Why millennials are losing faith: one man's take

There is no shortage of opinion on why people in the "Millennial" generation are losing interested in organized religion, and, according, to a recent poll, doubting the existence of God in greater numbers. Here is how Nick Vadala at the Philly Post sees it:

Is it really any wonder, though, why twentysomethings are losing their religion? Consider what college-aged people have been witness to on a large scale in terms of what faith can do nationally: hard-line politicization of religion in general and Christianity in particular, browbeating of gays and women, continued attacks on scientific inquiry that border on anti-intellectualism, numerous sexual abuse scandals that destroyed the lives of countless children—the road to hell could even begin, we were told, with Tinky Winky’s less-than-masculine appearance and behavior. What it seems to come down to is cognitive disequilibrium created by being raised with the traditional notion of religion as a wholly accepting, loving force, only to later see it as a harsh divider.

Simply put, the millennial generation’s values are much less traditional than those of previous generations, and as such our concerns lie beyond conventional hangups like homosexuality, abortion and marriage. Culturally and ethnically diverse—moreso than any other generation—millennials seem to be leaving by the wayside the notion of moral absolutes, opting instead for non-judgment and acceptance overall. As the civic generation, we want to see results in action over being subjected to platitudes that lead approximately nowhere. We’re looking for equality, or tolerance at the very least. A connection, something to alleviate the existential angst with which we are all so familiar, is on the list too, no doubt (OK, maybe that’s not so different).

Make sense? Or do you have a different analysis?

Comments (32)

I'm actually concerned about the number of people who claim to have never doubted the existence of God. The increase in the number of doubters is a GOOD sign of an honest, inquiring faith, not a bad one.

Laura Toepfer

What I'm understanding this kind of analysis to mean is that Millennials (my own generation) aren't religious because of religiously-motivated and maintained sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. What's the answer to that? Oh, if only Millennials knew about our nice liberal mainline traditions! Then they'd stampede into our pews! And we wouldn't have to change a thing about the way we operate or reanalyze our current trajectory to attract them!

But is hasn't happened. It isn't happening.

Religion has become a joke. Seeing the devil in Spongebob, Pokemon, or the Teletubbies turns Christianity into a joke. You don't have to take seriously what someone who sees Satan in Harry Potter says. Someone who thinks the world is 6,000 years old isn't someone you pay attention to.

At the same time, you don't have to take seriously what someone whose religious and spiritual commitments don't seem to affect their personal lives says. We are an informal, touchy-feely generation. The Mainline tradition simply must be about more than pretty churches, nice music, freshly baked quiche, discussing the complexity of red wines, and sending checks to organizations whose unknown operatives do good work that we vaguely know something about but wouldn't ever want to get our hands dirty with. Until we learn how to use the language of personal commitment, personal change, and yes, personal relationship, Millennials will (rightly) continue to see us at best as docile social clubs to help people feel better about themselves after someone dies.

That's my two cents, anyway.

Chris Harding

There is a tremendous amount of distrust of religion, not so much faith. And younger persons in my 'sphere' identify "God" more through their personal experience of "God" and less through dogma and doctrine. They distrust the organization but they seek to find meaning in their lives through and experience of God in acts of justice and mercy and compassion. I feel that we in TEC are on the correct path with the advancement of the MDG's Common Cathedral, and actually welcoming everyone who God leads into our doors. Like the sign says, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes you" it did and it does, as a one time disenfranchised Roman Catholic I found my faith again when I walked through the doors of an Episcopal Church.

Mr. Vadala indicates that his generation has turned away from moral absolutes to non-judgment and tolerance. I would argue that his so-called non-judgment is the worst kind of moral absolutism. Just try to light up a cigarette, entertain the idea that abortion might be murder after all, or suggest that Heather might be better off if she didn't have two mommies--and see what hits the fan. The vitriolic comments I have received on this very forum illustrate the fact that tolerance sometimes goes in only one direction. I CHOSE the Episcopal Church because of its open attitudes about such topics as abortion and homosexuality--NOT because I thought it was closed to opposing viewpoints. Sometimes I am very uncomfortable with the narrow-minded bedfellows I have chosen.

Most millennials don't have children either...

My rough-and-ready guess is that generations tend to come looking when they do have children. They also tend to move beyond non-judgementalism and non-absolutes when their own kids come into the picture. :-)

Derek, I wondered about that myself. Having children certainly changes everything. I think it opens people to the possibility that there may be a place for them in organized religion. And parenthood certainly requires you to formulate and set rules. I doubt, though, that having children will change the millennials views on LGBT issues or the legitimacy of scientific inquiry, which (based on earlier Barna studies reported in the book Un Christian) I take to be central to their alienation from the church.

This article makes lots and lots of sense to me (a millennial). To use a line I've (probably stolen and) repeated ad nauseam, "Millennials don't want and often don't feel they need what we're 'selling' in their lives."

What do the Millenium Development Goals have to do with anything? The current generation is trending more secular, but there are plenty of people who are looking for some sort of ordered spirituality (as opposed to the general cop-out of "spiritual but not religious")

When we have a Lenten message from the PB which says nothing virtually nothing about Christ or repentance and harps on these stupid U.N. feel-good mission statements, we look like a joke. When we have bishops say that all paths lead to God, we look un-serious and irrelevant. When we spend more money on running an office in New York than on helping the poor or spreading the Gospel, I would imagine many "millenials" see that and figure "Why bother?"

Sure, you've got small-minded bigots on the conservative evangelical side scaring people off from conservative religion, but if we want to capture young people who still hunger for some religious meaning in their lives, we've got to offer something more than a version of Rotary with candles and incense and fancy robes and empty words.

As a woman who came of age during Vietnam, at the end of the "kill a commie for Christ" era, a generation after Christians killed Jews in mind-boggling numbers and other Christians did not do all they could to stop it, when a woman's place was in the home, when close dancing was dancing on the edge of hell, when women who got raped probably asked for it because God understood that men couldn't control themselves, before feminist theology, before there was any hope for women priests or much less a woman secretary of state, before there was even much talk in public of any possibility that two men or two women could live in a recognized covenanted relationship, (just to name a few), it's hard for me to see that the millennials have a unique claim to experiences of religion gone bad. You would probably have to have a very short perspective on history to think so.

[Editor's note: Thanks for the comment. Please leave your name next time.]

Jim and Derek:

It's certainly been the experience of the parish where I serve: people returning to church when children come into their lives. They tell me they want a community that teaches values and instills a spiritual tradition to provide a foundation for their growing family -- even if they are fully accepting of the possibility their children may choose another spiritual path when they are older.

What the parents often discover in the process is they have been hungry, too, for rootedness in Christ.

And, no, hammering LGBT couples, contemporary science, abortion, or whatever bogeyman-du-jour doesn't attract them in the slightest. Some of them are drawn to our community precisely because we don't engage faith this way. But it still matters to them that we value relating to one another and the world with the kind of love, respect, service, and reverence -- the discipleship we hear demanded in the Gospel.

At the risk of sounding unkind, I read the comments from the young fellow quoted above and it sounds to me like a teenager: self-righteous, self-absorbed, his thoughts as big a mess as his bedroom. It’s all getting tiresome, frankly.

And I see zero self-examination in his comments; only self-congratulations. And he thinks we want to hear why he’s not hanging us? Perhaps we don’t want to hang with him in the first place? Just a thought.

Kevin McGrane

Yikes, a lot of finger-pointing on this thread.

Just want to echo what Laura said: I think doubt is a healthy and ESSENTIAL part of a living faith---not its absence or opposite!

JC Fisher

Perhaps we don’t want to hang with him in the first place? Just a thought.

Then the Episcopal Church doesn't welcome him? Just a thought.

June Butler

As a gen'xer I also grew up with the religious right, which might have done me in when it came to Christian faith. But thankfully there was a Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry I found a home in that spoke of and practiced a more open faith. Ever since then I've become a cheerleader for campus ministry. The hole in too many campuses across this country is the lack of a religious alternative young adults face.

Thanks for commenting Servetus - please sign your name next time. ~ed.

I’m by no means an expert on what Millenials think, but based on the comments I hear from the Millennials who volunteer with my non-profit, Chris seems right on point.

It’s amazing how often I hear comments about organized religion being little more than a world of pretty stained glass, quaint Victorian hymns, and cautious platitudes about being a good person, all the while ignoring issues like hunger and homelessness. (Caveat: I work for a social services non-profit, so results could well be skewed.)

Another thing I often hear is about lack of personal connection with the church, combined with some real questions about the value of our current clergy system. As one of our volunteers scathingly said, “I don’t think my priest even knows where I live, let alone the fact that my mom has cancer and my dad left us more than a year ago. So when I hear the priest talking about how all are welcome, all I can say is [expletive deleted]. You don’t even know me. And don’t be asking me to pledge, because I’m not wasting my money on you.”

The social media often comes up, too. Here, the issue seems to be primarily around content. No one expects a live Twitter feed from Sunday services, but they would like to see news, volunteer opportunities, and information on family and friends. As one Millennial put it, “It’s hard to take church seriously when the last post on my parish’s Facebook page is from Christmas, and it’s a picture of a bunch of old ladies having tea. That’s all you have to say to me?”

Eric Bonetti

I'm always suspicious of generational assertions of this sort. Especially since they are usually assertions made by those who educated and middle class in that particular cohort.

Adversity in its varieties often leads to a different sense of need for God, as much as having children does, as Derek notes above.

What I notice in my encounters with an admittedly select sets of this cohort:

is a real tendency to a presentism that cannot cherish anything older than today's posting, is schooled in a sense that life should never have hiccups, and is stuck on "my generation" and "our needs" to the extent that everything should be rearranged for me/us. In short a lack of boundaries and high sense of entitlement.

And on the other hand, from other members of this cohort, is a high want to do service activities, is a hunger for contemplative practice, and is a cherishing of older practices and having community for the long-haul.

And Baby Boomers never play the "My Generation" card? Right. The comment about the priest not knowing anything about him/her DOES ring true,especially for singles. (I've attended the same church for 5 years and the leadership still introduce themselves like I've never been there before, probably because their outreach is towards marriage,divorce care, and kids-none of which apply.)
I also note the comments above talking about "Wait till they have kids, then they'll come" attitude. Well, about 25% of my generation is never going to have kids, and depending on race, education, etc. 20-40% are never getting married--and churches in general are not very welcoming to singles/childless people. All the feminism,civil rights, etc. that the Boomers love taught us that kids and marriage are unnecessary--except, apparently, in church.

We also grew up with lots of gangs/cults in the news and it always pointed out that people joined because the members reached out, listened, and cared and THEN they were taught what to believe. Many churches,of all denominations, didn't get the message.

Chris Harwood

My two cents: I think getting into defensive mode when folks offer criticism is hardly the proper response. We should listen respectfully to what the other is saying and consider the words calmly with an open mind.

Likewise, to take all criticism to heart as the reality is also not a satisfactory response. Again, calm consideration with an open mind is always helpful.

"They will come when they have children" seems a weak explanation for folks not attending church. Why are the people not there before or whether they have children?

June Butler

As a millennial who does go to TEC, I can say that many of my peers are disillusioned by Christianity as a whole. We don't see the Christian Middle in action. We hear in the news about the latest Catholic Church escapade, and we are berated by far right evangelicals on campus holding signs telling us we are going to hell. We just don't hear about the mainstream denominations much, and certainly don't interact with them without walking through their doors.

It is ignorant and hurtful to say that we are not as unique as your generation, or that we are worse than your generation, or that our experiences are lesser than yours were. We are only a product of how we have grown up, which has been unique from you. Wishing our mannerisms to change so that we conform to how you want to minister to us is not what we spiritually need. It's been done before, and it is not working, so why continue to beat the dead horse.

All the Sunday School classes and youth programs in the world mean nothing if we're secluded by age group, not acknowledged, and not taken seriously. Even in our "seflish rhetoric" we want to be seen as adults, as one of "you," and not partitioned off into a category of people who are somehow sub-members. If you are someone who thinks we have it all wrong, how do you think we'll learn any better if you don't befriend us? Really, I think all that we want is to be wanted there. Hiring a young and upbeat youth and young adult leader will not accomplish what you, as an older parishoner, ought to be doing. We want to help make church a place we'd be proud to bring our friends to, so please don't chide us for trying, and please mentor us.

I'm not saying my generation has it all right. We are often emotionally charged and hold onto past hurts. Many of us still feel a bit like kids sometimes, wholly unprepared for and unsure of what is before us. However, we are adults now, even in our insecurities and our inevitable mistakes. We are no longer the teenagers you last saw at Confirmation. Church has never fully been the priority for us because we've been so involved in other things, sports, school activities, etc. It will continue not to hold real priority in our lives until we can see it as a place we actively want to go and be a part of.

Caitlyn Darnell

Chris and Mimi:

Simply observing what is bringing people into church (and in a particular parish at that) does not necessarily presume an "attitude," so I take exception to that accusation.

Gathering singles in community -- particularly Christian community -- has been and remains a challenge for all of us. So, yes, I will confess weakness there.

That said, simply remarking on the growing demographic in my parish is not intended to obscure the fact that we do have singles of all ages actively involved and deeply cherished.

Finally, in keeping more closely with the thread, I am convinced conventional parishes are not attractive to a large percentage of our young adult population. Campus ministry can be. So can informal gatherings in unconventional locations. Both demand investment of imagination, leadership, and resources with no expectation of immediate "return." But we are called to be seed planters, after all.

I, for one, can say as a Gen-Xer that I probably wouldn't be so involved with the Church had it not been for an incredible experience in a campus ministry when I was an undergraduate.

As a Gen-Xer, one thing that I can't stand is seeing people attempt to generalize my generation. We're not all the same, spiritually or politically. Polls rarely tell the whole story, if they tell it at all. People say one thing in public and vote the opposite in private. Sit down with some of us and talk to us if you really wanna know.

Carolyn, I'm an old lady of a generation that perhaps does not have a name, but I hear you loud and clear. Personally, I prefer a mix of ages in church groups and in socializing. Our parish is not large enough to have separate groups for adults of different generations, which is perhaps a blessing. The thing is that we are, for the most part, not attracting families with children, either.

Richard, you address two people. I assume you don't address me for what I didn't say.

I'm pleased that your parish seems to have overcome the stumbling blocks that other parishes find so difficult to get past. I also agree that TEC will need to address the matter of church in unconventional places and forms. Indeed, it's already being done.

June Butler

Maybe we could ALL stop stereotyping.

I, for one, bristle when a Millenial says something like this:

The Mainline tradition simply must be about more than pretty churches, nice music, freshly baked quiche, discussing the complexity of red wines, and sending checks to organizations whose unknown operatives do good work that we vaguely know something about but wouldn't ever want to get our hands dirty with.

Having been a member of 4 different parishes in 3 different states in the last 15 years, I can honestly say I've never heard a single conversation about the "complexity of red wines."

I have, however, been a part of many conversations about how to live out the gospel in our communities and have either seen or participated in many, many direct actions to make that happen (i.e., "getting our hands dirty). Those include:

* Feeding the hungry--working in soup kitchens, volunteering for the Interfaith Food Shuttle, starting and working in a community garden that helps feed local people in need

* Housing the homeless and supporting affordable housing--running or volunteering for the Room at the Inn program, participating in Habitat for Humanity builds, and engaging in interfaith advocacy for local policies that support programs for the homeless and affordable housing

* Ministering to the needy and those with special needs--tutoring programs for children who are having trouble at school, providing transportation to elderly people in the community who need to get to the doctor or the grocery store, providing weekly sign language services for the hearing impaired and teaching parishioners to sign in order to make people feel more welcome

And those are just off the top of my head....

I don't know how to get young people to come through our doors and see the good things we are trying to do in the name of Christ. I joined TEC because it was 180 degrees different than the fundamentalist church of my childhood. I suspect my own children will not go to church when they are grown (at least until/unless they have kids themselves) because they aren't afraid of God, like I was. I have taught them that God loves them--and I am not sorry that I did.

But even they would tell you that those who claim we aren't doing anything except standing around and having cocktail parties at church are spreading falsehoods that are no better than any of the stereotypes about "young people."

The church is dying--and maybe that is as it should be. We have had 2,000 years to show that Christianity makes people better--and we have failed miserably.

But God is not dying, and God is always doing something new in the world. If we could let go of our anxiety about the institution of the church, we might be able to put down our swords, stop blaming each other for "what's wrong," and work together to further the inbreaking of the Kingdom.

Just a thought....

Concur with June: Keeping an open mind, in both directions, is best. Many times, when I listen to our volunteers, I think, "Wow, I see something totally different in that situation." But when I think about it over time, I sometimes can at least understand why the comment was made, or the context in which it occurs. And I hope that folks would feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with me. Even if I don't agree, I'm honored that they took the time to do so in the first place.

Eric Bonetti

Paige Barker,

When I said:

The Mainline tradition simply must be about more than pretty churches, nice music, freshly baked quiche, discussing the complexity of red wines, and sending checks to organizations whose unknown operatives do good work that we vaguely know something about but wouldn't ever want to get our hands dirty with.

I was talking about perception. I am happily a member of the Episcopal Church. I love our tradition. I too have experienced the radical way in which Christians of all Mainline denominations witness to the power of God's Gospel in and for the world.

Yet I know from firsthand experience that most people my age don't actually know anything about this at all. They see us as overeducated 80s yuppies assuaging our liberal guilt by pretending to believe in Christianity.

I didn't really do a good job of explaining in my first post that I was talking about the way we are perceived by MIllennial Generation (and the rapidly maturing Net Generation!). Sorry for any confusion or offense caused. :)

Chris Harding

@Paige: I am not sure I agree that the church is dying. As with many organizations, shifting demographics spells change for TEC. And change is good, because it keeps organizations fresh, provides new opportunities, and offers a chance for inflection.

Apropos social justice, I've been in more than one parish that has done nothing -- and I mean nothing -- in the world at large. On a larger scale, we do a fair amount, but even so we need to look at allocation of resources. Yes, beautiful churches are wonderful, but if you consider the church's total cash flow, we devote a tiny portion of our resources to improving society. Indeed, in many parishes, hundreds of thousands of dollars flow through the parish every year, yet rectors' discretionary funds and other forms of aid amount to a few thousand dollars here and there.

Per Susan Snook's comments (and I commend her blog to you--it indeed is a good and joyful thing), we have a real opportunity to transition away from a winner-takes-all mentality and towards one of collaboration, consensus-building, and teamwork. Being an Episcopalian is a wonderful thing, and I am proud of the things we do, the wonderful diversity of our church, and our history. At the same time, I welcome the idea that we will change over time, and believe that the future is bright for TEC, as our social views align closely with those of young people. So, I would say rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated.

Eric Bonetti


I would argue that evaluating the Church's effectiveness simply by dollars invested in aid beyond our walls makes us no different than any secular social service agency.

Aid is important, but we are primarily in the business of making disciples for Christ, and that means empowering people for ministry in the world wherever they may be. That in itself is intended to be transformative, I think, for the whole world.

This is why metrics in the church are so tricky (we have a whole diocesan team working on them at present, and even the pro's from the secular arena are racking their heads), and why casting judgments based on $ alone is not all that helpful, IMO.

Chris Harding--thanks for the clarification. :-)

And that raises a question--how do we go about trumpeting what we do? Jesus was pretty critical of people who boast about what they do for God or others--and yet we get criticized because people have no idea of all the good we TRY to do. It's a conundrum....stay quiet and people think you only care about highbrow stuff. Speak up and you look defensive and self-serving. Sigh.

Eric Bonetti--when I say "the church is dying," I don't mean just TEC. I mean Western Christianity in general.

We are several decades behind Western Europe, which has had precipitous drops in church attendance since WWII--but, from my vantage point, we are headed in that direction. The fastest growing "religious group" in the United States is "None."

High levels of church attendance have always been the result of social norms--once those norms are relaxed or jettisoned, it becomes much easier for people to decide to stay in bed on Sunday morning. Couple that with the growing perception of U.S. Christianity as existing largely to bash LGBTs, infringe on the rights of women, and deny science and you have a perfect storm.

I love TEC and I have a vested interest in seeing it do well (my spouse is a priest). But what I'm seeing doesn't look good for ANY Christian denomination or group. I think the "brand" has been corrupted....perhaps beyond redemption. Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, I'll keep working with others in my parish to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. I imagine we will enjoy some red wine--and maybe even some quiche!--in the midst of all those activities. But the conversation will be about how we can serve God with gladness and singleness of heart, and be the face of Christ in the world. It will never be enough for some people--but we do the best we can.

Hi Richard. Thanks for the follow-up.

One point of clarity -- and sorry for not being clearer on this -- is that I do not espouse evaluating TEC solely or even primarily on its financial metrics, including our giving. Indeed, working for a non-profit, I am reminded that the value of all non-profits transcends the cash and other assets they possess.

Rather, I think there is an inherent call to reflect on our priorities. Specifically, we hear all sorts of concern about tight budgets, but if we look at the assets and total cash flow of TEC, we are wealthy indeed. When we look at this issue in light of our commitment to social justice, we quickly get into some uncomfortable places. For example, Susan Snook's very well done comments about universal health care within the church is an area where I am concerned--we espouse universal health care, yet in some cases appear ready to walk away from that commitment within our own organization. This, at a time when we are poised to spend more than $100 million over the next three years on overhead. I would rather offload unneeded assets, including 815, than see our employees do without health coverage.

I suspect too, that our organizational fear of change is unattractive to Millennials. Like it or not, change is coming. It all comes down to embracing change, trying our best to do what's right, and not holding onto the past simply because we can. So, I think we are saying the same thing: The church needs to be transformative. Now, the trick is working together to use all of our resources, not just cash, to acheive our mission.

Eric Bonetti


It sounds like the core of your comment is that there's nothing wrong with us and we don't need to change anything we're doing at all. I don't know that I agree with you.

Look, you sort of prove my point - churches do lots of service projects. Soup kitchens, Habitat, education. Those are all good and important things. That is half of the Gospel message.

But the church is failing at the task of being a church. There are lots of secular groups that feed people and build houses and tutor children. You can join Rotary or the Lions and do all those things. What Rotary and the Lions DON'T do, and what we need to do, is worship God and bring people into the communion of saints.

But, for instance, when NPR did a piece on religious attitudes about gay marriage, they interviewed an Episcopal priest for a pro-equality viewpoint. "Great," I thought, "a piece that shows that not all Christians are obsessed homophobes. This will be good for us." But instead of offering anything meaningful, she offered some flip remark about "Look, the Gospel says we should love ALL people, OK? What part of that don't you understand??"

That kind of stuff hurts us. And it's not just one priest in an interview. We're viewed, rightly or wrongly as unserious about Christ, with large numbers of clergy that don't believe in God or try to box Him into some panentheist box, or who dabble in Buddhism or Wicca or Islam. Every time the General Convention assembles it seems that they take something else away from worship. New, dumbed down liturgy and hymnals. We're about to neuter the sacrament of the Eucharist in the name of some bland, meaningless welcoming.

No Episcopal church I've been to in the last ten years (and I've been to several) offers any adult education in the Bible or the Prayer Book, and the new GC budget slashes even the meager resources we do have. Many newer clergy seem theologically illiterate, as if you can justify any position you want by saying "God is Love" and implicitly accusing anyone who disagrees with you of being a Pharisee.

We're seen as increasingly liberal, a service organization and left-wing lobbying organization dressed up as a church. And I'm not sure that's much better than being too conservative. We increasingly fail to offer real religion, selling away the gift of a serious, moderate spirituality in favor of fleeting social acceptance. And I doubt we'll attract many people by being shallow and insincere in our worship.

Thanks, Eric! I tend to agree on all counts.

As a colleague and friend said recently, the change before us is not a matter of "if" but "when," and -- more pressing to us in leadership -- a matter of "how:"

Whether we will be dragged into that change kicking and screaming, or be proactive in responding to the grace God offers through it is up to us.

In good Anglican/Episcopal fashion, we will probably do both!

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