Millennials and Religion: Why This Generation is Leaving Jesus
Without millennials, I wouldn’t be a Christian... I started following Jesus in college largely because of the influence of millennial Christians. After my conversion, I was welcomed into a vibrant community of young people who committed themselves to Jesus in surprising ways.
They served impoverished children in the name of Jesus. They spent their weekends at high school football games building relationships with high schoolers to share Jesus. They excelled in academics so they could share Jesus winsomely with sophisticated thinkers like professors and grad students. They rejected hookup culture in its infancy and committed themselves to sex inside of marriage
They sacrificed time, money, pleasure, and self-expression, all because they loved Jesus.
Then everything changed.
Over the last ten years I've watched countless millennial friends give up on Jesus and the church. And now I find myself asking: are we living through the first Great Un-awakening?
Recent studies give a clear answer. Yes.
The Pew Research Center found that the number of people who identify as Christian is dropping precipitously: from 85 percent in 1990 to 65 percent in 2020. A recent Barna study found that 22 percent of millennials who once identified as Christians no longer do. A further 30 percent still identify as Christians but aren’t connected to a faith community anymore.
And just 10 percent of Christian millennials are resilient disciples.
Stop and let that set in. Only 10 percent of millennials who currently or once identified themselves as Christians have the practices and beliefs of Jesus followers. The total proportion of millennials authentically following Jesus is much smaller.
Millennials and Religion: Who Killed Their Faith?
In her novel Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie tells the ultimate murder mystery: a murder is discovered on a train stopped by snow. A detective looks into all the evidence and concludes that either someone secretly snuck onto the train and committed the murder or else everyone on the train did it collectively.
In my interview with John Mark Comer, he referenced this story and suggested that attempts to pin the decline of millennial faith on one sneaky factor ultimately fall short. Many things are working together to make following Jesus less attractive in the 21st century. You can hear more on this below.
In his new book, Live No Lies, John Mark proposes three cultural tectonic shifts that play a role:
- The shift from majority to minority.
By the end of the 1950s, America was at its peak church attendance and membership. Around 69 percent of Americans attended church regularly. Seventy years later, America is the most secular it has been since its founding. Millennial Christians face a prospect their parents never imagined: being the only person in their workplace or friend group who follows Jesus. Humans are hardwired to go with the group, which means it is emotionally costly (not to mention lonely) to resist.
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- The shift from honor to shame.
Christianity used to be the norm. Then Christians became the weird people who didn’t have sex before marriage, drink too much, or cuss. The goal, during that time, was to be relevant. To show that Christians could be cool and not a total drag. But in the last 20 years, Christian understandings about sexuality, gender, and abortion shifted from “what most people believe,” to “what weird people believe,” to where it is now: “what morally repugnant people believe.”
- The shift from tolerance to hostility.
The era of laissez-faire, live-and-let-live politics is over. Increasingly, communities are drawing lines in the sand, declaring that if someone does not affirm x perspective on y, then they are a danger to society. Big tents where people can hold different perspectives sincerely seem to be getting smaller and smaller. And often, Christians are left on the outside. Millennials feel this most poignantly. We all have stories of sharing a sincerely held perspective in love and receiving unveiled hostility in return.
Jesus warned his followers that persecution, relational strife, and suffering were expected stops on the path of discipleship (Mark 13:9-13). But it seems that American Christians, having enjoyed a long period of cultural ascendency, never developed the necessary muscles to resist these cultural headwinds.
The levees in Louisiana that crumbled under Katrina’s wrath did so because they weren’t built to withstand strong hurricanes. Is it possible the parents of millennials built a generation of Christians in much the same way? They personally never encountered gale-force winds, so they didn’t prepare their children to face them either. And, being equally unprepared, how could they know how to do this?
The Rise of New Religions and the New Birth of Resilient Faith
Even though the winds blow floodwaters over the drowning Christianity of millennials, this group hasn’t actually lost religion. In place of Jesus, they’ve largely turned to two new belief systems, bolstered by massive media organizations whose profitability hinges on millennial worship.
- The Religion of Politics.
Pick whichever side. It doesn’t matter. They both have their own pastors and priests overseeing a dogmatic echo chamber that promises to name the problem with the world (the other party) and offer salvation (think like we think). The left offers a utopian vision of heaven on earth. It promises that if we dethrone the wrong kind of people (white men) and dismantle their oppressive systems, all will be well. The right offers a nostalgic nationalism, untainted by the self-righteous, irrational excesses of the left, which leaves our (already good enough!) world intact.
- The Religion of Entertainment.
If outrage, anger, and opinion exist at one pole, the other is home to apathy, numbness, and self-medication. Thankfully, Hulu, Netflix, Disney, Apple, ESPN, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, the NFL, the NBA, and every video game maker imaginable have you covered. You can sink your life in shows and games that make ordinary life seem strangely dim. You need not worry yourself with thoughts; instead, you can become a fount of show quotes, sports stats, and slogans. Who knows, you might even get to enter the holy priesthood of influencers, bloggers, and podcasters.
If anything, I have seen millennials grow more religious over the last five years. They are fervently committed to their cult. It’s a bespoke brand of media narcotics combined with a high on outrage.
Among the resilient followers of Jesus, I am seeing something new. Something beautiful. Something fledgling. It’s a flower that can only grow after being crushed. It’s a faith that has counted the cost, picked up its cross, and marched forward.
By God’s grace, there are examples, ancient and modern, of disciples who formed their minds using the Bible’s story, and their bodies using the Bible’s practices. They understood culture, and took the challenge of translating the gospel into new contexts seriously. Millennials are looking to those examples to guide us through what’s next.
No plant grows without being pruned. Perhaps this pruning is God’s way of focusing fresh life into the vibrant parts of a dying plant. And perhaps what grows in this generation, or maybe the next (or the next), will be something far greater than we could have imagined.
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Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter