Robrenna Redl isn’t the kind of person many pastors would expect to stop attending church. The Lincoln, Nebraska, resident still wants to be a faithful Christian. She has a long history of involvement with church ministries. And she’s older than 40.
Redl came to know Jesus in her 30s, and for the years that followed, she was a model member of a conservative nondenominational church.
“I was very involved as a Sunday school teacher for elementary for seven years and for middle school for six or seven years,” she said. She served on the women’s ministry leadership team and worked for the church for five years. She was, by every description, a faithful member.
But in 2018, after 17 years of service, she walked away.
Redl is not alone. Patterns in church attendance show that people over 40—that is, Gen X and baby boomers—are at least as likely to stop attending church as millennials and Gen Z.
There was a time when pastors would look down from the pulpit at the gray-haired congregants sitting in the pews and consider them safe bets. These were the people whose faithfulness they didn’t worry about.
“People took it for granted,” said Ryan Burge, a pastor and researcher, that “the Golden Girls are not leaving. They’re going to be there every Sunday no matter what.”
But according to Barna, some of the biggest declines in church attendance over the past three decades have been among adults 55 and older. “We can’t just blame the young people for the drop in church attendance,” said Savannah Kimberlin, Barna’s director of research solutions.
People are leaving church from all age groups, and older generations are no exception. According to Burge, “There is no birth cohort that is more religious today than it was 12 years ago.”
Barna found that the percentage of people reporting weekly church attendance in America between 1993 and prepandemic 2020 reached a high of 48 percent in 2009 then plummeted to 29 percent in 2020.
That’s partly because an increasing number of Americans never attend church as adults. Millennials and Gen Z, who are 38 or younger in 2022, are statistically less religious than their parents and grandparents were at the same ages.
But that’s a different issue than church dropout, in which people who had been part of a church stop participating.
In 2009, 46 percent of boomers and 44 percent of Gen X said they went to church every week. Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, those rates had dropped by nearly a third to 32 percent and 29 percent. (By comparison, millennial church participation dropped by roughly 22 percent during the same period, with roughly a quarter attending weekly in 2020.)
Lifeway Research reports that as the coronavirus pandemic continues, almost all churches have been meeting in person since August 2021, and most prepandemic churchgoers have returned.
However, Burge finds in US government data that in the past few years, adults between 55 and 64 are reporting significantly reduced church attendance, lowering their attendance by 10 percentage points. These older adults are not fitting the pattern of other generations, who report similar rates of church attendance in 2018 and 2021. This may mean that churches will soon notice the drop in their older attendees, even if the pattern isn’t clear yet.
The data challenge some long-held beliefs about older church attendees, Burge writes in a new book, 20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America. One of them is what he calls the “life cycle effect,” the idea that people raised in the church might drift away when they get their independence after high school but will return to the church to raise their children. When their children leave the nest, some of these parents make their exit from the church, but most will stay.
As logical as this theory may sound, it hasn’t described Americans’ behavior since the baby boomers were emerging adults, Burge argues. “The data is pretty clear,” he said. “The life cycle effect doesn’t really work anymore.” When people stop attending church these days, their pastors can’t expect them to return.
In December 2017, Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their reasons for not going to religious services. The responses from Christians showed a clear generation gap.
Among those over 65 who didn’t attend church, 45 percent said they don’t go to church because “I practice my faith in other ways.” About the same proportion of people between 50 and 64 said the same. In other words, just under half of Christians over 40 who stop attending church feel they’re still practicing their faith.
It was a different story among younger adults. Only about a quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said they don’t go to church because they practice their faith in other ways.
David Landow pastors Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware. He has found that those who leave tend to fall into two groups: those who “fade away” and those who “break away.”
The “fade away” group includes people he knows who have entered retirement communities and drifted out of regular attendance. “They’re not apostatizing,” Landow said. “Church just doesn’t seem to hold a priority.” He believes that’s true of a lot of older adults who are leaving the church.
Nate Phillips pastors Kirk in the Hills, a Presbyterian (USA) church in Michigan, and has witnessed the trend of older adults leaving church. He says when congregants aren’t satisfied, they look for better uses of their time than serving on church committees.
Phillips had a conversation recently with one of his middle-aged members who had left. “I love you. I love the people there,” the man explained. “But quite frankly, I’m getting everything I get at church in my soccer club.”
In the Pew survey about quitting church, less than a third (28%) of Christians over 65 who don’t attend church said they stopped because of dislike for the church. This group selected statements such as “I haven’t found a church I like,” “I don’t like the sermons,” and “I don’t feel welcome.”
Most boomers “are not getting hung up on the negative reputation of the church,” Kimberlin said. But younger Christians are more critical.
Roughly 38 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and of 18- to 29-year-olds said they didn’t attend church because of some form of dislike. Landow calls this the “break away group.” “It’s a midlife crisis of sorts,” he says.
The Pew survey results fit with other research findings. Kimberlin says Gen Z and millennials are more likely than older Christians to view the church as judgmental and have a less overall positive view of its role in a community.
Josh Laxton, assistant director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, believes the exodus from church pews has been fueled by a variety of factors. Some are leaving because the church’s views don’t line up with their personal ones. Others find that amplified tensions over issues such as politics and social justice have made church uncomfortable for them.
Josh Baker is a professor at East Tennesee State University and editor of Sociology of Religion. Baker has found that the main difference between those leaving and staying in churches is political affiliation. Those who identify as Independent or Democrat politically are most likely to stop attending church and pursue their faith privately, he says.
However, Burge said, people rarely quit church for dramatic reasons like scandal or abuse. “The reality is that most people leave for very practical reasons,” he said. They could move, or life becomes busy and church is not as convenient as it once was.“Some people can’t even articulate why they left in a coherent way. They just did.”
Of course, some people can point to a specific reason for leaving. For Redl, it was a shift she saw in the church she had been attending. “The church became increasingly antagonistic towards ‘others,’ not attuned to the fact that I am the other,” said Redl, who is Black and has two biracial children.
She said the church also began to display an alignment with extreme-right politics and handled addressing sexual abuse in the church poorly.
While she didn’t feel comfortable in the church she left, Redl hasn’t been able to find the right fit anywhere else, either. “Since leaving, I’ve struggled with returning to church,” she said. “I tried to go to the church my young adult children attended, but it’s a bit too young and hipster for me.”
She’s tried a few informal gatherings and worshiped at a church on Zoom, but she hasn’t formally joined any. “I’m struggling to find my footing due to my mistrust of Christians in groups,” she said. “I’m able to sit in one-on-one conversations, but groups are complicated for me.”
Phillips worries about the spiritual impact that exits like Redl’s have on not only those leaving but also on those caught up in the ripples of their departures.
“Right now the world is just all twisted, and we’ve lost our moment,” Phillips said. “At the very minimum, we used to offer a moral compass,” but now he says Americans no longer look to the church for that.
“I think people are looking for meaning and the infinite and a connection with the great story,” he said. In church services and activities, “sometimes we catch them up in a lot of the finite.”
Still, people who perceive church as a place to hear uplifting sermons or to get moral calibration might point out the convenience of listening to recorded messages and songs. Such activities might be why many older church dropouts believe they are still practicing their faith, still learning, still worshiping.
However, the idea that the church “box” can be checked without meeting with other believers is contradicted in the Bible. Hebrews 10:24–25 tells Christians to meet as a part of a deliberate effort to encourage each other. People do not stop needing church once they become mature believers.
Laxton knows the Bible is full of injunctions to meet with other believers. People don’t stop needing each other, needing a place to belong, just because they can download podcasts. He points out that if people don’t make church a priority, life offers no shortage of activities to lure them away.
While commitments such as childcare (for children or grandchildren), work, and life’s other demands can keep some people over 40 away, Laxton notes that weekends spent traveling in retirement also disrupt regular church attendance.
The reasons for US church dropout are unlikely to lie in changes to what churches say about their own value, Baker says, since his research hasn’t turned up alterations in church teachings on the importance of meeting in person. He points instead to the emergence of other ways to hear sermons or worship music.
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, says life events can often trigger a change in church attendance. In younger adults, it may be going to college, but in later years, moving to a new city or reaching the empty nest stage can be equally disruptive. Even if the life cycle theory doesn’t apply, life events are still transition points, and they can make church participation feel like more of a hassle or less worthwhile.
Landow believes many of those who become disenchanted with Christianity do so when their lives don’t live up to their expectations. “Maybe their marriage is not what they thought it would be, or raising kids is not as fulfilling as they thought it would be,” he said.
It can seem in those times that their faith was founded on a false bill of goods. Landow has worked with numerous people who viewed their Christian walk as a list of milestones: graduate, get married, have children. But once those are checked off—or if the possibility of such a sequence of events expires—they’re left at a crossroads. They don’t see what discipleship means beyond those milestones.
In recent years, Landow has also seen the spiritual turmoil that parents experience when their kids walk away from the faith. If parents aren’t firmly grounded themselves, the struggle can pull them away, too. Some feel like they are choosing between faith and family.
“If your faith is running on self-produced fumes, you kind of run out of gas,” Landow said.
“If they’re not seeing the value themselves in their own faith, that becomes a decision point for them,” McConnell said. He believes that’s why it’s important for churches to consider all age groups as at risk of leaving.
“As people age, they tend to become more spiritually mature, but that doesn’t remove the risk or likelihood that they could go astray or no longer want to be practicing with other believers.”
If church leadership and members keep that in mind and reach out to those who haven’t been at church in a while to see what they’re struggling with and let them know they’re valued, McConnell said it can help push back against the trends.
Landow believes it’s important that churches be careful not to offer a false sense that the Christian life will be a smooth series of accomplishments.
“The Christian life is not easy, and it’s not a promise that if you go through these steps, you’ll be fulfilled,” Landow said. “Christianity is about longing for the kingdom to come. We’ve made it too much about what we long for now.”
Pastor Kate Murphy of The Grove in Charlotte, North Carolina, has pastored a church that was dying. She’s seen people leave and, more often than not, it was over personal preferences. But God used other people in her life to cause her to think more deeply.
“It was so easy to sit inside the sanctuary and think about the people who were choosing to go to brunch or choosing to mow their lawns on Sunday morning or choosing to sign their kids up for a sports league that played on Sunday morning,” Murphy said. “It was so easy to look at those choices and think, ‘Well, those people don’t think as deeply as we do. They don’t care as deeply as we do. They don’t take God as seriously as we do.’ ”
But in the end, she realized that her church wasn’t meeting people’s spiritual needs.
“When people come looking for spiritual transformation and looking for tools that make life in this broken world bearable, we don’t have them. And so people walk away,” Murphy said.
She believes the solution is for leaders and congregants to repent, acknowledge there is something wrong, and admit that those within the church have contributed to the problem. The Holy Spirit is still drawing, and people still have spiritual needs that they long to have filled.
“I think some of us inside the church have forgotten how transformative and life-changing and how inherently and intrinsically good the gospel is,” Murphy said. “If we get back to that, I think we’ll see that God is faithful.”
Kimberlin, for her part, hopes Barna’s research can help church leaders think about how to strengthen their congregations and minister to older generations.
“Are you making sure that your older generations have a place in your church? I think the fact that they have been faithful church attenders their whole life and now they’re walking away from church in their 50s and 60s really says something that they’re feeling very deeply about belonging or value.”
Burge believes churches have a great opportunity and a great risk before them. “To ignore the older people is to ignore them at your peril,” he said.
But it’s not just about churches’ ability to keep running as before. As Lifeway’s McConnell says, “Every generation matters to God and should matter to the church.”
Adam MacInnis is a reporter in Canada and a regular CT contributor.
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