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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. laguna_b

    1000s of years ago, nomadic people wandered around trying to figure out the why and how of their world. Lacking either scientific method or knowledge they cobbled together myths (most were not original) and rules....you have to please the Gods (human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, now money in the collection plate) The Gods rarely ever interceded which let to the interpretation which led to the conclusion that sometimes god does and sometimes he doesn't....no scientific method. Experiments that fail disprove theories not strengthen them. his is why we no longer have blood letting. If religion was held to 1% the proof standard of science, it would be over tomorrow.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      While I agree with most of what you wrote how is any of that related to this article? Are you in Laguna Beach? I am. In fact I should get going to Top of The World for my daily hike.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
      • laguna_b

        Ok, maybe off topic.... I am a former Lagunatic....but I have had the handle for like 20 years....so why change. Have a great hike. I live in the Los Gatos mountains up north and unlike OC we have 100s of sq miles of open space preserve to hike in...should check it out.

        July 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • jstars

      Out of curiosity, what kind of scientific experiment do you propose to disprove a religion?

      July 27, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Ben T.

    Bringing people into the church is really a simple process. Step 1: Provide verifiable, conclusive evidence that gods, or other mythological creatures exist. Step 2: Provide verifiable, conclusive evidence that the gods, or other mythological creatures that your religion believes in are the only such creatures that exist. Step 3: Provide verifiable, conclusive evidence that explains why your religion invalidates all others.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • laguna_b

      AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • dave

      Jesus is a proven historical deity. The Bible can be proven obeying its truths. What a lame response you and the article gave

      July 27, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
      • LinCA

        @dave

        You said, "Jesus is a proven historical deity."
        Bullshit. There isn't even agreement over whether Jesus was even a real person, let alone a deity.

        You said, "The Bible can be proven obeying its truths."
        The only thing you can prove about the bible that it is wrong. That, and it's caloric value, of course.

        July 27, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          Coloric value? Eaten or burned? I recommend burning.

          July 27, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
        • LinCA

          @HotAirAce

          You said, "Eaten or burned? I recommend burning."
          Burned, of course.

          While I don't recommend burning books, if I were stuck in a freezing library without any fuel, the bible, and other religious texts, would be the first to go.

          July 27, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          We are on the same page. . . We're going to the USA next week and when I reserved a hotel room, I explicitly included instructions to remove all religious material from the room before we check in. Will be interesting to see if they comply, or if I have to cleanse the room myself.

          July 27, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
        • LinCA

          @HotAirAce

          Good luck with that. Did you make your request over the phone, or did you fill out the "special request" box on the online reservation? Not that it is likely to matter, either way.

          July 27, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
        • A Frayed Knot

          HotAirAce,

          Oh no, you are missing your chance. That Bible in the room won't hurt you... and you are passing up a chance to insert this warning onto or into it:

          Warning: Someone has placed this book here in an attempt to recruit you for their religion. They want you to believe that this is literally a magic book; however, its contents are not based on reason, logic, or factual evidence. This book is a collection of selected Middle Eastern folk histories eventually written down by people who lived well after the time of Jesus, and has been selectively edited since that time. The stories originated from uneducated Iron-Age men who were likely prone to superst.itious explanations for everything in the world around them. Most of the themes, and many of the details, are clearly derived from earlier mythology in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

          Nevertheless, this book is being presented to you not only as fact, but as inerrant words dictated by the one supreme supernatural force in the universe (the Christian God), and someone is attempting to convince you to reorient your entire life according to it. The reader is encouraged to take that seriously, to weigh the statements in this book against research and observations on the knowable world, and to consider them in relation to the thousands of other religions from throughout history that also profess with absolute certainty to be the one “Truth.”

          Why the warning? Because this book indeed has been placed here to recruit you to join and serve a specific religious group, and because religious absolutism in all of its forms has been a significant impediment to rational thought, to advances in science and medicine, to social justice, and to world peace. Despite claims of loving benevolence, Christianity has also been used to justify war, slavery, se.xism, racism, h.omophobia, mutilations, intolerance, and oppression of minorities. There are many good reasons to question religion as a force for good among humanity. Please consider these issues as you reflect upon the claims made in this book.

          July 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          LinCA: Special instructions in online form.

          Frayed: You are much more clever than me, although occasionally I do write something like "This is 100% pure crap!" in them. I like the idea of causing Gideon's or whoever a few bucks to replace their books of mythology. I've been thinking about making up business cards with something like "There are no gods and you don't have to live/dress like there is." and the 'phone numer of a cult deprogramming service, to silently hand out to those obviously suffering deep delusions, in many languages of course, but I'm not a fanatical atheist.

          July 27, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
        • John

          Just so you know, Ace...the idiotic, over-the-top, I can't be in the same room as a book of faith lest I be tainted, atheist is no better than the right-wing, nut-bag, religionist. Both extremes are tiresome.

          July 29, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • counter

      You are a materialist. What you believe is only what you "know" through scientific method and the five senses. Pretty pathetic as much of truth is know through methods outside science. Love faith, and hope are attributes found outside the scientific method.

      You sound quite naive actually.

      July 27, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  3. WMH

    In other words you want Laodicean, compromising, seeker-friendly Christianity, without sound doctrine and without offending anyone with the truth, which never has and will never bring anyone to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Dick Wiggler

      Yeah, you can't really have Christianity without the hate speech 😀

      July 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Justine

      She's saying the way they are getting the message out is flawed, not the message itself. Do keep up.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  4. Dick Wiggler

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

    So the Dalai Lama is just a broken soul, waiting for a personal relationship with jesus? Please. It's American arrogance like this that drives people from the church.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  5. PastorJeff

    For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (God's Word through Paul's letter to the Church at Corinth... 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

    July 27, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Yum, great word salad.
      My invisible pink unicorn was hungry.
      Thanks!

      July 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Abigail

      I printed out what you wrote, just so I can pee on it, while I focus my attention on you and your deity as being one with the paper

      July 27, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • counter

      Keep preaching it. Some will come around and others will in effect worship their own selves as they are "too smart" to believe in Jesus Christ.

      July 27, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • L.E.A.P.

      A very apt and telling prediction to what is experienced right here on this supposed belief blog. Very insightful

      July 27, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
  6. chicagoja

    Unfortunately, religion is simply man's word about God, as opposed to the Word of God. They did get one thing right though. The Kingdom of God is within. That's why you'll never find Jesus in church.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Doug

    Did I miss something or is this simply a more twisted way of saying we are now becoming a society turning our backs against God if He doesn't conform to OUR way of thinking?

    July 27, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • Penny

      That conclusion would come easily if you've blurred the line between God and Church.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      Yes, you missed the part where god only exists in your imagination so you can make him think anything you want.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  8. MagicPanties

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

    Yes, you speak for not only your current generation, but all generations past and future too.
    Wowza.
    And they ALL long for Jesus!
    Wholly crappola, white american christian woman, that is truly amazing.

    My invisible pink unicorn doesn't know what to make of this.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  9. Mychele

    wow, so sad that we can't have a mature conversation about any serious topic on the internet without having people who i guess have nothing better to do than to make up really low IQ names for themselves to hide behind and leave posts that don't add anything useful but evidence that there is air blowing between their ears.
    Why feel the need to type" blah" 1000 times?
    Our life on this planet could be so much better if we actually applied ourselves to make some positive changes instead of adding something dumb because that's all you think you're capable of.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • Abagon

      I actually thought that the post with 'blah' written 1000 times was about as informative as any mention of the following falsehoods.
      1. soul
      2.heaven
      3.hell
      4.angels
      5.life after death
      6.eternity
      7.gods
      8.blah blah blah blah blah....

      July 27, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      I agree with you that most people here don't discuss the actual article. I feel the author is trying to have it both ways. I assume she believes in some of the Christian miracles, but all of them? How much of the bible does she view as metaphors verses actual events or truths? So I'm confused about what she really believes in.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  10. sycamoredave

    There are parts of this article that I ID with, such as the BS meter, the "hip music", and the need for genuine Jesus. Too long we have seen a cheesy attempt at following Christ from some elements of the Church. What we do not want to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is very possible to go too far, and loose the reality of who God is, and why he sent Jesus to rescue us. It really is not about evangelicals, or orthodox, or music, or rituals, or liturgy. It is about loving the Lord your God, and loving your neighbor as your self. The rest falls into place, and orders the very nature of life. Reading the Bible in context is something very few are willing to do. Both Christians and non-Christians continue to abuse the Word by not understanding. What Rachel has provided here is one person's viewpoint. I suspect that if she continues to follow Christ past age 33, she will learn, deepen her faith, and mature in her relationship with God. At 53, it would be interesting to have her post a follow up article.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Well we agree that this women is stuck in the middle and trying to have it both ways. She has to decide if she is a believer or not. How much of the bible she beleives in truth. So I agree with you that the odds are high that 20 years from now she will be a lot different than she is today. I'm just hoping she sees the light and becomes agnostic.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
      • counter

        there is no light in agnosticism. It does not work. It is darkness.

        July 27, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Jim Price

    I think what Millennials really want is a bible that is more reflective of their daily experience. If the Bible mentioned anything about computers, or there was a commandment against texting while driving, it would be more relevant and convincing.

    Revelations is fine, but I wish God had included even more forward-looking content, seeing how he is omniscient. Oh well, I guess that's just Him being "mysterious" again.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  12. Jesus Christ Son of God

    People should leave the church because there is no god, and even if there is, like going to church or praying to him keeps bad from happening to you. If you are a sheeple, wake up, live your life. There is no higher being.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  13. ssmith

    PTL Sister Rachel, I hope you see from most of the response you are receiving how you cannot conform to this world. The church should not try to accommodate, entertain, install skating rinks, have rock concerts, etc., in an attempt to keep young people in the church. When they are ready to turn their lives over to God, they will sincerely seek a House of God, not a club. They will want the unadulterated Word of God, not sugar-coated essays. Hebrews 13:8 – "Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever."

    July 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Colin

      That's exactly what she said. Keep up.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  14. Tim Jordan

    So tired of religious folks navel-gazing and mewling about how their religious organization doesn't fulfill this or that existential need. Grow a backbone, think for yourself and remember there's a lot more to life than God and Jesus. Remember, Marcus Aurelius said it long ago: "Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones." Much more insightful than the nonsense peddled by churches and in the Bible.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  15. Caleb

    Why did I have to sign up with alerts! Blast my email right now!

    July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • LinCA

      You gave them your actual email address?

      July 27, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  16. Mychele

    I applaud her questioning, especially when a community you wish to share your time, your philosophical questioning, and your resouuces with acts in a hypocritical manner too often. I can't understand why our society awards any respect to so-called "Christian conservatives" when they completely reject the teachings of Jesus regarding the poor. The way they act, Jesus was a CEO of a Fortune 500 money-changers cart with spite and hate for anyone lesser or different.
    Your search for meaning should resonate with your faith community and vice versa. I've seen more people exploring Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism because these faiths allow for search and don't require dogma.

    July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Steve C

    The problem is that "BS meter" you talk about comes from a healthy skepticism, rejecting the "do as I say, not as I do" generation. You say the younger generations are searching for Jesus, but maybe we are just searching for morality, justice and truth in the only life we know to exist and faith is NOT required? Science and truth will never be compatible with bronze aged myths and dogma That includes the story of Jesus being the "son of God."

    July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  18. Ron

    If God knows everything already, and sees everything already, knows what we think, knows the past, knows the future, created everything, and everything happens according to his plan.... what is the point of praying, or asking him for anything?

    July 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Athy

      I've often wondered that myself. The best answer I could get from the religies is that it made them feel better somehow.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • you don't

      you give 'it' up to 'god' and 'god' then gives it back to you again and again and again until you get it right

      July 27, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  19. Fox-Spirit

    There's also the growing trend of Atheism in America; Atheists have proven to be more articulate, caring, compassionate, and authentic. They don't need the fear, love, or rewards of God in order to do good on Earth, they simply do it because it's morally right. They don't justify their hateful rhetoric with a second century guidebook to life. They're willing to change their perspectives based on information available, rather than condemn everything that doesn't match their own perspective. And to top it all off, they also have historical accuracy on their side and stacks more evidence that religion is based on falsehood than their are pages in the bible. Fact is, is that as information and knowledge grow, the necessity of religion wanes. We needn't the hopes and solutions it offers because we craft the true Kingdom of God here on Earth; and he still hasn't shown his face one single time. We will build up the beauty of this world, raise up all civilizations, regardless of their allegiances, for there is only one true allegiance we must all adhere to: we are all human, and we should all love one another to make a better world for those to come after us.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • adibese

      As time goes by, truth always trumps. Truth has no objectives, it just is. As information becomes readily accessible, the scare tactics used by religions will hold less weight. We're not Nomads living alone in the desert anymore.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • counter

      I would love to compare the charitable contributions of those that are atheists versus the religious. Your assertions are bunk.

      July 27, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
      • LinCA

        @counter

        You said, "I would love to compare the charitable contributions of those that are atheists versus the religious."
        You may be in for a nasty surprise.

        It, of course, depends on how you calculate charitable contributions. The common method of those that wish to show believers in a favorable light will often cite the IRS data on charitable deductions claimed. That skews the data as tithing is included as a charitable contribution whether the money is used for charitable work or not.

        A lot of the money claimed as charitable donation by believers ends up in multi-million dollar mansions and god's air force.

        July 27, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • Candace

      "Atheists have proven to be more articulate, caring, compassionate, and authentic."...you have got to be joking. Or you simply have not read enough of the comment section here to realize what an asinine statement that is.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:16 am |
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About this blog

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.