Research findings on why people are leaving Christianity

YAY! It’s finally here — my research regarding why people are leaving Christianity.

Below you’ll find a piece that I’ve officially published in Baptist News Global. Grateful they believe in this work and want to get it into the hands of Christians and pastors alike.

If you know someone that would also be interested in this research, feel free to reach out. I’m always looking for partnerships with writing, and I think this information is important.

As always, thanks for reading! Heads up, my voice in this article is a bit sterile. I felt it was appropriate, due to the nature of the research. If you’re curious about my natural voice and you’re new here, check out my other writing.

For some time now, Christianity has been on the decline. According to a recent Pew study, Christianity has decreased from 90% of the U.S. population in 1972 to 64% in 2020.

But it’s not just researchers who are talking about it.

As of Dec. 6, 2022, the hashtag “exchristian” had 696.7 million views on TikTok, and on Instagram, it was assigned to over 68,600 posts. When looking specifically at evangelicalism, the numbers nearly double. The hashtag “exvangelical” was viewed 1.1 billion times on TikTok and was assigned to 105,000 posts on Instagram.

People of all backgrounds are processing this great exodus, finding whatever resources they can, especially via social media, to process and find reasons for this change. But how are pastors and churches reacting?

In a recent sermon, Matt Chandler, called leaving the faith “some sexy thing to do.” He denounced the process of critiquing one’s childhood faith, saying “If you ever experienced the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, actually, that’s really impossible to deconstruct from. But if Christianity is just a moral compass, I totally get it.”

“You and I are in a day and age where deconstruction and the turning away from and leaving the faith has become some sort of sexy thing to do…”

Matt Chandler

But is this true? Are millions of people leaving Christianity because Christianity is “just a moral compass”? Because it’s sexy?

Image by Edward Cisneros via Unsplash

To uncover why people are leaving Christianity, I went to the people who would know: the people leaving.

Reaching out through varying social media platforms, I received 1,200 survey responses, asking six questions:

  1. What existential framework were you raised in?
  2. What existential framework do you find yourself in now?
  3. What initiated the change (the very first instance where things began to shift)?
  4. What was the final reason you made the change (the straw that broke the camel’s back)?
  5. What does your current existential framework offer you that your previous one did not?
  6. What does your current existential framework NOT offer you that your previous one did (i.e. what do you miss)?

After receiving the open-ended responses, I went through and notated themes, coding them to create quantitative results.

Here’s what I found:

After stripping out all survey responses that did not have a faith origin of some flavor of Christianity, I had 1,050 responses left. Of those survey responses, here’s the breakdown:

  • 61.5% identified as Protestant
  • 15.5% Christian – Unspecified
  • 11.6% Catholic
  • 10.6% Latter Day Saint
  • 0.5% Anglican
  • 0.3% Jehovah’s Witness

After the surveyees deconverted, existential frameworks became far more diverse:

  • 31.24% Agnosticism
  • 18.57% Atheism
  • 10.19% Unsure
  • 7.33% Christianity – Unspecified
  • 7.05% Paganism
  • 7.05% Other
  • 6.38% Spiritualism
  • 3.62% Christianity – Protestant
  • 2.67% None
  • 1.71% Mix
  • 1.43% Universalism
  • 1.05% Judaism

It’s important to note that while many are leaving the faith altogether, there are still people remaining in Christianity, choosing a different denomination or using language like “Jesus follower,” rather than explicitly identifying as a Christian. This type of individual makes up a little over 10% of those surveyed.

But why are they leaving?

Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries, one of the largest churches in the United States, recently wrote and spoke about why he thinks people are leaving.

His thoughts include the Bible having contradictions, suffering in the world, bad church experience, bad Christian experience, and Christians making church about a building. While he did get a few reasons correct, I think Stanley would be surprised by what’s ultimately motivating people to leave.

“Many people see Christianity as anti-intellectual, overly simplistic, and easily discredited.”

Andy Stanley

For initial reasons — the moment people first began doubting — LGBTQ+ acceptance is first, followed by the behavior of Christians and things not making sense on an intellectual level (an example of this would be “I couldn’t reconcile how there can be an all-powerful God and evil”).

Yes, a good number of these surveyees were queer, and not being accepted by their congregation was critical motive for leaving. However, the majority of surveyees were straight, and they ultimately started doubting Christianity when they were told they couldn’t support their queer friends and family. Unable to rectify their love of LGBTQ+ people with the church, they chose LGBTQ+ acceptance…

  • “I couldn’t continue to ignore the treatment of LGBTQ and other marginalized people.”
  • “[I started doubting because of] the way the church treated people of the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who didn’t dress/think/act/look like them.”
  • “I couldn’t understand why God would create LGBTQ+ people in a form my church claimed he hated.”
  • “The first thing that challenged my viewpoint directly was meeting LGBTQ+ people and seeing that they were kind, thoughtful, and deserving of respect.”
  • “I think the first thing was noticing how what Christians preached/practiced didn’t seem to align with that I knew to be the character of God, including views on the LGBTQ community, immigration, adoption, mental health issues, ‘mission work,’ and just general treatment of others.”
Image by Ian Taylor via Unsplash

But it’s not just LGBTQ. Stanley did get one thing right: The behavior of Christians is a major reason why people are leaving, and it’s not something new.

When writing a letter to C.S. Lewis about potentially converting to Christianity, Sheldon Vanauken, an author of the 20th Century, wrestles with this exact thing in his book A Severe Mercy:

The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians – when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.

Apparently, some things never change — the behavior of Christians is a massive stumbling block for people coming to the religion and walking away. However, instead of suffering a thousand deaths, Christianity is suffering millions.

However, these are just initial reasons. To better understand why people are leaving, it’s important to look at the final reason, and while a lot of the data remains the same, it’s important to note one that moved from seventh place to third: politics.

For many people, politics was the final straw for leaving Christianity, more specifically, the election of Donald J Trump and the support he received from the evangelical community. In fact, the name “Trump” was mentioned 81 times as a key reason why someone left Christianity…

  • “A culmination of events over the course of a few months starting in the summer of 2020. I had a fight with my father-in-law over the confederate flag being a symbol of racism, he stopped speaking to me for months and it became a whole thing. The rise in glorifying Trump and fascism disguised as democracy.”
  • “Seeing so many friends and family that claim to love and follow Jesus pledge their allegiance to nationalism and Trump.”
  • “The 2016 election. I wanted nothing so do with a group that supported Trump and his insane ideology under the pretense of faith.”
  • “Trump was the last straw for me. Seeing a person who should be the opposite of what Christians are called to be, being supported by evangelicals everywhere, really woke me up to some harsh American/conservative realities and how we’ve bastardized Christianity like others before to push not love or Christ but instead republican dogma steeped in racism, sexism, and greed with the Bible as a manipulation tool to get people to conform to these particular ideals that have nothing to do with the Gospels.”
graffitti of trump pointing at dora the explorer to leave
Image by Alejandro Cartagena via Unsplash

Ultimately, when it comes to why people leave, it’s not because it’s “some sexy thing to do.” It’s how people are being treated, specifically marginalized communities.

These responses make me think of a Tweet by Caitlin J Stout, a lesbian Christian…

Tweet by Caitlin J. Stout: A friend asked the other day what percentage of people I went to youth group with "deconstructed" and what percentage remained evangelical. As I thought about it, I realized that for the most part it was the kids who took their faith the most seriously who eventually walked away.
Tweet by Caitlin J. Stout: Those of us who tearfully promised that we would follow Jesus anywhere eventually followed him out the door. The Queer kids, more than anyone, learned exactlyw hat it meant to work out our faith with fear and trembling. They told us to read the Bible and take it seriously and then mocked us for becoming "social justice warriors."
Tweet by Caitlin J. Stout: Now they're warning us not ot deconstruct to the point of meaninglessness. But they took a chisel to God until he fit in a box. They "deconstructed" the concept of love until it allowed them to tolerate sexual abuse, celebrate white supremacy, and look away from kids in cages. Some of us got to where we are because we took it all to heart. We took the most foundational elements of our faith to their natural conclusions. Folks who deconstruct evangelicalism aren't drop-outs; they're graduates.
Images by a Queer Seminarian due to Stout’s Twitter being deleted

For a religion that boasts about love, people are not seeing it, and they’re walking out the door. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that loving and accepting people is one of the number one things people gain when they leave Christianity (see image below).

Graph of what people gained from their new framework. Listed from most common to least: freedom, love and acceptance of others, removal of guilt, ambiguity and openness, self-acceptance intellectual integrity, joy, LGBTQ affirmation, no fear of afterlife, morals, community, appreciation of humanity, connection to nature, appreciation of body health, womens rights, presentness, social justice, political alignment.

I recently spoke with someone about my research, someone that is very much so still in evangelicalism. When I showed him the results, his response was “It’s not surprising since God’s word warns us all about what will take place in the last days, but his remnant will hear and know the Truth. ‘But you, beloved, remember what was foretold by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ when they said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow after their own ungodly desires.”’ Jude 1:17-19 BSB.”

But when looking at this data, people aren’t leaving Christianity to live immoral lives. Yes, a few people mentioned they get to have pre-marital sex and do whatever they want, but that’s not the main reason.

Freedom, as a category, was chosen any time a surveyee specifically used the word “freedom.” But freedom is always attached to action. Freedom to live their own lives. Freedom to have sex with whoever I want. While these answers were present in the survey, they would have been assigned to three categories: freedom, self-determination, appreciation of body / sex / emotions. However, the vast majority of people connected freedom to love…

Image by Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash
  • “The freedom to love and accept anyone, no strings (Aka ministering) attached.”
  • “Openness to accept other people from other religions with open arms and an open mind. Freedom to love any and all people despite their background or sexual preferences (as Jesus would tbh).”
  • “The ability to love people in a much more whole way. I don’t have to pray for them and want them to change and I don’t have to judge them for the way they live.”
  • “One of the teachings of our bible is “who the Son (Jesus) sets free is free indeed”. Works really nice as a church song or devotional content. But I realized when I opened up to the possibility that all are welcome, literally all with no exclusions. The queer community, women in positions of Spiritualism leadership, other religious traditions experience god too, there are no limits on god’s presence and how that spirit moves among us…then I knew it. That was freedom and love and grace and kindness and all the goodness of the God I had been told about. It was all still there just truly, finally free.”

In most of these responses, there is a yearning to do better, to be better, to love better. But it seems like it’s coming at a price, and a steep one.

The final question was expressing what is missed from Christianity. For many, it won’t be a surprise that the number one thing that is missed is community, and it’s by an exponential amount.

Graph showing what is missed. In order of most common to least: Community, music, Certainity, nothing, family, free food, after life, all will work out, events, connection to the divine, structure, religious superiority, purpose, morality, ritual, development, volunteering.

Whether potlucks or shared worship experiences, support or even family, leaving Christianity comes at a steep price when regarding community, as people feel deeply alone…

  • “I miss the community, I don’t have a single friend from my church days. It can get lonely.”
  • “A localized gathering of likeminded individuals who support you. The connection with other Christians in your involvement at church/camp/etc. was a huge part of my life. Finding others who are in a similar position as you after deconstructing is like a breath of fresh air, but is somewhat few and far between here in the Bible Belt.”
  • “I don’t really feel like I can share my beliefs with anyone else, and my husband being an atheist makes me feel uncomfortable doing any form of worship in my home. So I bottle it all up inside and just generally feel awkward and alone all the time.”
  • “A close knit group of similar minded people – I think this is the reason so many stay in churches and that belief system. It’s all their friends and social network and too hard and lonely to change.”
  • “I really miss the sense of community that I got from Christian church. I was able to wrap most of my life up in whatever church I attended. I not only attended Sunday services; I was in the choir, I did VBS, I was in every youth group I could be. As a young autistic kid who had a hard time making friends, it was so much easier to bond with people over a shared love of god and of church.”
Image by William White via Unsplash

After several months of reading responses like these again and again, my heart breaks. There is a deep yearning for love in all questions — it’s the reason they leave Christianity; at times, it’s what they gain. But also, it’s what they’ve lost: the love and support of a community.

We, as a species, yearn for love and belonging, and it’s evident in every one of these answers. And while Christianity is experiencing an exodus, it did offer some a level of satisfaction to human yearnings. But at what cost? Ultimately, the cost is what people are not willing to pay, and they’re leaving.

7 responses to “Research findings on why people are leaving Christianity”

  1. Brandon,

    There’s a lot to digest here, and I am still working through the implications of your research for the congregation and community I serve. So much of your research matches what I have heard and observed anecdotally. Thank you for doing this and quantifying some of the experiences that many of us in Christendom are living through right now.


  2. Thank you for completing this study and the way you laid out the results with graphs. It made a very informative and easy to read study.

  3. I think what you report is consistent with college student input I’ve been receiving for 10 years now, through my “World Religions” class. But, for me, it has raised a second question, which is this: Why — unlike so often in the past — are those who are put off by various things in the church not undertaking new expressions of Christian faith and community… why are so many content just to leave without much critique of what they’re wandering into?

    • I think we can get insight from the results. I did qualitative responses. Every answer was open-ended. There are various reasons, but I think problems with the Bible, science, philosophical problems (e.g. the problem of evil with an all-powerful God). The internet makes this information easily accessible, and people can’t rectify these gaps. But in addition, I think two of two things here:
      1. Someone just commented on one of my videos where someone said “But not all Christians are like that,” and someone else said, “But most are. It’s like mushrooms. Sure, there are some good, but a lot of the time, they all look alike to an untrained eye, and I’m not gonna take a risk.” I think people are so hurt they don’t want anything that resembles what they left in addition to the intellectual issues.
      2. Another person did a video about Lewis’s “The Last Battle” where someone masquerades as Aslan for years. He causes so much pain that when the real Aslan comes, they reject him too.
      All that said, I no longer identify as Christian. My reasons are all of these, but the biggest one is that I have rejected the idea that one religion could get it right. Especially after thousands of years of human existence. I think the Divine is so broad it has to. And I think that also reflects Jesus and what He said. I think he calls us to expand, and one religion, including Christianity, is too narrow for us now. So we must either expand our view or abandon spirituality altogether.

    • I would also add that while politics is seen as new with Trump, it’s not. Religion has always been connected to politics. This experience simply sheds light on that fact, and people can’t rectify the pain religion has caused with the perks.

  4. Very interesting findings. Can you speak more to the methodology of your survey, especially how you went about “Reaching out through varying social media platforms?” It seems that people would necessarily be self-selecting for this survey, and I wonder how this may impact the results?

    • Absolutely! And this is totally a gap/opportunity in the research. I essentially created a call to action on all of my social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. I would say the vast majority first came from Instagram, but then my results nearly doubled from an TikTok video. With that in mind, I would say this research could have a meta-analysis around the TikTok algorithm, as I would say 3/4 of the data likely came from that platform. But, with how TikTok works, people didn’t need to be following me. TikTok found them for me. So the idea of curated following is something important to consider, I would say the larger critique on this research would actually be how TikTok finds people who would find my videos important. That said, when I’ve pitched this article to news publications/research orgs, everyone is not surprised with these results and falls in alignment with their pulse on culture. In fact, one news publication won’t publish it because they think the information is, in their minds, common knowledge.

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