As an Ahmadi Muslim, I do not have firsthand knowledge of why one would disassociate themselves from the church. However, is leaving the church that different from, let’s say, leaving the mosque or the synagogue? On the other hand, one could also say that staying with one’s faith, whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any organized religion, is likely due to similar faith-based reasons.
I am trying to examine how organized religions face identical challenges with retaining their youth, albeit some more than others. Depending on which study you look at or whom you talk to, the answers to this question may vary in complexity. Why young people leave the church, or religion in general, can be broken down into categories and subcategories.
Multiple studies identify the main reasons for this phenomenon. Despite all these studies, I think that the answer can be summarized in one word, lifestyle. By no means I am undermining the importance of the studies and the effort spent on this vital subject. However, no matter how you slice the pie, it boils down to lifestyle choices that shape the present and the future for our younger generation. To understand the youth and the drivers behind their decisions, we need to look at some of the data collected.
Before I list some of the reasons that I came across in my research for this article, it is essential to mention here that the issue of youth turning away from religion is not unique to Christianity and that when referring to ‘the youth,’ I am talking about millennials and younger (people born in 1981 and later) (1). Nevertheless, it is equally important to mention that Christian youth make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. millennial population, so any impact on this population has a significant effect on our nation and society.
According to the Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the religious composition of younger millennials is 56 percent Christian, 8 percent non-Christian faiths, and 36 percent unaffiliated(all three categories are broken into subcategories in the study) (2). Depending on which study or article you read, the number of youth leaving the church varies between 60 to 70 percent, which is an alarming number. If this trend continues, it can be assumed that the percentage of people who fall into the unaffiliated category would rise. According to the Pew Research Center, the unaffiliated group comprises atheists, agnostics, and ‘nothing in particular’ (2).
An article written by Holly Meyer and published by The Tennessean on January 15, 2019 (3), presents a summary of a study done by LifeWay Christian Resources (4) in 2017 in which 2,002 Americans between the ages of 23 and 30 were asked to participate in the survey. The survey provided a list of 55 possible reasons for why they no longer attended the church and asked them to select all reasons that applied to them. According to the study, 66 percent of survey participants said that they stopped attending church regularly. The article compartmentalizes the reasons most selected by the participants into the following four categories:
• Life changes
• Church or pastor related reasons
• Religious, ethical, or political beliefs
• Student and youth ministry reasons
According to the survey, a vast majority, 96 percent, selected life changes as the number one reason why they stopped going to church. These life changes primarily stemmed from moving out of the parental home to attend college or for work/career-related commitments. It is not surprising that these were selected as the number one reason by the survey participants. In the current day and age, it appears that a college education is a must if you want to succeed in life. Going to college and gaining knowledge is noble, commendable, and undoubtedly a privilege; however, it also brings about significant lifestyle changes for many young and impressionable people. Leaving your parents’ house and moving into a dorm means that you may not have the protection and guidance that your parents provided. Students are faced with all that comes along with independent living and are suddenly responsible for making their own decisions. Another critical factor is the duration for which young people are away from their families. Four years of undergraduate studies alone is long enough to change most people, especially those young people who are still trying to find their way in life. Studying takes up most of a student’s time. Whatever free time is left is used to do chores and enjoy campus life, which can draw young people away from making time for or interest in the church and religion. Attending church becomes more complex and less of a priority. This aspect of life can impact all of us, regardless of religious beliefs. Many of our children have already attended college, are currently attending, or will be attending soon.
The second most selected reason is, unfortunately, more common than one might expect. Most of the youth said that other church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical and that they did not feel connected with other church members. I have personal experience in this area as I was privileged to serve as a Local and Regional Qaid (leader) for the Men’s Youth Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. I heard some young boys and men who were part of this auxiliary express similar concerns. They felt that some elders pass judgment about their appearance and their way of life without really knowing them or their circumstances.
Additionally, some felt uncomfortable to ask certain questions or discuss specific topics openly. Younger people also find it challenging to connect with the elders and vice versa; this can often be language-related between generations who are raised in different places and cultures. However, by the grace of Allah, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has recognized these issues and trends and is actively taking steps to mitigate them. Various programs specifically address the most current issues, such as LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, etc.
While talking to a Christian co-worker and friend, I asked him if they faced this issue at their church. He stated that this used to be commonplace at their church in the past; however, much like our community, their church leadership recognized the need to address these issues. A concerted effort was and is being made to establish personal relationships with young members to get to know them better.
As more social, ethical, and political issues become intertwined with religious views, this becomes another matter of contention for many millenials. According to the LifeWay survey, many young people do not agree with the church’s political and social issues policy. In addition, according to the Pew Research Center (2), only 23 percent of younger millenials consider religion as a source of guidance on right or wrong. The majority, or 77 percent, rely on philosophy, reason, common sense, or science as their source; many, therefore, do not see eye to eye with the church regarding their social or political views. It is also safe to say that as these young people are trying to find their way through life, they rely less on religion to differentiate right from wrong, thus further minimizing the need to attend church.
Lastly, the fourth category is of youth who cited issues with the students and youth ministry as their reason for leaving the church. This issue may be somewhat unique to Christianity as other organized religions may not have a youth ministry, at least not at every place of worship. In this case, the youth felt that they did not connect with students in the youth ministry, while some thought that the students in the youth ministry were judgmental or hypocritical.
As I mentioned initially, depending on which study, survey, or article you read, you will get an array of reasons why young people are leaving the church and religion in general. One may ask why a Muslim like myself would care about the state of the church and its young members. As Muslims living in America, we are not immune to our surroundings and our society’s issues.
Furthermore, as Ahmadi Muslims, it is even more critical for us to take a keen interest in this topic. As Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad, Khalifatul-Masih II (ra) stated:
“Nations cannot be reformed without the reformation of their youth” (5). Firstly, we need to take some time to self-reflect as the reasons mentioned above can and do afflict our youth. Our youth deal with the same challenges of being away from families, the larger community, and of confronting the lust and luster of this world on their own.
We also face generational gaps and some judgmental behavior within our mosques. Being able to make all the right decisions at a young and impressionable age is not easy, let alone when most of your peers seem to be relying on everything other than religion as their moral compass. We need to tackle this issue early on and nurture our youth with love and compassion from early childhood. We need to make more effort to get to know every young person in our mosques to help them along their journey. Secondly, our obligation as Ahmadi Muslims is to reach out to and connect with young Americans who are leaving the church.
The article, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back,” by Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux published on December 12, 2019 (6) mentions a survey by the American Enterprise Institute. The survey was conducted in November of 2019 by more than 2,500 Americans. Summarized below are the three reasons the study identified as to why millennials are not returning to religion:
• Many millennials were not too religious to begin with.
• Increased likelihood of having a non-religious spouse.
• Relationship between morality and religion.
Considering the reasons mentioned above, if we reach out to these young souls early and often, by giving them the beautiful message of Islam and praying for them, maybe we can reverse these alarming trends and bring them back to religion.
In conclusion, remembering what Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad, Khalifatul-Masih II (ra) said, it would be in our interest to help guide and reform the youth of America. Therefore, it is incumbent on every Ahmadi Muslim to pray for all the youth and actively assist them in finding their way through life.
1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennials (Accessed November 17, 2021)
2. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/generational-cohort/younger-millennial/ (Accessed November 17, 2021)
3. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/religion/2019/01/15/lifeway-research-survey-says-young-adults-dropping-out-church/2550997002/ (Accessed November 17, 2021)4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LifeWay_Christian_Resources (Accessed November 17, 2021)
5. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih II (ra), Friday Sermon delivered April 1, 1938 – Al-Fazal News Paper, April 10, 1938
6. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/millennials-are-leaving-religion-and-not-coming-back (Access November 30, 2021)
Last modified: January 2022