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?
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:
- What existential framework were you raised in?
- What existential framework do you find yourself in now?
- What initiated the change (the very first instance where things began to shift)?
- What was the final reason you made the change (the straw that broke the camel’s back)?
- What does your current existential framework offer you that your previous one did not?
- 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.”
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.”
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…
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).
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…
- “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.
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.”
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.