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July 27th, 2013
08:33 AM ET

Why millennials are leaving the church

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

(CNN) - At 32, I barely qualify as a millennial.

I wrote my first essay with a pen and paper, but by the time I graduated from college, I owned a cell phone and used Google as a verb.

I still remember the home phone numbers of my old high school friends, but don’t ask me to recite my husband’s without checking my contacts first.

I own mix tapes that include selections from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I’ve never planned a trip without Travelocity.

Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates - edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions - Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. - precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Now these trends are obviously true not only for millennials but also for many folks from other generations. Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO!” So I don’t want to portray the divide as wider than it is.

But I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.

Their answers might surprise you.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of "Evolving in Monkey Town" and "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to Rachel Held Evans.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • evangelicals • Opinion

soundoff (9,864 Responses)
  1. SteveH

    Fascinating write-up, and right on target! I now follow Wicca because, frankly, if he was here Jesus probably would too. Look at the outrageous hypocrisies of any of the traditional religions! Guns? Pro-Life but couldn't care less about the living? Women as second-class citizens (and some evangelicals would probably prefer them in burqas)? Pro death penalty? LGBT? Advocating beheading a teacher when her class votes, over her resistance, to name their teddy bear "Muhammad"? Ayatollahs and tele-evangelists condemning what they know zero about? Religion is a venue of compassion, and far far too few of the "faithful" can muster any of that up even on their holy days.

    August 23, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • jjg777.

      The bible says "God commanded his love for us that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Yes, we as people are very sad. God knows that we are just dirt. He has shown us why we need him. He does not want any of us to perish because of sin which he must punish. He has offered us a way out.

      Confess with your mouth his son Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead and you to will be saved.

      When you die, the only Judge (no Jury) will be All Mighty God. He must punish you and I for our sins but he has offered a way out. His son can be our attorney (when you see the son he looks just like the father) The Father allowed the Son to take your punishment. Now the son is whispering in your ear that all you have to do is tell the Judge (God) who is all powerful , knows all and is present everywhere that you appreciate what his son has done. Then God will give you a free get out of Hell card.

      Otherwise, according to God who owns all, including your soul, you have no hope. He has made it so easy if you will only believe. Trust in the Lord. Lean not on your OWN understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.

      August 26, 2013 at 10:19 am |
      • photografr7

        Man is dirt? Speak for yourself, OK?

        August 26, 2013 at 10:25 am |
      • John McGrath

        "heresy is another term for freedom of thought." Obeying Bible dictators has brought nothing good in this world. Freedom of thought has.

        August 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • jjg777.

          God is the one who did not make you or I a robot. We have freedom of thought and action. But the caveat is that we are held accountable for our actions . That God wants you and I to recognize his love for us by his action of sending his only begotten son Jesus to die for us.

          One day he will bring each of us into the court that only has a Judge and no Jury. He wants you to prepare for that day, as all have sinned and fell short of his glory and a penalty has to be paid. You can prepare for that day by asking his son who has paid the debt to be your advocate. But you must ask. If you do not ask, then you go in like a crazy man representing him self and you know what they say about that.

          August 26, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
        • Dippy

          Me, not I. Too much bible, not enough grammar.

          August 26, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
        • John McGrath

          Weirdly meaningless reply.

          August 26, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
        • photografr7

          @John McGrath

          You don't understand that but you understand the Bible which is pure gibberish?

          August 26, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
        • John McGrath

          The comment you replied to had nothing to do with the Bible. Sober up.

          August 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  2. tony54563456

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    CASES OF ORGANS DESTRUCTION – CASES OF BRAIN DESTRUCTION.

    HUMAN RACE STUDIES IN LATINO AMERICA.

    ASIAN POLITICS SELLING VENEZUELANS.

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    August 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  3. william

    Interesting article. I see where your heart is coming from but I would disagree with you.

    First, if you look at the pattern of the church, young people have been leaving at a higher rate for years and years. This is not just specific to millennials, it is just a common trend. Young adults have the opportunity to capitalize on more choices for the first time and they choose to explore more things rather than stay in the church.

    Secondly, I've worked in a traditional and contemporary church setting and it is a fact that there is a decline in the attendance in most traditional congregations and the contemporary churches are seeing more people come. The stigma of the contemporary church is not as true as one might think. There was an attempt to "wow" people but churches saw quickly there needed to be more substance. So now more contemporary churches go much deeper that they get credit for.

    I'm glad that you are passionate about this topic, but churches can offer new and relevant stuff and still offer Jesus.

    August 22, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • randyb12

      Where? I live in Texas and see the same old evangelical walls of hate and the churches turning to dating zones for people sick of the bars.

      August 22, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
    • graywills

      William, yours is a very positive and accurate response. I think today's young people are much more savvy and see through the gimmicks that some areas of the Church use to bank-up the numbers – make church going more attractive. Nine times out of ten it doesn't work. I have young nephews in Germany who were invited to a Star Wars Mass (?) which they very quickly saw through, turning down the invitation.
      I think the 'local church' has to be exactly that and stop trying to be all things to all people. It must also accept the fact that people will go 'elsewhere' but be ready with the Truth when a soul comes searching.
      Thanks for your well thought contribution. It helped me!

      August 22, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • DarkNot

      William,
      Thank you for your service to the needs of others. I trend to disagree with you on a couple of points, primary on the thought that churches are offering 'new and relevant stuff' The issue I (age 52) and others find it the limited view of God and Jesus that so many churches preach. It's too literal for modern 'science' based people. Think of the difference between evolution and creation. Too much data to support evolution... Sticking to dogma over science isn't going to win people over.

      I personally experience and feel the creative force of God in everything I do, see and feel. I don't need to wait for the 'end time' the experience of love is here ... now .... I bring you a new commandment ... Love One another ... that's you need.

      August 22, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
      • Andy

        Well said!

        August 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • New Life

      As a young person I can say that I have found it hard to find a church that offered freedom. Freedom from a certain way to dress and a certain way to worship. Freedom from being judged as a black sheep for the escape of an abusive marriage. Freedom from the combines of dresses and the judgmental stares. Freedom to have friends of different languages and religions. The young Christians are looking for a church of more acceptance along with a church that hungers for God. Older generations are too quick to judge others and many don't realize that it is God's job to judge and not our own.

      August 22, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  4. NOYB

    Religion is a waste of time, and it creates violence, and demotes women to 2nd class citizens.... War after war has been fought in who had the better religion. Why would we millennials want to be stuck in the past and be wasting time being brainwashed into thinking violence is okay and that women are 2nd class citizens???

    August 22, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • John McGrath

      Well put. Amen form an old man.

      August 22, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • Hrm...

      Does anyone else see the irony that the dogmatic, anti-free thinking, logical framework used by "church elders" is being employed here as a reason for why millennial are leaving the church while also engaging in the same "speaking for everyone" mentality that some churches are despised for?

      Wars after wars were fought for other reasons – resources, ancient territorial claims, and even over slights to honor (such as stealing a wife). It's not just religion at play, just the perception of a threat and action taken to address it. To blame religion is overly simplistic and characterized by the same short-sightedness that plagues a lot of church leadership today.

      August 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  5. 7

    Hello guys. Everyone is invited to visit... thetreasureofzion.com

    August 21, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  6. geodude11

    They're leaving the churches because they are smarter than you thought!

    August 21, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • Ken

      It's not about being smarter; it's about being brave enough to really question the reasons why you believe in the things you do.

      August 22, 2013 at 12:42 am |
  7. John McGrath

    Could you offer some enlightenment on how to read Revelation, and what it means?

    August 21, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      Yes.

      August 21, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
      • photografr7

        I could but I won't.

        August 21, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • photografr7

      Just what we need, another Bible lesson.... Geez.

      August 21, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
      • John McGrath

        You needn't worry. Only generalities ill be given.

        August 21, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
        • photografr7

          It's the New Testament. Since the New Testament is based on the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is total BS, the New Testament can only be less true. In the computer biz we have an expression for that: garbage in – garbage out.

          August 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • graywills

      Like all of the Bible, it is a danger to read Revelations as literal certainty, but perhaps more so this book that appears to be full of symbolism and strange meaning. I cannot explain it any more than can any other person. Scripture must be shared, preferably with a wise and learned scholar, and then it must be pondered in the heart.
      Sometimes God speaks in the Bible with regular language, sometimes with poetry, sometimes through parables, sometimes through legal and technical terms, and sometimes through symbols. Sometimes God takes real events and people from the Old Testament and turns them into symbols for the New Testament. These are the words from the beginning of a blog-site, pretty well summing up the ‘problem’ with Revelations. This last Book of the Bible, and the fourth Gospel, should always be followed in the mystical sense, and with great care.

      August 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
      • John McGrath

        I don't find a referral to authorities, and gneralities, with no insight, very enlightening.

        August 21, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
      • Lisa

        Why do you call that book "Revelations"? That's not it's actual name.

        August 22, 2013 at 12:46 am |
        • graywills

          Because it is the most commonly used term/name for the Book. Call it what you like – it's the content that matters.

          August 22, 2013 at 2:21 am |
        • John McGrath

          I think the objector is objecting to the "s." That is, the Biblical book is Revelation rather than Revelations.

          I find many of the comments on this blog to be like that: superficial, smug, avoiding thoughtful insight. Or condescending, like the remark about the name of Revelation, passively aggressive in correcting you without providing the proper name. And the plural is in common use, although the Biblical name should, strictly speaking, be in the singular.

          August 22, 2013 at 3:36 am |
    • Jennifer

      I studied Revelation for 2 years. I used Kay Arthur's Precept upon Precept. Parts 3 and 4 will give you the most information. She uses scripture to interpret scripture and helps you put Revelation in perspective by using Charts and Timelines. There were some things that we just didn't know the meaning or interpretation. I think you don't have to understand it or figure it out, you just have to know that if all God's promises and prophesies are true then this one is true and will eventually come to pass. You just need to know that in the end, Good wins. That Jesus is coming to set up His kingdom and ALL will know Him and have had an opportunity to make their choice and the rest will be thrown in the lake of fire. It seems scary or unbelievable but when we see it happening, we should recognize that the end must be near. Find someone you trust and go through the book by chapter and verse slowly and pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you. Hope this helps.

      August 22, 2013 at 11:05 am |
      • John McGrath

        Thank you, that was fair and helpful. But I doubt that anything can be done to have Bible literalists become thoughtful reflectors. They seem to prefer the vengeful Jesus of Revelation to the loving Jesus of the Gospels, not connecting the two.

        August 22, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  8. photografr7

    The "Perfect Eye" Myth: Believers often hold out the beautifully-designed eye as proof that God exists, when in fact, the eye is far from perfect. As this video on the eye points out, parts of the human eye were "designed" ass-backwards, while squids and octopuses (octopusi?) don't suffer from this design flaw. http://www.wimp.com/blindspots/

    August 21, 2013 at 8:13 am |
    • Ken

      Not to mention that eagles and falcons have far more acute vision than we do. Arguably, except for our brains, there's nothing about our bodies superior to anything else in the animal world and, even then, our brain size makes childbirth so dangerous and burns so many calories that it can't be seen as totally an advantage. Even after that, our brains can be easily fooled and are so complex that we can easily suffer from mental illnesses not found anywhere else in the animal world. As far as any "design" goes, if we're the best that somebody actually put thought into, that doesn't say much about their intelligence.

      August 22, 2013 at 1:02 am |
      • photografr7

        I was actually going to add the eagle's eyesight, but I had already hit "ENTER." Speaking of how poor our brains are, you won't believe this: Some people actually believe... sorry, I have to laugh.... Some people actually believe there's a mystical being living beyond time and space who sent his only son to earth, out in the desert ... wait, it gets better, to die for our sins. Unbelievable! Our brains are soooo gullible some times.

        August 22, 2013 at 1:18 am |
        • John McGrath

          Well, if you look at the "perfection" of nature, specifically biological nature, you will see that God has ordered living nature around predation. In the higher living species this means one preys on another to survive. So Christians certainly exemplify this through their money-grubbing preachers and through their alliance with predatory capitalism under the banner of "liberty" and the Republican Party. Christians respect Gods mandate to be predators.

          August 22, 2013 at 1:23 am |
        • photografr7

          An oft-quoted comment regarding the supposed "perfection" of God's design in respect to the variety of species on earth (probably originating with Richard Dawkins) is that 99% of all species are already extinct. "Some design," they say. Say a family asked to adopt yet another child, so the State looked at their record and found that the first 9 children they adopted had already died, do you think their request for a 100th would be approved? I made that up, but if you want to credit me, go ahead! I hope I make Dr. Dawkins jealous!

          August 22, 2013 at 6:47 am |
    • JC

      There's an amazing video on You Tube where a young Richard Dawkins shows in an experiment how the eye probably evolved. Totally convinced me.

      August 22, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
      • photografr7

        Thanks. I'll look for that.

        August 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  9. Tiffany@E3

    I can truly appreciate the need to bring such things to light...such as the "clocking in" at church like some country club; however, I know that when you truly connect to the heart of God and plug into purpose, you see church as so much more than a building and learn to let comments meant to tear an entire group of believers down for the jaded response that they are. We get offended by the church (any particular denomination or all together) and we paint them all with the same brush. We fail to see that an offense is nothing more than our own pre-determined response to something that you never really let go of.

    August 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  10. todd

    the truth is the words of the bible where sealed until the time of the end .we must forget what we think we know about god and jesus and learn the real truth.witch was to be reveled in a time to come
    or like i like to call it the meat. you can call me a lier but you must call christ a lier to (luke12:42)
    if you want to know why people leave the church god wants them so they come out of her and find this truth and repent. read the marriage feast (Matthew 22 and on) those who were invited were not worthy .and again (Matthew 8:11)the children of the kingdom (the church)were cast out.
    look there are more than 175 verses in the bible that say or refers to you shall not teach
    and not one that says ASK AND YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN . so search the sciptures in them
    you think you have salvation look here is a site that will explain it all
    http://www.truthisintheheart.com there is no contact info so if he is a false teacher
    dont you think he would want you to know who he is.this guy knows what hes talking about.

    August 20, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      The above is yet another example that mentally ill delusional believers are often illiterate.

      August 20, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
      • photografr7

        Isn't illiterate spelled "illiterate"? j/k

        August 20, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • Ken

      "we must forget what we think we know about god and jesus and learn the real truth.witch was to be reveled in a time to come"

      So, forget that God and Jesus are supposedly good, that Jesus came to save people from sin, and that they want us to join them in Heaven after we die, I suppose? Gee, if we are to forget everything we think we know about them then you're saying that they're actually mirror images of what most people think of them, meaning evil monsters, correct?

      August 22, 2013 at 12:51 am |
  11. Searcher

    What thoughtful article. Someone who understands that the world is full of grey, it's not all black and white. She will run onto some confused Elder's though. The elders don't understand that the kids are actually SMARTER than they think....

    August 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • Dippy

      Elders, not elder's.

      August 20, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
      • photografr7

        I thought he was referring to Larry Elder. 🙂

        August 20, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    Christians arguing stories from their bible vs. scientific facts is like arguing about Santa's sleigh flying ... sure it says it flies in the stories but the facts are that there is no Santa (sorry kids), there is no magic sleigh, and there are no magical reindeer to guide his sleigh tonight. Anyone using any story in the bible as a fact to argue against scientifically proven evidence is deluding themselves and annoying the sane.

    And you Christians wonder why we atheists sound annoyed all the time.

    August 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Given no factual evidence for The Babble or any alleged supernatural being, discussing The Babble is the same as discussing a fantasy role playing game, with heavy emphasis on fantasy.

      August 20, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Eifel

      A very odd and illogical comparison. How many children grew into adulthood still believing in Santa Claus? How many people who never believed in Santa Claus in their childhood, found themselves believing in Santa Claus in adulthood? As such, how many people in adulthood, who never grew up in a church, started believing in God? Just thinking.

      August 21, 2013 at 10:01 am |
      • photografr7

        You had me until that last question. I'm sure that many apathetic-types got into belief and religion at an old age, I think that's where the expression "found religion" came from. How could you not? The word "God" is used several times a day on every radio and television station in the U.S. Not true in Australia. I guess they are less of a "God fearing" nation. But I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. I, myself, even considered Buddhism for about five minutes until someone here said, "What you THINK you know about Buddhism is only a small part of their faith."

        August 21, 2013 at 10:11 am |
        • Eifel

          True, there are many apathetic "types", but generally speaking, that just means they are still seeking. I guess it boils down to what a person chooses for their worldview. In other words, how do they answer origin, morality, meaning and destiny. If they have those answers, then do they fulfill logical consistency, empirical adequacy and experiential relevance. What can explain evil, justice, love, forgiveness, etc.? So many questions. Again, just thinking.

          August 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
        • photografr7

          QUESTION: How do believers in Jesus explain why some dogs are loving and nurturing around children while others would prefer to tear your head off? Have the "good" dogs accepted the Word of Christ and his moral compass, and "bad" dogs are doing Satin's deeds? The whole concept of God is ridiculous on the face of it. And I haven't even gotten started on the perfect "eye" and the "splendid universe" and man, "God's creature," and the Garden of Eden and all the rest of that BS. Sorry, I got carried away.....

          August 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
        • hermansohn

          Ok.
          I've just been talking with God and He said that since you are so brilliant, when you die, he will ask you to be his special assistant when he creates His new universe.

          August 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
        • photografr7

          I'll pass. But if he agrees to be MY assistant, I'll reconsider.

          August 21, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
  13. John McGrath

    "Isn't it more important to do what Jesus wants us to do than to call him, 'Lord, Lord'?" – Mahatma Gandhi
    "Most of what Christians do is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount." – Mahatma Gandhi

    Christians condemn Christianity through their actions, and their words.
    Or the opposite.

    August 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.