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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. Dorothy

    Bible Prophecy is on point about this, there will be a "great falling away" (people walking away). But, the Prophecy also says, "there will be a great gathering".. Praise God for the "great gathering".

    September 14, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
    • Forgetaboutatleast

      Yeah, that bible prophecy is always spot on. No cherry picking necessary.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  2. Robert

    I can tell you with 95% certainty what religion a person is without even talking to them. All I need to do is ask their parents what religion they, the parents are. The kids, if they follow religion, will follow the same religion 95% of the time.

    What that tells me is that religion is not about choice, but about indoctrination.

    Today, with information so readily available at the hands of everyone, including children, it becomes much harder for parents to indoctrinate their kids. That is why the miillenials are not going to church. They have not been indoctrinated .... they do not "believe". The smarter the kid, the less likely they are religious.

    In fact, atheists as a whole are smarter than religious people. That should give "thinking" people pause.

    September 14, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Paul Ortiz

      Robert I really believe that if you study the bible... not to find faults or agendas but to truly find the truth you will find it there. So as to your comment about individuals that "think", hence your broad generalities/assumptions that christians do not "think"... I personally will have a chat with you about the subject and clarify any doubts that you might have regarding christianity. BTW it's not a religion. It's a relationship with Christ.

      September 14, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
      • Forgetaboutatleast

        It's a religion. You are a terrible apologist.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
      • Robert

        Paul I have studied the bible and other religious texts. When you are not trying to find some deep meaning in them without any objectivity, then you can see a combination of fear and wonder of a world which those writing it did not understand, as well as the hand of those seeking to control others through fear, and/or trying to allay their own fears by controlling the world around them through religion.

        Some text are just justification for bad behavior.

        September 14, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  3. Bart

    Rachel Held Evans, I recognize some of the feelings and thoughts in your column. I don't agree with all you're saying, but I agree that I feel torned between my intellectual integrity and the 'experience-culture' of some churches.
    In my home coutry, the Netherlands, I think there are people who believe, without doing good research. For me it's important to do good research, before accepting the combination of faith and ratio.

    I like the christian belief, because of the very strong moral code. I'm a proponent of the love and compassion Jesus talks about in Matthew for example.
    But I'm not sure what's realistic, and I think atheists have a great rational explanation of the world. I'm still questioning myself what's the truth and what's the best religion to believe in.

    That was quite a lot of text, I'm sorry. I hope christians and atheists could have a good dialogue about science and religion.
    But I now know I'm not the only one who is still trying to find his way through the worlds of non-belief and christianity.

    September 14, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Johnson

      Do not seek after a religion. Seek after a relationship.

      September 15, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  4. Steen

    Fundamentalist Christianity is a hate group.
    Yeah, we see the usual "We love sinners but hate sin" stuff.
    You are lying!!! You love sin, because it gives you sinners to hate. Of course, nobody want to associate with you.

    September 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • shadowspring

      ^^^^^^ true dat

      I just read her column about why millenials "need" the church, and the comment section was a strong rebuttal to her contentions. We do NOT need the church. The church exists to draw lines between who is in and who is out, not to draw people to Christ or encourage us to love our selves nor likewise our neighbors. The church does not follow Jesus; the church follows "the Bible" and the church strains at gnats while swallowing camels, using the Bible to exclude people and judge others, rather than as a guide for drawing closer to the Divine ideal.

      The church is wholly corrupt and good for nothing but the thrown out and trodden under the foot of man. Good riddance.

      September 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  5. AV

    I don't know what churches you guys are going to, but any church that aligns itself with a political party is corrupt. You are to be aligned with the truth, which is Christ Jesus. Churches should not try to conform to the ways of the world. They should not have allegiances with political figures or parties. We are to be above partisanship. If your church is aligned with any political party, you are in contempt. No political party is in line with Christ Jesus, the Word, our Heavenly Father.

    If millenials do not agree with what's happening in the church, they should get more involved to shape the church instead of bowing out. You can also start your own church. Perhaps build an online Christian community using social media that brings like minds together in Google Hangout sessions. Utilize the social media technology to make the church you want until you can establish physical roots on the ground. Challenge the status quo of churches without compromising the Word of God.

    September 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • Forgetaboutatleast

      Give it up. Xtians and other religions are losing converts because more people are using the internets to figure out that religion is an old custom that is going away.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  6. How E v a ns manages to Mouse trap the atheists

    1) Write pr o v o cative articles that have nothing to do with the Christian faith.

    2) Mention atheists in articles.

    3) Alternate between 1 and 2 above.

    Voila! that sets the stage for mouse trapping the atheists!

    September 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • If it says LIBBYS, LIBBYS, LIBBYS on the label, label, label, you will like it, like it, like it!

      Sounds more like a 'micetrap' 😉

      September 14, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Tom

      Only atheists take her seriously, Christians don't and rightfully so!

      September 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
      • shadowspring

        See? On the same page, a prime example. Tom believes that his perspective is "THE" only right one, the "CHRISTIAN" one (f course because he endorses only the TRUE AND CORRECT DOCTRINE and so any one who is not 100% in line with his truth isn't even a real Christian. Jesus, are you listening? Tom and his Christian compatriots have totally relieved you of your position as Judge of All the Earth. You can come of your great white throne, Jesus and just do whatever else you want, because Tom and his buddies have you covered. They are taking care of judging humanity FOR you!

        The church does not honor Jesus as Lord, the honor their religion as lord.

        I'll keep Jesus and you can have the church. If Christ's words are true, they are just a bunch of self-important goats anyway.

        September 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
      • Rick

        Atheists love to ramble, they love to hear themselves, just like the author of this article, Evans!

        The only folks that are attracted to Rachel's babble are the atheists!!!

        September 14, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
        • Seth

          Maybe when you guys finish patting each other on the back you could make a salient point?

          September 14, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
        • Godmacked

          I guess self-righteous prats like yourself like to read Evan's articles too, or are you just here to bash atheists?

          September 15, 2013 at 2:09 am |
      • m

        really, Tom. Have you taken a poll of all the Christians, you sanctimonious jerk!

        September 15, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  7. ROSARY CREATIONS

    Check out my ROSARIES in my link and dont forget to check out the rest of them or message me for some questions.
    http://bit.ly/18XW6Jq

    September 13, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  8. timelord7202

    @Joe –

    Except many Conservatives and other say we are a "Judeo-Christian" society. So Old Testament goodies like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 to get a wife, and the other awesome passage on how one can get rid of a wife, etc, are indeed fair game. If you read the Bible, you would find out how many absurd things exist. Indeed, the fact most garments are made from multiple fabric types (Leviticus) makes even the most devout believer an abomination.

    September 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • Seth

      I consider myself an agnostic atheist, but even I need to object to your interpretation of the Biblical laws. Christian tradition holds that non-Jews are not held to Israelite law, only to the ten commandments and to treating all people with love and charity. The one teaching of Jesus that almost no Christians seem to follow is forsaking their material possessions to go and preach. Only those in the convents and monasteries seem to have successfully done this.

      September 13, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
      • Forgetaboutatleast

        That's a cop out. The bible includes both testaments. Xtians cannot claim that the Old Testament doesn't apply to them. Nope, they gotta take responsibility for the whole bible, not just half of it.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  9. NORMAL

    They're leaving because IT'S 2013 AND STILL BELIEVING IN BRONZE AGE MYTH IS RIDICULOUS

    September 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • exlonghorn

      It's not nearly that simple. I have a 13 yo daughter and get to see the Instagram and Facebook accounts of her friends, along with their tweets, etc. Almost universally, they hold God in very high regard...always giving God a place in their profile, and posting verses and "liking" the religious posts of others. So our daughter believes as well...in spite of having Atheist parents and an non-theist brother. She can't explain any of her beliefs successfully, she hasn't read the Bible, and she can't defend her religion from it's more egregious teachings. It's the social aspect of religion that makes it so powerful. Teens are terrified of not belonging...of being excluded or different. I think the Church has figured this out, and the result is sending a new generation of youth towards another ideological dark age. They'll all head down a path of ignorance, but at least they'll do it together.

      September 14, 2013 at 11:35 am |
      • Forgetaboutatleast

        That's a very good observation.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
      • JH1

        She's the exception to the rule. The religious are clearly shrinking as a proportion of the population. Peer pressure and social acceptability has a strong effect on teenagers, but it's becoming more and more likely that teens are going to find themselves surrounded by atheists and agnostics than religious classmates.

        The exceptions, such as your daughter, that do happen to go along with it for a while will likely secede once the realization sets in that clique acceptance means nothing and is a waste of time.

        September 15, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        Be a real good parent and get her some help from a mental health professional before she becomes completely consumed by a god cult.

        September 16, 2013 at 2:23 am |
  10. chris

    Have you actually read the bible techanically if you read it even going to bathroom is a sin ! So personally I find it a bunch of Muck that has been edited over the years to indoctine what ever suited the conservative Christians at that time in history .

    September 12, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Joe

      I have read the Bible many times, and what you stated is completely false and absurd. Not least because the only part you could possibly be referencing about going to the bathroom would be in the Old Testament, which was written by Jews, not conservative Christians. You are greatly ignorant, and greatly deceived.

      September 12, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
      • dissidentfairy

        Believe it or not the Pope has just given everyone carte blanche Not to believe in God! Yes you heard it right! According to Newsmax it's okay Not to believe in God as per Pope Francis. If you have "a clean conscience" that's all it takes! My question to the Pope would be this: Does that mean people without a conscience are home free? Psychopaths and sociopaths? Does that mean that a thief who doesn't feel guilt is redeemed? How about people who don't think twice about pulling the trigger? Are they okay too? I guess anything goes!

        The article goes on to say, "This isn't the first time Pope Francis has offered an olive branch to Atheists." An olive branch to Atheists? Huh? Why would an Atheist decide to attend church after hearing that? The Pope will be fortunate if he doesn't lose the following he already has!

        September 12, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
      • timelord7202

        Except many Conservatives and other say we are a "Judeo-Christian" society. So Old Testament goodies like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 to get a wife, and the other awesome passage on how one can get rid of a wife - if you read the Bible, you would find out how many absurd things exist. Indeed, the fact most garments are made from multiple fabric types (Leviticus) makes even the most devout believer an abomination.

        September 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
      • anthonydavidpirtle

        None of the bible was written by conservative christians. Jesus and his followers were socialists.

        September 14, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  11. Joe

    Jesus told his disciples that they would suffer many things, and be *hated by all* because of His name. He taught, "if anyone loves the world or anything in it, the love of God is not in him". He taught, "whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life will save it".

    If you want a church that seems "socially acceptable" to you in the context of the corrupt, decadent and evil culture of modern America, or a church that abandons the word of God for popularity and numbers, then you don't want the truth. You want a social club.

    More importantly, anyone who looks to human beings rather than to God will never find the truth. All humans are corrupt. Those who have been saved and are in the process of regeneration and sanctification should exhibit increasingly Christ-like behavior, but not all members of every church are believers.

    In short, what you need to do is stop looking at people, whether it's church members or leaders, or those in the popular culture trying to make Christianity socially unacceptable, and look to God, if what you seek is the TRUTH, and eternal life.

    September 12, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Mike

      Awesome, well thought-out answer!

      September 12, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • sam stone

      do you seriously desire eternal life?

      September 12, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • Forgetaboutatleast

      You need to take a hard look at yourself and realize that you are delusional. Xtians usually make the mistake of declaring their faith as truth. It's an argument you just cannot win with logic and reason.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  12. Geri

    I was raised in a strict protestant denomination and left church entirely as soon as I graduated from high school. It had nothing to do with beliefs about the beginning or the end of the world, or other things church members got hung up on. It was simply because I didn't notice any difference in the way professed Christians treated those who were different from them. In fact, the atheist or agnostic parents of some of my neighborhood friends were kinder & more compassionate than many of the adults I knew from church. That's all.

    September 11, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • barry

      i used to be an atheist, having been raised in a home where we were taught to hate all religions, particulary catholocism. god disn't exist. jesus existed but who the hell knew what he was.

      i experimented and said, "okay, if you're there, come on in." i had never heard of anything so ridiculous and to prove there was nothing to this jesus nonsense, i'd prove 'em all wrong.

      September 11, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
      • R.M. Goodswell

        My favorite "I used to be an Atheist" story was a post some time ago. It involved an 'atheist' who got himself possessed by a demon while driving down the road on his car and 'God' immediately came to the rescue and kicked the demon out.

        September 11, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          With heavy emphasis on "story" as in The Babble and not proven true, of course.

          September 16, 2013 at 2:28 am |
  13. Con$tantint

    I'm an agnostic myself, and I thought this was a very articulate article outlining many good reasons to turn away from religion. But, let's get real here: for most kids of my generation who skip church, the reason has less to do with intellectual integrity and sociopolitical convictions, and more to do with kids just being lazy, too hung over, or desperate to fit the popular media's definition of 'cool' (hint: going to church isn't a part of it.) I know many millennials who never go to church, but very few of them are outspoken atheists or agnostics...most in fact still claim Christianity and some even still try to hang their superiority over me for my confessed agnosticism.

    September 11, 2013 at 3:01 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.