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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. fds

    maybe Christianity is antiquated will die out. how many religions has there been in the world? you act like people have to be religious and white people MUST and can only be Christian...

    July 27, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bill Gilman

      Folks have been saying that about Christianity for 2000 years ... and about Judaism for about 5000 years .... still waiting

      July 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      look at the stats. less and less people are religious these days. it is dying out. all religions are dying. education and the internet (fact checking) are killing religion. christianity and all religions will go away. it's happening now. just wait....

      July 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  2. fds

    yes, deep down we all seek Jesus.... funny stuff.... If I were to be religious I would become hindu or a jain, something that actually holds wisdom from the ancient past, not deceptive, manipulative crud.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • JeremyH8

      You are no different than the people you are mocking.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
      • fds

        ok, then we should just forget about religion, if it all leads to the same end. a person can find compassion and all that stuff without religion, and at least when a person does it outside of religion they usually aren't doing for the sake of redeeming there soul or some crud.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
        • JeremyH8

          Why does it matter to you what someone chooses to believe? What does it matter to you what someone chooses to do with their free time?

          July 27, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      hindus and jains are just as bad. as hindus about dalits, the untouchables. hindus don't consider them human. and jains are cheaters. not much wisdom there. admire their peaceful atti.tudes, but they take it to a ridiculous extreme.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
      • Bootyfunk

        when people hold up eastern religions/philosophies, it's usually apparent they have not studied them in any depth. christianity, hinduism, judaism, buddhism... they all lead us away from reason.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Bill Gilman

      FDS exactly what "deceptive manipulative crud" are you talking about. Jesus preached love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, compassion, inclusiveness .... which of those things do you have trouble with?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
      • Mardi Gras

        The inclusiveness part, inasmuch as mainstream Christianity generally doesn't.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • Bootyfunk

        bill, jesus said to beat slaves that disobey "with many stripes." where's the love there?

        July 27, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Kevin

      Fore sure... There are thousands of better examples to follow then Jesus the mythical character

      July 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
      • Bill Gilman

        Kevin, are you not aware of the voluminous factual evidence for the existance of Jesus? Start with the Roman historian Josephus.
        Oh and then there is the fact that once books were being written about Jesus, dont you think the Jews would have been the first people to say he never existed? Yet they did not.
        Feel free to question the resurection .... but he fact that Jesus lived is indisputable.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
        • Mardi Gras

          Josephus also wrote about Hercules, so I guess he existed, too.

          Now show us where Jesus was actually divine. Hint: don't use the Bible.

          July 27, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  3. skytag

    Why do all these "Christian leaders" need this woman to explain this stuff to them? I thought God was supposed to be doing that. Has he not been taking their calls lately?

    July 27, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  4. skytag

    She'd have more luck finding what she wants if she weren't looking for it in religion.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • JeremyH8

      Why's that?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • skytag

        She wants an end to the culture wars. Religions are inherently divisive.

        She wants a truce between science and faith. Not likely to happen. The more science debunks claims of supernatural causes for events in the world the more religions feel threatened.

        She wants to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers, but all well-established religions have long since crafted answers to almost any question that can be posed. Most of those answers are copouts, but they're still considered answers.

        She wants churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation, yet there are many, many Christians who believe America is a Christian nation established by God for and by Christians.

        She wants their LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in their faith communities. Not even remotely likely in fundamentalist churches.

        July 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
    • Kevin

      True

      July 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  5. Frank J. Winchester

    I loved the advice for ministers to ask the young what they were seeking in the church and that such ministers might be surprised by the answers. I doubt that many will ask such questions because it would force such ministers to grow and evolve out of their own forced small world.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • tony

      An honest, logical bible?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      honest, logical bible? now that's funny.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  6. MightyMoo

    '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. …”'

    That is the best line in the whole article. Makes me want to yell, "You! Out of the pew and to the back of the congregation now!"

    July 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  7. skytag

    "And I proceed to bang my head against the podium."

    Serves her right for trying to reason with fundies.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  8. Pravda

    As usual CNN has it backwards. Most people are leaving the church in droves because it is dead and has become to ACCEPTING to controversial topics. Church has become a business that offers cheerleading at best but no real help for those that need it.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • tony

      But it always has been a business based on a well known pack of lies

      July 27, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  9. Hope

    I am a millennial, and I left the church because I had a problem believing what was in the Bible. Like she said, "we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters."

    July 27, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  10. Harry Walls IV

    I'm continuing to read articles that share this same message. I agree with it. I wonder why this is a message that is containing to be missed. I'm a 32 year old worship pastor, sitting pretty much in the same position you are in. I live firsthand the conversations you are bringing up and wondering what else we need to do to get this message out and get the real conversation going.

    In some ways it's inevitable that this subject will continue to be at the forefront of church talk, but why? What's at the core of this presumed blindness to obvious fact? That's the question I'm looking to answer. Maybe we can start seeing some real heart change.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • postedbygeorge

      They are looking for truth and your religious beliefs are not.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Greg

      There is no such thing as a deity or deities. Like it or not, the internet is forcing the truth of science upon us all and showing everyone hat religion is just a bunch of garbage. I was raised Catholic. Then, I went to high school and my brain was formed well-enough to realize that science is truth and Catholicism is false. Christianity will be in the dust bin of history in less than 30 years. Good luck fighting a losing war.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  11. Ruth

    I would rather believe there is a God and die then not believe there is a God and die

    July 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • What IF

      Ruth,

      This is another tired repeti.tion of Pascal's Wager - thoroughly refuted since the 17th century, when it was proposed.

      - What if the real "God" is Allah, or Vishnu, or Zeus, or Quetzalcoatl, or any of the other of thousands which have been dreamed up over the centuries? Some of them are very jealous and vengeful and will relegate you to nasty places for not worshiping them. You'd better cover your butt by believing in ALL of them and fulfill their wishes and demands.

      - What if the real "God" prefers those who use logic and reason and punishes you as a silly, gullible sycophant?

      - What if the real "God" detests those who believe something just to cover their butts in eternity?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • tony

      In that case, worship satan. you can't miss out on his afterlife, by not being good enough.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Mick

      I second What If's comments. Also: How does one make himself believe in a god? We believe what we perceive to be true. If I asked you to believe two plus two is seven, could you do it?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • bratex1218

      And Ruth seems to think, like so many others, that there is a "belief tree" or "faith tree" and you just go out and pick it off the tree. Sorry Ruth, belief in something isn't quite that simple.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  12. Day Cross

    I am not ashamed to speak up, and I'm not ashamed to list my name. I know some will disagree or find argument because of my faith. That may be. I can only say that for me, I can't ask God to change for me. I can ask for understanding of His ways, I can ask for Him to help me live within His rules, but I can not expect Him to change just so I'm comfortable on Sunday.

    Hebrews 13:8. James 1:17. 1 Nephi 10:18.

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

    If you go to worship God, you won't ask Him to change because you don't agree. It just doesn't work that way. We must come to Him, not the other way around.

    I wish you all Godspeed.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • postedbygeorge

      You are following a perversion as Middlle Eastern relegions have been easily perverted.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • M.R.

      Your name is Day Cross??? Nah.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • Day Cross

        Like i said, I'm not ashamed. You are welcome to look me up-I am who I am. Yes, I'm even on facebook! I am proud to be a Christian. I am not sure we as Christians ever really live as our Father wants us to, and that is probably where the change needs to happen. The CHURCH doesn't need to change-the people do. We have to learn to love, to quit dissing everyone, to quit hating, but we do not have to change our core beliefs. We can ask others to live a life that isn't always easy, but we should never lower our standards. That isn't what God is all about. I have a lot to learn about loving others, but I know that it's been said far more eloquently- John 17:14-15.
        I really am not ashamed, except when I mess up. Then-thank goodness, I still feel shame!

        July 27, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
        • OTOH

          "The CHURCH doesn't need to change-the people do."

          The CHURCH? Which one of the tens of thousands of denominations? "The Church" **is** people, and nothing more. It is modern-day people, believing the fantasies and supersti.tions of ancient Middle Eastern Hebrew men.

          July 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • bratex1218

      No Day Cross, I will not "go to" something or someone who, according to your own scriptures, sanctioned the slaughter of innocent children, sanctioned slavery, and set up a system where finite crimes will be punished with infinite torture.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
      • Day Cross

        oh bratex, there really is more to God than you have been led to believe. I challenge you-read the Bible, read the Book of Mormon (yes, I'm a Christian, yes, I'm a Mormon). Just read it. Don't look for arguments, but read it, with an open mind. If you live in a society where justice is blind, you will see a limited view. If you live in a place where mercy trumps justice, you will see a broader view. If you try to comprehend God you will see that our view is so narrow. No-don't go to a church where they teach vengeance or justice alone. That is a part of the world reality, but it's not the whole message. I share it this way (when appropriate). I don't tell a 6 year old WHY they shouldn't do some things. They aren't able to understand that level of knowledge. I do however tell them "NO" if necessary, because I'm responsible for their well-being. That is sort of how I see things with God. He isn't going to tell me everything now, no matter how much I wish He would. He will tell me what I need. I wish you well, and whatever path you choose, be kind! (oh and of course you know I'll be praying for you, right?!)

        July 27, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  13. postedbygeorge

    They are leaving because JC was gay, and the churches dont like happy people.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      jesus christ...
      long hair, great tan, six pack abs, never got with a woman, hung out with 12 dudes...

      July 27, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
      • SmartGodnone

        Jesus was a black dude, was a very special man.
        Jesus was a black dude, not some skinny white guy with a tan.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  14. Independent Texan

    We have to get back to looking at scripture as allegorical, and not as literal. The churches that do this the best challenge each of us to find our own interpretation of what scripture is telling us.

    The Roman and Orthodox churches missed the boat when they insisted that only the clergy can interpret meaning and only the clergy can approach God as our intermediaries.

    The protestants got it right when they disiintermediated clergy from the personal relationship we all must find with God. But they get it wrong to the extent that all answers are rote and come from a literal reading of scripture.

    The advance of scientific knowledge only threatens the grip of fundamentalists who treat the Bible as if it were a newspaper. If we treat the Bible as a sacred writing, inspired by God in ways that we will spend out whole lives struggling to understand, but never achieving understanding, then there is hope for meaning in the church.

    There is faith that the answers are on the other side, if we make the effort to follow God as Jesus showed us the way. The most important things are the lessons of Jesus. He revealed the truest nature of God we have yet seen. So, 1) love God, and 2) love your neighbors. Pretty simple. And think for yourself what scripture means. God delights in our struggle to know Him.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • Mick

      "God delights in our struggle to know Him"? Wouldn't a god who requires us to follow him create a clearly worded book, and issue countless translations and updates to remove any trace of ambiguity? What's with all the metaphor and talking animals? Why can no two people agree on what these ancient writings mean? For an all-powerful being, your god seems to be lacking in the smarts department.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
      • Independent Texan

        God requires nothing of you, Mick. He does, however, invite you to think about his nature. I am 100% sure that I lack even the most rudimentary concept of what God is. I use personal pronouns "He, his", etc. just to aid in communication, but I have no real belief in a God that looks as Michaelangelo drew him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

        I do believe that "God is love" is more accurate than anything else. I acknowledge my smallness while putting my faith in a God of love.

        Nothing is required of you. But Grace is offered to you, that you may live more abundantly.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Greg

      Excellent Texan! I totally agree. People are wont to make everything so difficult and complex. I guess that's human nature. But really, It's pretty simple-the Golden Rule. If I need to get more complex, then I review the Lord's Prayer and that's all the theology that I need. Then after that I can personally go about my lifetime journey of finding/knowing God. And yes, the Bible is a good reference book for that.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
  15. AtheistHuman

    People need to stop believing in the religious hog wash, and start believing in themselves and their own abilites, instead of waiting for god and jesus to save them.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Gary Duits

      How can you save your self? you are a walking dead men from the day you are born.Jesus is real.or else the greatest deceiver who ever lived. Make up your mind, go ahead save your self! .The bible is the only book that really knows .

      July 27, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • Couch

        If that's true, do children who die shortly after birth go to hell?

        July 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      There is nothing wrong with believing in yourself but what a mistake that would be at the exclusion of God. Our lives are like intangible vapors...here today and gone tomorrow. Who is going to believe in you when you are gone? People who don't believe and trust in what is fleeting and fragile are deceiving themselves. "What they trust in is fragile; what they rely on is a spider's web." Job 8:14. I will leave you with this last thought...."Where did you happen to be when I founded the earth? When the morning stars joyfully cried out together, And all of the sons of God began shouting in applause?" Job 38:4,7 Something to think about AtheistHuman. I wish you well.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Gary Duits

      How can you save your self? you are a walking dead men from the day you are born.Jesus is real.or else the greatest deceiver who ever lived. Make up your mind, go ahead save your self! .The bible is the only book that really knows the human condition.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  16. Redoran

    Pastors should wear "skinny jeans". I am 70, atheist, and I just love it!

    July 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  17. Details

    HELP! The devil is inside me!!!

    July 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      devil inside!

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luobOzreRq4&w=640&h=390]

      July 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • flying spaghetti monster

      It's probably just indigestion. I recommend upping your dietary fiber. 🙂

      July 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  18. Hypatia

    Become Anglicans. We have reason, good sense, manners and Thomas Cranmer.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      and you're book also says g.ays are to be put to death.

      six of one, half-a-dozen of another...

      July 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • fish

      ....and a sky faerie magic beast 🙂

      July 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • M.R.

      Cramner???

      July 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  19. Joe

    Not one word by anyone about the nature of evil, or the existence of Satan, in the article or the comments? Knowing about the grace of God as well as the love of Jesus is important of course – but we need to know our enemy as well. Much of the Christian church fails to emphasize the importance of understanding temptation & that which is evil. Instead, it is more popular to emphasize praying for more love (& more rainbows, butterflies, and cute little bunnies). But even non-believers can see that evil is a reality that does exist in this world (and it won't go away by ignoring it – evil just grows worse). But let's not talk about that....

    July 27, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "Not one word by anyone about the nature of evil, or the existence of Satan, in the article or the comments?"
      no such thing as evil. no such thing as satan. no such thing as god.

      ready to have a grown up conversation or do you still want to talk about the boogie man?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
      • are122

        So instead of wasting time saying what isn't...please tell us what is. You should be grown up enough to do that. What gave the universe it's existence? What gave it laws of physics and mathematics? How did a gob of cosmic snot evolve to male and female simultaneously? Did plants and animals proceed from the same gob or did it rain individual plant and animal gobs. And how is it they developed simultaneously male and female?

        July 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
        • OkieDokie

          Lol, THAT explains Monotheists very succinctly....If you don't have the answer, MAKE ONE UP! Your Faerie has all the answers and you aren't allowed to ask the same questions of where a gob of god-snot came from so you're happy 🙂 Dumb, but happy 🙂

          July 27, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • One one

      I don't believe in satan but do believe there are bad people out there. That's why we have a criminal justice system.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
    • Okie

      I would be Satan to you. I despise (good word!) your Monotheistic 'tarded belief system and your ignorant thoughts. I am not evil, but I am YOUR Satan...coming for you soon 🙂

      July 27, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Bill Graham

      I'll give you a word. People are good and bad, righteous and evil all the time. As far as people are concerned, there are no absolutes. Not even the Almighty claims to be static. We see in various passages of the Hebrew canon that the Almighty changed his mind because of something the people of Israel and Judah did. That's right. Their actions brought about a change in the mind of the Almighty. This biblical information flies in the face of any attempt to say the Almighty is completely immutable and absolute in every detail.

      I do not believe heaven or hell are physical places at all. Sure, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. According to the authors of the four gospels, he talked about heaven and hell a lot. That is because Jesus was an apocalyptic. He viewed his life-span as the end time. He talked in terms the people of his time could understand. The disciples were influenced by Hellenism; therefore, Jesus intermingled Greek mythology with Jewish teachings to paint a picture that made sense to them. The same was true of Egyptian influence. There was, to a certain extent, some lingering Egyptian influence in the Palestinian culture of the day, so Jesus painted pictures with those elements so people could understand the deeper truths he set out to convey.

      Human beings are subject to exercise good and evil all the time. There is no "good" human being. Even Jesus said, there is no one good but God. There is no purely evil human being. We are all capable of both extremes, and every human being is capable of redemption or damnation at the same time. That is because being human does not dismiss our animal natures, which lay immediately below the surface at all times. No matter how civilized we become, we still have the fight or flight response of our reptilian ancestors, and yes, I think evolution is a fact.

      By the way, I accept science as factual over and above what the Bible says in Genesis, but that doesn't mean I don't see value in the study of the scriptures. Once we understand that the Bible never set out to be a book of science, and that its only claim is to show people the way of faith, we no longer feel threatened by evolution. In fact, we can embrace it as the truth along with other truths we can find in the Bible and other holy books. So, it's not a matter of rejecting the Bible as an outright fabrication. It's a matter of seeing its greater value in our lives along side every other system of knowledge.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  20. LM Schultz

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

    Speak for yourself.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      exactly. jesus was a supported of slavery. he said to beat slaves that disobey "with many stripes." there are much better people to learn good ethics from.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:15 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.