There's been much discussion of late surrounding declining church attendance and, in particular, the rise in religiously unaffiliated young people. There are a variety of theories surrounding why Millennials -- those individuals born between the years of 1980 and 2000 -- are leaving churches or the Christian faith more generally, and differing views about what the phenomenon means for the future of faith in America.
Focus on the Family (FoF), a Christian ministry, and the Barna Group, a firm that studies trends in religion, are just two of the organizations that have researched some potential reasons why a portion of young people are fleeing the pews.
While some of the possible causal factors are based on statistical analysis and observation, not everyone will agree on their merits. Regardless, examining these potential causes will certainly spawn interesting discussion.
Why Young People Are Leaving Churches -- and Christianity -- Behind
1) First and foremost is the idea that some Milennials have that religious people are "hypocritical, judgmental or insincere." This, FoF argues, might hamper interest in participating in both church and Christianity as a whole.
Considering interviews and research conducted by Thom and Joani Schultz in their new book, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” these possible elements have been frequently cited.
Thom recently told TheBlaze that of the main reasons people are abandoning church, judgmentalism and hypocrisy are at the forefront.
2) Politics at the pulpit isn't really a foreign concept in America. Considering that biblical texts often lead believers to embrace more conservative viewpoints, it's not uncommon for pastors and congregations to hold controversial views on a variety of controversial issues -- opinions that some Millennials might disagree with.
FoF argues that, "Millennials are increasingly disassociating with churches and individuals who practice what they see as strident conservative political rhetoric."
3) Isolationism is another issue that is sometimes credited for leading young people away from the church. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, claims that one-fourth of 18 to 29-year-olds believe that churches demonize everything that resides outside of Christian culture.
This, of course, consists of mainstream music, movies, culture and technology. Considering how plugged in Millennials are, isolationism in church communities might be viewed as a potential turn-off to young believers.
4) A list compiled by Christianity Today's Leadership Journal notes that sex is also an issue that might turn young people away from the church.
One selection reads, "The church is perceived as simplistic and judgmental. For a fifth or more [of Millennials], a 'just say no' philosophy is insufficient in a techno-porno world. Young Christian singles are as sexually active as their non-churched friends, and many say they feel judged."
5) Openness is yet another perceived problem. Young adults view the church as closed off and too exclusive, especially in light of an increasingly-pluralistic society. Kinnaman argues that they feel forced between choosing church or their friends.
Also, on a more relational note, he believes that many young people -- one-third according to Barna's research -- do not see churches as safe places to express their doubt (and many Millennials report having some major doubts).
Examining Young "Nones"
Much ado has been made over survey results that found last year that one in three young adults are "nones" (i.e. unaffiliated). As TheBlaze reported in Oct. 2012, the findings highlighted that one-third of those individuals under the age of 30 fall into this category.
This marked a record for Pew, with young people ending up the most religiously unattached they’ve been in the firm’s polling history. Now, this doesn't mean that 32 percent of young people left a specific faith; it simply means that one-third of Millennials as a whole are counted as unaffiliated.
As we noted at the time, though, unaffiliated doesn’t necessarily mean “atheist” or "agnostic." Currently, about six percent of the U.S. public calls itself atheist or agnostic. An additional 14 percent simply claims to have no religious affiliation; many of these people are simply not aligned with a denomination of religious construct.
Pew's examination of the issue -- though it applied to all unaffiliated Americans and not just Millennials -- does seem to point to one of the same issues cited above: hypocrisy.
"With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them," Pew reported at the time. "Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics."
Digging Deeper Into the Research
Pew's research examined the overall Millennial population to determine who is and is not affiliated with the specific faiths. But a recent study from FoF titled "Millennial Faith Participation and Retention" looked at a different phenomenon -- how many young people are actually leaving their faith behind.
The latter study found that, while some young people are certainly leaving their Christian roots, there may be a reason for this that hasn't gained much attention.
After examining data from Pew and the General Social Survey, FoF claims that those who have left the faith did not have a solid religious upbringing. The Baptist Press recently noted that the study found that 18 percent of young Millennials raised in homes that had religious influence are now unaffiliated.
But these unaffiliated Millennials -- also known as "nones" -- were not all raised in strong Christian households, the FoF study found. In fact, only 11 percent said that they had a strong faith as a child and lived in a home where Christianity was "vibrant" and both practiced and taught, the Press added.
This means that the majority of those who have become unaffiliated essentially grew up in homes that weren't faith-driven. Thus, their departure from Christianity isn't all that surprising.
The study contends that there is a crisis of parenting and not necessarily of faith.
"Parents who provide a home where faith is vibrantly practiced -- even imperfectly -- are remarkably likely to create young adults who remain serious Christians, even as they sometimes go through bumpy spots in the road," the study explains.
Some Possible Solutions That Could Keep Millennials in the Pews
The Barna Group has interviewed 27,140 Millennials in over 206 studies -- and the results have been fascinating. While the organization has focused a lot of attention on the reasons young people are leaving, it has also looked at some of the positive steps churches are taking -- or should take -- to keep young people in the pews.
Barna's research finds that 59 percent of young people who group up in Christian churches end up leaving either their faith or they walk away from the institutional church at some point during the first 10 years of their adult life. Obviously leaving church and abandoning the faith altogether are very different things, but in either case, it means many young people are not attending church on a regular basis.
"The unchurched segment among Millennials has increased in the last decade, from 44% to 52%, mirroring a larger cultural trend away from churchgoing among the nation’s population," Barna reported last month. "When asked what has helped their faith grow, 'church' does not make even the top 10 factors. Instead, the most common drivers of spiritual growth, as identified by Millennials themselves, are prayer, family and friends, the Bible, having children, and their relationship with Jesus."
Still, Barna noted that one-quarter of Millennials are practicing Christians. These individuals attend church at least one time per month and say that religion is very important in their lives.
"A majority of Millennials claim to pray each week, one-quarter say they’ve read the Bible or attended a religious small group this week, and one in seven have volunteered at a church in the past seven days," Barna added.
So, while it's certainly troubling that some are leaving their faith behind, not all hope is lost. The polling firm provides five possible ways that churches can ensure Millennials are engaged.
They are as follows: Encourage relationship-building, teach them how to understand, interact and be present in the culture, allow young people to take leadership roles and help them develop their skills, help Millennials apply the Bible to their career and life mission and help them build an intimate relationship with God.