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Why Are Millennials Leaving the Church?

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Pastors and priests seeking to fill their pews with young churchgoers have a tough task ahead. According to a newly released survey, even before they move out of their childhood homes, many younger Millennials have already moved away from the religion in which they were raised, mostly joining the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

The 2012 Millennial Values Survey, conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, shows that college-age Millennials (ages 18-24) are more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated (25 percent vs. 19 percent in the general population). Moreover, they report significant movement from the religious affiliation of their childhood: Only 11 percent of Millennials were raised religiously unaffiliated, but one-quarter (25 percent) identify as religiously unaffiliated today, an increase of 14 points.

These findings have profound implications for the future of religious denominations that have, in the past, dominated American religious life. Of those who are currently unaffiliated, around 1-in-5 were raised white mainline Protestant (21 percent) or Catholic (23 percent), the two denominations that saw the largest net losses due to Millennials' shifts in religious identity. Among Millennials who were raised white mainline Protestant, only 59 percent continue to identify with their childhood faith, while nearly 3-in-10 (29 percent) identify as unaffiliated. Similarly, only two-thirds (64 percent) of Millennials who were raised Catholic remain within the fold, while one-quarter (25 percent) now identify as unaffiliated.

In addition to the increase in religious disaffiliation, younger Millennials report low levels of religious engagement across the board. Only one-quarter (25 percent) of Millennials say they attend religious services at least once a week, while 3-in-10 (30 percent) say they attend occasionally. More than 4-in-10 say they seldom (16 percent) or never (27 percent) attend. Similarly, while one-third (33 percent) of Millennials say that they pray at least daily, nearly 4-in-10 (37 percent) say they seldom or never pray. Notably, despite the fact that nearly half (48 percent) of younger Millennials report that they are living at home with their parents, Millennials who live at home are not more likely to attend religious services than Millennials overall.

The survey also offers some clues to why many Millennials are breaking away from their childhood faith, at least if they come from a Christian tradition. Younger Millennials' feelings about Christianity are decidedly mixed. Three-quarters (76 percent) agree that present-day Christianity has "good values and principles," and 63 percent believe that Christianity "consistently shows love for other people." On the other hand, strong majorities also agree that modern-day Christianity is "hypocritical" (58 percent), "judgmental" (62 percent) and "anti-gay" (64 percent).

Notably, the perception that Christianity is "anti-gay" -- an attribute that strong majorities of both Christian Millennials (58 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Millennials (79 percent) agree describes present-day Christianity well -- may be driving some of Millennials' estrangement from organized religion. Last fall, for example, a PRRI survey found that nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) 18-29-year-old Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.

This early adult drift away from Millennials' childhood religion highlights a particular challenge for religious leaders, and not just in the short term. In some ways, this is not a new problem; it's not uncommon for younger American adults to be less religiously affiliated than older Americans. However, the Millennial generation's rate of disaffiliation is higher than previous generations at comparable points in their life cycle. It's probable that fewer Millennials than previous generations will reliably return to congregations when they are older, settled and raising children.

If religious leaders -- particularly in Catholic and white mainline Protestant churches -- aren't content to wait for the return of this generation's prodigals, they are faced with a challenging task. The balancing act of whether and how to reshape present-day congregations to connect with a generation that remains receptive to -- but also highly critical of -- traditional forms of religiosity.

This article was originally published at "Figuring Faith," Dr. Jones' blog at the Washington Post's "On Faith" section.