Why Millennials Leave the Church

Part of a series on Christianity in present-day America

If you haven’t read last week’s article, you can catch up here.

I received my primary education (Kindergarten – 8th grade) from a Lutheran school. I memorized parts of the Book, learned the ecumenical creeds, said the words, sang the songs, went through confirmation class, etc. I’m not a theologian, by any means, but I do think that I have the basics down.

As with last week, I need to clarify that my intent is NOT to attack the foundations of Christianity, or individual Christians. I do, however, feel that prominent Christian leaders are fair-game to illustrate what is going on. Also, for the purposes of this article, unless otherwise indicated, when I say ‘the church’, I mean the so-called ‘Big “C” Church’ – the Universal Church. Not any specific denomination, congregation, or individual.

I’m also going to try to keep any personal anecdotes germaine to the conversation at hand. I don’t want this to become a personal airing of grievances, though I may allow myself one or two indulgences. It is my blog, after all.

Why are millennials leaving the church?

So, the only studies that I know of on this topic were conducted by the Barna Group – a for-profit Evangelical Christian polling firm out of California. Being for-profit, most of their stuff is behind a paywall, or in a book I can’t afford to buy, so there may be some educated guess-work here.

Part of that ties in to one problem that the church has when addressing the issues with millennials – like cable news, old media, and a lot of corporations, church leaders like to think of us as having just fallen off the turnip truck (I have multiple peers who I am reasonably certain did not just fall off the turnip truck). This is in spite of the fact that we are the most educated generation in American History. Folks with whom I went to high school are now lawyers, web designers, network engineers, teachers, etc. Also, I’m pushing 40, my dudes. Stop talking down at us. They are seeking to be understood, without first seeking to understand.

We also need to address the unfortunate fact that in our place and time, everything and everyone has a brand, whether you know it or not. Once someone has left the church, all they have to understand what the church is doing and thinking and saying is Christianity’s brand. Thus, the only way to really examine this is at a macroscopic level. Christianity’s brand is usually experienced via various forms of media – the internet, maybe television, what we see when we are out and about in the world. Another part of branding to keep in mind is that oftentimes, ‘perception is reality’. It then becomes necessary to paint both Christianity, as well as the members of my own generation, with a broad-brush, as much as I’d rather not.

I think that we need to view this through some type of lens, or framework, and conveniently, I’ve arbitrarily chosen one.

Any young child who grows up in the church knows about ‘The Fruits of the Spirit’. I searched the entire world and couldn’t find the version of the song that I grew up with anywhere. It is like some vast conspiracy has expunged it from history. This, however, is the embarrassing nightmare-fuel that kids today get to watch:

These are grown adults.

Pedagogy aside, The Fruits of the Spirit come from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galations. The 9th book of the New Testament. And they fit into goofy kids’ songs, so churches love to teach them to little kids. Thing is, Paul doesn’t present these as commandments or rules to follow, but rather as attributes by which you can recognize a person or community that is living in accord with the Holy Spirit. So let’s take a quick look at these from a millennial’s eye view.


“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” – John 16:12

Love. It’s the greatest of the Christian virtues. “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:31

I’m going to quote a bit of an article by Jim Morgan, a consultant who helps churches with their brand:

Scripture characterizes love as a verb. Love is something we do – not just something we feel. Biblical love is hard – it is not passive or lazy. 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4 describe a love that is quite the opposite of our natural, human inclination toward self-preservation. Jesus modeled a love that defies explanation … The Lord could have chosen 1,000 easier ways for Christ to shed His blood to atone for our sins, but He revealed a plan to the prophets well in advance that involved His own Son being “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” to demonstrate His overwhelming love for us. Christ’s love, which the Great Commandment calls us to emulate, entails:

  • Sacrifice
  • Obedience
  • Selflessness
  • Unity
  • Forgiveness
  • Unconditional

He goes on to write, “Even within our church families, we aren’t modeling the love and sacrifice that led the church in Acts to sell their possessions to ensure no one suffered for lack of food or clothes. Churches in America no longer lead the way in caring for the poor outside of their ‘4 walls’ as they did for 1900 years when churches were the food bank and homeless shelter.

Millennials tend to care deeply for things like social justice, social equity, and helping the poor, the unfortunate, and the marginalized. We tend to value things like empathy and kindness. It is entirely possible that things like that are happening, but by and large, we don’t see the church making headway on that issue, or advocating for programs that would help alleviate poverty (particularly generational poverty).

I don’t come to your job and tell YOU you’re going to hell

There also seems to be a certain subsection of people who like telling other people or groups of people that they are going to hell. I know that it is fun to feel like you’re better than everyone else and play judgey-judgey, but Matthew 7:1-5 has Jesus saying “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Aren’t you are supposed to bring people into the faith by being a beacon of Christ’s light and forgiveness? It is absolutely unloving to say that people who aren’t Christian are going to hell. When did ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ – Matthew 29:13 become ‘And if people aren’t already Christians, you should just write them off and inform them that they are damned to hell.’ If you love everyone, then you love people who aren’t Christians. And if you love people who aren’t Christians, and believe that they will go to hell for not being Christians, then you would want to do everything possible to bring them in and convert them to Christianity. (Unfortunately, this is not the last we will see of Pastor Driscoll this week)

Yes, most of Christianity believes that the souls of non-believers are damned to hell (I have some intellectual issues with that particular point, but for our purposes, we’ll rule that it is what it is), but if your goal is to meet people where they are and bring them into the fold, I would really recommend not leading with that.

Again, I’m not a theologian, but if your goal is to be Christ-like, I really don’t think this is the way to do it. Unless I missed the part of the Gospel that said something akin to ‘Jesus came upon a regular looking man in the market, who was trying to pick out a good fish to buy for dinner and minding his own business, and Jesus said to his disciples “Yea verily I say unto you. This sorry son of a bitch will be rotting in the hellfires of damnation about 12 years from now. His belly will be cut open and filled with bees, and his junk used as a speed-bag by tiny summoned demons. Everybody point and laugheth at the nerd.”‘ No. Of course that didn’t happen.

Why is God like an abusive boyfriend?

I’m going off-book for this last bit. Some things are just viscerally egregiously terrible, and I think that this is one of them.

The Christian Church invented ‘negging’ long before the existence of sleazy ‘pickup artists’. Also, here is your second helping of Driscoll.

This is a video from the early 2000s of Mark Driscoll, at that time the pastor of Mars Hill Church, a now defunct church in Seattle. Currently, he is the founder and senior pastor of The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is a really extreme expression of what I am talking about, but I wanted to use it to really start illustrating that upon which I wish to shed light.

While not theologically incorrect, per se, this kind of thinking and preaching is pretty endemic among most churches. And a lot of churches like to focus on biblical law much more than the gospels. So the messaging is something to the effect of ‘You’re a broken, useless wretch and you don’t deserve God’s love, but God will love you if you beg him to. God will love you even though you don’t deserve to be loved‘.

You don’t deserve to be loved.

You don’t deserve … to be loved.

Many of us who grew up with self-esteem issues (we’ll get into the church’s track record with mental health later) had it drilled into our head from a young age that we don’t deserve love and just kind of grew up that way, with all of the problems associated with such a mindset.

I’ve also been seeing things like this a bit as of late:

I’d like to ask you this. If you were in a relationship with another person, and that person constantly told you things like ‘you’re worthless’, ‘you don’t deserve my love, but if you beg for it, I’ll give it to you’, ‘you can’t ever find anyone better than me’, ‘you’re terrible, and are so lucky to be in this relationship with me’, and ‘if you ever leave me, you’ll be sorry!’ What kind of relationship would you say that would be?

I’m not a mental health professional, but I do believe that would be an extremely emotionally abusive relationship, my friends. And a quite bad one at that. So you grow up going to church to be told that the only way you get out of being a worthless, terrible, hideous person is to follow Jesus. Which you do by going to church and giving them 10% of your income (GROSS income, not NET income – I’ve heard pastors make that abundantly clear). So you go to church to become a whole person, only to be told you are the scum of the earth and can only become better by going to church where you are told… rinse and repeat for your ENTIRE LIFE.

We are the first generation to grow up with the internet, and as such, we know how to deconstruct something to see if it passes the smell test. And for a lot of us, this smells really unhealthy. (We’ll get into the more intellectual questions such as ‘Why would an all-powerful omnipotent God need to be worshiped anyway’ and ‘Why does God care what we do at all?’ later on. I have an entire section planned for it.)

This is getting a lot heavier and more serious than I like …… here’s a video of Africa by Toto as performed by several Waluigis:


This is Pastor Jim Sandrige of Immanuel Baptist Church of Skiatook, Oklahoma. Back in the ’80s, there was this thing called ‘insult comedy’. Rev. Sandrige seems to be trying out ‘insult preaching’. This is absolutely not commonplace in any church (as far as I am aware), nor do I think it has anything to do with Millennials leaving the church, but something had to go in this spot. This is just kind of a thing that is funny and tragic at the same time. Mostly tragic.

Oddly enough, I realize that this video is also somewhat reminiscent of an abusive relationship. I promise that wasn’t intended or forethought … weird.


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So, this is an odd one. Theologically, it is pretty clear that it means an internal sense of peace given by the Holy Spirit, not opposing wars or violence. Since this is an internal thing that you can’t see on the outside, I have no choice but to punt on this one.


The fourth is usually called ‘Patience’, but is sometimes called ‘Longsuffering’, depending on your preferred biblical translation.

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. – Ephesians 4:30-32

This is another one that – for the purposes of this article – doesn’t yield any insight, save to say that it is there. I think that everyone has times when they become short with their family, coworkers, etc. It isn’t really a thing that Millennials associate with Christianity. Again, there are some things that I COULD talk about here, but those things would go better elsewhere.

The next Fruit of the Spirit is Kindness. I’d hoped to get that done this week, but there was just too much that needs to be unpacked with that one, and I have to work for a living.

I hate to leave you hanging, though ……. here is ‘One Day More’ from Les Miserables ….. but with every part performed by Waluigi.


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