see groups of Christians who are on the move from one kind of Christianity to another a lot. Sometimes this leads to new denominations while other times it does not.

      And, feel free to plug away!

  3. Jason W says:

    This post by Evans certainly included many generalities, but I think she hit the nail on the head (as must as you can when speaking for a whole generation). For the most part, her comments resonate with me and folks I spend time around who have “left the church” in the sense that they have become disillusioned by the institutionalized church and feel unwelcome in the places and communities that were once home. My friends who once called themselves evangelicals now run from that title and want nothing to do with that community. This is more than a handful of folks; this is a huge group of young people. To dismiss Evans and her ideas as generalizations is to miss the point. The point is, young people are increasingly (and alarmingly) disillusioned by what we once called the church. Us millennial’s have found ourselves without a home: too “conservative” to fit in with the mainline denominations but too liberal to find ourselves at home among evangelicals and evangelicals+ (Pentecostals/charismatics).

    • Thanks Jason for this post. It gives me some food for thought. And, I need to say at the outset that regardless of the debate about millennials, who they are, what they want, what they’re doing, etc., it’s clear that Evans’ post “rings” true to a lot of folks. I guess that’s part of what I am trying to ask here. Something rings true generally because it resonates with our own experiences or personal struggles, which is what you suggest about yourself and those in your circle of influence.

      But there are multiple questions like a) is this really unique to the millennial generation? b) where is her data to suggest that this is indeed a wide-spread phenomenon? c) is this a “white” or even southeastern U.S. phenomenon since Evans lives in the buckle of the Bible Belt?

      Just as an example, Christian Smith and his research team at UNC published a study of 18-yr-olds in 2004 in which they claimed that the majority of 12th graders were not alienated from institutional religion. They also claimed that a persistent stereotype was that they were. Now, this was 2004, which meant that the 18-yr-olds were born in 1986, right smack in the first part of the millennnial generation. Of course, you could claim that Smith’s sociological report and analysis was a snap shot of 2004 and that those now 27-yr-olds do feel alienated, but that makes my point. These are snap shots. Who knows what the same generation will say five years or ten years from now when another snap shot is taken.

      Another example is that the data that Evans points to in her blog is from a study done by the Brookings Institute. When you drill down into the study, however, it says very little about millennials except at the beginning where it makes a somewhat startling claim that religious conservatives make up only 17% of millennials. When you drill down into the report, however, you realize that it defines religious conservative and religious progressive based on a composite picture of theological and social views. The report admits that 38% of Americans are theologically conservative, more than any other group. In addition, it says that there are more theological conservatives among Latinos/as and African Americans than whites. So, how do you get 17% of millennials are religious conservatives? Well, it’s based on their composite definition of what a religious conservative is. One could be a theological conservative and still be counted as a religious progressive on their scale based on one’s opinions about social issues.

      I could list a lot of other examples, but the point is that it is difficult, in my view, to assess where an entire generation of persons might be on any given issue. Even if people run from the term evangelical, this does not mean that they cease to be theologically conservative. Most people run from the term pentecostal these days in part because people don’t want to be affiliated with it due to negative perceptions they have or others have. Does this mean that evangelicals have it right on everything? Of course not.

      At the same time, if we’re going to determine how best to respond to trends, then we need to figure out how some millennials can end up at Mars Hill Church under Mark Driscoll, whom Evans dislikes greatly. And we need to figure out how Tim Keller can build a church of 5000 (Redeemer Presbyterian) right smack in the middle of Manhattan given that he represents the exact kind of theology Evans believes is going in the wrong direction. And we need to figure out how the Assemblies of God can report a 1.8% growth increase for 2012, which is faster than the U.S. population rate.

      None of this deals with what you and your circle of influence experience, but it does begin to test that experience against a range of variables. At the same time, each generation must chart its own course so if you don’t like what you see become a change agent. The Jesuits started with a small group of college students from the University of Paris in the 1500s and I doubt anyone would disagree with the claim that they changed the Catholic Church.

      • Jason W says:

        Good thoughts Dale. I don’t have complete answers to all of your questions, but on the data question, here is where Rachel got her data: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/millennials-christianity-resources. As for Driscoll and Keller, I think we are talking about anomalies. Those are highly charismatic leaders who have built churches around their personalities as much as their ideas. The trends among people roughly 18-30 seem to be moving dramatically away from those sorts of churches and theologies (exclusive, hierarchical, angry (see Driscoll), politically polarizing) towards churches that are more inclusive, justice-oriented, joyful, egalitarian, and politically diverse. Are there still tons of young conservative evangelicals? Yes. Absolutely. But will there be in 20 years? My guess is no – not the kind we see today (I think this is ultimately the question Evans is getting at as it relates to American Christianity, not so much that young people are leaving the church, but they are leaving churches and looking for something else). Christianity will still be vibrant in the United States in the next 20 years, but it is going to evolve dramatically as this generation takes the reigns (of course). I think that is a good thing and so do a growing number of frustrated “millennials!”

      • I suppose I am contesting the guesswork here. I’m not a huge fan of what Driscoll, Keller, and The Gospel Coalition always represent, but who knows if they are anomalies or not. I have no doubt most Protestants thought pentecostals were anomalies at the turn of the twentieth century and look what happened. Charles V certainly thought Martin Luther was an anomaly. History will tell the tale.

        Thanks for the link to her research. I see now that she likes Barna a lot, which makes sense. I’m not always sure what to make of a research group that makes money at prognosticating the failures, successes, and futures of religion, especially evangelical religion. It’s a little different than research at a university that is usually funded by another group. For example, in 2003 George Barna wrote a book saying that the battle for the future of the church was over children. It was a best seller. It’s called Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions. The contention is that if you don’t get them by 18, you won’t get them and it’s filled with statistics. In 2011 David Kinnaman, who is president of The Barna Group, published a book called You Lost Me in which he argued that evangelicals did a good job with children but lost them when they hit their 20s. And so. . . . whose to say Barna won’t publish a book 8 years from now saying something to the effect that “you really need to get those thirty-somethings in line because that’s when you really are losing people.”

        I know I’m being a bit sarcastic here, but, as I said, grain of salt. As a historian, I prefer to take the long view on these matters. I don’t think we can know for sure what will emerge or even what is emerging because a) life is too complicated and b) there are too many free actors on the scene and c) a seemingly insignificant event now can change everything in fifty years. Right now, what we have is a bunch of prognosticators. Think of the cover of TIME Magazine in 1966: Is God Dead?

        By the way, in the next twenty years, the baby boomers will still be around. If Pew is correct, in 2011 10,000 baby boomers started retiring everyday and this will continue until 2030. At that stage 18% of the roughly 300 million Americans will be retired. And, in the next twenty years, this country will most likely be a minority majority country with Latinos ascending into many positions of power, again, by virtue of the numbers. It may be that in 20 years we look older and more like evangelicos of Central and South America than we do anything else.

  4. Jeremy S. Crenshaw says:

    Dr. Coulter,

    I love what you are saying and I find it very apt to point out such generalities. One other factor that comes to mind is the age difference that you mentioned regarding finances. Could it be that younger generations are rebellious and that is why they could be choosing to leave their churches or to only attend church 25% of the time? What do younger generations do if not challenge everything, especially in a culture like ours. By the way, in the circles that I have been running in, which includes both Pentecostal and Anglican, there is a pretty even split in the younger generations between those seeking to challenge the church and those seeking more of God either in their current setting or another. Many have bought into the fuzzy gospel that the culture is selling (see Rob Bell) and yet many others have rejected that and have sought a deeper faith rooted in biblical Christianity. And as you have said, all of this is really nothing new. I have discovered this even more so as I have been reading about the history of the Anglican church. There have always been groups of people that have sought to abandon the faith handed down to them and others who have offered reform and a deeper spirituality.

  5. Samuel says:

    Thanks Dale for your insightful comments and criticism of an article that presumes universality when in fact it reflects the particularity of some segments of our society. Blessings to you.