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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. Cory

    I didn't just leave the church because the hypocrisy of the body of Christ, I left because I've done actual research on the bible, which it seems many Christians haven't even done. There are astounding amounts of Christians who hear the bible is a book of god and haven't even read the new testament all the way through, forget about old testament other than maybe Genesis or Exodus. Modern day Christians seem to completely disown the old testament, but love the new testament. You can't get to point B without starting at A. Reasonable modern scholars admit that the old testament is a mixture of things being story, history of a tribe, poetry, and people trying to understand their place in the world. There is little to no evidence of the existence of Moses, Abraham, or Noah. Yet when you get to the new testament, Jesus speaks of people living in the absence of god before the great flood of Noahs time. If this was indeed god himself, then why would he allude to a past event that he knew didn't take place in Noahs time, if Noah even existed in the first place? There is the extremely unnerving reality that all 4 gospels have no real credible authorship, other than what the early church labeled the gospels as being wrote by. Which brings up another interesting problem. If the gospel was spreading and was accepted by so many, then why doesn't the early church have any clue who wrote the actual four main gospels of the new testament? They should be the first ones to know who wrote them! Especially because those churches were established by the disciples themselves according to the bible! Let's also add in the basis of Christianity, Christs death and resurrection. This echos a widely told Greek tale at the time of the gospels, The Odyssey. Odysseus was thought to be dead, went to Hades, and came back to life 3 days later. This would have been a widely known story told through Greece, where Jesus or at least his disciples would have known the tale. Then there is the destruction of the Pagan religions and cultures that Christians have caused over time. The mark that the three Abrahamic religions has left on the word religion alone has made it so difficult for those who seek god outside of them, that they can't say they are religious, they have to go with a new word, spiritual. Whether it be belief in modern pagan traditions, eastern teachings, or whatever else you want to believe in, you can no longer say you are a religious person without people assuming you are at the very least a Christian. Do your homework on your own religion before you start bashing people on their personal life choices.

    February 6, 2014 at 1:35 am |
    • revealer003

      I've done actual research on the Bible and its' validity for a number of years. We do know with great certainty the authorship of the gospels. Jesus spoke authoritatively about the Old Testament and He didn't have to allude to it. He confirmed the existence of Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, the prophets, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. I would recommend you read some books by Norman Geisler and also Cold Case Christianity by Warner Wallace as a start for some good evidence. I cannot and will not excuse the hypocrisy of some Christians but overall, Christianity has brought a positive change to the world for many people over the centuries. People always point out the bad but the good definitely outweighs the bad. Please read some books by these gentlemen with an open mind and reconsider. I ask that God brings you a better understanding and provides you with the evidence you need to see.

      June 19, 2014 at 3:11 pm |
  2. In home personal training long lsland

    What an accurate article, well done.

    (these 4 were the same article, not sure if you could just use the one response I gave or if I need to do more, I just have no idea what they are talking about lol)

    January 22, 2014 at 12:36 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.