Why Younger People Are Leaving the Church (and What To Do About It)

The numbers are sobering. According to a recent Barna survey, only two out of every ten Millennials (ages 30 and under) consider church attendance to be very important, and more than a third have adopted an anti-church view.  

While Millennials represent the far end of the spectrum of Americans’ attitudes toward church (about half of society as a whole considers church attendance to be “very” or “somewhat” important), they may be the leading edge of a larger cultural shift. When asked what, if anything, helps them grow in their faith, Americans as a whole failed to rate church among the top ten factors.

The Barna report continues:

But beyond a dip in attendance numbers, the nature of churchgoing is changing. Regular attenders used to be people who went to church three or more weekends each month—or even several times a week. Now people who show up once every four to six weeks consider themselves regular churchgoers. …Furthermore, the percentage of people who have not attended a church function at all in the past six months has surged in the last decade from one-third to nearly two-fifths of all Americans. The shift is even more drastic among younger Americans: more than half of Millennials and Gen Xers [ages 30–48] say they have not been to church in the last six months.

As for the reasons that MIllennials are declining to go to church:

[They] cite three factors with equal weight in their decision: 35% cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether. In addition, two out of 10 unchurched Millennials say they feel God is missing in church, and one out of 10 senses that legitimate doubt is prohibited, starting at the front door. 

As I said, the numbers are sobering. But they also point to the ways in which churches need to respond. A few observations along these lines:

1. Any careful reading of New Testament will help us to realize that hypocrisy and moral failings will always be a part of the church. That’s not to say it’s unimportant for Christians—and particularly Christian leaders—to pursue greater holiness through the grace of God. In fact, the opposite is true. But it also indicates that churches need to do a better job helping people understand that they are not collections of people living in ivory towers, but rather communities of flawed and sinful people who desperately need the grace of the gospel…not only before but also after coming to faith. That truth should lead to greater humility and hospitality to those outside the church.

2. The challenge for the church in every age is to hold firmly to the timeless truth of found in the Bible while at the same time faithfully communicating and applying that truth in a constantly changing culture. Christians today need the same gospel as did people in the ancient world. But that means churches will need to find ways to express the gospel in ways that are uniquely suited for the present day. This will affect everything from mining current illustrations, stories, and data to innovating with technology to addressing significant cultural trends and problems with biblical insight. This means that Christians need to be serious students of both the Bible and the world in which they live. This rules out both separation from and capitulation to the surrounding culture.

3. If Jesus was gracious toward those who doubted and wavered (e.g., Mark 9:21-27; John 20:24-29; Mat. 12:20), then the church surely can do no less. This means taking serious questions seriously, so to speak. In any age, there will be issues and beliefs that will make believing the truth about Jesus more difficult. The church needs to tackle these with intellectual rigor on the one hand, and patience, sympathy, and kindness on the other.

4. Perhaps the greatest problem the survey points to is people feeling that God is missing from church. This illustrates a crucial point. If the church is about anything, it absolutely has to be about God—knowing, understanding, loving, worshiping, following, and glorifying God. If it isn’t, then the church ceases to be something vital and necessary, and instead becomes indistinguishable from any number of other organizations and associations. As obvious as it may sound, it’s worth noting explicitly: if God isn’t the focus of a church, people have no real reason to be there.

(For more information about The Crossing’s specific ministry values, click here.)

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