Christina Guy hung up the phone with tears welling up in her eyes. She slid off her bed onto the floor with a blank stare of disbelief. Her mother had told her the worst news she could possibly hear. Her sister’s father-in-law, Darrell Bland, had died in his hospital bed from pneumonia. Just a few days prior she was told he was miraculously recovering. Hearing that gave her more and more hope—not just that he would recover, but that maybe God did exist and was listening to her cries for guidance.
But then the phone call arrived. Her heartbeat elevated and she struggled to catch her breath after the short yet overwhelming conversation. A concoction of rage, remorse and frustration emerged inside of her. She sat motionless in complete shock, her mind went blank, and she gripped her knees to her chest like a child. She crouched in this position and wailed aloud as the tears started to flow. She wished that she could have at least paid him a visit, but no one expected this—the worst—to happen.
“I realized everything I believed in up until that point was a lie,” said Christina.
Christina found herself becoming a part of the 29 percent of Millennials that do not affiliate with religion. More than 27 percent of this group are college students, and this group is the largest population of nonreligious individuals in history. Millennials are choosing to be unaffiliated with religion in the highest numbers in the last 40 years. Around 36 percent of younger Millennials between 18 and 24 are unaffiliated with a religion, as are 34 percent of older Millennials between 25 and 33. Only 21 percent of Generation X does not affiliate with religion, along with only 16 percent of Baby Boomers.
However, it hadn’t always been that way for Christina, who is now a 22-year-old recent college graduate. When she was just six, she attended church every Sunday, Vacation Bible School each summer, and when she was old enough, youth group.
Her discontent began to emerge shortly after. The other children at church were all homeschooled while Christina attended public school. The others did not want to socialize with her for that reason, and so she began to feel like a pariah in her church during middle school. This feeling continued into high school.
Not only did Christina feel rejected, but she also began to piece together what she perceived as corruption within her church. While walking through her high school parking lot one afternoon, Christina saw something that made her stop in her tracks. The preacher’s daughter, Mariah, was opening the door to a brand new Mustang. Seeing the blatant luxury of her family was incomprehensible. Christina found herself confused, infuriated–and bold enough to ask Mariah such an out-of-place question.
“How on Earth can your family afford that car?” asked Christina.
“I guess my parents just love me a lot,” Mariah answered without much thought.
Christina’s outrage grew stronger with the response she received. She watched her mother put hard earned money into the collection basket each Sunday, and they donated even more at times when the family was better off. Her own family could not even afford a car for Christina–much less a Mustang. Christina began to wonder how much of her family’s donations ended up in the preacher’s pocket–she was convinced that it happened.
Christina stopped going to church in protest. She was angry at how corrupt she perceived the institution of church to be. She decided that she would be just fine having a relationship with God on her own, without the distraction of organized religion soliciting for donations.
Christina did not know what her pastor earned, but she sensed that something was off. This feeling she had plays out in real life. While the median salary for clergy workers in the United States is just under $44,000, the numbers vary significantly. A writer for What Christians Want to Know and blogger for Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, Jack Wellman, said the lowest paid pastor in 2010 earned $0 while the average salary of a megachurch pastor was $147,000. The Houston Chronicle found that when church budgets are more than $10 million, executive pastors are paid nearly $100,000 more each year than churches that have budgets of less than $2 million.
The Leadership Network/Vanderbloemen 2014 Large Church Salary Report states that the biggest factor to church budget is size and attendance. In this regard, churches function very much like businesses. Those with the most “customers” earn the most money and have bigger paychecks.
Many churches today even allow online donations with a credit card–which sounds very much like the consumerist world of corporate America. Between 39 and 52 percent of the total church budget is spent on staffing, and typically, pastors make 3.4 percent of the total church budget. This extreme difference in the amount of money churches bring in makes it difficult to know for certain how much pastors make each year because there is no set standard or regulation to how much their salaries will be.
After just a few years of exploring spirituality on her own, Christina found her desire to attend church rekindled. She had been raised to believe that going to church was the right thing to do, so she decided to give it another shot. During her senior year of high school she began attending the newly built Maryland Community Church. This church had a giant amphitheater and three enormous screens that held lyrics during services. The building itself was a massive, modernized structure, and a lot of the churchgoers were other high school students. Sitting among her Christian peers, Christina felt her faith start to thrive.
This church, like many modern churches, did its best to appeal to a younger crowd. There was a coffee shop, a game room, and the congregation was encouraged to use their smartphone to follow along during services. Many churches today attempt to attract the growing number of disillusioned Millennials by appealing to what they think this generation wants. This includes “hip” pastors with tattoos and beards, live music, and giving away prizes at the end of sermons, such as iPads and cars. However, there is no evidence that suggests these efforts are working, and Millennials don’t seem to be coming back to the faith they left behind.
Christina’s revived faith was short-lived. After only a month, she was peeved that once again, so much emphasis was placed on money. The preacher of the new church started asking for more donations to help pay off the bills that had accumulated while creating the massive church. Christina waited impatiently for the service to end, and finally, she walked out of the church for the last time with an uneasy feeling in her stomach. She knew that she could not go back.
The reason so many Millennial college students begin to question religion are due to the ways in which our society has been shaped over time. Dr. Elizabeth Agnew, an associate professor of religious studies at Ball State University, believes that there has been a loosening of ties with institutions over the years, and there is more diversity–and therefore exposure to new ideas and beliefs. This erosion of trust and obligation toward institutions causes skepticism among many individuals.
Millennials especially tend to believe that others cannot be trusted. The Pew Research Center found that Millennials tend to not trust others more so than The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X. Their low levels of trust may contribute to their more analytical and inquisitive approach to institutions, such as religion.
Agnew says that although there is movement out of religion, there is also movement between religions and toward a stricter version of one’s religion for some. However, the Pew Research Center found that Millennials who are unaffiliated with religion are most likely to stay that way when compared to all other religious categories. Therefore, Millennials who become unaffiliated are more than likely going to remain unaffiliated.
Not long after deciding to quit church once again, Christina was off to Ball State University. It was here that she made a lot of friends who considered themselves atheist. Throughout her first year and into her second, her beliefs were questioned and challenged. She discovered that all her church and family had taught her about the Bible and Christianity were not true.
Christina wanted to believe what she had been taught, but at the same time, she didn’t want to sink to that level of ignorance. It was when she discovered her sister’s father-in-law had suddenly developed pneumonia and was in bad condition that she knew she would get her answer. Christina decided to make an ultimatum with God. If he let Darrell live, she would take it as a sign that God was watching out for her and was listening to her prayers. If God let Darrell die so young, she would be convinced that there was no God.
Only one week passed before she got her answer. In the moment her mother told her of Darrell’s death, she internally assumed the identity of an atheist as she had a breakdown on her bedroom floor.
This trend of Millennials increasingly choosing not to make religion a part of their lives is slightly more popular among men, with 30 percent of men stating they are not affiliated with any religion compared to 25.4 percent of women, as found through The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 survey.
In the United States today, college students tend to reject organized religion in all forms and possess a different view than the one they were raised to have. College students today tend to formulate one of three worldviews: religious, secular, and spiritual. Each of these groups has distinct theological, philosophical, political and scientific views.
Christina would be considered to have a secular worldview. Forty-nine percent of this group were also raised in actively religious homes, just as Christina was. In the United States, nearly one in five adults who were raised within a particular faith now do not affiliate with religion at all.
Christina coped with Darrell’s death and her newfound lack of belief in God through conversations with her boyfriend, father and older brother. Her brother, Johnathan Guy, educated her on his approach to religion and God–which was rather mellow compared to what she was used to.
Johnathan believes many religions consist of cult-like affiliation and are in a way, brainwashing. He told Christina he believes most people pick and choose which parts of the Bible they want to believe and disregard the rest.
“I kind of started to realize not everything is this fairytale, storybook version I learned about in Sunday school,” said Christina.
This view is not atypical of Millennials. Eighty percent of Millennials tend to believe Christianity is too hypocritical. Nearly two-thirds of Millennials also feel that Christianity is too judgmental.
After sorting through her anger, grief, and other emotions, Christina began to identify herself openly as an atheist to her friends, relatives and her own mother. This revelation was a shock to her family, and Christina avoided the topic to prevent disagreements.
Christina went home for Thanksgiving in November–the first time she would be faced with her family praying together to a God she no longer believed in. As the family prepared to eat, Christina sat in her chair awkwardly, anticipating the prayer she would be criticized for not participating in. One-by-one her family members took their seats and began passing around food. This was perplexing to Christina, because this never happened until after they had all held hands and prayed. She finally spoke up and asked why the family didn’t pray this year. She only received a response from her niece, who also inquired about why they didn’t pray. It was in this moment of silence that Christina realized that they truly accepted her as an atheist.
She didn’t need a response to understand they didn’t pray because she was home, sitting around the table with all of her loved ones, who undoubtedly wanted her to feel loved also. She knew for certain that her family would stand by her decision—even if that decision was contrary to what they wanted. Christina sighed of relief. She was at peace knowing that throughout her journey of leaving behind religion and joining many of her peers in the largest group of nonreligious in history, she did not lose her loved ones in the process.
Illustration by Erika Espinoza