What You Need to Know About the Millennial Exodus From Church

This isn’t simply about declining numbers. With the Millennial exodus, the future of the church’s mission is at stake.

The Millennial exodus is very real. David Kinnaman with the Barna Group says that “Christianity has an image problem among American youth.”

In his ominously titled book The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones (CEO, Public Religion Research Institute) chronicles the demise of the white American church.

Among the symptoms that have led to this terminal diagnosis, Jones identifies a “major force of change in the religious landscape: young adults’ rejection of organized religion. Young adults are three times as likely as seniors to claim no religious affiliation.”

These aren’t just un-churched youths, which would be bad enough. Young people—even those raised by Christian parents, who’ve grown up in the church, walked the aisle, given their lives to Jesus, gone on mission trips and graduated from Christian colleges—are leaving the American church in droves.

Many view this ongoing exodus as a catastrophic development for the church that cannot be taken lightly. This isn’t simply about declining numbers. The future of the church’s mission is at stake. According to many millennials, something is deeply wrong with the white evangelical church. And they are voting with their feet.

The unchecked bleeding of any organism will prove fatal sooner or later. Far too much is at stake if we ignore this millennial exodus or chalk it up to normal generational differences, assuming that in time they will “come to their senses.”

So far, this trend is not reversing. If we cannot manage to keep and mobilize our own, how can we hope effectively to reach others of this rising generation?

What Post-Evangelical Millennials Are Saying About the Millennial Exodus

A 2006 Barna survey of 16- to 29-year-olds found “three attributes young Americans associated with ‘present day Christianity’ were being antigay (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent) and hypocritical (85 percent).”

From time to time, various evangelical leaders and organizations circulate political and theological statements and manifestos regarding issues they collectively consider paramount—mainly, abortion and gay marriage. To which journalist Jonathan Merritt (son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president) responded with what Jones describes as “the literary equivalent of a shrug.” Merritt (a millennial himself) argued that these statements create what he called “a false hierarchy of issues, with older generations contending that only a few hot button issues are worthy of attention.”

According to Merritt,

“Younger Christians believe that our sacred Scriptures compel us to offer a moral voice on a broad range of issues… The Bible speaks often about life and sexuality, but it also speaks often on other issues, like poverty, equality, justice, peace and care of creation.” 

Millennials inhabit the 21st century and the changes and opportunities it offers. They aren’t contemplating returning to a long-gone era that their parents and grandparents nostalgically long for. Their friendships are crossing gender and racial lines. They’re not interested in internal debates that captivate and divide evangelicals. Issues the institutional church deems threatening and hills to die on are non-issues to them.

Why the Millennial Exodus? The Bride Is Ugly

As a pastor’s kid, I grew up in the church. I was raised on the Bible. I loved, valued and was blessed by that heritage. But as an adult and as a woman I’ve seen the dark side of the church. I’m not leaving, but I have my struggles with the church too.

As a friend of mine once said, “The bride is ugly.”

Sometimes the church seems more American than Jesus. More head than heart. Caring more about power and control than love, justice and mercy. All too often the evangelical church is more focused on circling the wagons to maintain the status quo than in engaging the challenges and opportunities of our changing world and leading Christians into the future.

I’ve seen evangelical church leaders abuse power, cover up abuse and scandal to protect themselves, and re-victimize the wounded. Friends of mine have turned to the church for protection from domestic abuse, only to be sent back into harm’s way to “try to be more submissive.”

I hear stories from women (and have stories of my own) of how the church marginalizes women and girls and pushes our gifts and contributions to the side.

In the minds of many, the evangelical church is known more for what she’s against than for what she’s supposed to be for: bringing light, hope and great good news to a hurting world. In the public square, the American church has lost her prophetic voice—and now she is losing her future. Millennials are streaming out the door.

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Carolyn Custis James
Carolyn Custis James (BA Sociology, MA Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. Carolyn is the author of Half the Church and Malestrom.

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