Pew Research: Why Young People Are Leaving Christianity

by Ken Ham and Avery Foley on September 8, 2016

It comes as no surprise to anyone keeping a finger on the pulse of our culture that a dramatically high number of young people are leaving the church. Many of these formerly churched individuals are now identifying as “nones” (religiously unaffiliated). Many are going as far as to declare themselves atheists or agnostics, while others say they’re “spiritual” but not religious (although everyone has a religion because all people have beliefs about how the universe and life did or did not arise). Why are so many young people abandoning traditional church?

Why Are They Leaving?

In 2009, I co-authored a book entitled Already Gone. This book was based on research that we commissioned from America’s Research Group. Through this research we were attempting to answer the question of why two thirds of young people are leaving the church when they go to college. What’s happening?

If we can doubt and reinterpret Genesis, where do we stop doubting and reinterpreting?

Well, our research revealed that, as early as even elementary and middle school, young people have doubts and questions about the Bible that are going unanswered. Research shows that many of these questions are related to Genesis and scientific issues such as evolution, long ages (millions of years), dinosaurs, and Noah’s Ark. These young people are not getting solid answers from church leaders and parents but, sadly, are often told they can believe in the big bang, millions of years, and evolution; they’re then admonished to reinterpret or ignore Genesis while being told to “trust in Jesus!” These young people recognize the inconsistency of reinterpreting the first book of the Bible and yet being expected to trust the other books that talk about Christ. If we can doubt and reinterpret Genesis, where do we stop doubting and reinterpreting?

A Mass Exodus

We at Answers in Genesis are certainly not the only ones noticing and expressing concern about this mass exodus of young people from the church. Other groups have also conducted research to try and determine why these young people are leaving in such large numbers. New research from the Pew Research Center asked those who are no longer affiliated with a church or religious group to explain in their own words why they left. They divided these results by the respondents’ answers as well as by whether they defined their beliefs as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular.” The results are certainly worth pondering.

I Just Don’t Believe

The first answer young people gave for leaving the church was that they just don’t believe. Startlingly, 49% of those who call themselves religiously raised said a “lack of belief” led them to move away from religion. This response was echoed by 82% of atheists, 63% of agnostics, and 37% of those who believe “nothing in particular.” (By the way, they do believe—they believe there’s no God, and they believe life and the universe came about by natural processes. Atheism is their religion.)

What was the word that many of the respondents used to explain their lack of belief? Science! Others used phrases like “common sense,” “logic,” or a “lack of evidence.”

Here are some of the specific responses from young people who participated in the study in regards to why they have changed their beliefs in the Bible and church:

  • “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.”
  • “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.”
  • “Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator.”
  • “I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it.”
  • “I’m doing a lot more learning, studying, and kind of making decisions myself rather than listening to someone else.”

Basically, Pew Research found the same thing that we found. A large percent of young people are leaving the church because of questions about science that lead to doubts about God’s Word. If we can’t trust the historical portions of the Bible that deal with our origins, why should we trust the message of Jesus Christ? We’ve been saying this for years now—it’s nothing new! Many in the church have taken heed of the research we’ve done and introduced apologetics teaching; they say it’s revolutionizing their church and greatly stemming the loss of the coming generations.

Young people are not getting solid, Bible-based answers to the skeptical questions of this day.

Sadly, it’s unlikely that the large majority of these young people who were raised in a Christian church (even a theologically conservative church) and then left ever got solid answers to their doubts and questions. Research from the Barna Group last year revealed that “a vast majority of theologically conservative pastors believe the Bible speaks to societal issues, but fewer than 10 percent of these pastors are teaching people what the Bible says on these topics.” Young people are not getting solid, Bible-based answers to the skeptical questions of this day; and many are leaving the church and turning to atheism or some vague idea of “spirituality” as a result.

Parents—you need to be providing young people with a solid foundation in God’s Word. Don’t assume the church is teaching your children how to think biblically and is answering their questions. Your job as a parent is to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) and to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Don’t leave this to the church—it’s your job! Equip your young person with answers to questions about the age of the earth, dinosaurs, and Noah’s Flood. And when you answer their questions, always point them back to God’s Word. They need to be shown how to start their thinking with God’s Word, boldly and firmly standing on the rock solid foundation of God’s Word. Of course, you don’t have to do this alone. We have a bevy of resources on our website and in our online store to help you do just that. There’s no guarantee in regards to what will happen, because each person has to answer for his or her own choices; but it has made a difference in thousands of lives.

Church leaders—the secular world is growing increasingly aggressive in trying to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation. One of the tools they are using is their interpretation of “science.” They are trying to convince young people that man’s naturalistic ideas about the past and their interpretation of the evidence disproves the Bible. Sadly, instead of combatting this lie with answers from God’s Word, many pastors and Christian leaders have compromised God’s Word with these secular ideas. By saying God could’ve used the big bang or evolution, or that the Flood of Noah’s day was just a local flood, these church leaders are undermining the authority of God’s Word and all the doctrines that are based in that history—including the gospel. Young people can see the inconsistency of believing and trusting the Bible in some places while rejecting it and reinterpreting it in other places. Instead of trying to add man’s secular ideas into Scripture, we need to believe and boldly teach what the Bible says.

I Just Don’t Like Church

The next most popular answer for why these young people are leaving the church was that they simply don’t like church or organized religion. They said things like this:

  • “I see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting.”
  • “I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.”
  • “I think religion is not a religion anymore. It’s a business . . . it’s all about money.”

Now, sadly, what these young people are doing is focusing on the mistakes of a minority of Christians or the hypocrisy of false converts and false teachers. They ignore, or are ignorant of, the millions of Christians who genuinely love the Lord and show the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. They forget that Christians and the church have been behind building hospitals; caring for the orphans, widows, abused, and needy; and providing for other physical and spiritual needs for centuries. It’s ironic that they reject Christianity based on the actions of a few, but they don’t reject atheism because of the horrendous and murderous acts of people like Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse Tung. This is very inconsistent.

I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious

But many young people, nearly 1 in 5, who’ve left organized religion haven’t given up on “spirituality.” Here are some of their responses:

  • “I don’t have a particular religion because I am open-minded, and I don’t think there is one particular religion that is right or wrong.”
  • “I feel that there is something out there, but I can’t nail down a religion.”
  • “Right now I’m kind of leaning toward spirituality, but I’m not too sure. I know I can pray to my God anywhere. I do believe in a higher power, but I don’t need a church to do that.”

Not surprisingly, the percentage of young people who claim spirituality but not religion was highest among those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” (22%). These young people have created a god in their own image. They’ve made God and religion into what they want it to be. It’s really no different from the pagan people of the New Testament church days. They believed in many different gods and were fine with pretty much any god or belief—except Jesus Christ.

Why the opposition to Christ? Well, for the same reason people oppose Him and create their own alternate god today—because they hate the exclusive claims of Christianity. In our “tolerant” day and age, the idea of an “intolerant,” exclusive gospel where Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life, the only way to Heaven (John 14:6), and the only means of salvation (Acts 4:12) is abhorrent to them. So they reject the Jesus of Scripture and create something that agrees with their preconceived ideas.

Ironically, Christianity is really the most inclusive religion.

Ironically, Christianity is really the most inclusive religion. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone—Jesus doesn’t discriminate against those from the slums of India, the mansions of Beverly Hills, or an average household in a crowded city in China. Salvation is for male and female, atheist or Muslim, slave or free (Galatians 3:28). If you are a human being, the gospel is for you (John 3:16). You don’t even have to “clean up your act” before receiving the gospel. You must simply believe in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us on the Cross and by His resurrection (Romans 10:9), repent of your sins (Acts 3:19), and you will be saved!

I’m Simply Too Busy

The final group claims they are just too busy to go to church. They haven’t necessarily rejected their upbringing, but they are “inactive.” Religion is simply not a priority for them. This group said things like:

  • “I just basically stopped going to church when I went to college and never picked it back up. I was never super religious.”
  • “I don’t practice any religion and I don’t go to church or participate in any of the rituals of the church.”
  • “I don’t have time to go to church.”

This group is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about the soils. He describes a farmer sowing seed, which falls on different kinds of soils. Some of this seed “fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them” (Matthew 13:7). He explains, “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). These young people may have heard the truth, but the cares of this world, the busyness of their lives, have choked it. It’s simply a matter of priorities—they don’t see religion as important enough to cut out something to make room for it; therefore, God is simply ignored as they pursue the things of this world.

How Do We Reach Them?

How do we spread the good news of the gospel to these young people who’ve left the church and turned to atheism, agnosticism, and spirituality? First, we need to provide solid answers to their skeptical questions. We need to show them that God’s Word can be trusted from the very beginning and that science, when properly interpreted through a biblical worldview, always confirms the Bible. We can expose the shaky foundations of their own worldview by asking good questions and pointing out the flaws in evolutionary and atheistic thinking.

We also need to show them an example of authentic Christian love. When we share the good news of the gospel and defend the Christian faith, we need to do so in love and grace. First Peter 3:15 says, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” A harsh, condemning attitude does not exemplify Christ and will drive people away from Him, rather than toward Him. Many of these young people simply do not like church because they’ve had bad experiences. We need to show them what true Christian love and unity is like through our attitude as we engage with them.

We need to show them what true Christian love and unity is like through our attitude as we engage with them.

It may be discouraging to hear the numbers of those who are leaving the church, but instead of being discouraged, we need to get on our knees and pray for this generation. Pray that God will give you opportunities to share the gospel with co-workers, neighbors, family members, and classmates and be vigilant to watch for these opportunities. Jesus promised, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18)—and, by His mercy, we get to be part of this! We also need to make sure we are doing our best to get our local churches to be teaching apologetics and raising up generations who will stand uncompromisingly on the Word of God, know what they believe and why, and will boldly proclaim the gospel.

To learn more about reaching this generation for Christ, I encourage you to read my book Ready to Return, available in our online store.


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