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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. D MURDOCH

    “Contrary to popular belief, there was no single man at the genesis of Christianity but many characters rolled into one. The majority of these characters were personifications of the ubiquitous solar myth, whose adventures were well known, as reflected in the stories of such popular deities as Mithra, Hercules, Dionysus and many others throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.” dm Murdoch

    lol

    as athies say, paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze!

    September 27, 2013 at 1:03 am |
  2. D MURDOCH

    w let’s do something a little more difficult. Let’s login to a wordpress website (for this example, hosted at http://localhost/wordpress/) and add a new administrator user. I’ll do this manually first and record the HTTP conversation with the Live HTTP Headers extension.

    POST /wordpress/wp-login.php HTTP/1.1
    Host: localhost
    User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; U; Intel Mac OS X 10.6; en-US;
    rv:1.9.2.3) Gecko/20100401 Firefox/3.6.3
    [some extra headers...]
    Referer: http://localhost/wordpress/wp-login.php
    Cookie: wordpress_test_cookie=WP+Cookie+check
    Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
    Content-Length: 116

    log=admin&pwd=supersecret&wp-submit=Log+In&redirect_to=http%3A%2F%2Flocalhost%2Fwordpress%2Fwp-admin%2F&testcookie=1

    This time I sent a POST request (the ones above for 2600.com and twitter.com were GET requests), and this time I also sent a Referer header, and a Cookie header. POST and GET are similar, but GET requests send all the data through the URL, while POST requests send the data beneath the headers in the POST request. As you can see, beneath the POST request headers is a URL-encoded string of name-value pairs. “log” is set to “admin” (which is the username), “pwd” is set to “supersecret” (which is the password), and then there are other hidden fields that get sent to: “wp-submit” is “Log In”, “redirect_to” is “http://localhost/wordpress/wp-admin/”, and “testcookie” is “1″

    September 27, 2013 at 12:51 am |
  3. Brian Taylor

    I feel like many people are looking for a Jesus, but not the Jesus of the New Testament. You make it sound as if the motives of every millenial visitor are so pure, and that if the church would just offer Jesus Christ that there would be mass revival. Where is Jesus being found if He is not within the church anymore? The truth is His message is still offensive to anyone who wants it both ways, who wants to embrace a life of sin and embrace a god who is nothing like the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Why is it the problem is always with God's people? Not that I totally disagree, but the world will never be able to point to the church at judgment and say: "It's because of you I didn't find Jesus". Otherwise God would be guilty of not leaving a witness for Himself, and that is just unwise to judge God. But such is this age: judging God, judging the church, and all the while living a life worthy of greater judgment. The church needs Revival, but nothing this lady says by her consumer driven answers is much help. We will continue to pray people see Jesus even through our imperfections even when we offend these by trying desperately to please the Christ of the Bible who lives and reigns within and without.

    September 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Brian, I'll see you in the Rapture Capsule with the unicorns. Don't forget to wear your nose ring – the big steel one that I padlocked the chain onto when we were practising for the Uplifting.

      This time, though, close your mouth when the swirling starts and your head goes down.

      September 27, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  4. ephbee

    Rachel Evans writes a good article but Mario C gives his own unsubstantiated opinion as FACT. "No one believes in God anymore". Really? Unbelievable. Speak for yourself Sir. I write from England and visit Nigeria where the church – the pentecostal church – is vibrant and thriving despite ministers' scandals putting people off. You see more "Wrecks" on US TV although it happens to the average Christian. It is just that we are not on air like the preachers. One thing that puts young people off is the boredom of orthodoxy but without the solemnity and profound Bible teaching of orthodox doctrines youths would be exposed to bling, gruel, theatrics, forgery and sensationalism. Hip-hop music, that was thought to be a tool to bring in the youths, detract from the sound scriptural nourishment and fortification of the (sadly) abandoned traditional hymns. Add to that the evil governments and administrators that are trying to remove God from our public life, schools and hospitals, and instead, promoting ungodly practices and teachings. BUT NOTE THIS, whatever is happening now has been foretold in Matthew 24. Mockers like Mario C might think that the church is dying. The Mormon founder actually said it was dead. But the church is marching on and the Lord shall come as He has said. The Caesars and emperors of Rome, the Ottoman Turks, etc have tried to destroy the church but have all failed. That is Christ's word in Matthew 16:18

    September 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • Robert

      Or perhaps those kids are just smarter and of stronger mind and will than you and to that end to not believe in make believe gods and sky fairies. Your lies and threats are falling on educated deaf ears who realize it for what it is. False, fake, dangerous and best and ultimately bs.

      September 26, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  5. @jesseboycenz

    This article is awesome – thanks for sharing.

    September 26, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  6. Mario C.

    I think you missed the point but then being a Millenium, you often do.

    Religion is now passé, and in time it will diseappear. I don't know where you get your info from or what churches you visit but parishes are empty of anyone under 50. I know mine is. As a child, I was forced to go to church if for no other reason that for my parents to show us off (for Catholics, strength in number is important and so is gossip...) and I am still required to go, at 50, if I go visit my parents. But I don't.

    The fact is that church has been replaced by cell phones and the net and since kids today are raised to be selfish, rude, immature morons lacking moral fiber and kindness, by parents who don't care about them, it's no wonder a church is the last place they need.

    So in time, and soon I think, religion will go the way of the dodo. people like you can try and falsefy that and decry it ain't so, but it is. No one believes in God anymore and you know what, that's a good thing in a way....

    Religion should be about values and doing unto others as we would done unto us. And that should not be religion but common sense.

    And that, judging by what I see, is also going the way of the dodo, replaced by ninnies and hypocrites like Oprah Winfrey. people who shed crocodile tears and fake concern only when the cameras are on...

    Sad....

    September 25, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Mark

      Mario C. - Where's the actual facts in your statement? I see all opinion. If I don't arrive 15 minutes early to my church, I can barely get a seat...and the seats are filled mainly with parents and their young children...the next generation. No one seems to be "forced" to be there.

      September 25, 2013 at 11:47 am |
      • George

        Are you kidding? Given a choice, how many children do you think would be choosing to attend church with their parents?

        September 26, 2013 at 9:43 am |
        • Ron

          I have a whole group, which includes jr high, high school, and college students, that show up to church twice a week. The majority of those that show up don't have parents that attend. They come sit, listen and contribute to discussions every week. They also bring their siblings and friends. I have a Jr High boy that brought his 5 year old younger brother last night along with 4 of his buddies. No one forced them, they all walked because their parents dont come.

          September 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
        • Robert

          Their parents do not attend, but I would almost guarantee that if they were to list a religious affiliation, it would be the same as the kids. That said, the exception does not prove the rule.

          September 26, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  7. get2knowus

    I know the trolls will hate this, and CNN might actually censure it, but you really need to meet with the mormon missionaries.

    September 24, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
    • Resident

      I suspect that the last 2 Mormon boys who were here at the house here left the faith after our (quite civil, btw) discussion. I know that they are intensely trained about handling dissenting opinions, but they were in over their heads with this atheist/agnostic household. I'm not saying that I felt good about it - it's sort of like taking away a kid's special security blanket; but reality is...

      September 24, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
  8. Jessica Christ

    The 3 major Abrahamic Religions seem always to have had Enemy Lists to unite their frightened sheep in fear, ignorance, and hatred. As, hopefully, young ppl communicate with more and more souls outside their cults, they have a difficult time with these Enemies Lists when they try to apply them in real time.
    Sadly you don't make a lot of money preaching Love, so you need that Hate to fuel the Anger to keep ppl involved and controlled. Yng ppl, well the healthy ones, anyway, can see right through that bool hockey.

    September 24, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  9. Professor Peter Millican - Oxford 12/21/2012

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcHRRjsttOc&w=640&h=390]

    September 23, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  10. D MURDOCH

    LOL

    September 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • hi

      LOL

      September 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  11. Doris

    Don't be angry, dear, just because you have nothing convincing. And is it our fault that you troll these blogs like some kind of mindless pigeon? Hiding in your dusty book is not going to get rid of the questions, dear. If you're going to be nasty all the time, at least you ought to be able to demonstrate objective "truth". Oh but you can't, I forgot. See that's the problem. And if you can't tell the difference between me and sam then, well actually, I am not surprised..

    September 23, 2013 at 10:26 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.