Why 99 out of 10 Millennials Leave The Church?

By Michael Sherrard

As the scintillating Richard G. Howe says, “three out of two people are bad at fractions.” Fewer, I imagine, are good at statistics. Statistics are useful and powerful in telling a story but are often misleading. In fact, statistics can be used to tell any story you want depending on how the questions are asked and the findings presented. And so goes it with the mass exodus of young adults leaving the church. We want to know why. Polls then are taken, findings are presented, and the blogopshere runs wild with them. Thus we find our social media filled with articles telling us the five reasons millennials have forsaken God. And this is fine. Do not misunderstand my point here. I only want to add one thought to this discussion, and it is this. People never give you the real reason they leave church.

When people leave the church, the reasons they offer either make themselves look good or the church look bad. Sometimes this is accomplished in the same reason. No one, though, ever offers their affair with fantasy football and their Sunday morning sport shows as a reason. No one ever tells you how they were not invited to a baby shower and let bitterness harbor in their heart for two years as they slowly removed themselves from the fellowship. And no one ever offers their lifestyle of sinful indulgence as the reason for abandoning the bride of Christ.

Excuse my boldness, but I think the leading factor in why millennials are leaving the church is sexual sin. This will never show up on a poll. I will be glad to find myself wrong about this. But I hear all too often the same story from youth ministers. The norm for youth groups across the country is to have all of their upperclassmen actively engaged in sex, or pornography, or both. It is rare, youth ministers tell me, to find a male high school student that has not had sex or been exposed to pornography. And it is nearly as rare to find a female upperclassmen that is still a virgin or abstaining from “not all the way” sexual activity. The message youth ministers want parents to hear is that they need to assume that their sons and daughters are playing with sex because they all are. In a culture that praises the self and is drowning in sexual sin, it is easy to see why millennials have lost the wonder of God and grown tired of His church.

Intellect is not driving teenagers out of the church. Their hearts are abandoning God long before their minds. It is right to equip teenagers with the reasons for Christian faith. But there is something that ought come before the cosmological argument. The greatest lesson the church needs in apologetics is holiness. Seeking to dispel blind faith is a waste of time if we are going to turn a blind eye to sin. Our response to sociological research will not result in our desired end without an acknowledgment of the problem of sexual sin in the church. For there is no way to make church relevant to people who have no interest in surrendering their lives. Or, I suppose there is a way, but it is not biblical. We could to contort our churches to affirm and facilitate self-centered and lustful desires of rebellious hypocritical pseudo-believers. But I don’t think that would be a good idea.

Holiness is the relevance of Christianity. For in it comes rest and peace and freedom, what we are seeking in sexual rebellion. Sin cannot be ignored. It always robs. It always kills. It always destroys. Two years of “harmless” sexual exploring will result in fifteen years of consequences. Sin’s darkness cannot withstand God’s light, but the ramifications of sin are long felt after forgiveness is embraced. Let us, therefore, lead our youngsters into greener pastures. Let us cause them to lie down in the freedom of God’s ways. Let us not look at the pretense of their rebellion. Rather, let us pray and preach and teach and allow God’s light to shine into their darkening hearts and show them what they actually need. Let us stitch their wounds and not just cover them.

Healing comes by recognizing the need for a doctor. It comes by recognizing you are sick. Many millennials have been sold the lie that sickness does not come from sexual sin. And truth be told, they are being sold the exact opposite, that health comes from the surrounding of your will to your sexuality. This lie has caused many teenagers to lay down their arms and sleep with the enemy. But actions do not merely remain actions. They condition the way we think. Thus marks sin’s slippery slope. Once sin enters your life, it spreads. It distorts the way we think and feel. And so, many teenagers now find the church to be not merely irrelevant, but immoral. They have embraced the lie that freedom comes in sex thereby making the church an oppressor. An exodus is only natural at this point. We must confront this.

We confront sin’s ruin, first, by surrendering our lives to God’s ways. Our lives must be marked by holiness if we are to lead others into it. “Neither coercion nor reward shape human behavior as much as a motivated attempt to resemble a specific person” (Ogden, Discipleship Essentials, p. 11). When teenagers see in us the value of surrendering to God’s ways, they will desire it as well. I wonder, how many teenagers have tasted the goodness of God through the holy lifetyle of an adult? I imagine it is a more common experience for teenagers to develop a distaste for church because of rampant hypocrisy than it is for them to crave the fruit seen falling from the tree of the righteous.

Second, we love teenagers. We take an interest in their lives. We build bridges of communication with them. We do not stand on a street corner and scream for their repentance. They are an abandoned generation. They have been left on their own to navigate a vast seas of choices. We thought google would be enough and accordingly withdrew our leadership from them. But we cannot isolate them. We cannot create a greater chasm by yelling at their sin. We must embrace them. They must feel our warmth and closeness.

In humility being armed with knowledge of God and his will, let us seek to restore an abandoned generation ravaged by sin’s folly. Let us gently invade their lives. They are a passionate army ready to change the world. They are not apathetic as many were in the previous generation. They desire truth, truth that will make this world better. They will go if we send them. But sexual sin is blocking the road of many. Therefore, let us help them remove the greatest obstacle in their path, and in so doing, see life abound in their midst and spread to every corner of this world.

*Ogden, Greg. Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007. Print.

Michael C. Sherrard is a pastor, author of Relational Apologetics, and the Director of Ratio Christi College Prep. RCCP is an organization that seeks to equip the church for effective evangelism by teaching high school students apologetics, fundamental Christian doctrine, and biblical evangelism.

For more articles like Why 99 out of 10 Millennials Leave The Church? visit Michael’s website at MichaelCSherrard.com

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28 replies
  1. Luke says:

    I wonder why while teenage sexual activity overall has declined since the last generation, the youth groups of pastors are filled with sex zombies. Weird.

    I’ll quote a writeup from US News & World Report from July 2015: “CDC data released Wednesday show dramatic decreases in teen sexual activity since 1988, when the rate was 22 percent higher among males and 14 percent higher among females. Compiled as part of the National Survey of Family Growth, the report says that rates of sexual activity among teens from 2002 to 2013 averaged 45 percent.”

    • Brian says:

      I think your comment supports the opening premise the author is making, that statistics can be used to tell any story. For example, when one looks at the CDC data (see below) the absolute reduction in sexual intercourse among teenagers between 1999 and 2013 was 7.3% – decreasing from 54.1% in 1999 to 46.8% in 2013. Does 7.3% represent an approximately 14% decline from 54.1%? Indeed. But interpreting a percentage of a percentage is tricky business, and US News should know better. Did they want to inform the readers or use the data to support a particular point of view? I didn’t read the article, but did they mention that, according to the data, there hasn’t been a decline in sexual activity since 2001.

      So what do the data actually tell us? that almost half of teenagers are sexually active and almost all teenagers have viewed pornography (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16232040).

      So I think the evidence actually supports the authors point that a very large number of youth in the Church are sexually active and/or viewing pornography.

      • Andy Ryan says:

        “a very large number of youth in the Church are sexually active and/or viewing pornography”

        That doesn’t back up the author’s point. To back up his argument you’d need stats that kids are leaving the church in order to view MORE porn or become MORE sexually active. Showing that a large number of church goers use porn and are sexually active kind of shows that their faith isn’t holding them back from these activities, which is the opposite to what the author is claiming – that people are leaving the church because they think it will let them have more sex or use more porn. Is there any evidence to support that claim?

        • Brian says:

          You’re correct that the author states that the leading fact why Millennials are leaving the church is sexual sin. However, the author then clarifies his point with this:

          “The norm for youth groups across the country is to have all of their upperclassmen actively engaged in sex, or pornography, or both. It is rare, youth ministers tell me, to find a male high school student that has not had sex or been exposed to pornography. And it is nearly as rare to find a female upperclassmen that is still a virgin or abstaining from “not all the way” sexual activity. The message youth ministers want parents to hear is that they need to assume that their sons and daughters are playing with sex because they all are. In a culture that praises the self and is drowning in sexual sin, it is easy to see why millennials have lost the wonder of God and grown tired of His church.”

          My point was simply to address your point, which was, as I understood it, that U.S. News & World Report says that fewer and fewer teenagers are sexually active, so our youth pastors cannot be correct when they convey that it’s hard to find a young man or woman who is not sexually active or actively viewing pornography. Perhaps the youth pastors that the author is thinking of are using hyperbole to underscore that the number of teenagers engaged in sexual sin is much much greater than we would expect or hope within the Church.

          Finally, I think you’re correct. The point is that the larger culture is more influential in the formation of a teenager’s worldview than is the Church or their parents. The author is advocating that we become more actively involved in the teaching and training of our children.

          sex zombie

          Sorry, Luke made me write that

          • Jude 1:3 says:

            Can’t make room or allowances for sexual immorality, no matter how prevalent it is (the word said it would be) in secular life (I contend most are t saved and experience regeneration).

            I without sexual purity there can be no spiritual maturity. It’s a basic tenet.

      • Luke says:


        I really just wanted to use the phrase “sex zombies”.

        (I actually could push back a bit on your argument a but won’t. Beyond wanting to use that phrase though, I do think that it’s important to note that many of the behaviors we as parents, teachers, and pastors don’t want to see our kids engage in, are actually down in this generation. There is less binge drinking, there is less sex. Crime is way down! Other things are up, but that seems mostly due to circumstance and potential rather than “these rotten kids!”; I’m thinking here of things like texting while driving. Of course I would like to see even fewer of these potentially harmful behaviors (by kids and adults), but so many people seem so eager to throw this generation of young kids under the bus, when as a cohort, their behaviors seem much better than their parents.)

        But seriously… sex zombies.



        • Andy Ryan says:

          Yes, Luke. I saw Frank sharing a tweet last year from a Conservative blogger (“As seen on Fox News”) guy, Erick Erickson, the same age as me (40) that had a photo of soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy and he captioned it “Millennials, I realize you think you’re the greatest generation. Please see the attached as a reminder you’re not.”

          The arrogance of it took me aback. For a start, if he wanted to he could just have said that the WWII generation made HIM feel humble. Instead he used the heroism of others as a stick to beat a whole generation of young people. For a second, the generalisation was absurd – what, ALL Millennials think that? Really? How many have you asked? Then there’s the point that plenty of millennials are actually serving right now, protecting the lives of people like that Erick Erickson, who as far as I could tell had no military background at all.

          To be honest I think we should be grateful that the current generation of millennials are as well behaved as they are – as you say, crime rates and general bad behaviour rates are well down from when that guy and I were that age. And we can’t pretend we’ve handed them a particularly great hand – pollution is up, wages are down, jobs are harder to find. For a guy aged 40 – who grew up in a time of easier jobs, higher wages, cheaper fuel, cheaper housing etc – to be throwing the millennials under the bus seemed pretty rich to me.

  2. David says:

    Sad that you have to resort to character assassination of those who leave the church. But hey Michael, whatever it takes to quiet that uneasy feeling in your soul when you see such large groups of honest, thinking young people start to reject your world view. What is it they say about someone who resorts to ad hominem attacks in a debate? Oh that’s right, it usually happens when they start losing the debate.

  3. AJ says:

    This article would have a lot more credence if it wasn’t listed as 99 out of 10. That’s like saying “nine out of one people.”

  4. John says:

    Sorry to keep raining on your parade but I have to provide yet another counter-example here.

    I was a teenager in youth group, and I “struggled” with “sexual sin” like everybody else. It didn’t lead me out of the church. Far from it, the cycles of guilt and forgiveness led me to rely on my faith even more. By the time I was married there were no more physical issues, but I “struggled” with sexual thoughts and viewing pornography like every other Christian man I ever talked to.

    At no point as a believer did I think that it would be easier to just pretend to not believe in God even though I really did. What sense would that make? What did lead me out of my faith, though, was a commitment to seek truth wherever it led. Over time, I became unconvinced that the evidence warranted belief in Christianity, or that faith was a virtue on its own. Leaving the church was just a matter of intellectual honesty: I was not convinced, so I wasn’t going to pretend to be.

    Ironically, after leaving the church, I would say that I objectively dealt with far less “sexual sin” than when I was a Christian. It seems that without the cycle of guilt and forgiveness the intense thoughts and compulsions I dealt with before just vanished.

  5. Kohelath says:

    I left the religion because it was obviously fiction, & kept myself for my wife until I was 26. Meanwhile, all (yes, all) of my religious contemporaries were fornicating like rabbits, yet stayed in the church. Some now how positions of power.

    Your argument is invalid, for me at least. It looks & sounds like the typical religious point of view, that successfully ignores the truth: religion has lost the faith of the people. More people than ever are registered as Atheists, Agnostics or non-denominational, & like all religions, Christianity too will pass.

  6. Ty Wilson says:

    Focusing on sin may scare some of the more fearful and subservient church attendees, but there are two problems;

    1. The point of “sin” is moot if the person doesn’t believe the Christian narrative. It’s like trying to threaten someone by saying they’re poisoning their phlogiston.

    2. Even if the person accepts the sin narrative, there are still huge epistemic holes in the Christian worldview that need to be addressed. Focusing on sin to the exclusion of these holes is dishonest misdirection.

    Myself and all the people I know who have left the church and thrown off the chains of faith have done so precisely for intellectual reasons- hence why we live happy, healthy lives.

  7. Mark Guetersloh says:

    Their are no intellectual barriers to belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Triune God of Christianity, other than the barrier established by God Himself, who ordained that the message He left us is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). God’s Truth is meant for the elect. For everyone else His Truth will seem an “obvious fiction.” To think that intellect prohibits faith in Jesus insults men like Newton, Pascal, Wesley, Edwards and so many other intellectual giants up to this present day. The claim that there are “epistemic holes in the Christian worldview” is nothing more than a necessary slander – and I am aware of most of the best anti-theism has to offer – both the pitfalls and the shovels that dug them. Not one of these pagan pits will hold an ounce of truth. They are necessary to provide dark places to hide from truths that threaten strongly held anti-theistic beliefs. There are good answers that would illuminate every dark crevice, but their light is disallowed…by more every day – not because it is a counterfeit light, but because the light is generated by the very thing anti-theists are seeking to escape – God. And the anti-theist intellectuals are pumping out their own unreliable facts, untestable theories, and often outright fabrications faster all the time. I’ll tell you this, if both worldviews are given a fair hearing, Christianity and the Truths it offers are by far the more compelling explanation for life’s big questions.

    John, you should not be surprised that your battle with sin diminished somewhat when you abandoned your intellectual assent (which falls well short of the fiduciary relationship needed for regeneration and subsequent perseverance). Satan and the dark forces at work around us no longer need waste much time on you, other than to keep you comfortable and happy without God. And I suspect once you discarded the only objective moral compass out there you were suddenly able to redefine good and evil based on your own personal preference. You will find many friends in the current neo-barbarian western culture thriving these days.

    Finally Kohelath, I think you are right – you are certainly right if my understanding of eschatology is correct. Christianity will pass after the Church Age is complete. When this happens I don’t think you will like it very much. Liberal anti-theists will finally have their way, but the resulting world will turn and tear them in pieces. That day seems not far away to me. If “crime” is less these days, it is only because much that is evil we ignore, or worse, we call it good.

    • Andy Ryan says:

      “Their are no intellectual barriers to belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ”

      Is this satire? If so, well played.

    • John says:

      Mark: I understand that it’s important to your worldview to believe that I only had “intellectual assent” rather than a sincere faith. I have had enough discussions with people to know that there’s nothing I can do to convince you that I had a deeply sincere faith that I believed, at the time, was a personal relationship with Jesus. I had all the external trappings: I got up early for Sunday school before worship every week, was on the worship team for a while, was in the men’s group, attended Bible study and prayer groups mid-week, went on missions trips abroad and retreats nearby, was a diligent home group attendee and host, and even had a brief stint as a youth leader. But I’m sure you’d say those things were all just window dressing.

      Of course I can’t prove to you that my beliefs were sincere, and I know that you’ll just tell me that I’m lying to you or lying to myself. Keep this in mind when you wonder why people seem put off by the church and Christians like yourself: it could be because you’re pretending to be a psychic and to know their innermost thoughts.

      I take it you are a Calvinist, then?

  8. Luke says:

    Mark said:“I suspect once you discarded the only objective moral compass out there you were suddenly able to redefine good and evil based on your own personal preference.”

    Can you give an example of the objective moral compass is at odds with your own personal preference for the definitions of good and evil? In other words what is something that is objectively wrong for Luke to do, but that you’d personally prefer it were objectively right for Luke do to?

    Mark said: “If ‘crime’ is less these days, it is only because much that is evil we ignore, or worse, we call it good.”

    Murder, rape, robbery, abortion have all been coming down for decades now. The “crime is down” conclusion is in no way based on saying that something that was a crime in 1995 is no longer a crime, therefore there is less crime.



  9. Kate says:

    I don’t really want to jump in on this discussion, I just want to leave a comment about what me abandon the church. Maybe it would be helpful.

    My reason was that it 13 I had the same problem as John in that I, “became unconvinced that the evidence warranted belief in Christianity, or that faith was a virtue on its own. Leaving the church was just a matter of intellectual honesty: I was not convinced, so I wasn’t going to pretend to be.”

    I came back to faith much later, but I didn’t not see God, I feel God, I had no evidence for God. And the worst part is that I thought that all my prayers are ignorant and that I was talking to myself. The Bible seemed a ridiculous fairy tale after a while.

    It has only been years later, through intense study of apologetics and evidence that I had come back to Christ because I can’t find a better explanation. The store Clevidence through intense study of apologetics and evidence that I had come back to Christ because I can’t find a better explanation. The historical evidence, philosophical reasoning, and intense investigation that many people have done have convinced me to come back to Christ and believe it’s real.

    I think the problem of young people leaving the church is (and I quote Dr. Frank
    Turek here), “Why are young people are talked out of Christianity and the church? It’s because they are never talked INTO it.”

    Had I been talked into it, and shown that believe in God and Christianity was more reasonable than any other worldview, the sexual promiscuity might not have have followed my abandonment of faith.

    • Kate says:

      Wow. And that is the last time I ever try to type up a comment into an iPhone! Please forgive the errors everywhere!!!

  10. Jody Williams says:

    THIS is why youth leave the church. Sin is sin. The Bible is clear that we are ALL sinners and there are many ways to sin. That we are to instead focus on LOVE and TEACH the Word. IF the church would focus on the fact we’re all sinners and there’s many forms of sin and we’re all the same and focus on teaching – we’d be good. But it’s the church who is focusing on sex, and therefore acting like some are better than others. It’s the classic drunken father telling his son not to do drugs. It’s hypocritical and turns people off. If instead you focus on your sin and I focus on mine and when we connect we focus on loving each other as Christ requested us to do – all would be well. But the church wants to instead focus on what bathroom we use, and hating on people who choose one form of sex over another, and act like they’re better than everyone else while they’re engaging in the sin of judgment and pride. Get off the soapbox.

  11. Shane Holmes says:

    I appreciate this article Michael. I agree that people leaving church is concerning. I also have discovered that the statistics point to a large portion of the population actively viewing pornography. I myself have struggled with this temptation since I was a teenager (I’m now 34). At one point I would definately say I was addicted, but by Gods grace I was able to admit to myself and others that I needed help. Though I have had many big victories and definately am no longer addicted, I still wrestle with, and occasionally yield to the temptation.

    I mention this only to say I agree with what the bible says about the danger of sexual immorality. Paul stated that sexual sin is unique in that it’s the only sin against ones own body. Im assuming because our sexuality and identity are so closely connected, it affects us so intimately. I have felt a lot of shame over this particular sin, and definately am tempted to withdraw from community. It is very isolating, not because any of my Christian community judges me, but because I myself feel so ashamed. Around men I feel insecure, and around women I am drawn to sexualizikg them, even my sacred sisters in Christ… So I withdraw from both… If I don’t confess this I will be drawn into a reclusive spiral of sexual sin and due to the increasing shame I no longer read his word and listen for his voice, and my affections for Christ and his work diminish.

    Knowing the effects this particular sin had had on my life, and how hard I’ve had to work, by God’s grace, to bring this sin into the light so that it doesn’t overcome and destroy me, my heart goes out to all those who struggle with it, perhaps feeling trapped and tempted to withdraw from Christ, his word, and his body. I would not be surprised if there is correlation between increased sexual immorality and decreased church involvement. Josh McDowell says this is the greatest battle of our age, and I’m tempted to agree with him.

    Thanks for posting this and at least bringing awareness to the temptations youth face in this area. May we fight for the faith of our friends and family!

  12. rusty says:

    3 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— They leave the Church because they have no need for God. They are “happier” because they squelch their conscience (the Holy Spirit). And the beginning of knowledge is the fear of the Lord. All other is vanity. Man just thinks he intellectual without God. And having worked with kids in a number of capacities the last number of years, the majority of them want their cake and eat it too. You’ve got your good ones and you got mostly shallow ones that only think of themselves and what they can get out of it. They are not interested in giving anything and it is just easier to find other things and places to be other than church. But that goes across the board not just millennials. Nobody wants to be told no or held accountable for anything they do these days.

  13. Steven says:

    Michael missed the target completely. He like so many are stuck in an echo chamber of thier own making. Millennials are not the only ones leaving in huge numbers. People in their later years are exiting as well. Church today is not about obedience to god but obedience to a system which bleeds its participants dry in the name of god. The ones who are protesting the exodus the loudest are the ones who have the most to lose.

  14. Kohelath says:

    I think people are leaving religion because of the internet. Access to information is at a level that is unprecedented in human history, & this is leading people to discover information that causes them to doubt.

  15. Robert says:

    I think the author is spot on. I fell away from the church because I wanted to do my own thing and experiment with secular dating and partying. Of course when my mother asked me why I didn’t go to church anymore I didn’t tell her the truth. I replayed intellectual questions that I had in the past (i.e., the hiddeness of God) to deflect her from digging into the real issues. I said I had doubts but I didn’t doubt my doubts. I could have easily done the research but this wasn’t the real reason for the departure so why bother. Now that I have come back to the faith and have a deep grounding in the case for Christianity and can defend the faith quite easily. The reality is that most people don’t want to engage with me on an intellectual basis. They are not interested in learning the evidence. The reasons are not because they have done the research for why not Christianity from a historical, scientific, or philosophical perspective. The reason is because they are not interested in giving up something. To support the author in his premise, there was a study done with pedophiles on why they committed such crimes. The overwhelming majority said it was because they were abused as children. When they were then asked the same question but while connected to a lie detector test it was found out that for the majority of these felons it wasn’t because of abuse in their youth. They had given themselves over to this depravity. People lie on survey’s all the time to make themselves seem better or to get some advantage.

  16. Daniel says:

    This is crap frankly. As a millennial I left after months of crying out to god desperate for help and hearing nothing from the void. Then I actually considered what church teaches and realized it was baseless nonsense. That’s why people are leaving and you’re not some sort of inspired psychologist you’re part of the problem. Do yourself and others a favor and stop writing.

  17. Swill says:

    I generally agree with the article especially considering porn use among males and females. They feel convicted when they hear the truth of the Word and sooner or later they will embrace the Holy Spirit’s conviction or leave and say they didn’t experience grace at the church.

    The only other thing I would add, is that millennials are leaving churches who expect them to avoid alcohol abuse and to be considerate of being a stumbling block to the 15% of Americans who have a drinking problem. Though they admit the Bible prohibits drunkenness, they don’t consider a heavy buzz that will land you a DUI to be “drunk.” Yes, you are right, they love their porn and but they also pursue inebriation like no other generation since the roaring 20s. If the church urges self control from either vice, the cries against legalism start raining down and the search for a less accountable church begins.


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