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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. observer

    I am a Christian. The problem with religion is that most of it is about money. Chrch leaders are more interested in monry and control than they are about God and the Bible, and many of them cannot answe the key questions: why are we here? Why doesgod allo suffering? Why do good people suffer? Religions (especially christendom) is war mongering, and biased. That is why clergy don't preach against adultery and fornication (too many church members would be affected). So they target small maginalized groups like gays, other small religions, athiests, etc. Eventually, religion will collapse totally

    July 27, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Yes, we need more preaching against fornication.
      Well, maybe not the actual act, which is kinda fun, but the word, yes the evil word, we don't like that fornication word.
      My invisible pink unicorn fornicates with demons.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Just a guy

      Observer – maybe where you are it – church is about money – but that is part of obedience to God – I believe you would find your answers if you read the Bible – Christ did not die for nothing and His Word will live forever until His return – I know I will never get all my questions answered but I do believe if we could – then we would know as much as God and that will not happen until His return – which is why non- believers cannot believe as they cannot put God under a microscope.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  2. Vikehi

    I know I stopped looking for a church because I kept leaving angry. I don't want to leave church angry. I want to be inspired and joyful. I'm still a Christian, I'm just not a churchgoer. Thank you for your insightful article.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • Athy

      Forget religion. You don't need it. Inspire yourself.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
      • manangdi22

        And are you on a campaign trail?

        July 27, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • A

      Well said, Vikehi. I too have stopped looking for a church because I'm tired of leaving angry and/or disappointed. I want to see Jesus, not religion, and that is NOT what I am finding. I hold out some hope, but it's slim.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
      • Pest

        Jesus is inseparable from religion. If you don't believe me, look up the term. What you seem to have issue with is organized religion, which is not the sole type of religion.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
        • RichardSRussell

          Well, I DON'T believe you. Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, animism, Judaism, Jainism, Scientology, Sikhism, and Chinese traditional religion have no particular need for your Jesus. Why on Earth would you make such an astoundingly false equivalency? And ESPECIALLY why would you follow such arrogant ignorance with an invitation to "look it up"?

          July 28, 2013 at 1:11 am |
    • istenno

      try a Universalist Unitarian Church

      July 27, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  3. RichardSRussell

    What's with all these comments beginning with "Your comment is awaiting moderation"?

    Is it somehow or other related to the fact that they generally appear to come from people whose primary method of communicating seems to be copying and pasting?

    July 27, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • lol??

      lol??
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      lol??
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      A&a's are book AND comment burners.

      lol??
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      The second death is the is the one to avoid...

      July 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
      lol??
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      lol??
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      A&A's live in their own widdle personalized Dark Ages. They'll burn anything for light...

      July 28, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  4. Jeff

    There is no God, just get over it

    July 27, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  5. Jeff

    fact???? really???

    July 27, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  6. Peter Q Wolfe

    Churches hardly ever speak out against usury, gluttony, death penalty or etc but deride people for things they cannot control like being LGBTQ like me. Pick and choose like they did on slavery, eugenics, indian ethnic cleansing and etc not an intedy to be trusted. Lastly, I am part native american with descendants of the trial of tears and am disabled so have felt it from the so called RELIGIOUS...

    July 27, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Peter, speaking as an atheist, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest if your s¢xual orientation WERE a choice (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). So what? It's a free country, you should be able to choose anything you want to do that makes you happy, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Why should it make a difference one way or the other whether it's a free choice or not?

      July 27, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • Observer

      Peter Q Wolfe,

      Don't forget that Jesus said that anyone divorcing and remarrying is an adulterer (unless their previous spouse already was an adulterer). World-class Christian HYPOCRITES ignore that there are MANY times as many Christians choosing adultery as there are gays who were born that way.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
      • Kenny

        Presenting logical arguments to most religious people is a waste of time and energy. Might as well try to teach a dog calculus.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
        • Athy

          Or teaching a religie to roll over.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:11 am |
        • a reasonable atheist

          If you had enough treats, you could probably teach a dog how to graphically integrate.

          August 12, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
        • photografr7

          differential, maybe but definitely not integral. Dogs could never do that even with Super-Duper Treats available at a Walmart nearest you. On sale now.

          August 12, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  7. libertyadamson

    Millenials are not rejecting Biblical Christianity – in fact, they are right in realizing what most of so-called evangelical Christianity looks like in this generation is a very unBiblical alternate religion. I call it Krystianity. Poor exegesis and proof texting is the reason Krystianity exists. The emphasis on 'me-me' religion is a blight on the real Christianity of the Bible and people are tired of being told it is real. Millenials are rejecting the religion that says it is Christianity but isn't. Theyre very smart that way!

    July 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  8. mcrunner34

    What this writer wants is for life to be easy, technology driven, and relevant. However, she wants spirituality to be thoughtful, mysterious, and integrated.
    The problem with this request is that integration of spirituality with the rest of one's life requires thoughtfulness and awareness in every level of existence. The reason why churches offer coffee shops and easily accessible arenas for spiritual conversation is to invite spiritually provocative conversations. Churches can't take your spirituality serious for you. Churches have developed the relevant presentation of the Gospel as a reach those who aren't familiar with who Christ is. If people want to define or redefine the church, they need to get involved and volunteer or work as pastors.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • ES

      Spirituality and church/organized religion are two very different things. You can be very spiritual and still detest the church. There have been and still distasteful things happening in the name of the church. Anyone who is truly spiritual can see that.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  9. Duggerdog

    So many Christians and too few Lions. It's a shame.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Part of the sadness that used to be a great Detroit. 8^(

      July 27, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
  10. DanBun

    Too often, Christianity comes across as anti-intellectual and especially anti-science.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • LinCA

      @DanBun

      You said, "Too often, Christianity comes across as anti-intellectual and especially anti-science."
      And for good reason. Science, education and the spread of information will kill religion.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
      • Jacob D

        Not necessarily, especially considering that at its core, science in itself can be considered a religion. Once you start to really dig into science and the Christian faith, they actually complement each other very nicely.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
        • RichardSRussell

          I'm sure you would like it to be so, but the fact is that religion has opposed the progress of science tooth and nail from the beginning. There has never been a conflict between religion and science that religion has won. (Some are still being contested, but where you gonna put your money down, on the contestant that's won every previous fight or the one that's lost 'em all?)

          Science starts by finding facts (and verifying them, an important part of the scientific method), then looking for progressively better explanations for them.

          Religion, contrarily, starts with what it thinks are answers, then goes looking for supporting evidence or weasely explanations for contradictory evidence.

          They are 2 fundamentally opposed methods of arriving at descriptions of the real world. Science is far superior to religion in terms of its successes. Why do you think we're communicating right now via electrons instead of prayerons?

          July 27, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
        • LinCA

          @Jacob D

          You said, "Not necessarily, especially considering that at its core, science in itself can be considered a religion."
          Bullshit. Science deals in facts, religion deals in fairy tales. They are diametrically opposite.

          You said, "Once you start to really dig into science and the Christian faith, they actually complement each other very nicely."
          Only if your particular flavor of christianity accepts whatever science says, because if science and religion disagree, religion is wrong. Even if they don't disagree, that doesn't mean that religion is right. Religion is like a stopped clock. It will have the correct answer occasionally, but only by accident.

          May I recommend "The God Delusion" by renowned scientist Richard Dawkins?

          July 27, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  11. donna drake

    what is wrong with people today is we want things the way we want them and when there are direct instructions in the bible about types of sin we want to do what we want to do not what the bible says and that is wrong. we can not make our one rules in the church and expect God to be pleased with us.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • LinCA

      @donna drake

      You said, "what is wrong with people today is we want things the way we want them and when there are direct instructions in the bible about types of sin we want to do what we want to do not what the bible says and that is wrong."
      No, what is wrong with people is that quite a few are gullible enough to take anything from the bible as being true or having any value.

      You said, "we can not make our one rules in the church and expect God to be pleased with us."
      Yes you can. Your god resides in your mind, and in your mind alone. You can make it do whatever you want. That's why gods likes and hates the exact same thing as its believers do.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  12. johnnosetip

    Maybe they grew up being exposed to more atheist ideas, thoughts and a more evolved society. As a generation x member the only knowledge of atheists I knew of was meat head from all in the family and Carl from good times. By the age of eight I didn't believe in god but even at that age I knew better than to say it.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  13. Carlos Chino

    Reblogged this on Carlos Chino.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  14. Pam

    People are like sheep. If you guide the masses to morality and the church they eventually will follow. If you guide them away from the church to accept everything the media will produce they eventually will follow. Modern day media has been pounding away at Christianity for decades, it is starting to take effect. Media rules if people are not grounded in their Bibles.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      The greatest example of people being sheep is religion! It's the only explanation for people believing that for which there is absolutely no evidence.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        It's why pastors (Latin word for "shepherd") can keep a straight face when referring to their congregation as a "flock". They're already in on the joke.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • tony

      the bible WAS the media of its time. And just as spun to pick up the best lies of the previous religions.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  15. Steve

    Amen Rachel, I agree with just about everything you said. Your article would be a guide to fixing a church if any of them actually wanted to change. Unfortunately Christianity is moving in the opposite direction, they want us back in the dark ages. They'll tell you how science is phony and inaccurate whilst using incredibly complicated computers that would not function if our science wasn't real and accurate.
    They are living with their heads in the ground. And that is fine. They will become victims of social evolution. So long Christianity! I wish I could say ill miss you, but I won't.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  16. RichardSRussell

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

    To quote another famous fictional character for whose existence there actually IS some periodic evidence, "Ho ho ho!"

    July 27, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  17. Humanist11

    Rachel, science and faith can never coexist peacefully because science will always follow the facts (evidence), so it is up to faith to update their beliefs to contemporary science. Religions will never do that because it would undermine everything they have taught for thousands of years. God of the gaps concept is quickly losing material to call its own. Nobody should have to choose between faith (hope) and science(reality). If they are then it is the indoctrination of the church that is holding them back from experiencing the universe as it actually is.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      FAITH is the world's worst method of making decisions or arriving at conclusions.
      Nobody ever cites faith if a better method — like trust or reason — is available.
      Nobody ever uses faith for anything that can be tested or measured.
      Nobody ever uses faith for anything that matters.
      The only people who speak highly of faith are those whose livelihoods depend on enuf suckers falling for it.
      Not only is faith nowhere near as good as science, it usually produces worse results than rock-paper-scissors.
      Only a fool would use faith to decide anything.
      As it happens, millions qualify.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
      • Kevin H

        RichardSRussell
        The irony to your statement against faith is that everyone lives their using faith....regardless of religious belief. At least every human I have met lives their lives by faith. It is as common among humans as breathing. If you are alive, you do it. Everyone uses it to fill in the gaps, make decisions, lives their lives using faith. If you think you live your life without using faith, you are intellectually dishonest. FYI, belief in yourself counts as faith...and can lead to self-delusion of the highest order...and can be the most unquestioning misleading faith that a person can have.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
        • RichardSRussell

          You confuse faith with superior methods of arriving at decisions, like trust (in people) or confidence (in things), which are based on actual track records, to say nothing of measurable evidence and reason. It's not surprising that you should do so. The priest class has devoted centuries to getting people to conflate faith with worthier methods of arriving at conclusion, the better to delude them into thinking that things that can ONLY be believed via faith are somehow or other worth believing. They lie. You have fallen for it.

          Besides, let's say that I DO have faith in certain unprovable things. Heck, I'll even give you an example. I believe that the Green Bay Packers are the greatest team in the history of the known universe. So what? So I've used faith to arrive at a conclusion. Is it a GOOD conclusion? Well, I've lost money betting on that conclusion, so the real world says "probably not". And therefore the method used to ARRIVE at that bad conclusion probably isn't so hot, either.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
      • Roth

        For years reason failed me on something I couldn't understand. He gave me a number when I didn't ask for a number, which cleared up the understanding problem. My perception was hindered by reason, due to not seeing the unseen, the overall I couldn't see, that God does. It's what you don't know, that makes reason ineffective to solve a problem. God knows everything, so asking him is the best bet towards solving those types of problems.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
        • RichardSRussell

          If you are trying to arrive at answers without being in possession of all the pertinent facts of the matter, do not delude yourself into thinking that you are using reason, because you are not.

          It's like asking "What's the exact numeric sum of 4 + 7 + X?" Anyone actually using reason would recognize that the question can't be answered without finding a value for X. If you think that X can best be found via prayer, inspiration, ancient writings, miracles, divine revelation, etc., I hope to one day be sitting across a poker table from you.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
        • Roth

          You assume that reason solves everything in every instance, it doesn't.

          There is a common saying, "Garbage In, Garbage Out". What you're missing, and what I was missing for years, the missing middle portion of that saying:

          "Garbage In ... Apply Reason... Garbage Out"

          Reason fails to operate properly if what you know, did not include all you needed for reason to be applied properly. As God knows everything, his answers can solve what was previously unsolvable.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
        • Roth

          To close this, the perception I had, was "Garbage In". I didn't know that because I thought I had all the information I needed, and that it was the correct view to apply reason properly. It wasn't that I thought I was missing information, it was that I thought I had all the information and that it was right. So year after year I applied reason to "Garbage In" and year after year, got "Garbage Out". It's thinking that you know the correct view, when you don't, and never arriving at the answer. God changed that with a number, one I didn't expect or ask for.

          What God can do, is clear up the "Garbage In", so you can start using reason on the good information, and be on your way to arriving at the good answer... for the close.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:49 am |
  18. Chad English

    It is a solid article, but I think it misses a bigger point. It isn't Jesus that millenials seek, but rather truth and justice, as we all do. It is not unique among millenials; it is merely that they are the first generation to grow up in the information age. They can fact check. They aren't easily indoctrinated via single-source pulpits. You can't just preach to millenials and expect them to believe it. They are told to believe a ton of crap on a daily basis, and they are well aware of self-serving agendas. They know that Christians are far more likely than atheists to be criminals and atheists are far more likely to be well-educated and prosperous than Christians; and that fundamentalist Islamists and Christians are terrifying but most liberal Muslims and Christians are pretty decent people.

    The days of indoctrination by information scarcity and control are over. You may hang on to the Baby Boomers who grew up with it, and some of the Gen X who failed to challenge it; but you need to compete when it comes to millenials. It is put up or shut up time. Even if the message is of a wonderful Jesus and of love and compassion, you still need to explain why they need to meet weekly and contribute money to fund more indoctrination. You need to explain not only how you can help others but ONLY you can do it best.

    I don't think organized religion has the skills to do this. Religion has always survived by controlling the message and the access to information. That control is long gone now. It can't win a fair fight on a level playing field. Unless it becomes demonstrably useful to people on a daily basis, I don't see it surviving the next few generations. Perhaps thats not so bad.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Andrew

      Brilliant comment.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • Jimjones11111

      Excellent comment my friend.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
    • Humanist11

      Magnificent post!

      July 27, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Steve

      Spot on !

      July 27, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • Miss Cali

      Very well said!!

      July 27, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Chad, you're insightful and articulate enuf to start your own religion.
      But please don't. 8^D

      July 27, 2013 at 11:01 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.