For five years, we met every week for Bible study but rarely attended church.
From about 2002 to 2007, our small group formed a tight-knit group who “did life” together. We hung out on weekends, vacationed, and a few of us even worked at the same Christian publisher. Once a week, we’d gather in a home to cook a meal and settle in for some good old-fashioned exegesis. We were all Christians with a church background of some sort, and we were serious about faith. But in the absence of church, we became “church” for one another. At least, that’s what we told ourselves.
Cue the various Millennial tropes:
I’m spiritual but not religious.
I encounter God in nature.
My friends are my church.
I love Jesus but not the church.
The hubris of youth and a well-educated, entrepreneurial, “you can do anything” upbringing convinced us we could manage our own spiritual growth. And our formative years in evangelical church culture had taught us that our personal relationship with Jesus was the thing that mattered most. The church was, in our minds, intended to buoy that personal faith. If we weren’t “being fed” at a church, we were free, if not duty-bound, to look elsewhere.
Since our small group spiritually nourished us, we thought little about what we might be missing each Sunday: sacraments, intergenerational community, authority. Besides, we could always download a sermon podcast if we wanted one.
I believed our story was an isolated one at the time. Today—from my perch as a researcher and journalist in the religious space—I now realize we were not alone in our angsty redefinitions of the well-lived Christian life. Countless Gen-Xers, Millennials, and post-9/11 20somethings had grown skeptical of institutions and hungry for “authentic” community.
According to Barna Group, nearly 6 in 10 20somethings who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point. Church attendance decreases with every generation and, among Millennials, continues to fall. In 2004 (shortly after our small group started), 44 percent of Millennials had not been to church in the past six months. Today, that has risen to 55 percent.¹
But that wasn’t the only aspect of my small group that corresponded to a broader trend: we were comprised of more than half women.
Historically, men have been less likely to regularly attend church than women. That gender gap peaked in 2003, when 60 percent of unchurched people were men, before it began steadily closing. Today, only 54 percent of the unchurched are men. In other words, the gender gap has narrowed from 20 points to just 8 points.
Why are women leaving church? It is the case that they are leaving—the majority (85 percent) of these unchurched women are essentially de-churched. It’s not that these women never went to church in the first place, but rather, that at one point they decided church was no longer for them.
What Is My Place in the Church?
While Erin Lane never fully dropped out of church, her attendance for many years as a 20something was spotty. She never could quite come to the point of committing to one church—even the one where her husband was a pastor. Author of the recently released, Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe, Lane points out that women’s decrease in church attendance is in line with a drop (or delay) in other traditional social bindings. “Women are delaying marriage and children, two things that have historically strengthened young people of both genders’ relationship to the church,” she says. “So our reluctance to be ‘tied down’ to people naturally affects our reluctance to be tied down to a place.”
Aside from delaying marriage and children, young adults are eschewing other forms of “settling down” as well, such as long-term careers. They are more prone to regularly switching jobs (and, with that, often locales); 9 in 10 Millennials expect to stay in a single job less than three years.² In other words, there are very few institutions—either social or economical—binding Millennials. In a recent Barna Group study on identity, Millennials were significantly less likely than other generations to claim any of the surveyed factors (family, faith, country, city, state, ethnicity, career) as central to their identity.
This generational sense of disenfranchisement has not helped draw young adults in general to a church—let alone women, among whom such societal untetherdness is unprecedented. “As women have begun to catch up with men in our privilege to choose—choosing when and how to have children, choosing when and where to move, choosing what and how we will make a living—it makes sense that we’d also experience the same decreasing sense of interdependency that has anthropologically been the disposition of men,” says Lane.
Additionally, Lane points out, women have been gaining ground in every arena of society: economically, in their careers, at school. They have a new sense of vocational agency—something the church hasn’t always encouraged in women. “With more education, women have had more opportunities afforded to them to contribute to the public good,” she says. “What was different (or better) about using my gifts in a church than, say, in my work as a retreat facilitator for clergy or in the feminist writer community of which I was a part? As a young woman, I often felt a greater sense of personal voice and agency in my work outside the church than I did within its walls. Often I wouldn’t think twice about scheduling a work trip or speaking gig at least one or two weekends a month because those creative outlets felt more life giving to me and the people I served than attending church.”
Jennifer Bailey, a recently ordained minister and the founder and executive director of the Faith Matters Network, observes that even seminaries are keying into this desire among young adults to “do ministry” outside of the traditional four walls of the church. She says that only about a third of the students at her seminary (Vanderbilt University Divinity School) were planning on going into traditional ministry positions at a local church. The other third were studying to go into the nonprofit sector and a final third into academics. “Seminaries are finding ministry to manifest in different ways that don’t involve, at all times, people preaching from a pulpit on Sunday morning,” says Bailey. “So for those of us who stay in these institutional structures, there’s also an openness and desire to push the boundaries of what 21st century ministry looks like. Because the institutions as they have existed for all these years clearly aren’t working.”
How Does Church Fit into My Life?
These massive changes—the delaying of family, an increase in institutional skepticism, and the separation of individuals from traditional social structures—are sufficient to affect church
attendance. Unfortunately, they also correspond with the great cultural lament of our time: we are really, really busy.
According to Barna Group research done for the book Wonder Women by Kate Harris, 72 percent of women feel stressed out, 58 percent are tired, and 48 percent say they are overcommitted. The percentages are even higher among moms with kids at home. Nearly 9 in 10 women (88 percent) say they want to improve in at least one area of life—and the area they cite the most (over work, family, and friends)? Church.
“Mobility—in the form of work trips, weekend get-a-ways, college reunions, marathon running, you name it—seems to be a big hindrance to young people finding a deep sense of belonging in the church,” says Lane. “For women in particular, there are just so many other compelling things to give our time to that don’t come with veiled moral assumptions about what we can and can’t do because of our gender.”
Renee Coletrane is a senior project manager at an advertising agency in New York City. Originally from the Philadelphia area, she’s lived in New York now for 15 years but only just this year started attending a church in the city. “When I came to New York, in the beginning I’d go home a lot,” she says. “So whenever I went home, I’d visit my parents’ church. But, to be honest, I just never looked for a church here.”
Church was a huge part of Coletrane’s childhood. “I don’t want to be a total stereotype, but the church is the real hardcore center of black families,” she says. “It was always the time on Sundays that our family from all over—our nieces and cousins and aunts and uncles—would come together. And it was all centered around church. So when I say I grew up in church, I really mean that. My parents literally have a pew there. It’s that way to this day.”
But regular church attendance just never seemed to fit into the pace of Coletrane’s life in the city. It’s not that she intentionally left church—it just felt more like a thing she did with her family, when she was home. “It’s weird,” Coletrane says, “I just never really looked for a church or set out to find one.” Instead, she downloaded sermons from Andy Stanley and T. D. Jakes or watched a service online at Bethel. Without a family draw to church—and without a real urgency to find community in New York City—she felt like the aspect of church she might have wanted (the sermons) were easily accessible online. Plus, she could listen to them at a time when it fit in her schedule—at the gym or at night before bed. (Even with the church Coletrane goes to now, she started out by listening to the pastor’s sermons online for more than a year before she began attending regularly.)
It wasn’t until breaking her ankle and being bedridden for months that Coletrane began to sense maybe she was missing something: “When I broke my ankle, I realized I have a lot of fair-weather friends here,” she says. “That hurt my feelings. So when I started going to church, it was amazing to me, to really sit and dwell with people. I’m so used to sitting at dinner parties and everyone is faking it. But people at church were real—sharing their real stuff. And I felt like their stories were genuine and not fake. It’s a safe part of the city, that little church.”
Bailey echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of fostering community in faith institutions. “People are still seeking meaning,” she says. “Christianity for many people is an act of meaning making. What those groups that are growing have managed to do well is to create systems of being together, of belonging and meaning that people want to be a part of.”
What If I No Longer Believe?
Even during times of absence from or frustration with the church, both Coletrane and Lane remained Christians. They represent the majority of unchurched women; 62 percent of all unchurched women self-identify as Christian, even though they haven’t attended a church service in at least six months. However—particularly among younger Christians—the number of those who have not only left the church but have also left the faith is growing. Just 46 percent of unchurched Millennial women self-identify as Christian. The number of women who identify as atheist or agnostic has risen from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent today.
Jessica Misener, a Millennial who lives in San Francisco and works as the deputy editorial director at BuzzFeed, wrote an article in 2014 about her own exodus from the evangelical church and the faith to which she had subscribed. The article, “Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian,” details her time at Yale Divinity School and the ways in which her studies there challenged her beliefs—particularly about the Bible. It was there she began to question the evangelical insistence on scriptural inerrancy, and those questions began to chip away at her confidence. It was the start of a move away from Christianity, toward what she describes as “not so much agnosticism, but ambivalence.”
Misener continued to attend church after grad school. She moved to New York City and went to Jay Bakker’s Revolution church in Brooklyn. “That was probably my favorite post-evangelical church community,” she says. “It was a collection of people like me who’d fallen away from their conservative backgrounds and were trying to figure out how to still maintain some kind of Christian spirituality. No one judged me for saying I no longer had any clue if I even believed in God anymore.” Eventually, though, Misener says she started to feel “dishonest” attending any church regularly.
Aside from questions about the Bible, Misener describes a growing uneasiness with evangelicals’ “black and white thinking” that seemed to suggest all of life’s problems stemmed from people turning their back on God. “But,” she says, “when you have gay friends and colleagues who are in loving relationships with their partners, and friends of other faiths or of no faith living happy, contemplative lives, it gets harder to subscribe to a dichotomy of us versus them, of Christians versus non-Christians.”
Misener’s questions about her faith and her struggles with the church mirror many Millennials’. Nearly 3 in 10 Millennials with a Christian background (29 percent), say they feel forced to choose between their faith and their friends. The same number say they agree that Christians are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths. And almost 4 in 10 (38 percent) say it’s been their experience that churches are not accepting of gays and lesbians.
As an editor, I had worked with Misener in the past and was intrigued by her journey—particularly her admission that she missed much about her evangelical experience. I recently caught up with her over email, curious about where she stood now, a
few years after the article. “Unfortunately, the apex of my realization that I didn’t want to go back to the church were the hateful emails I got after I published my essay on BuzzFeed,” she tells me. “Most of the letters I got from Christians were kind, but there were a few really nasty letters. It definitely didn’t make me want to go skipping back to the church, clicking my heels.”
But, she admits, she remains conflicted about letting that part of her life go. “I do still deeply miss the church community in a lot of ways,” she says. “A lot of ex-Christians have a chip on their shoulder about the church (some for very legitimate reasons!). I’ll never be one of them. I have seen religion do a lot of bad, but I’ve also seen it do a lot of good. I think the real value in faith of any kind is that it provides a constant reminder that there is something bigger than yourself—that the world doesn’t exist to just orbit your own ego. I’ll always value any religious or non-religious tradition that keeps my innate selfishness as a human being in check.”
Today, Misener tells me she considers herself “non-religious,” which she says mostly just means she doesn’t attend any sort of service or practice a personal prayer life. “I’m open to the idea that that could change in the future, though,” she says.
The Way Back
From that little small group I was a part of so many years ago, three of the seven of us have returned to church: one couple and me. When I talk to people about declining church attendance among young adults, I often hear something along the lines of, “Oh, once they get married and have kids, they’ll be back.” There’s probably some truth to that—it’s a cycle that’s been seen in generations before this one. However, it’s also possible they won’t; it wasn’t the case for even most of my group. The delay in marriage and children alone means those years between high school youth group and eventual “settling in” to an adult church are extended; it’s no longer three or four years, but a decade or longer. Those are formative years to be away from a church.
And, while we may have wanted to tell ourselves we could grow spiritually and pursue Jesus just fine on our own—no church necessary—the evidence shows otherwise. The truth is, people who are disconnected from church (even those who self-identify as Christian) are proven to be less likely to engage in other faith activities, including Bible reading, prayer, volunteering, and charitable giving. While correlation never equals causation, these are important indicators to pay attention to. Whether we want to admit it or not, church attendance roots believers in regular faith rhythms and practices.
If I could give my decade-younger self some advice, I’d tell her to keep investing in that hungry small group of spiritual seekers. But I’d remind her to not give up on the church in the
meantime—broken, flawed, and deeply human though she is. I would gently insist that one cannot love Jesus but not love his bride. There is no such thing as a healthy spirituality divorced from religion. To seek God in this world today, I’d say to her, is to necessarily find the church—it is his promised hands and feet; it is the body of Christ alive, present, and at work.
Roxanne Stone is a vice president at Barna Group. She has worked in publishing for more than a decade, serving as an editor at Group Publishing, Christianity Today, RELEVANT, and Q Ideas.
¹ Barna Group defines Millennials as those born between 1984 and 2002.
² Future Workplace, “Multiple Generations @ Work.”