Millennials & Gen Z Are Leaving Church. What Can We Do?

Gen Z girl thinking about leaving church

Millennials and Gen Z are weighing heavy on pastors’ hearts these days.

According to Barna, 

When presented with a list of possible challenges facing their church today, half of Protestant pastors note that “reaching a younger audience” (51%) is a major issue for their ministry. Just over one-third of pastors (34%) marks this statement as a top three concern for their church, with 12% noting it as the top concern.1

And it’s no wonder millennials and Gen Z are causing concern. The statistics you’ll read below are unignorable.

In short, millions of young people are missing the vital community and discipleship the Church provides. The Church’s reach is being limited, too, as younger generations are investing their time, money, and energy elsewhere.

What can be done?

Let’s dive deeper with questions, answers, and actions that make the biggest impact.

Who are millennials? 

According to Pew Research, millennials are anyone born between 1981 and 1996. Yes, that’s right—they can be as old as 38!2 There’s even a smaller group of “geriatric millennials,” those born between 1980 and 1985, who can be more adept at working with both Gen Z and older generations.3 

The millennial stereotype, in fact, more closely resembles Gen Z. 

Who are Gen Z?

Pew Research says Generation Z includes anyone born in 1997 or later.4 Springtide Research Institute agrees, putting Generation Z at ages 13–25 in their report The State of Religion & Young People 2020.5

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Millennials are leaving church

According to The Kaleidoscope Effect: What Emerging Generations Seek in Leaders

Whereas 85% of the silent generation (born 1928–1945) call themselves Christians, just 56% of today’s younger Millennials (born 1990–1996) do the same, even though the vast majority (about 8 in 10) was raised in religious homes. Over the past 70 years, each successive generation has included fewer and fewer Christians, and the overwhelming majority of the Christians remaining today are over the age of 35.6

Why Millennials Are Skipping Church and Not Going Back shares more about the rapid decrease in millennials at church:

The drop-off has been most pronounced among people ages 23 to 38. In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services “a few times a year” or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. A decade ago, it was more than half and only 3 in 10, respectively.7

Gen Z are leaving church

According to Springtide Research’s The State of Religion and Young People report, “Nearly 40% of young people ages 13–25 indicate that they are unaffiliated, whether agnostic, atheist, or ‘nothing in particular.’”8 

The Nones: Where They Come From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going gives additional insight: 

More people are entering adulthood without a religious affiliation, and they become more likely to stay a none as they age. To put a fine point on this, nearly a third of people who were born between 1990 and 1994 had no religious affiliation between the ages of eight and thirty-five.9

And even when the younger generation is in church, they’re not embracing Christianity. 

Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: 5 Views presents another statistic that all pastors, parents, and church leaders should know:

Depending on how you interpret teens’ “commitment” to church or the Christian faith in the first place, between 50% and 88% of those teens are leaving the church by the end of their first year in college. Other research, however, has shown that this departure from the church happens before they hit college; college is simply the release point of freedom from the faith of their parents.10

ad reading Who Would Notice If Your Church Disappeared? How to engage millennials & Gen Z in church

1. Take a hopeful view

Church events may not be as well attended, and the pews may not be as full on Sundays. But the world isn’t the same as it was before the internet—or COVID. 

While you can’t see the Spirit moving during a live streamed service, he still is. While someone texting their small group leader doesn’t feel as significant as a small group meeting together at church, it still makes a meaningful difference. 

And while much data doesn’t look good, some presents encouraging news. In The Nones, Ryan Burge shares that “while nearly 1 in 4 Americans no longer affiliates with religion, just 1 in 10 Americans does not believe God exists.”11 

The Church can step in and introduce him using methods old and new.

2. Focus on the opportunity

Skye Jethani, pastor and cohost of the Holy Post podcast, understands pastors’ frustrations—but also sees how much opportunity there is to reach young people today. 

He said in his interview with sociologist and Springtide Research Executive Director Dr. Josh Packard:

In my interactions with a lot of church leaders . . . they’re pulling their hair out, and especially during COVID as their institutions are largely empty, they’re pulling their hair out in frustration about “Where are the young people? Why aren’t they coming? The Church is dying.” 

And in the other part of my existence I’m engaging with a lot of these younger people, just in relationship or . . .  casual engagements or whatever and I’m seeing what I consider the generation that’s most ripe for religious engagement for spiritual awakening, and the fact that their instinct is not to darken the door of a church to find that is what’s upsetting. . . . Is our mission to maintain this institution, or is our mission to engage these young people where they are? And that’s I think the conflict that a lot of church leaders are having.12

Packard responded with, “You can save the institution and engage young people both.” 

Since Christ founded the Church and gave us the Great Commission, this comes as no surprise! Even if the Church needs to adopt a new perspective and new methods to reach new generations, it can still spread the eternal message. 

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3. Prioritize relationships over programs

Gen Z does not trust institutions—including churches. In fact, they give churches a 4.9 out of 10 on their level of trust.13 So if you build a church event, for instance, they more than likely will not come. 

Millennials and Gen Z aren’t looking for programs. They’re looking for relationships. 

And many are not finding them when it comes to church leadership.

When Springtide Research surveyed young people after the first COVID lockdown, only 2% of Gen Z said that a religious leader had checked in to see how they were, even though 40%–50% were connected with a church.14

Does that sound like churches are prioritizing relationships?

Gen Z is lukewarm about religion, but open to relationships, study shows summarizes the critical next step for churches: 

The challenge for religious organizations is to pivot with the times—to stop evaluating their success based on how many young people show up for a pizza party and start establishing small-scale mentoring relationships between committed religious adults and young people who want to have religious conversations.15

4. Understand what’s on their minds

Isn’t it so much easier to connect with someone when you know “what makes them tick”?

Longtime youth pastor Scott Chrostek shares that insight in The Kaleidoscope Effect

The questions the younger generations ask themselves are:

1) Who am I?

2) Why am I here?

3) What am I supposed to do with my life?

. . .

These three questions reside at the core of the emerging generations’ thinking. Embedded within the younger population is a driving concern for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. These are the substantive questions that fuel everything they do. Their answers to these questions shape their life decisions about work, school, family, friends, where they live, what they buy, and ultimately, what they choose to do with their life.16

5. Understand what they need

Even though young people crave meaningful relationships, Springtide’s study found that:

  • “more than 25% of young people ages 13–25 [tell] us they have one or fewer adult mentors in their lives”17
  • “69% have 3 or fewer meaningful interactions in a regular day”18

Let those stats sink in for a minute. 

Now look at the incredible difference having an adult mentor makes:

  • “Nearly 70% of those who have at least one mentor report that their life has meaning and purpose.” That’s 20% higher than those who don’t have a mentor, and the number keeps rising the more mentors a young person has.19 

Religion News sums up more of the report’s findings:

They [Gen Z] also respond to “relational authority,” which means authority that is not based on hierarchy or titles so much as a genuine interest in young people as individuals. Four in five Gen Z members surveyed said they were likely to take guidance from adults who care about them.20

Who from your church can provide those meaningful interactions, build those relationships, and help young people grasp the purpose God has for them?

It doesn’t have to be just the youth pastor. 

In fact, it shouldn’t be. It’s impossible for one person to build strong relationships with every teen unless your church is very small. 

Building these relationships is worth the effort, as Chap Clark shares firsthand from his experience as a teen in Youth Ministry in the 21st Century:

At the end of the day, like every other teenager, what I really needed was security and significance. This security comes from the message that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:39). It was this gospel reality that helped me realize that I didn’t need an earthly father because I had a heavenly one. And my new Father would never leave me nor forsake me. This youth ministry provided mentors in my life who became my spiritual fathers and mothers. They poured into me and told me again and again that I was lavishly loved by God. This theological security that burst forth from the gospel saved me from a floundering, wasted, and potentially crime-ridden life.21

6. Understand how they like to communicate

According to Pew Research, “95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone, and a similar share (97%) use at least one of seven major online platforms. . . . Some 45% of teens say they are online ‘almost constantly,’ and an additional 44% say they’re online several times a day.”22

That means . . . your church needs to be online and on social media. 

It doesn’t mean you only have to be on social media, though:

I think the right lesson here would probably be to think that I can’t do effective ministry without technology. . . . It should be a gateway and a bridge to actually having conversation. —Josh Packard23

And part of those conversations should take place through texting. Almost 75% of Gen Z would rather text than talk on the phone.24 

Building relationships won’t end with texting because so much of communication is nonverbal—sometimes we need tone of voice and facial expressions—but it’s a good place to start. For example, even texting “Hey, can I call you in a few minutes?” before making a phone call helps open the door to conversation.

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7. Provide the kind of leadership that resonates

Scott Chrostek shares in The Kaleidoscope Effect:

The emerging generation wants to be seen and treated as unique, to be engaged right where they are, to have opportunities for immediate participation, and to have their participation translate in very relevant and tangible ways.

This is what they’re craving. However, in order to ever find these things, they must have a leader they respect and trust who will galvanize them to action. To this end, I have found that the emerging generation has some very specific opinions about who that leader needs to be.25

What are they?

The Kaleidoscope Effect goes on to list the 15 key leadership traits church leaders must possess to connect with millennials:

  • Authenticity 
  • Humility 
  • Vulnerability 
  • Listening 
  • Empathy
  • Relatability
  • Vision 
  • Passion 
  • Communication 
  • Spirituality 
  • Optimism 
  • Discipline 
  • Determination 
  • Team Player/Collaboration 
  • Integrity26

Dr. Packard echoed the need for authenticity, vulnerability, listening, and empathy in his podcast interview. He said that most young people don’t feel listened to and suggested leaders tell a story from their own youth, then invite the young person to share a story of their own.27 

As the old saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

8. Reveal answers from the Bible—& show how to find them

Pew Research says Gen Z “are on track to be the most well-educated generation yet.” But all the education in the world doesn’t matter if they don’t know their Bibles. The Bible is the only book that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

It’s the only thing that can be a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Ps 119:105).

In Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: 5 Views, Brian Cosby attributes younger generations leaving church in large part to “the drive to elevate experience over biblical teaching and ministry.” He draws out that more and more money in youth ministry is spent on entertainment elements, pizza parties, and game nights—but that’s not what changes lives.28

So teach your young people how to study the Bible. Disciple in person, and take advantage of digital discipleship, too. 

9. Share your church’s vision—& invite help to accomplish it

Chrostek shares in The Kaleidoscope Effect:

The emerging generations . . . possess a keen sense of vision. 

These visionaries are in need of valued relationships with people who find life in “getting things done.” The emerging generations need the influence and mentorship of the generations that have gone before. The question I pose to people of older generations is, “Are you willing to help them, join them in their vision, and collaborate to make change happen?” 

This vision and imagination needs to be matched with freedom and flexibility to own, shape, and express it in both the what and how of church life and ministry. They need leaders who not only provide the opportunities, but also help them do it.29

As a millennial myself (though an older one), I can attest to the fact that we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves in a tangible way. We want to see how we can make a difference—and then have a part in making that difference.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov 29:18 KJV)

10. Eliminate barriers

We’ve talked about eliminating barriers like a mistrust of institutions and a lack of vision, but there are also practical barriers to tear down before you can best reach the millennials and Gen Z at your church.

  • Take care of the nuts and bolts—establish all your communication methods. Do you have texting, emailing, and video chat at your church? What about an online church group?
  • Gather resources for digital discipleship. Do you have Bibles, commentaries, devotionals, video Bible courses, and small group studies for your members to use? (This is a huge part of the mentorship piece. You may have people who’d be more than willing to mentor and disciple but don’t feel they have the time to prepare to teach the Bible. Giving them the tools helps remove that concern.)
  • Eliminate as many unnecessary tasks as you can so you have more time to minister. Prioritize, delegate, and get help from your church software. How? Take a look at Faithlife Equip. It includes all the apps and discipleship resources your church needs in one seamless platform—with one login and one bill.

***

I’ll leave you with parting words from Justin Wise in The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication:

What if, like St. Paul, Luther, McPherson, Graham, Cynthia Ware, Bishop Michael Hanson, and Shaun King, we seize the technological opportunities in front of us and make an impact far greater than we could ever imagine?

What if we truly believed the charge we received in the garden of Eden? To be co-creators with God, partnering with him to change and shape reality with the tools he brings us. . . .

 What if we blazed new trails online instead of following the hard-packed paths?

 What if we chose to be simple, absurd, and lived in a way that caused people to ask questions?

What if people who don’t know Jesus could come to know him because his church knew how to speak the language of the culture they’re called to serve?30

Faithlife helps pastors, church leaders, and volunteers serve congregations and communities. It makes it easy to communicate with people in the way they prefer (e.g., email, text), and it helps churches build digital discipleship pathways that meet people where they are. Find out more today

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Related articles

Related resources

  1. https://www.barna.com/research/whats_on_mind_americas_pastors/
  2. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/
  3. https://index.medium.com/why-the-hybrid-workforce-of-the-future-depends-on-the-geriatric-millennial-6f9ff4de1d23
  4. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/
  5. https://www.springtideresearch.org/the-state-of-religion-young-people, mission page.
  6. Scott Chrostek, The Kaleidoscope Effect: What Emerging Generations Seek in Leaders (Baker Academic, 2015).
  7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-millennials-are-skipping-church-and-not-going-back/2019/10/27/0d35b972-f777-11e9-8cf0-4cc99f74d127_story.html
  8. https://www.springtideresearch.org/the-state-of-religion-young-people, 23.
  9. Ryan Burge, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going (Fortress Press, 2021), ch. 3
  10. Chap Clark, Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: 5 Views (Baker Academic, 2015), 39.
  11. Burge, The Nones, ch. 5.
  12. https://www.holypost.com/holy-post-podcast/episode/41d03871/episode-443-false-prophets-judgment-and-gen-z-with-joshua-packard
  13. https://www.springtideresearch.org/the-state-of-religion-young-people, 33.
  14. https://www.holypost.com/holy-post-podcast/episode/41d03871/episode-443-false-prophets-judgment-and-gen-z-with-joshua-packard
  15. https://religionnews.com/2020/12/21/gen-z-is-lukewarm-about-religion-but-open-to-relationships-study-shows/
  16. Chrostek, Kaleidoscope, ch. 1.
  17. https://www.springtideresearch.org/the-state-of-religion-young-people, 15.
  18. Ibid., 16
  19. https://www.springtideresearch.org/the-state-of-religion-young-people, 19.
  20. https://religionnews.com/2020/12/21/gen-z-is-lukewarm-about-religion-but-open-to-relationships-study-shows/
  21. Clark, Youth Ministry, 6.
  22. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/14/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far-2/
  23. https://www.holypost.com/holy-post-podcast/episode/41d03871/episode-443-false-prophets-judgment-and-gen-z-with-joshua-packard
  24. https://www.keystoneacademic.com/news/communicating-with-generation-z-everything-you-need-to-know
  25. Chrostek, Kaleidoscope, ch. 1.
  26. Chrostek, Kaleidoscope, ch. 1.
  27. https://www.holypost.com/holy-post-podcast/episode/41d03871/episode-443-false-prophets-judgment-and-gen-z-with-joshua-packard
  28. Clark, Youth Ministry, 39.
  29. Chrostek, Kaleidoscope, ch. 1.
  30. Justin Wise, The Social Church: A Theology of Digital Communication (Moody Publishers, 2014), ch. 14.
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Written by
Mary Jahnke

Mary Jahnke is a content marketing specialist. She has a background in marketing, especially for Christian education, and feels blessed to serve the Church at Faithlife.

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Written by Mary Jahnke