5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church
Everyone has an opinion about why Millennials are leaving the church. It’s a controversial topic, one that Barna Group’s researchers have been examining for a decade.
The topic was reignited this summer when blogger and author Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece about why Millennials leave church. Her editorial struck a nerve, sparking response pieces all across the web and generating more than 100,000 social media reactions in the first week alone.
Yet whatever one’s personal view of the reasons behind Millennials staying or going, one thing is clear: the relationship between Millennials and the Church is shifting. Barna Group’s researchers have been examining Millennials’ faith development since the generation was in its teen years—that is, for about a decade. During that time, the firm has conducted 27,140 interviews with members of the Millennial generation in more than 200 studies.
And while Barna Group’s research has previously highlighted what’s not working to keep Millennials at church, the research also illuminates what is working—and what churches can do to engage these young adults.
The Harsh Realities of Millennial Faith
But first, the concerns of Millennials leaving the Church must be understood.
Parents and leaders have long been concerned about the faith development of the generation born between 1984 and 2002—and for good reason. First, Barna research shows nearly six in ten (59%) of these young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life. Second, 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.
Third, 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.
Culture: Acceleration and Complexity
Still, not all is doom and gloom when it comes to faith among Millennials. In contrast to the widespread religious disillusionment marked among so many of their peers, millions of Christian Millennials remain deeply committed and active in their faith.
About one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds are practicing Christians, meaning they attend church at least once a month and strongly affirm that their religious faith is very important in their life. 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.
These spiritual practices are notable, says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, because the broader cultural trends have not been particularly friendly to faith.
“Millennials are rethinking most of the institutions that arbitrate life, from marriage and media, to government and church,” says Kinnaman, the author of You Lost Me and unChristian who has spent the last 20 months speaking nationally about the challenges facing today’s Millennials. “They have grown up in a culture and among peers who are often neutral or resistant to the gospel. And life feels accelerated compared with 15 years ago—the ubiquity of information makes it harder for many to find meaning in institutions that feel out of step with the times. Millennials often describe church, for instance, as ‘not relevant’ or say that attending worship services ‘feels like a boring duty.’
“Furthermore, many young Americans say life seems complicated—that it’s hard to know how to live with the onslaught of information, worldviews and options they are faced with every day. One of the specific criticisms young adults frequently make about Christianity is that it does not offer deep, thoughtful or challenging answers to life in a complex culture.”
But this criticism is also a sign of hope, Kinnaman suggests, since it means Millennials are craving depth—a need the Church is uniquely poised to meet. In this respect, the research points to five ways faith communities can build deeper, more lasting connections with Millennials.
1. Make room for meaningful relationships.
The first factor that will engage Millennials at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships. When comparing twentysomethings who remained active in their faith beyond high school and twentysomethings who dropped out of church, the Barna study uncovered a significant difference between the two. Those who stay were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church (59% of those who stayed report such a friendship versus 31% among those who are no longer active). The same pattern is evident among more intentional relationships such as mentoring—28% of Millennials who stay had an adult mentor at the church other than their pastor, compared to 11% of dropouts who say the same.
Kinnaman is quick to point out the limitations of such a study: “It’s important for anyone who uses research to realize correlation does not equal causation.
“Yet, among those who remain active, this much is clear: the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational. This stands true from the inverse angle as well: Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.
“The implication is that huge proportions of churchgoing teenagers do not feel relationally accepted in church. This kind of information should be a wake-up call to ministry leaders as well as to churched adults of the necessity of becoming friends with the next generation of believers.”