Why They’re Leaving and Why It Matters: Gen Z’s Mass Exodus from Church

June 5, 2018

The church where I was baptized and grew up, where my parents met and fell in love, and that my grandfathers helped build, no longer exists. It wasn’t too long ago that the building and its congregation were influential and significant in the neighborhood. It was one of the larger churches in the city, full of vibrant community members who were active in government, commerce, local schools, and social justice. But merely one generation later, that church no longer exists, and the property is now cluttered with condos. But what’s worse—my church’s story isn’t very unique.

Perhaps you can recount a similar story or share anecdotal evidence about how commitment to the institutional church is waning, how family schedules today hardly leave room for church involvement anymore, how the moral compass of our culture is changing. Regardless of how the story is told, the evidence is indisputable—we are entering unchartered territory in American history. As Dean of Chapel on a Christian college campus, parents ask me all the time, “Why?”

In his 2017 book, Meet Generation Z, James Emery White articulates three key forces at play in this current cultural moment that have led to an increasingly post-Christian culture in America: secularization, privatization, and pluralization. These forces are particularly at play in Gen Z, a common short-form for the generation born between 1999-present. White suggests that one significant reason these values matter so much is because of the sheer size of this generation: “By 2020, members of Gen Z will account for 40% of all consumers. They will not simply influence American culture, as any generation would; they will constitute American culture.”1

Rather than hitting the panic button, perhaps it would help to understand the motivating factors within Gen Z. According to recent research from the Barna Group, there are six trends that are powerfully at work to create the ethos of this generation:

    1. They are screenagers (57% spend 4+ hrs./day in front of a digital screen; and 26% spend 8+ hrs./day in front of a screen)
    2. Their worldview is post-Christian (unlike any American generation before them)
    3. “Safe spaces” are normal (a result of pluralism’s desire not to ever offend)
    4. Real safety is a myth (they all grew up post 9/11)
    5. They are diverse (over ½ of Gen Z in non-white)
    6. Their parents are “double-minded” (they are “helicopter parents” in some respects, relatively absent in others)2

These forces have combined to create an emerging trend in the American story: the rise of the Nones—the new term for the religiously unaffiliated. In 1940, only 5% of Americans claimed no religious identity. Fifty years later, in 1990, little had changed with still only 8% of Americans claiming no religious identity. But by 2008, that number had nearly doubled to 15%, then grew to over 19% by 2012, and 23% by 2014. That growth curve is still accelerating at a furious rate; and when factoring in only adults under 30, the number was already 36% by 2014.3 According to Allen Cooperman, Pew’s Director of Religion Research, another way to translate this data is to say,

“There are more than four former Christians for every new convert to Christianity.”

Barna’s research also revealed significant value differences between even Millennials (the generation born between 1981-1998) and Gen Z.  For example, in Gen Z there are pronounced levels of increased focus on education, career stability, financial security, following one’s dreams, and simply enjoying one’s youth. Church involvement and participation in organized faith formation activities simply aren’t as congruent with these prioritizing values for Gen Z.

Wanting to test some of these theories on my own campus, I used anonymous texting in chapel to poll 400 Christian college students (the first 400 respondents) this past semester.  In one question, I asked them:

“If I were ever to stop going to church, it would be because . . .” (answers following)

    1. Church is irrelevant to my life – 2%
    2. Church is too boring – 14%
    3. Churches have problems – 54%
    4. I’m simply not interested – 2%
    5. I don’t have the time – 10%
    6. I don’t believe in God – 5%
    7. There’s no value in attending – 13%

It is important to keep in mind that I was polling the students who are actively involved in their faith formation (after all, they were attending a non-mandatory chapel at 11:00 am on a Wednesday morning). I was expecting answers related to busyness or an unforeseen decline in faith. What I wasn’t expecting was that over half of them (54%) pointed to the problems they already see evident in our churches.  And yet, this matches the national data.

In their 2016 book, Churchless, George Barna and David Kinnaman demonstrate their findings that two in every three unchurched Americans consider themselves spiritual people and that more than half of all Americans say that their faith is very important to their lives.  Moreover, they found that 99% are aware of Christianity, and 69% hold a favorable view toward it. And yet, at the same time “nearly half of all Americans see no value in personally attending church.”4

Whether we want to admit it or not, the Church has an image problem. Today’s iteration of the Church isn’t appealing to Gen Z. We can bemoan that fact and try to convince ourselves that this new generation isn’t loyal. However, the reality we need to confront, one way or the other, is that the manifestation of church we have put in front of them is not appealing enough, beautiful enough, or transformative enough for them to want to be a part of at the same rate as any of the earlier generations.

In other words, the problem in the American church is not theirs, it’s ours. We need to spend the coming years taking a long, hard look in the mirror and listening more than we talk if we really want to stem the tide of the departure that we have created.

Before you slump further into your recliner or despair at these findings, be reminded by a faith that has always pointed to death before a resurrection. And, if that is still the center of our story—of the Gospel—and if Jesus’ promise still holds that “I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not prevail against it,” then maybe, just maybe, it’s not our culture but our Jesus who has us right where he wants us—on the verge of renewal, rebirth, and resurrection.

About the Author
  • Aaron Baart serves as Dean of Chapel at Dordt University, where he provides oversight for Campus Ministries and as co-founder and chair of One Body One Hope, a church-planting, community development, and reciprocal missions organization at work in Liberia and the U.S.

  1. James Emery White, Meet Generation Z. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.  

  2. Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation. Barna Group, 2018.  

  3. James Emery White, Meet Generation Z. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.  

  4. George Barna and David Kinnaman, eds. Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. Tyndale Momentum, 2016.  

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  1. My work with business over the years has partially focused on succession planning and building up leaders. One of the things I often say is that it may look different and we have to be ok with that. I refocus leaders on creating clear mission and vision.

    The Bible is pretty clear in mission and vision. Worship God only and tell others about him.

    At HOME we often say who are you training to replace you? Not so that we can become lazy but so that we can continue to empower others to be active and step into their God given calling. How do we create a church culture that is fluid enough to focus on the triune God and not primarily on our personal preferences?

    Would love to continue to follow your research and dialogue further.

  2. Church will look very very different 20 years from now; and concretely – the whole concept of “worship service,” “sunday school,” “sermon” will be as foreign to most Christians as they already are, like stunbling upon a person playing music on a CD player or watching a movie on VHS.

    Those congregations that don’t innovate or listen to the current generation will – as the data does show – cease to exist. It’s a time to be bold and lean into the future for sure!

  3. Thanks, Aaron, for this post as well as the semester’s worth of wrestling with this issue alongside the Dordt community. Probably not coincidentally, the next email I read today was from Barna entitled Responding to the Church’s Image Problem. Taken together, they remind me of the power of invitation. Invitation into God’s great story, allowing us to see this story and then live this story. We tend to prescribe things to youth, albeit necessary sometimes. I wonder what might happen if we changed our posture to a more invitational one? Again, my deep appreciation for your work.

  4. I appreciate the work and research and insight, Aaron. I wonder, though, if you considered (or could in future) an option that had something to do with obedience or refusal to submit to biblical morality. Something like “I live a lifestyle the church wouldn’t accept” or “I don’t accept the Bible’s moral framework”. In my experience, a lot of the Gen Z, and the one above them, who grew up in church and leave it, do so at least in part b/c they know they’ve chosen a path the church won’t/can’t endorse.

    1. I am 28 years old and I have been fascinated by the countless “de-conversion” stories around me. This article mentions the point that the previous generation has put this down to us being disloyal or unwilling to submit to something, while in some cases this is true and in a few cases with friends I’ve listened to, the issue of a more liberal worldview comes in to play a little but the overwhelming number of young adults leaving the church today are not leaving Jesus, no one I have talked with has mentioned any issue with Jesus, only an issue with his followers, that they don’t feel they can be real and honest around other Christians because people are so committed to putting up a front and enforcing countless laws and regulations, there is no freedom in the church because of this.

      These people are still drawn to Jesus because he was the one who sat and ate with prostitutes and tax collectors and the poor and he did not make them feel like projects. He made them feel valuable, loved, maybe for the first time in their lives. Its way too easy to be popular or famous in the church culture today, I think in our grasping effort to keep up appearances and be above reproach may be exactly what is driving people away. Because we are not like that, we all still struggle with doing things we don’t want to do and we all have questions and doubts with which there is nothing we can do because there are certain questions and doubts that are deemed unacceptable in the church.

      I’m not saying that leaving the institutional church is the answer in fact for many of these people, church is still happening in some coffee shops, living rooms and bars, but many of us have been hurt and uncared for, humanness just isn’t well enough respected for a group of people who follow an incarnated Christ.

      1. I have seen the same. Others’ presumption that there is some moral defect to blame says a great deal. “Unwillingness to submit to biblical morality” never inhibited Jesus’s associations, nor has it ever been a position in historic Christianity that some level of agreement (and actual adherence to) ‘the rules’ is a requirement for membership, or for faith. Indeed, when churches behave as legalistic cults and special interest membership clubs, the faithful path is outside — as Luther well knew. What we see today is a fragmentation of churches into over-articulated, highly politicized enclaves debating what is biblical and essential, but what this tends to me is that the culture wars frame the narrative of Christian identity and set the litmus tests for membership. Christians who may agree with the most legalistic and rigorous notions of biblical morality still may balk at churches and other organizations that obsess over particular sins and aspects of life with a prurient, purge-oriented zeal.

    2. Yikes. That’s very tonedeaf& belittling . Tonedeaf attitude of many Christians is a large part of why the church is declining. You aren’t the first to assert this, nor were you the last& the prevalence of this assertion, The prevalence of belittling and refusing to listen, will continue to push the decline of Christianity, especially in Gen-z. The biggest problem with church is it chooses to bow to un-based tradition and even more so to cruelty instead of to the love that Christ showed and commanded.

  5. I agree that Rivkah has hit the problem straight on. The whole idea of church dissolving is found in the idea that there is so much hypocrisy. It is as though all the words are crafted to look and sound like Jesus, but when you overlay it on the people who fill these churches, its just a lot of wounding that happens. I always hear the argument, “we are just sinners saved by grace,” and “no one is perfect,” my response is always yes, but integrity!! Why is integrity something that is often shelved instead of an honesty that admits mistakes, but brings in the message of the gospel to play over those mistakes so that people get to experience the word of God in their life in real time, and not just talk about how awesome it could be if it were. People of all ages are done being in a building that only reflects God in theory. Many Jesus loving people are finding Jesus in coffee shop church, or home church or online church where one does not have to sift through the very unusual dynamic of people coming together to learn and love on Jesus, while the reality is that its not a safe group of people. Being perfect does not equate safety. People sinning is reality, but it only works when or if congregations actually live by the Words of God and exercise them as a way of life-not let imperfections dictate the tone. The whole idea that people are judged as the problem isn’t even biblical, since the Bible says our battles are not flesh and blood, but against the spiritual darkness of this age. So the sooner the Church really commits to living out Gods word-being honest, applying Gods ways in the places where hard is happening, and being a people who reflect Jesus deeply-then we will begin to see people attracted to Jesus once again. The real Spirit of Christ always attracts people, but hypocrisy no so much.