Are Millennials Losing Faith?

Young adults leaving the church is nothing new, but new research offers troubling reasons for the exodus. Plus: Why many black and urban millennials aren’t leaving.

I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.

Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.

Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.

Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.

KEEPING THE FAITH: Surveys show African American millennials, as well as young adults from other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than whites.

Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.

One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a 2010 report, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.

Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.

Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”

As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

About the author, Charnice Milton

Charnice Milton lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves as a youth leader at Living Word Church. A freelance journalist, she is an alumna of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and Ball State University. She can be reached at charnicem@hotmail.com.
  1. I think one would have to go beyond the fact that young adults of color are staying and interview them to find out the depth of their faith walk. I think for African-Americans, the Church is traditional. If people are staying primarily out of tradition but are spiritually dying on the vine, that may not be any better than their counterparts who leave altogether. I think all churches, whether black, white or some other ethnicity, need to be more open to the questioning of their young adults, provide outlets for non-traditional ministries, encourage innovation, etc.

  2. drew dyck hit the nail on the head.

  3. I completely agree with Pat Pope. I think for African-Americans church becomes a part of culture and goes hand in hand with Sunday dinner. It’s about family and inspiration, but I would like to see statistics about being a Christian in their every day lives. Are they honoring their bodies? Are they striving to make a difference? That’s where the numbers might dwindle..