I wonder if you have ever had a crisis of faith?
Not a little wobble, but a serious, life changing episode of doubt?
It’s a fearful thing.
I’ve spent the last 18 months talking to people about how their faith has changed during the course of their twenties. Nearly 50 have told me their stories and each one is unique. Among them were six young men and women who no longer describe themselves as Christians. At the age of twenty all of them had been heavily involved in their Church or University Christian Union. Most had been in leadership roles: evangelism, worship, small groups, youth work etc. However decade or so later their beliefs had changed dramatically. Three of them said that they were still open to the idea of ‘Something more than we can see’ but the others were now avowed atheists.
The million dollar question is how do young adults go from one extreme to the other? What causes Millennials to lose their faith?
Unsurprisingly, everyone’s story is different
A number of people have researched faith loss. Among them Andy Frost wrote Losing Faith; David Kinnaman talked to American young adults; and Phil Zuckermann explored faith loss among people from a variety of religions. The short version, unsurprisingly, is that everyone’s story is different.
There are however some patterns which my data mirrors. I share them because they may help shed light on how young adults experience losing their faith and it may help us love them wherever their journey leads. They are after all, more likely to find their way back to Jesus if they’ve been loved rather than rejected or ignored, and either way God still loves them whether they believe in Him or not.
So…what patterns turned up?
Faith loss is gradual
The first (mirroring other research) is that faith loss is gradual. People don’t suddenly go from a profound commitment to Jesus to not believeing at all. It takes weeks, months, even years. Over a period of time their faith just becomes less and less convincing. Something may trigger a decision to renounce belief but typically this is a final straw in an already long term process. One of my participants explained, “There wasn’t a moment where I was aware that I stopped believing, but there was a point that I realised I did not believe and had not believed for some time.”
71% of people who change their faith do so between the ages of 18 and 29
Zuckermann categorizes types of faith loss. He talks about ‘early apostasy’ where those raised within a religious tradition reject it as a teen or young adult but, in line with other developmental changes, that now seems to come much later for some. Kinnaman found that 71% of people who change their faith now do so between the ages of 18 and 29, and that is true of this small sample. Certainly some began a journey of religious disorientation at University or shortly after graduation but for others it came much later in their mid and even late twenties. However, all described the experience of a gradual unsettling and the process of their worldview unravelling until they could no longer maintain the façade of “being a good Christian.”
Faith loss is traumatic
A second pattern is that faith loss is deeply painful. Most of those I interviewed became tearful at some point as they described rejecting their once strong faith. The sort of ‘transforming apostasy’ they experienced (as opposed to mild – when faith was nominal in the first place) is deeply disorientating. It involves ‘massive psychological reorientation’. One explained, “My belief in God was such a positive thing for my well-being and how I felt. My life is less hopeful now. I don’t approach it with the same purposefulness and meaning.” Still, he couldn’t pretend to believe any more. Others found it liberating to finally be honest and stop pretending but all of them had found the process traumatic.
92% of church leavers reported that no one came after them when they left church
There are also relational costs. I’d expected to recruit ex-Christians to interview through their friends who still had faith. It turns out that once people reject their faith they lose contact with Christian friends very quickly. All six described some level of social isolation once they stopped going to church; very few people made the effort to stay in touch. This matches findings where 92% of church leavers reported that no one came after them when they left church. As one of my participants said “It’s really easy to just slip out of Church. No one seemed to notice I’d gone.” Another commented,
“I was expecting to have to do a lot of explaining and a lot of dealing with people having a negative response. Actually a lot of people didn’t really seem to care. That really confused me because in my mind, if you really believe the Gospel then it’s the most important thing by a million miles. So if someone stops believing, or starts moving away [then] that’s a really big deal. It was weird to me that people were just ‘Yeah, Ok.’
So, why did these young women and men reject the faith they’d once been so passionate about?
What causes faith loss?
There is no rule, it’s not a predictable pattern but there were some core factors that came up in their stories and which mirror other research findings.
1. An existential reshaping of their worldview
For many, exposure to a convincing alternative worldview caused them to question beliefs they had never previously queried. Various things triggered this process:
- New relationships in professional environments or further study
- Ethical concerns – particularly around sexuality, Christian claims of exclusivity or divine judgment
- Doubts about the credibility of the Bible
- A gap between their lived experience of suffering and the simplistic theological answers they were given
Often the dominant cultural narratives of pluralistic tolerance and secular rationalism were just more convincing or appealing than Christianity. It was different for each person – but the result was that for all of them, eventually Christian faith no longer seemed credible.
2. An experience of personal difficulty or trauma
A second contributing factor was some sort of personal struggle. It’s fair to say that this is a normal part of most young adult’s twenties (In fact part of developing a stable adult faith is finding a way to make sense of where God is in the challenges of life). However for these individuals it combined with and exacerbated their existential doubts.
Failing relationships, loneliness, highly stressful work environments, mental health problems and family difficulties were all described to me. God just hadn’t seemed to be there helping or even involved in their pain. One described how they’d found more solace and peace in Buddhist meditation than Church.
3. Disillusionment or isolation from Church
The final factor that these young men and women all had in common was that they had become isolated from their faith community. For some that was the result of multiple relocations as short term jobs forced them to move repeatedly. For others there were relationship breakdowns, struggles with leadership or scepticism over new visions and theological changes.
Several described feeling unable to tell anyone what was going on
Several described simply feeling unable to tell anyone what was going on in their head. They didn’t feel that asking their questions was acceptable, thought that their doubts would be dismissed or that no-one would understand. So they withdrew, sometimes talking to one or two close friends, others enduring the journey of their faith imploding alone. I know the leaders of some of the churches they attended. They are gracious men and women who would have done whatever they could to help had they known. They hadn’t.
This wasn’t a linear cause and effect’ process rather these three factors seemed to weave together. They compounded each other until the young adult involved reached a point where for the sake of integrity they just couldn’t’ sing along, or pretend to believe anymore.
I’m not pretending these findings are a universal pattern for all those who lose their faith.
There is no obvious reason as to why one person bears a harvest 30, 60, 100 fold and struggle deepens their relationship with God while another’s withers and dies before they reach 30.
There’s also no rule that says these six won’t meet God again at some future point. But there are some things for us to ponder as to how we might help young adults as they battle through the demands of their twenties and beyond.
What can we do?
Do we allow people to express, discuss, process doubt?
Or is there an unspoken expectation that everyone believes every Christian doctrine unquestioningly? Those in leadership roles need particular care – they may feel an extra pressure to pretend to have their faith entirely together. Honest conversation, embracing doubt and questions as a normal, healthy part of every faith journey would surely model something better than everyone just pretending!
Are we aware of how demanding life is for young adults?
New environments, relationships, opportunities and temptations are thrown at them on a regular basis. Pastoral care and emotional support are needed throughout the twenties, not just when people leave home for the first time. That 25 year old teacher needs help in a big way – especially if they’ve just relocated, so does the new sales rep, business entrepreneur, the guy with a young family who’s been made redundant again. It’s just possible that the love they receive from a Church community might be enough to keep them engaged with God even if they have serious doubts – until they find a way through them.
How available are we, as leaders or older members, to our congregations?
Do those 25 year olds trust us to come and talk? Do they know we care, know we’ve battled our own doubts, know we will love them even if they are moving away from Jesus? Or do they believe we are too busy for them – and are they right?
And finally – do we even notice when someone ‘drifts away?’
Are friendships real in our communities? Do people’s friends seek them out and maintain contact because those relationships matter, rather than because they see them on a Sunday? In a frenetic world it’s so easy for people to just fall through the gaps. One young man I interviewed became emotional about someone he hadn’t been particularly close to that had made an intentional effort to include him socially even though he’d left their church community. A young woman told me she was no longer in touch with her Christian friends because she’d assumed they wouldn’t want to know her any more. When I said I doubted that (because I knew some of them) she too became tearful.
Losing deep faith is profoundly distressing and takes a considerable amount of time. In an aggressively secular culture young adults need all the love and support we can offer them to come to a secure adult faith that will last them a lifetime and beyond.
It IS their faith – but we can help, if we chose to.
 Andy Frost, Losing faith; Those who walked away (Authentic, 2010)
 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, (Baker, 2016)
 Phil Zuckermann, Faith No More; Why People Reject Religion (OUP, 2012)
 Zuckermann,. 5
 Kinnaman, 32
 Zuckermann, 7
 Steve Aisthorpe, The Invisible Church- Learning from the experiences of churchless Christians (Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 2016)
So much of what you’ve written resonants with me. I’d been heavily involved with CU at University but walked away from church and God at 21 mainly due to intellectual doubts and societal pressure. I was one of the lucky 8% who had one person come after me, and couple others who at least seemed to care. After about a year of reading conversations and thinking I reaffirmed my faith and found a church that has thoroughly ‘rehabilitated’ me, a process I would say that took at least two years.
Your article raises the issue of faith loss and how we can help those who go through it and prevent it. It’s something I’ve hoped to do and often wondered how the church could do better. I wonder if we could do a seminar or something on doubt for our students and young workers. Do you have any recommendations for resources or further reading etc?
Hi Alasdair, thanks for your feedback. I’m not aware of much written around ‘faith saving’ but I think churches can definitely prepare students better for graduation than they do. Would be happy to discuss further but take a look at Andy frosts book in the footnotes he makes some helpful points.
Hi Ruth, just to let you know as a consequence to this we ran a session at my church called ‘dealing with doubt’. It was aimed at students and young workers where I shared my testimony about losing my faith and then regaining it, and some observations about helping people through that, then we had someone do an apologetics talk about trusting the Bible. We’re hoping to have more sessions in the future, again with personal testimony and then apologetics. Thanks again for your article.
Well done, Alasdair, for having the courage and tenacity to organise that event and share your story, especially with the hope of following it up further. I’m sure that will have been a huge help to many – even to those who couldn’t make it.
Hi Alasdair, sorry its taken forever to respond – been heading towards a massive writing deadline. So glad to have inspired this event – and really appreciate you letting me know! Well done you for your honesty and willingness to DO something about this issues. So important and I’m sure your story is a powerful one for people to hear. Best Wishes
This is a really interesting article and a lot of what you’ve written resonates personally. Whilst I’ve never ‘lost my faith’, I believe one of the biggest reasons is being raised by a mum, in particular, whose faith was based so strongly on her relationship with Jesus, rather than the church which really helped (and continues to help me) through points 2 and 3. As you mention, everyone’s experience is unique, but I’d be interested to know how many of those interviewed talked much about having had a personal relationship with Jesus / this aspect of faith?
Hi Rachel, thanks for your interest. Parental faith does have a significant influence on young adult faith for sure. IN terms of this sample all had a strong relationships with Jesus at one point. Faith loss isn’t simple I’m afraid!
This is a great discussion. I am currently working on a paper about Millennials and Church. I believe Millennials want to be apart of the process in Church. Engaged and mentored to lead. Challenged to live out their faith while giving them meaningful task or ministry assignments that affect the daily lifestyle issues they confront.
Family Matter, Faith Matters, Finance Matter, and their Health Matters- Conversation and bible teachings that provide guidelines on “the how to” and Leaders sharing the pitfalls but showing the benefits of embracing and practicing one’s faith daily at home, college, work, community and everywhere – it would be great to have a forum that the voices of the youth can be heard…… the flip side the youth must be open to the guiduance – this would be very powerful
HI Gloria, yep I agree with you. About to release a report which talks about lots of those things. Hopefully a book to follow sometime next year keep working on this stuff, its’ so important. Actually the next post addresses quite a lot of the points you are making – so hope its helpful. Appreciate your interest. Best with the paper!
Hi Ruth, I met you at the Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference ( I was presenting on my research on Pentecostal/Charismatics and depression.) I’m now back in ministry as Pastor for Young Adults and can only echo above. Is there any kind of training to know how to best be there for people, or to encourage those in our care to be there for their friends? Where to start? Beyond buying the books in your footnotes, which I’m about to do!
Hi Joy, glad this has been helpful. I’m not aware of any training specifically aimed at what you describe. Maybe we should chat? Send me a messenger wave and we can talk privately.
I would argue that young people leave the faith because creating a faithful prayer life was not a top priority but attending Bible Studies was, church attendance, event participation was. I was “sold” the gospel at a typical evangelistic event but was never warned about the risk to my faith (Parable of the Sower) if I did not protect my faith with faithful prayer. I am part of a project called iPray.me – an app to help individuals be faithful in the prayer life.
But what do I do to get it back? I don’t think I believe anymore but i still want to…surely that counts for something? How do I get back to that faith I had when I was 17?
Excellent article! The only thing I would say is that this is not just a problem for the millinials. I am 44, have been raised a Christian all my life and I’m just now having a major crisis of faith. I know a lot of people my age and older go through these issues as well.
Hi Ruth. I am in the process of developing resources for parents to engage intellectually with their children’s faith and give them a better grounding in apologetics. Did any of your discussions with people who had lost their faith feature this aspect of discipleship? Thanks
I have found the work of Peter Enns has been very helpful- He wrote a couple books on engaging children with the Bible as developmentally appropriate- focusing on Jesus and Gods character and adding in the more difficult stories as the child is able to comprehend/process more difficult subjects (aka death, murder, rape, etc). The point is to know God better not necessarily have all the right answers about the Bible. The book he wrote for kids is “Telling God’s Story” and you can find it on Amazon. It’s helpful for me and my family, hope it helps you!
Thanks Elisabeth, that sounds like an interesting resource!
Hi Daniel, not really – some of those with ongoing faith spoke about how trying to answer their children’s questions had shaped their own. There’s a section in the book ‘Changing Shape; Faith Lives of Millennials’ on that. (sorry to plug my own book – but we’re all shut in eh? give you something to read!) All the best with your work!
We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences. How have you tried to address this in your faith community?