Are Millennials Really Leaving the Church? Yes — but Mostly White Millennials 

All the hand-wringing stories about young adults leaving religion overlooks the vibrancy and growth of multiethnic churches.

Almost everyday, it seems, there’s a new story about how “Millennials are leaving the church.” But there’s a problem with these trend pieces: They aren’t true. American Christianity still has plenty of Millennials — they’re just not necessarily in white churches.

Instead, they’re found in places like Iglesia de Dios, a 3,000-member Hispanic megachurch in Nashville. The church was started in the mid-1990s by the Rev. Jose Rodriguez, a native of Venezuala who moved to Nashville in order to get better medical care for one of his children.

The early services drew a handful of people. But fueled by immigration, word of mouth, and a “come as you are” approach to worship, it’s grown slowly and steadily into a megachurch. Today Iglesia de Dios has six services on the weekends, including one in English, for second-generation immigrants and some of their English-speaking neighbors.

“Our church here — we are very young,” says 27-year old JosuéRodriguez, the church’s associate pastor. “There are very few elderly people. And our youth services are the biggest services we have.”

White Christians make up only a quarter of younger Americans. There are more Nones — those with no religion — than white Christians in this age group.

Transformation Church, a multiethnic congregation in Indian Land, South Carolina, has also grown by attracting young Millennials to worship. Started four years ago by the Rev. Derwin Gray, Transformation Church now draws about 2,500 people to its weekend services.

“What I see among Millennials are African Americans, and Asians Americans, and Latinos who are vibrantly growing in faith and leading the future of what the church will become,” says Gray.

About a third of young (18-29 year old) Americans — and more than half of younger Christians — are people of color, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute. White Christians, on the other hand, make up only a quarter of younger Americans. In fact there are more Nones — those with no religion — than white Christians in this age group.

That’s a remarkable demographic change from older Americans, where nearly 7 in 10 are White Christians, according to PRRI. “What you have in American religion today are the nonwhite Christians and the Nones,” says Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

But the switch from most Christians being white to the majority being non-white has largely gone unnoticed. Instead, most of the focus has been on the idea that “young people are leaving the church.” That idea is true among white evangelicals, who show a dramatic decline in PRRI’s polling. Among Americans 65 and older, nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent) are evangelicals. That number drops to 1 in 10 for younger Americans.

The future, says Gray, will belong to churches that are multiethnic, because that’s what God wants.

Gray says that in the past, white Christians were in the majority, so they assumed what happened in their churches was happening in every church. So if the number of young people in their churches is going down, he says, they assumed it was a universal problem.

Gray explains that since the 1980s, white megachurches in particular grew using a technique known as the “homogeneous unit principle” — the idea that the best way to grow a church is to cater to one specific racial or social group. That’s left them cut off from other ethnic groups and unable to see the bigger picture of what’s happening in the demographics of American Christianity, says Gray.

“One of the dangers of being the majority culture is that you become complacent and you don’t listen,” says Gray. “You think your problems are everyone else’s problem.”

The future, says Gray, will belong to churches that are multiethnic, because that’s what God wants. He points to a section of the book of Revelation to make his point: “After this I looked,” says Revelation 7:9, “and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

“The reason that we should have multiethnic churches is not that the demographics of America is changing — but because it is at the heart of the gospel,” he says.

The Rev. Efrem Smith, a former church planter and author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church, agrees. Diversity used to be seen as a luxury by churches, says Smith, who is president of World Impact, a California-based evangelical nonprofit. Now, as America has become more diverse, it’s a necessity. “That’s good news,” he says. “It’s going to push us to a more authentic presentation of the gospel and a more authentic faith.”

But diversity will mean changes in how churches operate, says Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, associate professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Sánchez-Walsh says that while theology may unite believers over racial and ethnic lines, money and power may divide them.

“People don’t like to give up power,” she says. “They don’t do it easily. And demographic shifts are going to force people in power to deal with that.” Instead of becoming diverse churches, many white congregations may shrink and then close as their members age or die off, says Sánchez-Walsh. Then they’ll sell their building off to like-minded people of a different ethnic group.

The biggest hurdle of all, especially for Protestants, is that the different ethnic groups have set up insular church cultures and institutions. “You have a gigantic black church movement — they have their own media, they have their own colleges, and their own celebrity pastors,” says Sánchez-Walsh. “You have the same thing in the white evangelical and Pentecostal worlds. Then you have the smaller mainline circles. These are all circles that don’t intersect.

Still, there are some signs of success already. This past fall, the Mosaix Conference, a gathering of multiethic church leaders, drew more than 1,000 people. That’s up from about 30 people 10 years ago.

Immigration reform has also drawn support from Protestant and Catholic leaders alike, across racial and denominational lines. And pastors like Gray and Smith have begun to be featured as speakers at major pastors’ conferences around the country.

Author and blogger Kathy Khang, a regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says that more diverse voices are needed at pastors’ conferences and other Christian events. Those events, she says, haven’t quite caught up to the changing demographics among Christians.

But she’s hopeful for the future, despite fears among some church leaders that younger people are dropping out of church. “This is an opportunity for Christians to take a look at what they believe, and to ask, ‘Do we believe the Bible is good news for everyone?’” she says. “And if we do believe that, we have to find ways to communicate that good news with everyone.”

Bob Smietana
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  • Theresa Romero

    So thankful that this was written!! It is what has been on my heart and mind for such a long time! The acknowledgment that the Latino Church is GROWING!!! Great great article!!

  • abasjewel

    Nicely written. And I agree! Love this part!
    “The future, says Gray, will belong to churches that are multiethnic, because that’s what God wants. He points to a section of the book of Revelation to make his point: “After this I looked,” says Revelation 7:9, “and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”’

    • Jkjljmt_Pqprpstt

      So, you prefer anti-whitism to pro-whitism?

      • abasjewel

        excuse me? I’m not anti anything. I’m half white and half Korean/Asian.

  • Mack

    I am not a Boomer. My daughter is not a Millennial. No one is either of these false categories. Whatever merit is in the essay is compromised by stereotyping.

    • FHC1990

      It seems you’ve failed to catch the heart of this essay…

      • Larryinchicago

        I completely agree.

  • Rock On

    This is a very intriguing article. A weird coincidence in politics is that the President of the United States wins the Catholic vote, The last few decades show that whomever won the Catholic vote won the Presidency (except in 2000, the Catholic vote went to Al Gore). Whats so intriguing is that Obama won the Catholic vote……..and if you look into why it was because Obama won the Latino vote. This must mean Catholics and America is becoming more non-white. Whats interesting is that Romney won the white Catholic vote…….but Obama won the ENTIRE Catholic vote and he also won the Presidency. So, this may explain why the pollsters were saying Romney was going to win……in the old models, he would have—-and Romney won the white Catholics……..that explains it——-The Catholic Church in America is becoming more and more nonwhite as the entire country is. Thats why the old pollsters were wrong……..they didnt understand the makeup of the Church and the country!!

  • Rock On

    Everyone looks at how people view religion and the numbers and various data showing less belief, etc.
    But I do not understand how people cannot think of the obvious…….how people view government and how to interpret that.
    THE HEADING OF THIS ARTICLE:

    • Rock On

      part 2……..OMG!!!

      A google search gave me this NYTimes article…..WASHINGTON 4 feb 2011 — Demographers sifting through new population counts released on Thursday by the Census Bureau say the data bring a pattern into sharper focus: Young Americans are far less white than older generations, a shift that demographers say creates a culture gap with far-reaching political and social consequences.
      EUREKA!!!!!!! WHY ISNT THE MEDIA CONCENTRATING ON THIS?
      I know the media is trying to shape people into leaving their churches and houses of worship……….but they may be analysing the data in a way that something else is revealed!
      In America, historically speaking, whites were Christian………and immigrants were white Catholics……….
      and the nation came together for the most part because of common bonds——-we were Christian and we spoke English or learnt it…………WHAT INTRIGUES IS WHAT WILL BIND US TOGETHER IN THE FUTURE?

      • Rock On

        PART 3! rotflmao
        THIS ARTICLE WAS ABOUT RELIGION WHICH LED ME TO THINK ABOUT GOVERMENT…….
        now to think outside the box…….can you look at SPORTS!
        Sports may change too then——– HYPOTHESIS: TRADITIONALLY AMERICAS FAVORITE PASTTIME WAS BASEBALL OR FOOTBALL………if the country is changing, sports would too…….WILL THE FUTURE BE LESS BASEBALL AND/OR LESS FOOTBALL……..AND MORE SOCCER!!! LOL Soccer will be Americas favorite pasttime in the future? TIME WILL TELL!

        • Rock On

          Something also doesnt make sense………why is the media trying to make people have less faith in Catholicism and in government? Its a weird vibe…….I dont get that.

  • cken

    Millennials and others aren’t leaving religion. They are seeking spirituality. Churches (organized Christian religion) is mired in cliched, ritualistic man-made dogma, which is good for those who don’t think, can’t really read, and need to be lead. For those who can read and think, they know John 3:16 is not the be all end all to “salvation”. That verse may be a starting point but it’s not a get out of hell free card like most evangelicals seem to believe. Socrates once said man’s sole purpose in life is to follow the will of God. I don’t know how he knew that before there was a Bible, but I do know organized religion isn’t teaching how to do that. Most of them follow the subtext of Warrens “Purpose Driven Life”, which is of the church, by the church, for the church. Is it any wonder there are atheists, Nones, and SBNRs. Organized religion shouldn’t worry there still many sheep who will blindly follow. It’s much easier for them to follow man-made dogma than to put in the effort required to seek God’s will for themselves.

  • David Brainerd

    “What I see among Millennials are African Americans..vibrantly growing in faith and leading
    the future of what the church will become,”

    I don’t buy it. Black people by and large don’t go to church, or if they do its one of those racist churches that preach that all white people go to hell. Their god is racism, by and large. Although, obviously that doesn’t apply to all, just the majority.

    Of course, I suppose they could be leading what the church will become: a pit of racial hatred against whites?

    • Lisa Ivory

      You need to visit my church David. Family Life Community Church, Lancaster, PA 1246 Millersville Pike on Sunday and 1204 Wabank Rd on Thursday.

    • Manuel D Silva

      WHAT A BIGOT RESPONSE. I SUPPOSE U ARE LOVING OF OTHER RACES HUH?

      • Jkjljmt_Pqprpstt

        Blaarghrcsgjnlk arrgggrhtbslth!!!

        White people have always been a global minority and now becoming minorities in our own countries. It is White Genocide.

        • Manuel D Silva

          Hilarious….Ignorance is bliss. Know your history: Australia, Africa, The Caribbean, South America, Central America, North America….ALL HAVE BEEN POPULATED BY THE WHITES WHILE THEY HAVE KILLED MILLIONS….I REPEAT MILLIONS OF OTHER RACES. You need to go to school. Our OWN countries, weren’t 200 years ago bigot

    • Manuel D Silva

      Didn’t u read about ur race? MOST WHITE MILLENIALS DONT GO TO CHURCH!!!!

  • Larryinchicago

    very very informative article… Thank you so much…

  • Mark Able Jones

    I left the church because it was 100% focused on sex sex sex during my teen years. And then when I asked the Sunday school teacher if he had sex before marriage, he said yes. And when I asked if he regretted doing so, he said no.

    But there were many other signs of hypocrisy in my church, and in Christianity in general. Jesus was very accepting of other people, how they are born. Christians are not, especially of gay people. And that seems morally wrong, morally opposite of Jesus.

    And then there was the lack of helping the poor. My church was rich. But it seemed to use the money for helping itself, for being fancy and putting on fancy plays rather than doing anything to help the poor. It fits the conservative mantra that the poor are poor because they are lazy, but statistically science tells us that socioeconomic levels through childhood determine whether one will end up poor. The failure to understand such basic, proven social sciences in favor of more selfish ideology pushed me further away from the church. It all seems so contrary to Jesus’ teachings, and reminded me of a story. Want to attract millennials. There is one solution: stop being hypocrites.

    • Nate Bushman

      I would have a hard time having faith in that situation also. Not all congregations are hypocritical though. I have had extremely positive experiences with religion. I hope that you can too if you so desire.

  • Jacqueline Stevens

    again, christianity proving to be 25-50 years behind social/civil rights conversation

  • scotty

    The whole “people of color” thing cracks me up. As an ACTUAL “white Hispanic” (100 percent Spanish from Argentina), we have to laugh at the American idea of “color”. Folks, people who are white Arab, Spanish descent, etc, are WHITE. They may not be Anglo-cultured, but they are as WHITE as Italians, Latvians, Greeks, etc. Including Turks, Armenians, etc. Get a clue

  • Ihateglobalization

    Churches are open public spaces for
    anyone to come in the name of faith, but its a perfect breeding ground for hypocrisy, and pure boredom, not every christian is diplomat. So many times you see these people smiling at you, because they must represent what they believe, but you can tell its sooo fake. If given a chance they would never looked your way. 2) Some people claim the church as their territory, these are people who are old members, so basically church time turns into an event where you’re literally going to see them more than God. 3)Whether they admit or not, people are observant of what you wear. Unless I am inappropiately dressed, I hate it when people analyze what I wear. 4) In as much as the smiles are fake their benevolence is also fake, they are just people you met, they are not really interested in you. A church is really a place full of strangers (unless they are all your neighbors), who smile at you aiming to give you the impression that they care, because that is christians are supposed to look like. The supernatural is very real, God is real, the wicked rebellious angels are real too, but quite frankly you don’t need this theater to connect with God.

  • http://www.victorcounted.org/ Victor Counted

    I am happy it is clearly stated in this article. The distrust/dislike of religious institutions based on Strauss and Howe’s Generational Theory from where they definied the concept “The Millennial Generation” is really not a trend with the young black populations, which in a sense faults his argument if we are to also call young black people “Millennials”. I’m not sure we are in that category…although i acknowledge we perhaps have strong individualism, but as for disliking religion…am not sure. We are the pacsetters!