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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. NorthVanCan

    At least Santa gives you stuff. Like a remote control car or toy train.
    That to me is more real than all the stories in the world.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • One one

      And he doesn't send you to hell if you don't believe in him.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  2. Adam

    The reason people my age are leaving religions is quite simple! We see through all the BS! Why should I be scared of some flying spaghetti monster in the sky? Why should I have to believe in something that clearly does not exist? Science is our religion.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  3. Deist

    I miss the old gods. So much more wrathful and vengeful they were right quick to smite unbelievers. This new god just stays invisible and you have to wait until death to see this so called 'lake of fire'. god bless you satan, you have all my power now...

    July 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Thanks... right back at ya buddy.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  4. eric

    I, as a bit older person hear you. However let us not give up the foundational message of the gospel simply to get s group to come back to service. God is a jealous God. He demands obedience. He is to be feared not put into a package to meet the needs of His creation.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • Colin

      You have it back to front. Gods are our creation. We make them up and subscribe to the mthe personalities and morality that reflect our own. Ever noticed that God loves all the same things you do, disapproves of the same things you do and has an identical moral outlook to you?

      July 27, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Belinda

      I agree , Eric....thanks for voicing that concern!

      July 27, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
      • BRUCE ALLEN

        YES.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  5. Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

    I read somewhere that lionly lamb drinks man chowder straight from the tap at church

    July 27, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  6. A Dose of Reality

    Want to see some REAL analogies with the Jesus story. Try the stories of Appolonius of Tyana, Horus or Mythras, all of which predated Jesus.Appolonius of Tyana. Before he was born, his mother was visited by an angel who told her that her son would be divine. His birth was accompanied by miraculous signs and as a child he was religiously precocious. As an adult, he left home to be an itinerant preacher, teaching the good news that people should live for what is spiritual, not the material things of this world. He gathered disciples and performed miracles. He raised the ire of those in power who had him brought up before the Roman authorities. His followers saw him after he died and he ascended into heaven. – Bart ErhmanHorusBefore Jesus, Horus was a mythological figure from Egypt who was said to be born on December 25 to a virgin. A star in the East heralded his arrival and three kings came to worship the baby. At age 12, Horus was a prodigal child teacher and at age 30 he was baptized and began his ministry. He had 12 disciples, travelled about performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water and was known by terms such as “the good shepherd.” After he died, he was buried, but three days later he rose from the dead. Mythras. Similarly, two centuries before the appearance of Jesus, the myth of Mithras held that Mithras was the son of the sun sent to save mankind. He was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, and his birth was attended by shepherds. Mithras sacrificed himself and, on the last day of his life, had supper with twelve of his followers. At that supper, Mithras invited his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. He was buried in a tomb and after three days he rose again. The cult of Mithraism, which evolved out of the earlier Persian religion of Zoroastrism, was popular in Rome at the same time that Christianity was spreading.Unfortunatley, there is good reason to think that many of the stories about Jesus are a collage of existing Mediterranean mythology. This is not surprising, given that the frist Gospel, Mark, was not written until 40 years after Jesus' death and that stories about hiw swirled about the superst.itious Greco-Roman Mediterranean for all this time before being captured in writing.Indeed, it would be very, very unlikely, to the point of impossibility, for stories about him NOT to grow over time and be influenced by the prevailing mythogy.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  7. Camperman

    Yes, I think many are leaving the church, because they don't find the spirit of Jesus Christ in that church. We need to ask those who are true preachers and teachers of Christianity, to sit down with this generation and ask what must the church do to attract you to it. I firmly believe in Jesus Christ and His teachings and the way He lead his life on earth, and I want to be as much like Him as I can, but I know I have many failings. I do not fear death, and long for the after life promised to us for those who believe that "no one comes to the Father, but through me." Long may the church be a place of peace, understanding, and personal blessing for all who believe.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      What must the church do to attract me to it? Free crack and my own Pope mobile, but that won't change the FACT that its bull shyte. Funny thing about lies and liars, sooner or later no one believes them.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  8. Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

    This is the only jesus I'd ever follow.

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

    Not the giant pansy in the bible.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  9. albie

    Millennials can smell disingenuous behavior a mile a way - they are also savvy to snake oil salesmen, so its not surprising that they aren't fooled by the nonsense of religion - good for them, I have much more respect for their generation now.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  10. William

    May be younger people are leaving western churches, not my church. I'm a Coptic Orthodox Christian from Egypt and my church in North America and in Europe is flourishing with more converts everyday and our youth loves their Alexandrian Church. Finally, it's not the western church, it's the materialistic egocentric modern day western civilization is the problem and this problem will never be fixed by compromising the faith as more people will still your church after you compromise your beliefs. God Bless 🙂

    July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Justine

      "Western=Bad". Don't mind taking the horrible West's cash, now do you?

      July 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
      • William

        I said the modern day western civilization not the classic western civilization that used to have high moral standards and people were more optimistic and happier in their lives. And materialistic people like you, who are only thinking about money are the reason for the current moral degradation of the western society and the loss of classic western values.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  11. Colin

    This is actually pretty good (and says a lot).

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

    July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • jay

      But, but, but, but... Jesus man...!

      July 27, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  12. Lee

    She isn't a Christian, so why would I care what she thinks?

    July 27, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

      No one gives a fuck what you think

      July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      that you even used the word "think" is a miracle.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Justine

      She is as much a Christian as you are.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • PirateJohn

      Ah, did you even bother to read the article? She very clearly identifies herself as Christian. Furthermore, the whole reason that she doesn't want a part of the churches she is talking about is because they are straying so far from the teachings of Jesus that they are the ones who have no business calling themselves Christians. Perhaps next time you should actually, you know, *read* the bloody article before spouting off ignorant comments.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  13. FreeFromTheism

    So, let's be clear, this article is about Christian millennials.
    I am a millennial, and this article isn't about me.
    It seems that the author was attempting to be fair, but not all of us operate under the assumption that invisible super friends actually exist.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  14. von

    People have always had misconceptions about who Jesus is, even in his time on Earth and even among his followers. LGBT should be welcomed EVERYWHERE, but the church should NEVER bow to the knee of political pressure and continue to preach the unadulterated gospel. What the world is looking for is truth, but those that come to the church are looking for the "watered down" version of the gospel and when they get it, they soon see that it doesn't fill them, answer questions, correct and leads them to confusion. They want the compassionate and loving God (which he is in every way), but the God of judgement they reject.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      " LGBT should be welcomed EVERYWHERE"
      not in leviticus 20:13. welcome g.ays? the bible says to kill g.ays. you're cherry-picking.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
      • FreeFromTheism

        Then again, it doesn't seem fair to expect consistency from a Christian

        July 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
      • Kev

        Old Test law requires killing of LGBT; however, Christians are not under the Law of Moses. We are ambassadors of the kindness of God such that some will come to repentance.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
        • Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

          Yes you are. If you read your bible you'd know that the old testament was not to be kicked to the curb.

          July 27, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Layla

      No, I feel that it's more that we choose to live compassionate as God wants us to and leave the judging up to God. So many Christian ministers send mixed messages. It's not up to us to judge but evangelicals insist on it.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  15. What is going on? FREEDOM

    Tarver so you are basically avoiding the facts and theories of evolution, which proves you are lying to people. As stated by many scientists, the mass extinction of the "dinosaurs" occurred. Many smaller animals and insects (you can examine the mosquito which proves your theory wrong) survived due to the fact that they existed in the oceans as well as existed inside the Earth. It has been proven that smaller animals can exist in the worst environments on Earth. Want proof of that as well? Well just go to the Mojave Desert, Gobi Desert, or the Sahara Desert.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • What is going on? FREEDOM

      Typical of you Tarver. I suggest you actually study real science instead of reading someone's ignorant work to try and prove his religious views.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • What is going on? FREEDOM

      Also Tarver there is no rapid response of species after a mass extinction. The founding of human fossils over 5 million years ago proves your theory wrong. Also the rapidness of species (say the rat after the mass extinction of dinosaurs as well as birds and certain fish) occurred due to the fact that predators were no longer a threat to those said species. Those species began to grow exponentially in population due to the predator population being diminished or being extinct. That still does not show the existence of a creator

      July 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
      • What is going on? FREEDOM

        Even then with the rapidness of population does not prove a rapid species growth of a creator, since these creatures were already in existence of the time period.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  16. dave

    I think we Millennians are realizing that to live as contributing members of society in this century, one has to be logical, to be aware of how this world really works and to find solution that truly work. we are coming to individual conclusions that the belief in god gets in the way. Reason is triumphing.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  17. Candace

    Wow, a lot of haters complaining about other haters hating other haters....what exactly is your point? Your not really making Agnostic/Atheistic beliefs any more attractive than Chtistianity by venting your bitter bile here.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Candace

      *Christianity*

      July 27, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you're upset that people are calling other people out on their bigotry? you're basically saying we're prejudice against prejudice people. haha. now that's funny.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Colin

      So, you base your view on the accuracy of Christianity v. atheism on your opinion of its adherents? That makes no sense. The validity of doctrine or the rejection thereof is in no way related to the personality of its adherents.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "you're a hater because you pointed out how we're being prejudiced and bigoted!" lol.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

      Learn the difference between the following:

      Your
      You're

      SHIT

      July 27, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Ted Testerson

      Atheists have no beliefs, by definition.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
      • FreeFromTheism

        Actually, atheist is a label/definition used only in regard to the belief(s) pertaining to the existence of deities
        Therefore, your statement is false.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
      • PirateJohn

        I'm an atheist and I have lots of beliefs. God just doesn't happen to be among those beliefs.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      wrong, ted. atheists have no belief in god. that's all atheism means. usually atheists don't believe in fairies either, but they often believe in love.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • Just Call Me Lucifer

        Believe in love? You mean biology, right? Love is like religion... useless.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
      • Candace

        Wow...ok, cool, so I am going to go hit the pool for some fun In the sun while you catty boys gouge each others eyes out trying to prove whose veiws are more realistic & loving. Ciao.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  18. Jerry

    Not a bad article but " the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious".
    Are you serious?
    You must be mad...It's the very definition of pretentious.
    That's probably the silliest thing I have ever read.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Hugo Estrada

      It seems simple and authentic in contrast with what they have lived with.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  19. von

    Ahh, the great falling away....the truth is if you're looking for a reason to leave the church, all you have to do is look for a reason to leave the church, but don't blame the church for your falling away.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  20. Just Call Me Lucifer

    Religion is dying a slow death, thank me.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • One one

      So are you.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
      • Just Call Me Lucifer

        That makes three of us, but I don't believe kissing the invisible mans a ss will save my soul. I don't have a soul and neither do you.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:36 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.