Exodus: Evangelical Young Adults Are Leaving the Churches
Fordrena Griffith grew up Catholic but as a college freshman became a “conservative,
For the next thirteen years she was a committed believer. “I was against abortion,
divorce and homosexuality because God’s word said they were wrong. I was a Republican
because I believed Christianity to be an active part of that party’s position. I
was in a church a minimum of twice weekly, read the Bible daily, worked in ministry,
But slowly she realized that she spent most of her energies “judging and renouncing
the world” around her. The more she tried to stand up for the truth and live out
her faith, the more she hurt people she cared about. Fordrena recalled how one of
her closest college friends had an abortion. She tried to stop her by using all the
arguments she could think of. Instead of showing compassion, she judged her and ended
up losing a friend and “any future opportunity to be a positive influence.” In many
other ways, she became disillusioned with how her beliefs were impacting others.
So Fordrena decided to quit her church and renounce her faith: “I’m grateful that
I found an exit door and no longer choose—in the name of God—the hypocrisy of my
former faith” (Denver Post, March 6, 2011, D2).
And she’s not the only one.
For some time now, pollsters have followed an undeniable trend in American religious
life: young adults are leaving organized religion in significant numbers. These are
the “ex-Christians,” “the leavers,” the “de-churched” and “de-converted,” the “nones”
and “unaffiliated,” and the “unChristians.” According to Rainer Research, seven in
ten evangelical and mainline Protestants between 18 and 30 who attended church regularly
in high school stop attending by age 23. Only one-third of them return by age 30.
This comes as a big shock to church folks who have counted on special youth ministries
like Youth for Christ, Young Life, Youth with a Mission, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity
Christian Fellowship, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and countless denominational
and congregation-based youth programs. Youth ministers have seen the trends themselves;
and they are worried. They argue about how bad things are and what they can do to
reverse the tide.
Why are young adults leaving? The reasons are legion. Many youth workers say that
their kids are simply being overwhelmed by popular culture. Every where they look
there is cynicism about religion; sexually permissive hip-hop, rap, and rock music;
Internet porn; explicit movies and TV; the pressure to “hook up;” alcohol; drugs;
and the instability that comes from divorce and dysfunctional families. Christian
young people find it harder and harder to resist such influences and finally give
up during their teens and twenties.
But other reasons are deeply rooted in the churches themselves. A number of insightful
and sobering books have analyzed the problem in hopes of solving it.
Each book takes its own tack, but they all point to similar problems. Young adults
are leaving because they find churches hyper-critical, insensitive, judgmental, and
lacking in compassion. They are irrelevant, devoid of real community, indifferent
to singles and demeaning to women, spiritually superficial, and have untrustworthy
leaders who teach a distorted gospel.
Ouch. And this is what grown up church kids think. According to Drew Dyck, “Most
believing outsiders are old friends, yesterday’s worshipers, children who once prayed
There is another reason for their leaving, one that is bound to infuriate many church
leaders and laypeople: the overemphasis on politics.
This was one of the findings of Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s recent book Amazing
Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. In the late 70s and 80s evangelical religion
became increasingly aligned with right-wing politics. Evangelicals enlisted in the
culture-war against abortionists, homosexuals, pornographers, and those who wanted
to push religion out of the public square. Such efforts had only limited results
and produced a strong backlash among many church-goers, especially evangelical young
Putnam and Campbell cite statistics: throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage
of 18 to 29 year olds who self-identified as Evangelicals rose from 20 to 25%. But
since the 1990s, the percentage has dipped to 17%. During the same period, the percentage
of young Americans with no religious affiliation increased dramatically from 10%
in 1990 to 27% today.
Numerous studies show that such a decline is based on the conviction that churches
have become intolerant and mean-spirited, especially of homosexuals. The issue for
many is not the question of whether homosexual relationships are right or wrong,
but how Christian leaders have singled out gays and lesbians for special treatment.
As David Kinnaman argues in UnChristian, “The gay issue has become the ‘big one,’
the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation.
It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to
young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted,
sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our
hostility toward gays—not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but
disdain for gay individuals—has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”
“It is one thing to be against homosexuality, to affirm that the Bible rejects the
practice of same-sex lifestyles, but it is another to be against homosexuals, to
let your disagreement with their behavior spill out in your feelings and words toward
them as people.” Many young adult “leavers” say that they can’t stand other Christians
attacking their gay friends.
Is there anything that church leaders can or should to do about this? Some leaders
will advise these young adults to let the Bible be their guide and realize that the
best thing they can do for their gay friends is tell them the truth and reject their
behavior. Other leaders will consider toning down their rhetoric in response to the
negative backlash in order to keep from losing their own children.
What if the present trends continue? In the 1970s mainline Protestantism experienced
a departure of young adults who rejected its close identification with the political
and cultural establishment. That departure started a ripple effect. Once young people
left, the church nursery was the first program to feel the effects, then the Sunday
school, then the youth group, and so on. Once lost, a generation is hard to recover,
as four decades of decline among mainline Protestants prove.
Now it’s American evangelicals’ turn. The evangelical resurgence of the 1970s and
1980s peaked in the early 1990s. While evangelicals barely remain the largest religious
cohort in America, they won’t be for long if they continue to lose their young adults.
Many analysts resist such a doom and gloom forecast. They point out that such dips
are common and that after starting a family, many young adults return to the faith.
Sometimes that’s true, but such has not been the case among Protestant mainliners,
who are in their fifth decade of decline.
Even the critics show some guarded optimism. Kinnaman thinks recovery is possible
if the churches face up to their failings and make adjustments. So does Gabe Lyons
in The Next Christians. He thinks young adults will lead the way to a new kind of
Christianity that is much more attuned to Jesus’ style and concerns than present
expressions are. For him the end of “Christian America” is good news if the churches
stop trying to be in charge and become more counter-cultural.
However one feels about the current situation, the implications are extremely important.
According to Robert Wuthnow, Princeton sociologist of religion, “Unless religious
leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in
doubt” (After the Baby Boomers).
We owe that much to people like Fordrena Griffith.