Six reasons to leave?: my take on the Barna Group report

A couple of weeks ago, the Barna Group, an organization conducting research on intersections of faith and culture, published a report on “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” The report compiles results of eight national studies and extensive interviews with young people, parents, and pastors. You can read the full report on the Barna website, but here, in short, are the six reasons given:

  • Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
  • Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
  • Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  • Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  • Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  • Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

These are all complaints I’ve heard before, sometimes from people who actually had the complaints, sometimes from people who assumed these were the complaints I would have. I can relate, to a degree, though I’ve been more-or-less in church through my teens and thus far in my twenties—I’m not among the “Young Christians” who left.

Except that I did leave, sort of. I left for the Episcopal Church. Which leads me to another point: I found these points more relatable to my experience with conservative evangelical denominations than to my experience with TEC (not to denigrate conservative evangelicism; just stating my observations). But more on that in my conclusion. I know you’re anxious to hear what I think about all these reasons, so here goes:

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.

I think I felt this more as a tween/young teen—I was the Christian-school girl who didn’t have any non-Christian friends, who listened to WOW CDs and read Christy Miller and (I cringe) Left Behind: The Kids. College changed that, though. While in my parents’ generation, the “frozen chosen” couldn’t dance, drink, play cards, go to movies, etc., my experience with the CRC involved being educated as an “agent of renewal” charged with “redeeming all things.” I was encouraged to engage culture in a serious and appreciative manner, and I’m a better person because of it.

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

The Barna report (if you haven’t already followed the link and read it) says that about a third of the young people interviewed said church is boring; a fifth said God is lacking from their experience of church. I’ve felt bored in church. I’ve felt like church leaders were focusing on surface issues and appearances while ignoring the deeper current of what Christianity is all about. I’ve been to happy-clappy services with no there there. But I can’t really relate, because my experience of Christianity—and church—is decidedly not shallow, and I’m not entirely sure why not. Until I figure that out, I can’t contribute much to the discussion.

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

I have seen this. Not just in being taught young-earth creationism at my conservative high school. The church/science debate was big news at my alma mater a few months ago, as a religion professor ultimately stepped down after criticism for publishing a paper considering the religious implications of not having an historical Adam and Eve. It seems Calvin only makes big news when it does something dumb. Really, though, the science/religion debate is not a big deal for me. A lot of good work is going on at the apex of science and religions. Christians are learning that they can embrace their faith and an informed view of science. And again, TEC/the Anglican Communion is right on top of things. (If you’ve never heard of John Polkinghorne, do yourself a favor and look him up. Now. Stop reading this post and go.)

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

Yeah, I’ve seen this one, too. Not so much in TEC. I have to admit, sometimes I wonder if the Church’s biggest problem with regards to sexuality is the oddly disproportionate emphasis on it. While I do think the Church’s stances on and methods of dealing with issues of sexuality deserve attention (e.g., this is church—homophobia is NOT okay), I wonder how much controversy and discord would clear up if we took the energy we’re putting into arguing about sexuality and put it toward eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, or any of the other millennium development goals. Not that sexuality is unimportant, just that it isn’t the most important or only important thing.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

The exclusive nature of Christianity? Yeah, I struggle with that. Universalism is really appealing to me—but that’s another post. What I want to say here is that fearing other religions is ridiculous. I’ve heard it said that Christians shouldn’t go studying things that might challenge their faith (like other religions), but if God is truth, why should we fear learning? In Waiting for God, Simone Weil writes: “It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

I understand this. There’s a fear in admitting to doubt—what if the other folks think I’m weak, or a bad person, or not a Christian? What if they don’t want me to be in choir or work in the nursery or be a youth group leader anymore? What if they start avoiding me and I lose this community? This fear can be paralyzing, and the Church is not always ready enough to dispel it. The thing is, there are a lot of Christians in churches everywhere with all kinds of doubts. It’s normal to doubt. Healthy, even. Just read Madeleine L’Engle, or Frederick Buechner, or any number of other beautiful, brilliant Christian writers.

The Barna report groups depression/emotional issues with this sixth reason for leaving, which I think fits—church communities are also often reluctant or ignorant when it comes to addressing psychological issues. (Note: if someone is dealing with depression or anxiety or some other difficulty, “Maybe you aren’t praying enough” is NOT AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE. Neither is “What have you done that you need to ask forgiveness for?” Just fyi.)

The study ends on an optimistic note, stating that finding a middle ground between ignoring young people and catering wholly to them could actually mean “revitalized ministry and deeper connections in families.” This conclusion points to the importance of intergenerational relationships in faith communities, which I find particularly compelling.

I’m left with questions, though: while I could relate to many/most of these issues, I don’t see them as prominent issues in TEC. But young people are leaving TEC at rates equivalent to other denominations. Why? Am I missing something? Am I too infatuated with the denominations to see these issues? Or is there something else at work? I just don’t know. That’s part of why I like the point about intergenerational relationships: TEC is in the same position as any other denomination when it comes to figuring out how to cultivate a lively intergenerational community, and I think this community is vital to the life of the Church.


If you left the Church, did any of these reasons figure into your decision? If you returned to or came to or remained in the Church, have you encountered any of these issues? How did you (are you) deal(ing) with them? Can you think of any others? How could intergenerational relationships be encouraged and developed in your faith community?


8 thoughts on “Six reasons to leave?: my take on the Barna Group report

  1. Hi Alissa! Love your blog. Please post every day.

    A big surprise for me from the study – while “sexuality” was mentioned, gender inequities were not. This is probably the biggest reason for my lack of trust and participation in my local church. While the emphasis on child-bearing, “Bible” studies on being beautiful, and omnipresent lectures on female modesty and the “feminization” of the church are bad enough, my experiences with churches under-paying women, pastoral staff verbally abusing the females that work under them, and just generally being told no one wants me to use my brain and speak simultaneously are enough to keep me away for a long time.

    Another thought … I don’t have any idea what kind of methodology the Barna Group used, but it seems to me like if kids from 14-18 aren’t going to church, it’s because their parents aren’t taking them. After that, moving away for college could be a contributing factor, and following college, frequently moving for job changes. In the last five years I’ve lived in 4 states and 1 foreign country. Not exactly conducive to making a long-term commitment to a local church, but not an indictment against the church either.

    More thoughts: I think the church has approached this problem the way Americans seem to approach everything: identify the outcome you want and then make up the way you think will get you there the fastest and cheapest. Instead of saying, “How can we attract and keep more teens?” we need to be asking, “What are the values that we are trying to practice, as a church?” and focus on that. If a church focuses on values rather than outcomes and is successful at putting all of its values into practice, then can be content in its practice despite demographic shifts. If people continue to leave, well, either the message of Jesus isn’t as powerful as we’ve said, we’ve got the message wrong, or it doesn’t matter that they’re leaving. The reason more churches don’t operate this way is that they don’t know what they should be valuing, and if the church leadership doesn’t know that, well, I don’t really blame the young people for leaving.

    Further thoughts: Every church I’ve ever attended has emphasized either orthodoxy or orthopraxy. But even if I do all everything the church says to do and believe all the things the church says to believe, I still have not necessarily had an encounter with the divine presence. It’s this encounter that people (of all ages) are looking for in the church … if they find it, I don’t think they’ll leave.

    Inter-generational relationships? We should all stop taking those little wafers and plastic cups of juice and start eating the Lord’s supper together at one giant table.

    • Well, hello, fabulous insightful commenter! Thanks for stopping. I think I’d have to quit school to post every day, but Mondays and Thursdays mean new content. 🙂

      I think your point about focusing on values instead of outcomes is especially important, because you’re right: putting the focus on method instead of message implies that we don’t find the message all that important or relevant or powerful.

      I also think the transience/mobility of young adults is HUGE. I think we’re still figuring out how enormously it affects present-day relationships and communities, including church communities (In fact, that really deserves its own post). It’s sometimes hard bringing myself to forge those deep, meaningful, important relationships when I know (well, I strongly suspect) I won’t be part of this parish forever, and I know the goodbyes are going to be hard.

      It IS interesting that the report didn’t address gender inequities. And oddly, while that’s an important consideration for me, too, I was not really conscious of the absence. Again, it’s something that’s a little less prominent in TEC, but still present nonetheless. Sorry your experience left such a bitter taste — I hope you’ll find something to rehabilitate the experience one day (and if you do, let me know what it is!). Also, you might appreciate this “letter to Women’s Ministry” by “Emerging Mummy” blogger Sarah.

      • Thanks for the link recommendation. I read her post after one of my favorite Christian bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, recommended it. I also saw your recent comment on Her.menutics, so I’m wondering what other blogs you read. ^_^

        • Yes, Rachel Held Evans led me to Emerging Mummy, too. I read, well, too many blogs. A few of my favorites lately are Kirkepiscatoid (theologically thoughtful Episcopalian/small-town doctor), A Holy Experience (oh-so-lyrical, pretty pictures), and A Deeper Story (multiple contributors on “Christ and culture”). I’m also loving Joy the Baker, but that’s a food blog, so not really in the vein of what I write (now) and where I leave comments. Do you have especial favorites?

  2. I don’t know how to qualify myself in responding to this. I suppose I’ve “left” the church because I no longer regularly attend services and I don’t have membership in any denomination or congregation. But at the same time I haven’t “left” because I no longer believe in God or because I a consider myself agnostic or non-practising.

    I’ve “left” because I don’t see the connection between what you do at a Sunday church service and what Jesus calls us to do in the Gospels, or what YHWH called the people of Israel to do in the Torah: Be a blessing to others. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, and soul (and love your neighbour as yourself).

    I’ve never felt the connection between going to church and accomplishing these goals. I feel like I can better reach these goals when I don’t go to church – primarily because the American evangelical wing of the church where I grew up encourages a mentality that, while you can’t earn your salvation, you can certainly accrue a certain standing with God by keeping a checklist of Do’s and Don’t’s; you know, basically “sins” that are beneath you and virtues that you strive for and pride yourself on.

    Most American churches would judge me for drinking, for smoking, for being gay, for going to bars, for my pathetic joke of a love life, for my choice of language, etc. Outside the church, I get to be more authentic. I get to be more fully myself – for better or worse. And when I am more fully myself I can meet others on a more authentic level. I love that.

    Of course, the church does many good things to help people and I’m a huge fan of that wherever I see it, no matter who’s doing it – so long as their motives are pure. I’ve worked for and volunteered for great Christian organisations before and I am immensely impressed with their work and their commitment.

    Bottom line for me is that I want to be engaged in the world and I see the Church as often trying to pretend that the world isn’t there, acting very naively and failing to really engage the world on a meaningful level. I’m about doing. I spent the first 18-20 years of my life getting my head overloaded with theology and it didn’t do anything for me.

    But of course, like I said, I will move all the way to Indiana just to join your church. =)

    • Hi, Joel! Thanks for commenting (it feels sort of like a celebrity visit, with you being responsible for the name and all that 😉 ). I wish we could actually sit and talk about this over wine or coffee. Sigh.

      I think what you’re saying echoes how a LOT of Christians of our generation view the Church/church (esp. your final paragraph). I think the big and every-increasing emphasis on social justice is awesome, and very fitting with the Gospels.

      (Incidentally, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, and soul (and love your neighbour as yourself)” was part of one of our lectionary readings for the Eucharist yesterday).

      I’m curious: do you see any purpose for the institutional church? Could you imagine a church that works toward the biblical “goals” you named? How (and how much) would the Church as it exists now have to change to meet this vision?

      My idea of the purpose of the Church? Acts 2:42 is often cited as the model of Christian church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (paraphrased by John Shea as “gather the folks, tell the stories, break the bread”). I DO see this happening at church, even at broken, messed-up, failures of churches (i.e., all of them, to some extent). My church happens to accompany this with a prayer book, special outfits, and organ music—but the skeleton’s the same.

      The sacraments and liturgy are also really important for me—much more than words and motions. Every Sunday (well, and Tuesday), I’m an active participant in the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice, transformed and strengthened, bringing my weaknesses and failures, leaving with a prayer for strength and courage as I go to be the body of Christ in the world. And doing this in community with sacredness and reverence (i.e. church service), is all part of the package.

      • I do see a purpose for the church. The church is to be a prophetic voice to the rulers and principalities of the day the way the prophets spoke out to the kingdom of Israel in the Torah. I think of Dr. Cornel West, who is one of my biggest inspirations in the Church today, and his relentless passion. The church needs that sort of bold, prophetic passion. Obviously Dr. West is nothing more than a “cracked vessel” like the rest of us and not a definitive model and obviously Dr. West is an individual engaged in the world politically and spiritually, but it’s his spiritual convictions that drive his political engagement and when I think of prophetic vision within the church today, I think of Dr. West.

        Rather than, for example, being home to the most segregated few hours of the week every Sunday morning, churches should be the voice crying for racial justice and at the forefront of the difficult but necessary process of healing this country still needs to undergo.

        The church should be calling our leaders to be held accountable and advocating on behalf of the voiceless around the world (which gets on the sticky subject of church and state – but really, I think it’s possible to go about this smartly in a way that respects the neutrality and secular nature of the state while still advocating to the state).

        The problem with institutions of any kind is that they are hardly ever visionary or prophetic. The Church in America has, on the whole, been on the wrong side of so many different matters from slavery to queer sexuality to civil rights to gender roles.

        And of course I am not saying that there aren’t any churches out there standing up for these things. There are obviously numerous churches that do advocate on behalf of the poor, on behalf of the oppressed, etc and are really engaged out of a deep and genuine and admirable commitment. These are just some of my general observations and now I am still not dressed and I need to catch the bus in a half hour to get to school! Haha. =p

        I am happy to come on the show any time you’ll have me. 😉 Er, the blog…

        • You say such insightful things, Joel — thanks. I’m really interested to hear your take as I’m trying to work out my own position on church/the Church and politics. I think what you say about a “bold, prophetic passion” is really important; I often wonder if we aren’t thinking big enough in church, and what we could do to change that. It’s hard breaking through apathy. When you figure out good ways to ignite this prophetic vision in people, be sure to let me know!

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