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. Michelle

    "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."

    You can lead a pastor to water, but you cannot make him drink.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • bostontola

      I keyed on the same quote. If you present facts and logic to any religious person that conflicts with the dogma they subscribe to, the same thing happens.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  2. Kevin

    There are large congregations with social views similar to the author's. If millennials are only looking for alignment between their social views and the church, why is membership falling in liberal churches as well? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Church_of_Christ#Membership)

    Maybe the "highly sensitive BS meters" touted by the author are incompatible with a life of faith?

    July 27, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  3. Woody

    Religion is man made and the fact is the bible as in all holy books are compiled stories written by people as they saw the world some 2000 years ago . Back then there were no cars,trains, computers, jets. The way we see the world is much different today and all religion does is keeps people from becoming educated to what they need to know in the 21st century .

    July 27, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  4. Michael Moore

    ME TOO! As a retired AF Chaplain and current pastor whose son also expressed his displeasure with the hypocrisy and hatred in the church I couldn't agree with you more!

    You hit the nail on the head and are giving me some excellent thoughts for approaching the younger set and seeing what they are looking for and how we as a church can reach out to them.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Danielle

      Speaking as a millennial, openness to science and evolution is a must for church. I turned away when I realized that my church not only expected me to believe the Bible to the letter and throw scientific theory out the window. I have an analytical mind and I have a career in the medical field. Through my own journey, I found that belief doesn't come from a book or following a set of rules someone wrote hundreds of years ago.

      Another reason is the arbitrary rules. These rules that a woman should meekly follow her man and let him lead their life together is ridiculous to me. Why no equal partnership? Why no give and take? I took from the discussion from my pastor that I was second-class because I was a woman (oh no – we TREASURE you! BS).

      Perhaps your church is not a zealous as my old one was. Hopefully some of my experiences can help you build your church into one that the younger population will want to go to.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  5. Rob

    People need to spend less time being Christian and more time being human

    July 27, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  6. Cheryl Day

    Jesus feels the same way. If you want to hear what he says read the dialogue between Him and Vassula on the web site tlig.org. Vassula just published a book outlining her experiences with faith called "Heaven is Real, but so is Hell. You can pick up a copy of it on Amazon. I bounced around from denomination to denomination until I was lead to the Catholic church after reading these books. He really has reached down from heaven to teach us. It changed my life. Did I have struggles trying to fit into Catholic congregations? Yes, but after having read the dialogue between Jesus and Vassula it didn't bother me anymore. He reached all the way down to talk to little old me. Wow!!!

    July 27, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  7. Polyrhythms

    It seems that the point of your article is that organized religion needs to evolve with the needs of its followers if it expects to survive. However, evolution plays a bigger role in this scenario. More and more people now simply don't need to believe in a mythical creator of the universe. Human beings evolved to believe in a higher power because it helped us survive, but the reasons for this no longer apply. Thus, the need to believe will slowly become extinct.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  8. Mack

    When it takes great convincing and selling to get people in your front door to listen to your tales, something isn't right. There are billboards, ads, TV spots, etc. trying to lure people to church. If these people supposedly have the answers to the universe and an eternal afterlife, shouldn't people be flocking in droves?

    July 27, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  9. L.S.B.

    The greatest confusion of American parents: they believe they teach their children truths about those things as gods
    when it is at best an indoctrination of unknowable mysteries.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  10. dswartz44

    I'm 51 and left the church for the same reasons....too much emphasis on trying different styles, different bands, different music, blah, blah, blah...when at the heart of it, it's still the same ole "Believe like I do because it's the only way to heaven, case closed" (said with a nice warm christian smile, maybe a hug or two and a 'we hate the sin, not the sinner' thrown in for good measure).

    July 27, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  11. Kim

    I don't think I have a longing for Jesus... Nor does any atheist I've ever spoken with

    July 27, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  12. lol??

    Does she allow her hubby to edit??

    July 27, 2013 at 10:43 am |
  13. Josh from Austin

    Amen. Dang good article.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  14. d1sqs

    Still looking for articles that will show why Jews leave a vile cult called jewdism.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  15. David Murray

    After being in the church all of my life, I finally left it 2 years ago because I could no longer tolerate the ignorance I encountered. You have these people who literally believe that the earth is 6,000 years old and that man used to ride dinosaurs to work everyday. There is no point trying to explain why that is scientifically incorrect. The number of excuses they have are endless. "you are being deceived by the devil" or that "science has been wrong before, its wrong now, and someday it will vindicate our position."

    What frustrated me most, is that I never believed that kind of malarky, but I was still okay with the concept of a diety and of Jesus as a spiritual example. But I found time and time again that the foundation of the church was operated more like a business and that they were in the business of preaching what would keep people coming in the doors and filling the coffers, and not necessarily what was true, or even what the Bible taught.

    I liked the community. But I didn't like the hatred against gays, the bashing of well-established science, the cherry-picking versus from the Bible to fit today's agenda, and in many cases, not following the words of Jesus himself.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  16. Mytake

    Two years ago, I wasn't a believer. But I am now. And, it would never have happened without reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Several people here, including the author of this piece, mention their dissatisfaction with the Church. I understand that. I would argue that many mainline Churches don't properly portray the teaching of Jesus Christ. I would also say that many church goers don't truly grasp Christianity. They go to the brick and mortar building, but Christianity is in our hearts. And you can only learn about that by learning about Jesus.

    He was a healer, a teacher, he fully recognized the suffering of the poor and the sick, and those who are in prison. He wasn't vain or conceited, and status meant nothing to him. He was kind and loving to a degree that none of us can fathom. He offered himself as the atoning sacrifice for all that we have done wrong and all that we will ever do wrong. It was our pains that he carried, all the things wrong with us. He wasn't about riches or pride.

    The Church sometimes doesn't represent the way he was or even the Gospel. I'm frustrated with that also at times. But, here is my suggestion. Please read the New Testament and see for yourself what Christianity is really supposed to be. It is free of all of the distortions that humans have introduced into the Church. I think you will be surprised to see what's in there. I was.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Christian

      What sacrifice? He was a literal god with literal omniscience who already knew he'd just revert to godhood after shedding a VERY temporary mortal cloak. How is that a sacrifice?

      I ask with all honesty. How if a god temporarily assuming mortality, suffering a few days, then reverting to being all-powerful for all eternity a sacrifice?

      July 27, 2013 at 10:50 am |
      • Mytake

        Re: I ask with all honesty. How if a god temporarily assuming mortality, suffering a few days, then reverting to being all-powerful for all eternity a sacrifice?

        I'll answer with my knowledge. I 'm not a minister or and expert. In the Old Testament (O.T.) various offerings were made to God to atone for our sins. There were animal sacrifices and things such as burnt offerings, grain offerings. It was a way of acknowledging God and in a sense saying sorry for that bad things that people did. In the Bible, God recognizes that Man is hopeless in sin. I hate saying that word because it sounds so awful, but I think we can all recognize that we've all done things that are wrong, particularly toward each other.

        So, God became Man – Jesus. He came to teach about basically playing nice and loving each other. That is the whole New Testament in a few words. He also sacrificed himself for our sins. How God is Jesus, and how Jesus is God, and Jesus died but he is really actually is God - is something that people have not been able to figure out. Scholars have been wrestling with the Father/Son/Holy Spirit (3 in 1) question for 2000 years.

        These types of questions bothered me for 44 years. But I finally gave up trying to figure out all of the details. That was only done by reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament.

        Lets face it, life isn't much fun. I decided I'd rather face it with Jesus than without. It took me 44 years to figure that out.

        I hope that Jesus will be part of your life also.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:21 am |
        • Nathan

          See, to me, this is one of the very points that makes the whole thing so silly and unbelievable.

          That Jesus comes and decides to provide more riddles over actual answers (I am and am not god. Spend the next few millennia wrestling over what that means, suc.kers!), avoids discussion of many moral sticking points of the next few millennia (even though he knew in advance they'd be sticking points and could have provided clearer guidance), and then makes one of the central points of the entire story–and his entire reason for being here really–a personal sacrifice that is so va.gue that no one can even explain how or what was, in fact, sacrificed. Then goes on to say that if you don't believe the story, you basically will be punished for eternity because he is the best way to salvation and it doesn't matter that none of it makes sense. In fact, people often cite the fact it makes no sense AS evidence of its strength because believing it requires more faith the less you can rectify rationally.

          I'm glad you found faith and that it works for you. More power to you. But I have found that my life is far better for having shed such irrational, absolute beliefs that I held in my youth.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • sybaris

      Funny, this Jesus guy was such a great healer, teacher and all that but out of the whole bible there's only a handful of small books that allegedly docu.ment anything about him and they don't even agree and are not first hand accounts. Outside of that anything else that was written about him doesn't mention anything special.

      What flavor was that kool-aid?

      July 27, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • James

      I used o think as you do about Jesus being all those "things", about love, self sacrifice, compassion, etc.... But how is Jesus so loving and compassionate when according to the bible he and his Father will throw billions of people into HELL for all eternity for simply not believing in them? Where is the compassion and love in that? Rather it is the most cruel and twisted teaching ever to grace our literature in all of humankind!

      July 27, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • sara

      I have a question about Jesus Sacrificing himself. If he willingly did that as you have implied then I have never found a good explanation for this verse: Matthew 27:46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

      Perphaps you should read Quran (Newest Testament) and you will find answers. It is available for free on internet and also in smart phones. Surprisingly over last 1400 years there is JUST ONE SINGLE version

      My 2 cents.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:12 am |
      • James

        Sara, even if it's true that your Quran has just "one single version" does that prove it's the correct and holy book? How so?
        It still teaches a lot of the myths and fables of the Bible which disqualifies it just like the bible.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:19 am |
        • sara

          James, Thanks for asking – Your question is very Valid. I had this question myself at one time.
          Answer is written in Quran: It is
          Chapter 2 Verse 23; And if ye are in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto Our slave (Muhammad), then produce a Surah (Chapter) of the like thereof, and call your witness beside Allah if ye are truthful. (23)

          Regarding Mythical stories. And the answer to that question in Quran is; God told us these mythical stories in Torah, Bible, Quran so that we can learn some lessons from our previous generations and do the right things.

          If there were no ruins in around the world like an example "City of Petra" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petra
          Yes I would have beleived it as myth but for all these mythical stories we do have evidence.

          Again Thanks for asking.
          I now have to go for job but if you have any questions, I will be happy to answer on my email saira@spinfinder.com Have a great weekend

          July 27, 2013 at 11:33 am |
        • Nathan

          Actually, we have ZERO evidence of the mythicalness of those stories.
          We have evidence that some of the places existed and battles happened, but that doesn't prove the other claims. For example, if I said JFK lived in the White House, staved off the Cuban Missile crisis, and could levitate and turn water into wine at will–then my proving that the White House really existed and the Cuban Missile crisis really happened is NOT evidence of the claim JFK could levitate or turn water into wine. So what that Petra was a real place? That provides zero confirmation for the divine claims of any holy book.

          And that the Quar'an had 600-odd years of people asking questions of and critiquing Christianity to build on when supposedly providing answers to the holes in Christianity is not surprising in the least.

          The Quar'an is just one more unproven book of divine claims in string of many such books.

          July 27, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • sara

        By the way I agree that Jesus (peace be upon him) was Merciful, Helaer, Helpful, Kindhearted, Did everything to help and guide mankind, everything was good about him. As he (Jesus) is glorified in Quran (Newest Testament). However, he was not crucified on Cross.

        It does not make sense that in order to forgive a smaller sin, God makes mankind to do a bigger sin of Crucifing God Himself. How will the sin of Killing God will be forgiven then? Also, if God is all powerful then he does not need to kill Himself to forgive mankind – he can just forgive everyone and no one can challenge him. This is Absolute Power 🙂

        July 27, 2013 at 11:25 am |
        • Mytake


          Could you recommend a translation of the Quran. I got two from Amazon and found both of them a little difficult to read.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:32 am |
      • Mytake

        Don't have all the answers. I have lots of questions also. I'm not going to let the questions get in the way of faith.

        I have read parts of the Quran, but I wanted to focus mainly on the Bible. The Quran validates that Jesus lived, which to me is a really big thing. And I think Mary is mentioned more times in the Quran that the Bible. Really cool stuff.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:26 am |
        • sara

          Thanks Mytake,

          You can try http://www.quranexplorer.com
          Click on Launch Quran explorer and over there you can find translation in English in by different people. See which one is easier to follow.

          Got to go now.


          July 27, 2013 at 11:43 am |
      • History

        Grade: F-

        Reason: Uses source to prove validity of source.

        See: All reason ever used by humanity, and me after class to discuss why you will be writing this paper again.

        July 28, 2013 at 5:11 am |
    • Evangeline

      Excellent! You made perfect sense! I found the same thing when I looked! I was holding God to His promise in Matthew 7:7 "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you". I was amazed at what I found when I ignored all the distractions and "earnestly" sought Him. He was there all the time.

      We're told to "fellowship" with other Believers to encourage each other in our faith, so I would never discourage anyone from church attendance. However, there are times when even church can be a "distraction". At times like that it's best to get away alone with a Bible & just begin reading. Going directly to the source is sometimes the only way.

      Religion is flawed because it depends on flawed human beings. The "truth" of God can become lost in a sea of "appeasement" while trying to attract a younger crowd. And look where we've landed!

      August 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  17. sybaris

    Religion requires ignorance to perpetuate.

    It's very simple, the information age arose with the millennials. They have had greater access to education and information than any previous generations.

    All that are left are those that practice willful ignorance.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • steve5777

      True enough, as far as information is concerned. What's so overwhelmingly sad is that so much of it's incorrect.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:04 am |
      • History

        Same could be said of the Bible

        See the two separate creation myths in the opening of Genesis

        July 28, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  18. Truth

    So what you're saying is anything goes and we should throw what the Bible teaches out the window and go with what feels good and makes everyone happy, thereby watering down the Gospel. That's called the Apostasy of the Church.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • NorthVanCan

      That could also be called getting on with reality.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:40 am |
      • David

        May I respectfully ask, "what's the difference between truth and reality?"

        July 27, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • snowboarder

      liberty is freedom within society. those should be our ideals.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Scott

      Exactly. I appreciate the tenor of the article, but when sinners are comfortable in church and sin no longer is abominable, what you have is nothing more than a social support group. The church stands for righteousness, separation, healing, miracles, salvation, and heaven. It stands against sin, carnality, indifference, hatred, hypocrisy, and any other behaviors that will cause one to go to hell. The Bible defines sin and the remedy for sin, it doesn't excuse sin. And it is the Bible by which the true church will exercise itself. If that is offensive, intolerant, or unacceptable to anyone, then they can choose to join a social club, support group, or any other number of options, but the true church will stand her ground and preach the infallible Word of God without fear or favor in love for lost humanity and a with a real hatred of sin that destroys and condemns.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:12 am |
      • Sally

        The church does not stand for separation. It stands for unity.
        And sinners (including you and me. We're all sinners) should be more comfortable and welcome in church than anywhere else in the world, ideally. Our pastor says that the church is like a spiritual hospital. We're trying to reach the sickest, not the most well. Working through sin and towards greater understanding and relationship in Christ requires understanding and illumination. If someone out there is involved in a church where sinners aren't welcome or shouldn't feel comfortable, then that's not a Godly church.
        The fundamental issue with the generational disconnect here is that millenials see church members as completely willing to call out the sins of others, but lacking in humility, compassion and the outward appearance of spiritual growth themselves.
        I can't remember the last time I saw or heard a Christian talking about feeding the poor or helping widows with the same amount of fervor that they discuss the 2nd Amendment. Or worried about loving their neighbor as much as hating Obama. Or concerned themselves with their own sin instead of that of gay people. To be honest, it's more than a little scary when the people who are supposed to be spiritual role models for the next generation are seemingly lost in a sea of self-righteous, politicized sin that seems to be so far removed from what Jesus represented.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  19. NorthVanCan

    What I can't believe is that grown adults by the millions believe such complete nonsense . .
    No wonder this world has so many problems.
    Things would be so much better if the average person wasn't so ..............dumb?

    July 27, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • lol??

      You could educate em at the tree counting school in Siberia.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • sandalista

      Faith (or belief without evidence) is more motivated by two basic human emotions: FEAR of dying and punishment and HOPE for an eternal afterlife. It is an emotional crutch.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:49 am |
      • lol??

        Know the biblical definition of faith?? Don't try and use your def. Can't work.

        July 27, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  20. Allen

    Great article! I completely agree with her premise. I'm 58 years old, and left the church 12 years ago for the very reasons she iterates.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • steve5777

      Allen, same here. Even the Episcopal church, which seemed more interested in being "modern" than anything truly spiritual.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:56 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.