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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. Realist

    ................
    ................................ . absolute evil !!!!!!!!!!

    July 27, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  2. Realist

    ................. absolute evil !!!!!!!!!!

    July 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  3. A Dose of Reality
    July 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  4. One one

    Hello Millennials, God here.

    Worship me or I will torture you forever.

    Have a nice day.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  5. HITLER WAS A CHRISTIAN

    I FOUND THIS ARTICLE BORING AND GENERIC.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  6. God is LOVE (not hate)

    Many churches of today don't seem to bother reading the Bible or applying it to modern life.

    When Jesus said: love your neighbors and enemies, did he mean Muslim people, gay people? Gasp? Um, yeah.

    When he said that he came to save the world out of love, did he mean non-white Americans only? That's amusing.

    Did he mean that a white American has to be the one to reveal God to the rest of the world? Um, no.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • God is LOVE (not hate)

      ...correction: 'did he mean white Americans only...'

      July 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  7. Caleb

    Dr. Suess wears his stripes on his hat,
    Jesus wears his stripes on his back.
    Silly stories to you they be,
    for you cant understand,
    the depth the Bible has
    compared to green eggs and ham.
    Whoville may be full of wisdom
    but so is 2 kings.
    If you like I will rhyme the
    entire Bible so it's easier
    for you to read.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • Dad

      The bible is quite easy to read but it is also VERY clear early on, that it is useless drivel. Pray to your master sheep, you'll be feeling the heat soon 🙂

      July 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  8. Jessica Pillay

    Reblogged this on Hued Unorthodoxy and commented:
    This article concisely sums up everything I've ever ranted (and continue to rant rather continuously) about when it comes to "my generation" and our disinterest in church/church culture. Great read!

    July 27, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  9. Colin

    Dear Millennials:

    God here.

    I don’t care whether you leave the church or not. In fact, I don’t care about anything, because, you see, I do not exist. Is not the concept of a 13,700,00,000 year old being (age of the Universe) capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the actions and thoughts of the 7 billion human beings on this planet utterly ludicrous?

    Look, if I did exist, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Greco-Roman Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors or how and why it was compiled with certain writings included and others excluded, nor how it has been edited over the centuries, yet you cite it for the most extraordinary of supernatural claims.

    Thirdly, when I sent my “son” (whatever that means, given that I am god and do not mate) to Earth, he would have visited the Chinese, Ja.panese, Europeans, Russians, sub-Saharan Africans, Australian Aboriginals, Mongolians, Polynesians, Micronesians, Indonesians and native Americans, not just a few Jews. He would also have exhibited a knowledge of something outside of the Greco-Roman Middle East.

    Fourthly, I would not spend my time hiding, refusing to give any tangible evidence of my existence, and then punish those who are smart enough to draw the natural conclusion that I do not exist by burning them forever. That would make no sense to me, given that I am the one who elected to withhold all evidence of my existence in the first place.

    Fifthly, in the same vein, I would not make about 5% of the human population gay, then punish them for being that way. In fact, I wouldn’t care about how humans have $ex at all, given that I created all of the millions of millions of species on the planet, all of whom are furiously reproducing all the time. Human $ex would be of no interest to me, given that I can create Universes. Has it ever occurred to you that your obsession with making rules around human $ex is an entirely human affair?

    Sixth, I would have smitten all you Christian activists, and all evangelicals and fundamentalists long before this. You people drive me nuts. You are so small minded and speak with such false authority. Many of you still believe in the talking snake nonsense from Genesis. I would kill all of you for that alone and burn you for an afternoon (burning forever is way too barbaric even for a sick, sadistic bast.ard like me to contemplate).

    Seventh, the whole idea of members of one species on one planet surviving their own physical deaths to “be with me” is utter, mind-numbing nonsense. Grow up. You will die. Get over it. I did. Hell, at least you had a life. I never even existed in the first place.

    Eighth, I do not read your minds, or “hear your prayers” as you euphemistically call it. There are 7 billion of you. Even if only 10% prayed once a day, that is 700,000,000 prayers. This works out at 8,000 prayers a second – every second of every day. Meanwhile I have to process the 100,000 of you who die every day between heaven and hell. Dwell on the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.

    Finally, the only reason you even consider believing in me is because of where you were born. Had you been born in India, you would likely believe in the Hindu gods, if born in Tibet, you would be a Buddhist. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?

    Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no god. Believing in me was fine when you cringed in fear during the Dark Ages and thought the World was young, flat and simple. Now we know how enormous, old and complex the Universe is.

    Move on – get over me. I did.

    God

    July 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • GAW

      Nothing new stated in this post....Yaaawwwn

      July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • Some Christian

      Nice try, Satan. 😉

      July 27, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Phiobanadio

      You must have spent at least a good half hour on that rant. Someone's angry at the world.... Damn.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  10. albert

    The sad truth is that religion is far removed from Bible teachings. So called "Christianity" has adopted Pagan customs and Greek mythology as Bible truths. Christmas, Easter, the Rapture, Eternal torment, the Trinity, none of these teachings are in the Bible. Look at their roots. The Bible and science actually compliment each other quite nicely. Unfortunately, People confuse religion with the Bible. Also, look how many wars have bee fought where members of the same religion are killing each other (Catholic, Protestant, etc.). Is it any wonder people are leaving religion?

    July 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • Dacor

      Well that, and the fact that all forms of Monotheistic belief or Polytheism are really, at their core, just stupid. They're EGO man! Feed the self, me me me, save MY eternal soul. Just selling to people the crazy notion that they have a soul was the coup de grace to get all the dumb people interested in the cult.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • Steve

      Albert, nice statement which mimics (as usual) the beliefs of the Watchtower Zombie organization. Unfortunately they never tell the full story. The bible itself has plenty of pagan origins. The creation days are taken from the Babylonian 'Enuma Elish'. The Flood story has some overlap with the 'Epic of Gilgamesh'. Moses' birth story is identical to that of Sargon the Great. 3 day resurrection? Stolen from the Zaroastrians, as was the idea of 'judgement day'. Much of Jesus' story is taken from Egyptian myth (Horus). The governing body only tells the part of the story they want you to know.

      The bible and science go together? You are kidding right? Light existed before the Sun was created? The moon is a luminary? If so, then so is everything sunlight hits. Plants created before the sun? What about photosynthesis? Birds arrived before land animals? Not according to the fossil record (which has 5 major extinction events...i guess god got bored). The earth does not move? Noah's ark? Satan takes Jesus to the top of a mountain to see/offer all the kingdoms of the earth? Um, the earth is round. God stops the sun from moving so Joshua can kill more canaanites. Prophecy potential, could have stated he stopped the earth moving.

      In terms of wars, who liberated the JW's from the concentration camps? You were neutral in the war against the Nazis who enslaved your people. Oh wait, Judge Rutherford sent a letter sympathising with Hitler in 1934, declaring that the Anglo-American powers were the true evil on the earth (Ssss..they were the ones releasing you from the camps btw). Oh and you are not alone in your supposed non-violence (which is not true since you guys condone violence depending on who does it...god can kill little babies is ok right?). The mennonites, amish and jains are also non-violent with the latter being true pacisfists. Much better than retribution based christianity.

      The bible is actually a tremendous mess, of contradictions, genocide, patriarchy, infanticide, slavery and retribution with eternal torture in mind (or at least extermination from a JW point of view).

      July 27, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  11. Great article

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

    You said it all.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

      No we don't.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Speak for yourself.... a man longing for another man makes that man a sinner who shall burn forever. Wow, this BS religion stuff is kinda cool.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Deisty

      uh, vomit anyone?

      July 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  12. jazzguitarman

    I assume she calls herself a Christian so the real question here is what are the requirements for one to claim they are a Christian? E.g. How many of the Christian ‘miracles’ (I view these as myths), does one have to accept to be a Christian? All of them? How much of the bible does one have to believe is true to be a Christian?

    To me this article is similar to the one about being devoted to a historical Jesus but not Jesus as Christ. What is interesting is that both ‘real’ Christians and Atheist have the same distain for people like the authors of these two articles; Make up your mind! Either you accept Jesus and the Christian miracles or you don’t.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  13. Dad

    Soooooooo, let me get this straight. You Humans think you get to live after you die? ROFLMAO!!

    July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Dem cats is crazy, ain't dey?

      July 27, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  14. BRUCE ALLEN

    Dear Rachel: Yea to "hip" church=plastic church. But(oh..ouch word) as a former rocket scientist(no joke) i had to decide that the Holy Bible is the Word of God, not my 20+ yrs of science. Be sure you are not asking for a NEW Jesus that gives you everything YOU want...Christians kind of buy into something about what God wants.... a 68yr old "troublemaker"
    a few seconds ago · Like

    July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Mychele

      How exactly do you spend 25 yrs in science and then decide it was all fake, compared to a 1900+ yr old book compiled and cobbled together over more years than a person's lifetime? Illogical.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  15. terrep263

    Wow

    July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  16. Realist

    ----------

    ..... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com .....
    ..... and thank goodness because he emanates from the .....
    ..... http://www.EVILbible.com .....

    Please visit those websites for enlightening information. Thanks!

    ----------------

    July 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Realist

      ....................... IMAGINARY ... YET EVIL !!!

      July 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
      • Realist

        ............... pure evil !!!!!

        July 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
        • Realist

          Yes ............. absolute evil !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

          July 27, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  17. Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

    Jesus did not fulfill anything. Read your stupid bibles:

    http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48892792.html

    http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/DebunkingChristians/Page26.htm

    http://www.evilbible.com/jesus_false.htm

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsandjesus/

    Overwhelming evidence that jesus was just some smelly liar that didn't shower. Christians will twist anything they can to justify belief in this moronic fairy tale.

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

      You are simply replacing a set of man made writings with another. Zero logic. Also, your name says it all. How can you expect to be taken seriously? You have a demented mind.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  18. Candace

    Rachel, great article, keep them coming, we need to ask these questions more often in the church!

    July 27, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • Spread Those Cheeks Open Hard For The Pounding Of A Lifetime

      Why would you waste your time in church? It's obvious you've never read a bible.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:39 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.