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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. Caveman73

    How about just not believing in myths?

    July 28, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • John Q.

      I am with you my brother! I fully disbelief atheism!

      July 28, 2013 at 8:51 am |
      • Neo Atheist

        I am with you my brother! I fully disbelief Christianity!

        July 28, 2013 at 9:35 am |
        • Name*Mike

          You fully can't spell either.

          July 28, 2013 at 9:47 am |
  2. Pam Kohler

    Nicely exposited article .... you were able to explain everything that disillusions you about the church, and I would have to agree with you on most everything. But what I mostly heard, was what YOU want. What about what GOD wants? The purpose of the Bible and Church is to reveal who Jesus and God are, and the kind of relationship they want with you. It's nice that you don't need the "performance" church, but you must decide on whether you will be all that God wants you to be, or do you want to make God all you want Him to be? That means digging in to your Bible. That's where you will find Him, instead of the liturgy and rituals of Church.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • Danny

      Exactly, well put.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • mbluesky

      I believe she summed up her point by saying that what seemed to be lacking in some churches was Jesus. That doesn't sound like focusing on herself to me.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  3. Saddened by THIS world

    Hmmm, wow, sigh....

    "Let's move along here folks, nothing to read on this page...

    July 28, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • lol??

      Nip that leadership in the bud. God wants obedience. Do the will of the Father.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  4. Corrington

    Sorry, but you lost me at "millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances."

    These are the hallmarks of millennials. They lap up anything Apple and cars in shapes of cubes. And where are the BS meters when wallowing in shallow reality shows? Sorry, but we're supposed to look for you for religious change?

    July 28, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • lol??

      The Frankfurt School gave plenty of change through Bloom's Taxonomy in educratist circles, err churches.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:26 am |
  5. Gramma

    Want proof she's right? Look at the comments.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • lol??

      Right about what??

      July 28, 2013 at 9:20 am |
    • lol??

      Wymen always think they're right.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  6. Siara Delyn

    I hope and pray that many millennials think this way.

    My favorite two words in the article were "creation care". I've been wondering for thirty years why Republicans thump a book that begins "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" and then proceed to treat nature as their personal ash tray.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • lol??

      It's the scientific way where the wurld is one giant test tube.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  7. Carla Gay

    I left the walls of the church also but I still consider myself part of the church. The church isn't the building, it is you and I. I agree, we need to do a better job. I try to keep in mind that God put it into the hands of man to coordinate and direct His church. As ugly as it may seem, it is still part of His plan so the question is, how I can improve it? I don't think church bashing is the answer. Its disrespectful to God.

    I certainly don't have it figured out but there are a few specific things I would like to point out.

    1) I don't think the church should ask for volunteers except to feed the homeless or help people. As far as, running the media, setting up chairs, ushering, manning the coffee station – those should be paid positions for a laborer is worthy of his hire.

    2) Show me in the Bible where it says there is "A" Pastor (not several) and that Pastor makes all decisions regarding the church unilaterally. Also show me where it says that Pastor has the most insight to God's word and should be delivering sermons. I would like to see a church where each person has an opportunity to talk about what they are learning from the Bible and what God has shown them in their learning process. God unfolds His word as we seek to understand. He does that for all of us and not just the Pastor. Wow, that would certainly challenge everyone to stay focused on Him and His word. Wouldn't it change everyone's view if we gave the gay and lesbian community a chance to speak for themselves as pertaining to how God speaks to them? God looks at the heart where man looks at the flesh.

    3) Yes, I would get rid of sermons and the leadership clique. Next, I would prefer to go to a church that just worshipped God and kept focus on Him. Too many Pastors steal the glory and reverence from God and shift the adoration to themselves. Now everyone wants to be the friend of the Pastor and the cliques form.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • lol??

      Your acceptable (worship) service occurs during the week. Sundays are the day for the family reunion. No outsiders, or they'll take all the food and maybe even contaminate it.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:16 am |
  8. Lew

    No on cared when Gen X was leaving. I'm sort of jealous that Millennials get SO much attention.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • lol??

      I've heard of XX and XY. What exactly is X, some kinda hybrid??

      July 28, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • Stan

      Nobody cares about Gen X in general. We're all a bunch of "slackers".

      July 28, 2013 at 9:14 am |
  9. ReJoiCe

    As was predicted: the great "falling away" from the Faith in Christ = 2 Thessalonians 2:3; Also, social popularity being esteemed more important than God's approval = John 5:44. Also, choosing "teachers" who forsake Biblical doctrine = 2 Timothy 4:3... As a pastor said, as we approach the "End Times", the 2 sides will polarize to one end of the spectrum or the other: either PRO-Bible or ANTI-Bible, leaving no grey area. It's all about our stance in regard to THE BIBLE.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • Lean6

      Man beginning to question man's hand in religion was predicted thousands of years ago? Hmmm...you don't say. (sarc) It shouldn't be so hard. It was essentially written that most of God's creations would burn in Hell for eternity as well. If a person is trying to find God and not rejecting religion outright, I think he's making a MORE faithful choice in questioning man and his manipulation of religion.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:45 am |
      • lol??

        I don't recall anywhere in scripture where Paul told his flocks to beg for incorporation from the Beast of their day.

        July 28, 2013 at 9:08 am |
        • Lean6

          Oh yeah...condescension and arrogance will definitely work, Genius. (sarc) Through your likely unconscious use of circular reasoning, you only further illustrate my point about man's hand on the face of the church. It hasn't even occurred to you to consider a truth outside of or in addition to the bible that you find in a book store today. It is my belief that man's aim has always been to control the behavior of man...and there's not a more powerful and effective way than by religion. I also know what I know, and know what I see and believe...spontaneous combustion of gases in space will never explain the universe or human consciousness as we know it...we cannot define "nothingness". But, I simply cannot believe a literal translation of the bible befits the creator of what I understand life to be. I've encountered enough religious types who respond with hostility, arrogance, and condescension to know that they simply do not know either, and are afraid to admit to there even being non-blasphemous curiosities about the subject. So, if I'm intellectually more mature than a pastor or his congregation, what purpose does it serve me to attend the church? I'm on a personal journey and quest for God at this point...the way that God intended it to be.

          July 28, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  10. Lean6

    For at least 20 years prior to the year 2000, the promise was that the world would soon end. I'm turning 41 soon, and the shadow of disaster and futility has hung over my life ever since I can remember. At 18, I began to pull away from that religious community; I got an edu-macation, and began to encounter people from all walks of life and their various viewpoints. I think that once a person has gotten a taste of spiritual liberty, it's hard to be expected to return to intellectual bondage. I have the cure for Facebook addiction...Friend your church family from a previous life. Worked for me...actually, I skipped the whole addiction part.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • lol??

      At least you won't get slaughtered when the SWAT guys start reading the membership rolls. Churches are fully leavened anyway.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:05 am |
      • Lean6

        Doesn't the thought of such a scenario being part of a master plan thousands of years in the making seem inconsistent with omnipotence? I dont think it's consistent to believe that MOST human beings were created to be slaughtered and to burn in Hell forever. I have to believe that many of those scenes were man's creations designed to control human behavior. Hey, if all else fails, just blame me for using the brain and ability to reason that God gave me...that always works for a few milliseconds of guilt.

        July 28, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  11. Emory Grad

    This article is spot on, but only from a certain perspective – that is, from the perspective of educated, white millennials. A friend of mine just planted a church in an area of Atlanta where lots of young, educated white people are moving. The church that had been there before his tried to be "edgy" and all that – they ended up averaging 10 people on Sunday mornings. But my friend's church is much more traditional in the way they approach things, including worship. There is much more "substance," as the author of this article would say. And people are flocking to his church.

    But I, on the other hand, just came on the pastoral staff at a church that belongs to the "high church" worship tradition, and it has been slowly dwindling for years. Why? Well, for one, we are in a predominantly African American neighborhood. Census data says that 83% of our community are African American. And many actually come to worship to visit. But then they never come back. We are friendly, welcoming, and very unpretentious. While worship may not be the only reason they don't return, I think it's a big one. There are many churches like mine in Atlanta and other urban areas. While not all African Americans are against a more "high church" tradition, we have to start paying attention to the cultural and ethnic dynamics that surround worship, especially when we are worshiping in diverse communities.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • John Q.

      Is it because I am a black man? Wow, really? If you want to break this into a racial issue, how is it that you can't reach your own kind? Shouldn't you be able to, if it was a racial issue? Maybe pastoring isn't for you...

      July 28, 2013 at 8:40 am |
      • Emory Grad

        Thanks for your reply, sir. I am not a black man, just so you know. I am Italian and Irish leading a congregation in a predominantly black neighborhood. Worship is rooted in culture. I have worshiped all over the world, and I have had very different experiences in these places. The neighborhood I'm in used to be entirely white, but now things have drastically changed. But our worship looks very different, and, alas, the congregation has dwindled. Many, many, many churches exist just like mine. Being a pastor is fundamentally about recognizing the dynamics of your community and then responding accordingly. The bottom line is to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you don't think that you must address cultural dynamics in this process, then, well, you are not a pastor. At least not in a very diverse community.

        July 28, 2013 at 8:52 am |
        • Emory Grad

          I meant to say that even though our neighborhood has drastically changed, our worship HAS NOT CHANGED. And this has contributed to the overall decline.

          July 28, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  12. John Q.

    What is funny is that the Atheists are starting to create "Churches" now too. We all knew it was coming. They already proselytize, it was the next logical step for their religion.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:33 am |
    • One one

      But at least they don't preach you will be sent to hell to be tortured forever if you dont believe as they do.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:38 am |
    • JJ

      If atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby. You can continue to trot out the lie over and over but it's still a lie. But....if you and others want the lack of a belief in a deity to be a religion then perhaps atheists should organize and get tax exempt status too, just like your cult.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • John Q.

      I dunno, sounds like they preach "you are stupid if you don't believe how we do". Kinda the same wouldn't you think?

      July 28, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • John Q.

      Hmm... They have a creation theory – Big Bang, a canon – Science, they proselytize, condemn others who don't believe like they do, etc...

      How is it not a religion?

      July 28, 2013 at 8:45 am |
      • JJ

        And you wonder why more educated young people are leaving your cult when you don't even know what science or a scientific theory is but believe in talking snakes and that females were made from a rib of a man while he was asleep.

        July 28, 2013 at 8:50 am |
      • One one

        Abraham Lincoln condemned and advocated against slavery. That did not make his actions a religion.

        July 28, 2013 at 8:51 am |
      • John Q.

        God has been ushered out of American classrooms years ago, yet the world wide education ranking of the US is plummeting, we are 17th (!?!?!?) right now. How can you explain this?

        July 28, 2013 at 8:54 am |
        • UncleBenny

          So you're suggesting that the US is falling behind because God is not included in the classroom? Does that mean that the sixteen countries ahead of the USA Do include God in the classroom? I think not.

          July 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
      • One one

        Condemnation from atheists is not against absurd beliefs. Rather, it's against attempts by believers to push absurd beliefs into public schools and into laws.

        July 28, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Pa10sion

      Atheism is not a religion. Translated in laymen's terms, it is COMMON SENSE.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • John Q.

      It's a religion just like Hinduism, Shinto, Catholicism, Islam, etc. But instead of worshiping an ancestor or a deity, you worship your mind...

      July 28, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • skytag

      Atheists don't call them churches, but the real point here is that the good attributable to religion comes from forming groups and bonding with fellow believers. The thing is, you don't need God to do that. You sound kind of smug, which doesn't seem very Christ-like. The atheists to whom you refer finding ways to enjoy the good parts of religion without the fairytales.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  13. worktolive

    CNN- you need to stop barring comments and being apolitical puppet. As long as my comments are not rude, insulting and there is no cussing (which I don't do) my comments should be posted.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:33 am |
    • Neo Atheist

      So basically what you are saying is that only those who post things that agree with you should be allowed to post?

      July 28, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  14. Soulful Moments

    Regardless of what you believe, why people are not attending, or why they are- The Church is not a building, not a denomination, not a religion, not the Pastor, but your own personal relationship with God. We're going to find fault in every place we attend because WE and THEY, are human and that is nature in us. I'm not sure that when we stand for judgement using an excuse like, "well the church was too political or not lgbt friendly or had a coffee shop".... will suffice for OUR, I will say it again, OUR relationship with God. I truly believe that if we focus on that, we won't notice all the other worldy distractions....

    July 28, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Fr33d0mhawk

      That is the trick, focusing on Jesus, but in Evangelical churches that is not happening. Almost every Evangelical church I have been to since the 90's preaches hatred of everyone else and uses the myth of persecution. I was in a church in an upscale suburb and listened to 90 minutes of whining about how persecuted these upper middle class people were. I have been to other Evangelical churches that sound more like terrorist groups, ordering their minions to buy guns to prepare to be the sword of Jesus to destroy Liberalism and bring heaven to earth. The Taliban says the same thing and we drone bomb them, but FOX News Imam says it, and nothing happens, not even an investigation. Evangelicals are fast becoming the Taliban and are the gravest threat the US currently faces. Its no wonder that certain Millenials might find that kind of fasco-religious hate tribe as not a place to discover spirituality and to practice good morals.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  15. Bible Belt Believer

    I agree with a lit of the premises in the article, however just because my generation of millenials wants the church to change its substance doesn't mean it should. The fact you mention a truce between science and Christianity shows just how far off my generation is. Paul speaks clearly in multiple letters of how as Christians we should seek wisdom by growing into a deeper relationship with the Lord and not cling to the wisdom of this world. The biggest problem the church has is the inability of many pastors to preach that the wages of sin is death, mixed with showing Christ's love in your everyday life.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • One one

      So Christ loves you but if you don't believe in him he will torture forever.

      Do you see the irony here? Many people find such a proposition to be ridiculous. That's why they are leaving religion. But you seem to be arguing the church needs to emphasize the absurdity even more.

      Good luck with that.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • former fundy

      Let me guess. You are in a stagnant or dying church. The only way you get new members is getting kids in a bus ministry, mostly poor kids. The deacons are in control although the pastor thinks he is. You wear button short sleve shirts with a tie. You only use KJV and think you are better than other so called "Christians"....

      July 28, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  16. keaggy220

    You're in luck, millennials are starting to have influence in churches and are beginning to teach what you're advocating. For added convenience, you don't even have to bring a Bible to service – it's not needed anymore. I've always loved this quote:

    "I guess we're all, or most of us, the wards of the nineteenth-century sciences which denied existence of anything it could not reason or explain. The things we couldn't explain went right on but not with our blessing... So many old and lovely things are stored in the world's attic, because we don't want them around us and we don't dare throw them out."
    — John Steinbeck

    July 28, 2013 at 8:28 am |
  17. Peter Bishop

    It must be Sunday and time to tear down Christianity on CNN again...

    July 28, 2013 at 8:27 am |
    • John Q.

      It is the Atheist Belief blog...

      July 28, 2013 at 8:29 am |
      • Gerry from Bayonne

        More like the Atheist Hate Blog.

        July 28, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • JJ

      Shouldn't you be in church with your hangover and spewing hate for all those who don't believe as you and feeling special?

      July 28, 2013 at 8:32 am |
      • John Q.

        Nope, we left....

        July 28, 2013 at 8:34 am |
  18. CCAMom

    Christianity is not a building, is not based on what a pastor says, is not a group of people, is not a lot of rules. It's a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When you're in a (good) relationship, you spend lots of time getting to know that person, which in Christ's case, means reading and studying the Bible yourself, not just listening to a certain pastor at a certain church. If you've had bad church experiences (so have I), it's the church's fault, not God's. Churches are not all bad, but they will never be perfect, either, because they're run by people. Christians are often called close-minded because their beliefs are "narrow." That's the pot calling the kettle black. Those outside but looking into Christianity have to be open-minded to what they read and learn from God, not demand that what He says agree with their opinions. For example, science does not have all the answers, we've just been told (over and over) it does. Have you ever openly studied, deeply, what answers it really has and what answers it doesn't? Have you done the same for Creationist views? You can't just stick to the surface. You have to go to the depths and probe (in all areas, not just science; that is just a prominent example). God wants you to search; He loves Truth. He's not out there saying you can't study this or that (like a lot of people are), He says to search for truth in all areas. But you can't flip out when what God says doesn't mesh with what you want to believe. A lot of people can't handle that part of the search.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:27 am |
    • Mark

      Amen.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • Emory Grad

      Some like to say that Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with Jesus Christ. Others say that Christianity is about devotion to a particular church community. Truth is, it is both. One without the other is not what Jesus had in mind. Christianity is a personal religion, and it is a social religion. We must have a personal relationship with Jesus, of course. That is the foundation. But when we come together with other people who have that same relationship, that can be a powerful thing. Only as a COMMUNITY of believers can we make any real difference and truly serve as a beacon of light in our world. Jesus established the Church not so that we would just disregard it and piously talk of having "direct access" to him through our "personal relationship." Having a relationship with a community of believes is, in fact, a fundamental component of maintaining a relationship with Jesus.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:46 am |
  19. Lizrae

    A great article. Very perceptive. And it's not just the younger ones. I'm a Baby Boomer and I know many in my age group who are disillusioned with the church because the focus is on wrong priorities (e.g. numbers, not godly living). I'm looking for substance, not fluff in worship and teaching that is along adult learning principles – not "jug to mug" where someone presumes they know more than people in the congregation. My faith is firmly placed in Jesus and experiencing Him and journeying with Him everyday. I long for a worshipping community where the love of God and care for each other is genuine and expressed respectfully and meaningfully.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:26 am |
  20. devin

    Always nice to see the atheists on these blogs, you know, the ones that make up 2% of the worlds population.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:25 am |
    • John Q.

      Well, the communist Chinese and Russians need to be heard from, it is America!

      July 28, 2013 at 8:27 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      16% devin. not 2%

      July 28, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • David

      Interesting comment. I am always facinated by the membership statistics of various religions. Yes the Pew study pegged self-identified athiests at about 2% of the US population. But "Nones" are about 20% of the US. Worldwide, of course, there are much larger numbers of atheists, especially in western Europe where its a plurality and in China where its a majority. If you included polytheists as atheists, then about half the people on the earth don't believe in a monotheistic god.

      50/50? This is kind of like flipping a coin - if you come up heads, you're and atheist!

      July 28, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • JJ

      Not all who think Christianity (or all cults for that matter) is pure man-made bullshit to enslave their fellow man are atheists.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • HenryB

      It is precisely your tone that causes many people to leave the evangelical movement. Hate for others. Where is your voice in support of the people that Jesus ministered to? Missing, of course.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:51 am |
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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.