Losing their religion: Millennials leaving their faith behind

Losing their religion: Millennials leaving their faith behind (Pixabay via MGN Online)

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) Nearly 60 percent of all millennials raised in a church have stopped going.

They're not in search of a new faith, they simply want out.

The mass exodus from church pews nationwide has been studied at length in recent years by the Pew Research Center, which tracks Millennials by state, religion and faith. It's research has found that no religion has been safe in these drastic membership losses each one is still grappling with a way to bring them back.

In Utah, a state known for its religious fervor, and home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the loss of young people is evident.

Researchers believe Mormons may remain in larger numbers than other faiths, but retention rates are dropping at a never-before-seen speed.


Millennials are a tricky bunch to understand. They are the first group to come of age in the new millennium, born after 1980, living in a world far different than even the generation before.

When you hear the term “millennial” you probably think of the people who packed Bernie Sanders rallies, love taking selfies and hate to commit to anything including moving out of your basement.

Those are the stereotypes, but if you look at the cold hard data, there is one thing we know for sure: Millennials of all religious backgrounds are leaving the faith of their fathers at an alarming rate. To give you a better understanding of where they are coming from, 2News sat down with two women who shared their stories and insights.

“I'm definitely not interested in any religion as far as religions that exist," said 24-year-old Samantha Shelley. "I consider myself a secular humanist.”

Shelley is well-spoken, thoughtful and said she has no need for religion in her life. The beautiful blonde was born and raised in England, but moved to the states to go to college at Brigham Young University Idaho. She joined the LDS church as a teen and loved her church so much she wanted to be a bigger part of it.

“I feel like I’m way too logical now to be religious,” Shelley said.

Shelley is now married, works in marketing and can’t imagine joining another religion or going back to the one she left, but the journey hasn’t been easy. In fact, she said losing her religion was painful.

“It was difficult for me, because I didn't grow up religious," Shelley said. "I joined what I thought was this perfect religion, true church."

For Shelley “not having an expectation of a heaven or a God or whatever and then being given it and losing it” was painful.

When she finally decided to leave and tell her husband she felt “so much worse off than I was before."

"That was a difficult emotional journey,” Shelley said.

Millennials like Samantha are not leaving because they're lazy, according to research. They are doing their due diligence before walking away from something they see as more hurtful than helpful.

For Shelley, her “whole transition was only about three months.” Researchers studying this mass exodus say this is the case for most. The decision is made quickly and there is no looking back once the decision is made.


According to Pew Research, Shelley is not an anomaly. She and a third of all Mormon millennials have decided to walk away into a new category called the "nones."

Not to be mistaken with a Nun, who has devoted their life to God, Nones have no religion, nor a desire to seek one.

“It's really hard to put everyone into a box,” said 28-year-old Rachael Fox.

Fox said she felt like church was boxing her into a set of beliefs that did not align with her own. She grew up a non-denominational Christian in the Ogden area, but parted ways with the church of her childhood when she graduated high school.


“Human rights was a big thing for me,” Fox said.

In her private Christian school, Rachael said she saw teachers and church leaders harass gay students something that struck a nerve. She recalls a 12-year-old classmate being subjected to torment, and other students battled “Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee's 2005 gay romance film, jokes as they were trying to find their way.

It was “from there on” she “started to dissect other things that maybe I was being told, and had to decide whether they were true and if I believed them or not.”

Both Fox and Shelley like so many others their age support social change including gay rights and marriage. Millennials are a generation of inclusion, something the two women said they weren't finding inside their churches, a place which they both said should be a respite and place of acceptance.


“My generation grew up in the information age," Shelley said. "So we have a totally different way of determining truth, or at least our ability to determine truth may be different.”

Shelley found her way out of the LDS church after doing online research.

“As a Mormon, you know about polygamy but you don't know about polygamy," Shelley said.

A good friend who researched LDS doctrine and history in an effort to strengthen his own faith shared what he found, which only served to pull Shelley further away.

Her self-described struggle started just before her marriage in the Logan, Utah LDS temple, and ended quickly after.

Shelley said she did not go looking for reasons to leave her faith, but that once she was presented with information she found harmful, it became easy for her to find answers to questions she had never been allowed to ask church members.

Shelley, though young in her faith, considered herself “well-versed in Mormonism generally” as she left her home country of England and started her college career at BYU Idaho.

“It was really quick after I started learning the stuff about history that I was like, this is not what I signed up for at all,” Shelley said.

The information age has ushered in an age of transparency, in which Millennials can not only search out truth, but a place where they expect transparency. Today’s young adults expect their churches to open their bank books as readily as their doors and there are very few, if any, who will lay out where tithing or donation dollars go.

That doesn't sit well with Fox.

“The hypocrisy of all of it," Fox said. 'Being told I need to donate 10 percent of my paycheck to a church where you go and you are sitting in an old arena and they have thousands of people and flying on private planes, but there are people who are poor and need food,” Fox said.

She said she wanted to know whether her money was going to the needy and service-related initiatives, or for new buildings and bloated paychecks.


Millennials yearn for accountability from their leaders and themselves, Pew found. Instead of spending hours in church meetings every week, they express desire to use that time getting into back to the basics of service.

“We were put here to help others along the way," Fox said.

After leaving her church, Fox pursued a career path that allows her to serve every day: She works at a retirement home as an activities director.

“I love going to work every day and making the residents smile and being a part of their lives and bringing joy to this final chapter of their lives," Fox said.

Fox will tell you she’s “passionate about making the world a better place."

I think it is a trend that is coming out millennials taking care of others and realizing we are not alone and we need to take care of others on the earth,” Fox said.

But for each Millennial, the journey is different.

Shelley has made changes in her life since leaving her religion as well.

She told 2News she is "really introspective and kind of in tune with how we all become what we are."

"In that respect, I’m spiritual,” Shelley said.

She has become politically active. She recently adopted two cats. One named Bernie as in Independent Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Bansky, like the street artist. She has also given up meat in order to care for animals and the earth.


Pew research is still following this new generation and has found that while only 27 percent of millennials regularly attend church, 42 percent still pray daily.

Another 67 percent cling to a belief in heaven or a life beyond the one they have now.

“Having faith in something bigger than you” is something Fox needs her in life.

There is one Christian blogger who has some ideas for faith leaders. In fact, Sam Eaton's February blog post on the topic has gone viral.

“From the depths of my heart, I want to love church," Eaton wrote. "I want to be head over heels for church like the unshakable Ned Flanders. I want to send global, sky-writing airplanes telling the life-change that happens beneath a steeple. I want to install a police microphone on top of my car and cruise the streets screaming to the masses about the magical Utopian community of believers waiting for them just down the street."

"Turns out, I identify more with Maria from The Sound of Music staring out the abbey window, longing to be free," Eaton wrote.

In the post, he included 12 "theses," like those of Martin Luther's, to help faith leaders understand his concerns. They include the following:

  1. Nobody’s Listening to Us
  2. We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements
  3. Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority
  4. We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture
  5. The “You Can’t Sit With Us” Affect
  6. Distrust & Misallocation of Resources
  7. We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At
  8. We Want to Feel Valued
  9. We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues
  10. The Public Perception
  11. Stop Talking About Us
  12. You’re Failing to Adapt

“The truth is” he wrote, “it’s your move.”

Pew research shows the Salt Lake City LDS Church has a 64 percent retention rate, a drastic drop from nearly 90 percent in the 1980s.

Mormons are faring better than the average, and that may be due in part to a recent move to get teens immersed in church earlier with missions at a younger age, but each faith will have to do some good hard thinking according to the Millennials we spoke to if they are going to figure out what they're doing wrong to make these numbers turn around.

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