Why is Generation Y leaving church?

Why is Generation Y leaving church?

Not so long ago in a doctor’s waiting room I remember watching a frustrated toddler trying to swipe a magazine page with her tiny fingers as though it was a screen, then poking the page harder when it failed to move.

We observe families dining in restaurants the youngest disrupter quietened by watching their favourite cartoon on a handheld device, headsets shielding them from the outside world. It is incredible to think toddlers can operate mobile devices with little or no instruction. Even more incredible to think that the technology they use today is the oldest they will see in their lifetime.

iPad and mobile devices today will be like the Sony Walkmans and video cassette recorders (VCR’s) of a time long past. I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about a younger generation with some sense of authority or at the very least insight, if I didn’t first own up to the very imperfect nature of my own. My generation is often remembered by the Vietnam War or the ending of it by our parents, by the Beatles and the Beach Boys and peace movements. And a time when the Uniting Church in Australia was not yet formed.

Despite their stunning command of technology, we are told that this is a digitally native and millennial generation that yearns for connection.

Research shows that progressive millennials (14 to 24 year olds) who are tired of ‘faking life’ on screen are searching for meaning and real connections, experiences over consumption. Purpose is as important as ever to them. As is belonging and making sense of an often unpredictable world.
Western Christianity is facing some challenges, and there is a wealth of information about why people under 25 aren’t going to church.

The 2016 Australian Census showed young adults (aged 18-34 years) were more likely to report not having a religion (39 per cent) and more likely to be affiliated with religions other than Christianity (12 per cent) than other adults. Older people, particularly those aged 65 years and over, were most likely to report Christianity (70 per cent).

The Census also found that three-fifths of the Australian population (61 per cent, or 14 million people) are affiliated with a religion or spiritual belief. But church attendance is declining. When asked to list their religious affiliation, more than 13.5 million Australians chose Christianity, almost twice as many as chose the ‘No Religion’ response.

Changes over time to more ‘Nones’

In the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, the proportion of people reporting a religion other than Christianity in the Census increased from 5.6% in 2006 to 8.2% in 2016.
Those reporting no religion increased noticeably from 19% in 2006 to 30% in 2016.

The largest change was between 2011 and 2016, when an additional 2.2 million people reported having no religion. There are many theories as to why. Theories range from political polarities to mistrust in institutions and social changes. The truth is there’s no one explanation.

According to a Barna Group study (2016) the top reasons as to why people continue to leave the church are; competing priorities, busy lives, changing beliefs, lack of emotional engagement and support and changing family structures.

It seems obvious to say it but cultural changes are affecting church numbers. Three out of five people at church are female but there is a huge overall decline in the numbers attending.
One of the biggest demographic trends of our time is that members of Generation Y are delaying marriage or not getting married at all.

And since there’s a strong correlation between being married and being involved in religion, the fact that Australians are not getting married is a somewhat worrying trend to church attendances in the long run. Generation Y clearly has a very different view of what settling looks like. People also switch jobs and move more frequently than past generations.

Family size has become smaller, and many women now become mothers much later than was the case for previous generations. Many children also live with only one parent and have the other parent living elsewhere. We know parental influence on choice of religion is big.

Australian researcher McCrindle says on the growth front, net overseas migration, NOM, is the main driver. Almost two thirds (62 per cent) of Australia’s growth is occurring through NOM and 38 per cent is from natural increase (births minus deaths). This is in line with the most recent Census results that shows Australia is more multicultural than ever, with 26 per cent born overseas compared to 1966 when only 18 per cent of the population had been born overseas.

The Huffington Post article in 2017 – Churches Could Fill Their Pews With Millennials If They Just Did This went one step further saying what Generation Y might want from their church (albeit in America).

“Millennials are not interested in a celestial Jesus with a permanent smile and open arms, unconcerned with the goings-on of planet Earth. We’ve heard about that Jesus our entire lives, and we’re not buying it.

Do you know what we would buy? Jesus the man, Jesus the prophet, the Jesus that fashioned a whip of cords and overturned the tables of the money changers for making God’s house a den of robbers. The Jesus that challenged the establishment and paid the ultimate price. The Jesus that took up the cross of the poor, the weak, and the marginalised in the name of God.”

It’s not all bad news. ‘Faith and Belief in Australia’, a report by Mark McCrindle, shows that religion is not dead. The good news is that two in three identify with a religion or spirituality. McCrindle found more than two in three Australians (68 per cent) follow a religion or have spiritual beliefs. Of those that do, almost half (47 per cent) remain committed to the religion of their upbringing. This is a major factor in choosing a religion.

The number of Australians who do not identify with a religion or spiritual belief, however, is on the rise with almost one in three (32 per cent) not identifying with a religion. The McCrindle study replicated the ABS Census question, but added in an option for ‘spiritual but not religious’. This had a response rate of 14 per cent among Australians nationally, and the Christianity grouping was 45 per cent (down from 61 per cent in the 2011 Census).

More than half of Australians (52 per cent) are open to changing their religious views given the right circumstances and evidence. Younger Australians are more open to changing their religious views than older generations.

Religion and spirituality is a popular topic of conversation 

Further the survey found when gathering with friends, more than half of Australians (55 per cent) often or occasionally talk about religion or spirituality. Generation Z (65 per cent) are the most comfortable talking the topic, while the Baby Boomers are the least with 51 per cent never talking about it with their friends.

Perceptions of Christianity 

McCrindle found that Australians most value Christian organisations for their work with those in need, specifically looking after people who are homeless, offering financial assistance/food relief programs and providing disaster relief (74 per cent, 72 per cent, and 69 percent respectively). Eight per cent of Australian adults (1.5 million) do not know any Christians, while for Generation Y this is almost one in 10. One in 29 Australians have never heard of Jesus.

Generation Y don’t necessarily disconnect from church, God, or faith completely; they just disconnect from the churches that don’t meet them where they are at. While it is not so easy to identify one cause of the exodus from church, it is clear that members of Generation Y may have left, but they are far from lost.

Lisa Sampson


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