Millennials Leave Their Churches Over Science, Lesbian & Gay Issues


Churches are worried, and with good reason.  A new study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released last week reported that over the past decade, America’s congregations have lost members and suffered a decrease in “spiritual vitality,” brought on, in part, by ageing congregations. And the Barna Group, a Christian-affiliated polling organization, recently completed a five-year project which has morphed into a book called You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.

The study focused on young adults who were regular Christian churchgoers during their early teenage years, but became disconnected from church life after the age of 15.  According to Barna, 59% of young Christians disengage either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life around this age.  There was, predictably, no single reason for young adults’ disaffection with the churches where they grew up.  But the study managed to isolate six main reasons why Millennials (age 18-29) tend to leave Christian churches as they grow up: a sense that young adults were receiving an unsatisfying or “shallow” version of Christianity, feelings that the church was overprotective, the perception of judgmental attitudes around sex and sexuality, churches’ unfriendliness to members grappling with doubt, the sense that Christianity was too exclusive, and finally, the tense relationship between Christianity and science.

PRRI has also pointed to several of these issues over the past few months.  For example, as Dr. Robert P. Jones pointed in a recent piece for the CNN Belief Blog, our recent survey on evolution and climate change showed that 64% of Millennials say that scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time, compared with 32% of seniors. Likewise, 42% of Millennials believe that scientists agree the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, compared with 30% of seniors.  The strain here is apparent: one-quarter of Barna’s respondents said that “Christianity is anti-science,” while an additional 23% said they have been “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.”

But buried within Barna’s category of “sex and sexuality” is something quite specific: churches’ stances on gay and lesbian issues.  Research from earlier this summer reveals that nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about these issues.  Only 37% of seniors agree.

So what will convince young adults to come back to their churches?  Our report, Doing Church and Doing Justice: A Portrait of Millennials at Middle Church, explores the religious lives of 25 young adults who have maintained a connection to local religious communities.  What they wanted in a church was a community that encouraged social justice activism, a place of creativity and critical thinking, and a space free from judgment.  Perhaps most important, Millennials felt that churches should “focus their engagement on actions that serve the common good or speak up for the oppressed rather than opposing a controversial issue because of theological objections.”

These interviews speak volumes about what Millennials want from religious communities.  But Barna’s latest survey shows that congregations will need to be willing to have conversations and make changes that could be jarring for many seniors anchoring their communities before they can coax Millennials back into the pews.

9 Responses to “Millennials Leave Their Churches Over Science, Lesbian & Gay Issues”

  1. […] Millennials Leave Their Churches Over Science, Lesbian & Gay Issues : Public Religion Research I… […]

  2. […] for drawing Millennials back into the fold, however, gay ordination could be particularly powerful. Last week, we commented on new research that shows that young adults who were regular Christian churchgoers are leaving their congregations […]

  3. JohnJay60 says:

    I’m wondering though if respondents see a contradiction, of sorts, in complaining about both ‘shallowness’ and the church being overprotective and anti-science and so on.

    Many in the world today find a confidence in the extreme religious views that fuel movements as diverse as Islamic nationalism and Christian Dominionists. That is, they seek to eliminate the ‘shallowness’ by embracing rather than rejecting the one-sided views of their hateful leaders.

    It would be interesting to hear exactly what the respondents meant by “shallow”. If “shallow” then meant “lacking clarity, embracing ambiguity” then this contradicts in some way the later answers. if by “shallow” they meant a rejection of the simplistic “I’m right in my interpretation so shut up” followed by fundamentalists, then this is a hopeful sign.

  4. Ward says:

    Seniors who have not moved on these issues will not be convinced, corrected or coerced into believing anything but what they were taught their whole lives. Clergy won’t push their seniors too hard in part out of respect for their long commitment to the church and in part because they are keeping the lights on.

    What surprises me is that young people looking for a tolerant church home have not discovered and flocked to Unitarian Universalism. It offers everything this author says they are looking for.

  5. Laura Lokken says:

    These young people need to find a United Church of Christ Church! We are consistently involved in issues of social justice, even going so far as to have our own Justice and Witness Ministries We encourage creativity and critical thinking and discourage judgmental attitudes. We even perform marriage ceremonies for same sex couples and we do focus our “engagement on actions that serve the common good or speak up for the oppressed rather than opposing a controversial issue because of theological objections.” Granted, we still have some older members who have fought against these things and remain judgmental, but they are the minority – at least in our congregation. Reverend Paul and I (the Director of Family Ministries) encourage our members to educate themselves and often present them with controversial topics, opportunities to learn more about them, and ways that they can become actively involved with combating prejudice and injustice.

  6. The Rev. Joe O'Steen says:

    The Episcopal Church has many gay clergy, including two bishops. Bishops have been ordaining gay (but quiet) clergy knowingly, for centuries. Since the beginning of the 21st century they have been doing so openly. A clear majority of our bishops support ordination of gay clergy, and blessings of gay relationships. Most of the bishops in states which offer gay marriage support it. The Bishop of Long Island, at one of the earliest meetings with the clergy (after his consecration) told us that he and his wife were inviting several clergy couples each Friday to have dinner with them. He said, “If you are gay, and partnered, bring your partner. If you are married, bring your spouse. We want to know all your partners. As soon as New York State opened civil marriage to same-sex couples, he ordered any clergy living with a partner to get married within six months, the same requirement he had for straight couples. He also gave permission for Priests to solemnize the marriages of same-sex couples, giving the Church’s Blessing. Fr. Joe+

  7. Josh Thomas says:, a prayer site for Episcopalians and all our friends, will link to this article on Sunday morning, October 23, with a graphic illustrating the findings of a physicist and climate change skeptic at UC-Berkeley. His team’s just-published conclusions: it’s real, all right. Up 1.2º since 1950, and he’s got a chart to show it.

    Episcopalians think so much of science and reason we elected a marine biologist as our Presiding Bishop. She also pilots her own plane!

    Last week our site ran a photo at Evening Prayer of the late Dr. Frank Kameny, astronomer and LGBT human rights pioneer. There are ways to get Millennial-welcoming messages out, as the UCC and the UUA can tell you. We need to be more sophisticated and vocal, though, utilizing the best of new media.

  8. Jim Vickers says:

    Perhaps it is not just the positions of the local congregations on these issues, but the perception that that is how the Christian church as a whole stands.
    I think that people do not see the need for the church as a moral arbiter any more. They see the church as a place of community, acceptance, inspiration and empowerment. That does not mean that such a role precludes a moral component, but is not subservient to it. If a congregation is not a welcoming community; people go elsewhere, and quite often find their community outside the church.

  9. Peter Chan says:

    Serves them right, and this is the easily predictable and inevitable outcome !

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