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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. NWAOGU RICHARD

    I am a CHRISTIAN.Very well,I understand RACHEL HELD EVANS' passion for freedom from what she claims to know;CHRIST THE SAVIOUR OF ALL MAN KIND HAS NO SUCH LUXURY FOR YOU EXCEPT YOU FINALLY WISH TO SPEND ETERNITY IN HELL.
    Remember,there is life after death and the second coming of JESUS CHRIST IS SOON!
    QUIT ASSUMPTIONS AND FREE LIFE STYLE NOW AND READ THE HOLY BIBLE BY AND FOR YOURSELF;I AM SURE,GOD WILL SURELY OPEN YOUR EYES TO SEE AND UNDERSTAND HIS WORD.
    Your life is so precious to Him than any other thing you may place premium on:RECEIVE JESUS INTO YOUR LIFE TODAY...YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN.
    Thank you.(I'M YOUR FRIEND ACROSS THE COAST).

    September 16, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Hilarious

      This is my favorite comment ever.

      September 16, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • awasis

      Any god that would condemn a good person to an eternity of torment, just because they did not believe in that god, is a piece of schit and not fit to be god. That god is petty and egotistical, like a spoiled little brat.

      September 16, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
      • Robert

        Well except a fictional god that though "godlike" still is shackled with the weaknesses of man:

        – Vanity: ... i..e. the need to be worshipped
        – Prejudice: .... kill all dissent
        – Insecurity: ... the need to punish those that do not bend to our control

        I would expect a "god" to me missing some common foibles of man, but then again he is only a god in mans mind.

        September 16, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
      • Bill Fold

        Remember, you nned fear to keep the sheeple in line. Without fear, the churches don't get money and power over you to force you to do vile things.

        September 16, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  2. domal

    I guess I haven't been to every church after all. Apparently there are a lot of Christians out there who are very harsh to none Christians and possibly go past the line of hate. The church I grew up in was quite the opposite I don't recall them ever kicking anyone out of the church for having an affair or being a smack head or being judgmental. The church I went to was quite accepting and gracious not to say they didn't preach against sin. They did take a tough stand against people who disagreed with the churches doctrine, maybe they thought disagreeing over the rapture was more important.

    September 16, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • domal

      People should make their decisions about what they want to think based off the merit of what is said and its truthfulness. That old battle of overcoming "man", I think as a whole a limit number of people over come "man" and by man I mean society, the desire or need to gain approval from others, having the ability to be their own man, make their own decisision think for themselves make their own calls in life regardless of what the rest of "man" is doing or wants. I wonder how many people here would had been a racist if they lived during the 1800's or would had been their own man and decided not to be a racist based off good reason instead of going with the crowd of society.

      September 16, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  3. cc

    ignore

    September 16, 2013 at 8:46 am |
  4. Bubba

    I don't understand why showing Love hurts some Christians so much. I should be easy.

    September 16, 2013 at 1:43 am |
  5. Bubba

    I don't understand why showing Love hurts some Christians so much.

    September 16, 2013 at 1:42 am |
    • domal

      Its probably because some people view loving others who are doing wrong as giving approval to what is wrong, in a general broad sort of way. I don't know, its not hard to simply treat people with respect. I don't know what the problem is with people, they are just people who get upset if you dispute with them or get angry or hurt when people they think they can trust or are safe with betray them then as a result they look somewhere else for answers and we sometimes generalize. I don;t know what everyone problem is its probably a simple lack of respect for each other regardless of what we each view. People probably would fight less if everyone stopped trying to impose their ideals or beliefs on each other. Just saying in a general opinion.

      September 16, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  6. Jim

    What is a millennial? First time I have heard that one!!

    September 16, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Robert

      Generally late teens / early 20s.

      September 16, 2013 at 1:19 am |
  7. carlcoffin

    I see her point in the fact that Jesus is not in many churches and that many millennial s feel judged and not fed spiritually through love, encouragement, and relevant messages that apply to their lives. Love conquers all and is all. If a church does not have and show love it has nothing. God is love! God is also HOLY and his word is our moral standard for living. This being said the gospel message is scandalous to the world and there is right and there is wrong. We need church leaders bold enough to share the tough things in scripture and call out sin. If this drives out millennials from the church, then that is a spiritual issue between them and God that only God can fix. Cultural American Christianity is the real problem and we have done a poor job shepherding and discipling people through the years.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
  8. RheaCountyGradwhoknowsyou

    Millennials don't want to be told they are wrong about anything. They want a church that will tell them there is no right or wrong, that everything they do is the right thing, and everyone goes to heaven and no one is going to hell no matter what they do. Unfortunately thats not the truth of it. and any church that sells that to get kids, is selling their soul to Satan's plan of complacency. Millenials are selfish brats who need to know that there is right and wrong.

    September 15, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
    • Robert

      Or perhaps they see all the wrong done in the name of religion and all the wrong done by religious people and came to their own conclusion their either is no god, or god does not reside in religion.

      September 15, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
      • Johnson

        Both, I think. Millennials want authenticity...not hypocrisy.

        September 15, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  9. RheaCountyGradwhoknowsyou

    Why are millennials leaving the church? Because they are the most selfish, self absorbed, inward focused brats that have ever been weened in America. The greatest Generation that won WW2 by sacrificing their lives, their youth, and their innocents for a future generation paved the way after only 50 years, to bring about the generation that will sacrifices other people to get what they want for themselves. There has never been a bigger group of self centered jagaloons to ever be called Americans. Millennials are selfish, and church is about giving to others, and admitting there is something more powerful than yourself, and Millennials just cannot cope with the idea that they are not the center of the universe, the most important person in the world, and that they have an inherent right to have everything handed to them for nothing. Thats why they stay away from Church.

    September 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • Robert

      Coming from the biggest self centered, self righteous post in this forum.

      Sacrificed themselves for the future? .... did they have any choice? No. True sacrifice is when you do something you don't have to do at all. I consider those who are in Afghanistan today, and others .. many Millenials, every bit as sacrificing as that generation. Unlike the old generation, they have no illusions of the romanticism of war.

      What was so great about many generations before now? They polluted the planet with inpunity. They persecuted gays, blacks, anyone not them without a single care. When they turned into managers, they sold out a whole forward generation for a few dollars. It is not millenials sending jobs offshore now is it?

      They don't believe in God because they are NOT sheep. They can actually think for themselves. It is a shame you consider that insulted. I find your views insulting.

      September 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Benjamin

      Fruit grows from love and love is greater than faith and works. Woe to the man who says his house is finished and labors no more! When we think we know it all, pray we may be blind so that we may see!

      September 16, 2013 at 4:17 am |
  10. D MURDOCH

    I AM LOVE

    September 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  11. FAH

    Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the
    tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through
    the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike
    down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

    September 15, 2013 at 8:37 am |
    • mike

      That's right FAH, When you get backed into your cognitive dissidence corner just go hide in your bible.
      I have to cede one to the millennials. Apparently they are brighter than I originally gave them credit for.

      If I were god I would not allow little children to be abused as part of the grand faith experiment.....not even as god would I have that kind of arrogance..

      September 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
      • Dippy

        It's dissonance, not dissidents.

        September 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • RheaCountyGradwhoknowsyou

        You presume there is only good, and no evil. Evil exists as much as Good does, if not more so. You need to read your Bible, it explains how there is this whole evil thing out there tricking people into doing evil things. God does not necessarily order it to happen. You need to realize that.

        September 15, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  12. smh

    Millenials are leaving the church because they are able to distinguish between fiction and reality, and the Imaginary Sky Fairy belongs firmly in the category of "fiction".
    Along with Peter Pan, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny.
    Duh.

    September 15, 2013 at 1:06 am |
  13. Chris

    I'm a 31yr old male Christian who also has one foot in two generations. The gist of this article to me is that according to Rachel Evans, its all about what WE want. Not what God wants. She's promoting what I call "me, myself and I" the blessed trinity!! She is saying "I don't care about what you want God or your word. It needs to be tailor made for me!"

    September 15, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • Observer

      Christians always tailor-make their religion. They just pick and choose what they like from the Bible and ignore the rest.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:13 am |
      • Just a believer

        Excellent inaccurate generalization of what you don't understand, keep it up!

        September 15, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
        • Observer

          Just a believer,

          Speaking of not understanding, come back when you can claim that you believe and support EVERYTHING in the Bible.

          Skip the hypocrisy.

          September 16, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • david mann

      I think more of what she is saying is that she just doesn't care about YOUR opinion of what God wants. Go to 15 different Baptist churches (or any other denomination) and you will hear 15 different versions of what "God wants". And every one of them is absolutely certain that THEY are the only ones who are right. Only sheep need a shepherd.

      September 15, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • Dorothy

      @Chris, Amen! A lot of people commenting about this article, don't believe God exist, have never seen a Bible let alone read one. The writer of this article, didn't seek God for answers and it seems she was more concern about what she wants and not what God wants for her life.

      September 15, 2013 at 10:43 am |
      • Robert

        Chris, I am sorry that you took the easy way out. I am sorry that you let fear take over and had to seek solace in fairy tales, similar to how a child may have an imaginary friend to deal with life.

        September 15, 2013 at 11:41 am |
      • Anthony

        Sorry to be the one to break it to you, Dorothy, but most people who don't believe in your god know more about your Bible than those who claim to be Christians.

        September 17, 2013 at 11:04 am |
        • dissidentfairy

          Then you have no excuse for your refusal to believe!

          September 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
        • Anthony

          Who's looking for an excuse? Atheists also know about the other holy texts and dismiss them as easily as you do.

          September 17, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
        • Philip

          "Then you have no excuse for your refusal to believe!"

          What's your excuse for refusing to believe in the Hindu gods? Have you read their holy texts?

          September 19, 2013 at 8:01 am |
    • morganmachen

      Really? God has wants and needs?

      September 15, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • prad

      Well said chris

      September 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  14. Forgetaboutatleast

    There is not one xtian on earth that can prove the existence of god, nor can they prove the bible is the word of god. They always fall back on illogical reasons that will lose the debate every time. That's why millennials are leaving the church.

    September 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • Ken

      Actually, everything you think you know about Christianity is a lie.

      September 15, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • Paul Ortiz

      Hi Forgetaboutatleast... When you want to have an amicable discussion about the christian faith I invite you...and any other athiests to discuss it.. I really don't have a problem with that nor do I hide behind a forum... let me know any of you that want to chat and I'll be happy to oblige...

      God bless

      Paul

      September 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  15. Forgetaboutatleast

    The main reason why millennials are leaving the church is due to the internets becoming the primary source of real knowledge, instead of that fakey stuff you hear after they pass the offering plate in the pews.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  16. 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 10:39 pm |
  17. Theresa

    There can be no change in the actual message, for the Bible has not changed. It is still true, as it is written. And no power on this earth can change that one, single, powerful fact.

    September 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Forgetaboutatleast

      The bible is full of untruths. Take off your rosé colored glasses.

      September 14, 2013 at 10:42 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.