The Great Church Exodus: Three Reasons Why They Left
The Millennials have left the building.
Countless kids who grew up in children’s and youth ministries, who memorized scripture at Vacation Bible School, who spent summers in church camps, who worshipped in age-segregated “children’s” and “teen” churches, who served as youth mentors, participated in mission trips around the world and enjoyed the finest youth ministry resources, events, concerts and experiences in the history of the Church…no longer attend church services.
In general, they’ve been tagged the “nones.”
When it comes to church affiliation, they mark themselves “none.” They don’t attend church. They don’t appreciate church. They don’t think it’s necessary to their spirituality or Christianity. Many profess atheism or agnosticism. They want “none” of it.
Even Gen X is quitting.
Known as the “dones” this cohort of American Christians are tired of the games, the “show,” and the politics of “churchianity.” They endured the worship wars between the Boomers and their G.I. elders in the 1980s. They suffered through the “mega-fication” of the Church, particularly in evangelical strains. They watched the quaint church of their youth evolve into malls, performance halls, schools and corporate offices. They’re now in their 40s and 50s and growing tired, cynical and cranky.
It’s why most American churches are graying fast.
The Baby Boomers are the only ones left.
I recently enjoyed two insightful conversations with formerly churched individuals.
- Bryan (not his real name) is a twenty-something Millennial who grew up as a pastor’s kid. He attended church every Sunday with high participation in the events, programs and studies his church offered. He volunteered to lead worship, counsel and mentor. He went to Bible college but eventually dropped out. He stopped attending church recently, mostly due to work conflicts on Sundays.
- Jerry (not his real name) is a fifty-something Gen X pastor who rarely missed a day of church until five years ago. He’s got a degree in theology, served as a small group leader, youth minister, lay counselor and elder. He and his wife moved to town a few years ago. They found a church, but not “community.” Now they stay home and “live stream” services and fellowship in a small group Bible study.
Both men are committed to Christianity. They believe deeply in Jesus, but have grown cynical of what they experience at church.
I asked them both “Why don’t you personally attend church anymore?”
“It’s not engaging.”
Despite all the bells and whistles, lights and fog machines, video and sound cues, both Bryan and Jerry found their church experiences dry and “ho hum.” Bryan says most Christian music bores him, even though he played in a worship band. Jerry was more complimentary. He likes the contemporary worship and preaching, but has tired of fighting traffic to just “sit there” for an hour.
Both Bryan and Jerry say church isn’t worth their time. In fact, it’s often a waste of time.
Now before we judge that harsh view of church, let’s be brutally honest. We raised our Millennial kids in an “entertainment” church model. We suckled them on “Veggie Tales” and weaned them on Crowder and Tomlin worship sets. We incentivized their spiritual practices with “Bible Bucks,” candy, toys and money. We reduced discipleship to entertaining curriculum, youth pastor “talks,” large events, youth lock-ins and retreats, and annual teen conferences.
So it’s no wonder they’re walking away. The church will never compete with Hollywood (nor should it try). We taught Millennial Christians to conform (to the rules) and perform (to our expectations) but not to be transformed by Jesus Christ. And, frankly, if we’re honest most of our churches today are just doing “youth ministry for adults” and that’s the problem. That model failed to attract young disciples yesterday and it’s failing to retain adult disciples today.
“I don’t need it.”
Which produces the second general reason Millennials and Gen Xers are done with church attendance: it’s not necessary to their Christianity.
I asked Millennial Bryan where he goes to be nurtured and discipled in his faith and his answer was sobering: a small community of Christian friends, podcasts and the Internet. Gen X Jerry expressed a similar sentiment: “I can get the same experience in my pajamas at home on Sunday morning as I do in physically attending a church service.”
Again, this brutal critique has some truth to it. The modern Church, driven by Enlightenment values in reasoning and Industrial Age principles in business and operations, essentially created a conveyer belt religion that focuses on producing numbers (attendance, offerings) and things (programs, staff, facilities) rather than discipling persons. We see it in the vocabulary of the “modern” Christian: “I went to church last week” or “I’m attending church tomorrow.” Modern Christianity was about place and time, but in a post-Christian and post-modern world that’s 24/7/365 both space and time are irrelevant. We can learn without a physical school and the dying modern church is discovering that postmodern Christians don’t need a “place or time” to spiritually grow.
“They don’t miss me.”
Ironically, both Bryan and Jerry echoed this same refrain: after several weeks of absence their churches showed no concern.
Millennial Bryan views this as hypocrisy. He says his church was always preaching “community” and “friendships” but as soon as he stepped down from his leadership role (to ease some burnout) and missed a few weeks, he realized no one really cared about him. Gen X Jerry said the same thing. He still goes to church occasionally (“out of guilt,” he confides) but no one acts like he’s been gone. “It’s just easier to stay home and mail in the check,” he adds, “besides I find my ‘community’ in my small group and that’s good enough for me.”
The dirty secret reality of many churches today is the average church-goer moves on within a few years and many leave within months. People join a new church hoping to find friends but end up disenchanted.
Ironically, when I asked both Bryan and Jerry what it would take for them to return to active church attendance, they both quickly answered: a friend. I want to hang with people who have similar values, said Millennial Bryan. Essentially, they’re not going to church for the worship (though inspiring) or the preaching (though instructive). What they want is connection, cooperation, companionship, collaboration and community. They hunger for a spiritual experience with friends and most churches don’t offer (at least easily) these opportunities.
“When was the last time you went to church and made a new friend?” Gen X Jerry asked.
Friendships and authentic community is what’s missing.
It’s definitely what the first century church enjoyed:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
It’s the type of church Bryan and Jerry long to experience.
Come to think of it, it’s the type of church I want to attend too.