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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. ALDO

    THE TRUTH IS WE DONT NEED MORE CHURCHES WITH CHURCH RULES AND REGULATIONS. THAT'S CALLED RELIGION. WE NEED MORE JESUS CHRIST. WE ARE DYING SPIRTUALLY PEOPLE IN DESPERATE NEED OF A PERFECT SAVIOR. KEEP YOUR CHURCH DOCTRINES AND EMPHASISE THE PERFECT BOOK (THE BIBLE). LET PEOPLE COME TO JESUS AS THEY ARE AND HE WILL DO THE REST. ON JESUS I STAND....EVERY OTHER GROUND IS SINKING SAND

    July 28, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • Rocket surgeon

      Wrong all-caps breath.
      We need NO more of the 2000 year old dead preacher, who was executed for being a trouble-maker for the Romans, in an occupied land.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • Ken78

        You Atheists cannot even practice what you believe. Why do Atheists waste one precious second of your short lives posting on a Belief Blog? Go out and have a smuch fun as you can, while you can. Tomorrow, you die.

        July 28, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
        • skytag

          Obnoxious Christians like you are some of the best evidence Christianity is a fraud. And for the record, what do you think atheists believe but don't practice? Or are you just bearing false witness?

          July 28, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Julie

      Why would you worship a Jewish man who lived in Israel a few thousand years ago?

      July 28, 2013 at 10:49 am |
      • Rocket surgeon

        Especially since there is not a shred of legitimate evidence he actually existed.

        July 28, 2013 at 10:51 am |
        • Yes, there is

          Ever heard of Josephus?
          Come on man, I'm not asking you to believe he was the messiah, but the dude was real. And he really died. For real.

          July 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  2. Zooterist

    I don't know what 20-somethings want from Christianity. I'm well past that age. But when Christianity has become so inextricably associated with right-wing hate groups and anti-everything zealotry, who in their right mind would want to join such a force?

    July 28, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  3. Meli

    I think you've got the right idea. The evangelical churches are political organizations that preach hate rather than love. God doesn't not live there.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  4. Kenneth Dahl

    There’s the SYMPTOMS and then there’s the deep, underlying CAUSE…

    The way-down-below-under-the-whole-thing ROOT of the problem is not a compassion issue, nor a more inviting feeling for those the church has socially branded and banished for years. The REAL problem (for when we are good and ready to finally come to grips with it) is the church’s grossly incorrect teachings on 1. “hell” and eternal punishment, and 2. The “end times” and the “coming of the Son of Man being yet in the future instead of in the later part of the first century (as the Bible actually teaches).
    THESE TWO MAIN EXETETICALLY-FLAWED DOCTRINES (literally) dictate, and will CONTINUE to dictate how evangelicals VIEW 1. anyone who is not them, and 2. “sin” as an actual (Old Covenant-spirited-type) LIST of activities that are (basically) “against the law”…

    What about SIN…
    Do we still define “sin” the same as ancient Judaism does? Is it still a LEGAL matter? Is sin an actual long list of ACTIVITIES that are “against the law” (of Moses), or is it more of a matter of “missing the mark” or, to be perhaps more accurately defined: Missing the whole point of life and living?

    One of my Christian friends wrote this… "Sin is related to Law. What ‘law’ do WE ‘sin’ against today, and what is the ‘penalty’ for ‘sinning’ against that ‘law’? The Law of Moses was NEVER given to us in the first place, so we cannot ‘sin’ against that Law. Jesus came to ‘make an end of sin’.”

    What about REPENTANCE…
    Is repentance a matter of contrition and genuine sorrowfulness as some sort of… penance, or… “heart payment” to somehow get God's attention, or is it simply a matter of turning away from one direction and going in another wiser direction that is more closely aligned with our Source?

    What about FORGIVENESS…
    Is forgiveness all about a legal, judicial need for “absolution” so that we are (legally) in “right standing with God” and thus “legally eligible” for both blessings and safe passage into the afterlife? Is forgiveness more for OUR benefit or more for God – as a requirement to somehow gain or regain His favor or appeasement? Isn’t “forgiveness” more about inner peace from releasing our judgments and ill feelings toward others? Do we still treat this subject as a LEGAL matter? If so, why?

    What about the New Wine Skins Jesus talked about (as referring to a New Covenant) were not merely about some sort of “new-improved” religion NOR about moving the old, obligation-based covenant template right over on top of the New Covenant and in many ways – simply replacing Moses with Jesus (which is largely what the church has indeed done). He actually used the analogy of new wine skins – conveying the fact that the old age template wouldn’t even FIT into the NEW age way of thinking …

    The current church’s “solution”?
    At some denomination's ("What-are-we-gonna-do-about-losing-our-youth?") Youth Conference... Here comes the tattooed, bed-haired, 32-year-old evangelist, with his "edgy-cutting edge" message-to-the-church, using terms like "revolution" and "radical shift in thinking", telling us that what is missing is "cultural relevance", and how we need to be "able to relate" to today's culture, bla, bla, bla...
    Even though he IS a really cool-looking dude with his 300-dollar shirt and neon-colored sneakers, with a louder-than-Sunday-morning lead-guitar-rif introduction to the stage – he has no intention whatsoever of rethinking, revisiting, or re-analyzing, or re-questioning the last generation's exclusionary, cult-like, separatist interpretations of the Bible.

    And guess what, cool-looking dude? It’s the THEOLOGY, not the communicative approach!

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/ken-dahl/two-greatest-enemies-of-the-church/509245855789757

    July 28, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • That's just crazy talk

      I read 3 words and then got bored.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Nice try.
      But there is no such word as "exetetical".
      (and of course YOU have the answer, and have it all figured out).

      July 28, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  5. Purple Sky Fairy

    Is our religion so far from yours? You believe a sky fairy created the world out of nothing, we believe that the world was created out of nothing. You believe that you are the offspring of man, we believe we are the offspring of man like ape beings, you believe you will change into another being, we believe we will evolve into something else. Can't we all be friends?

    July 28, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • snowboarder

      who believes the world was created out of nothing?

      July 28, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Purple Sky Fairy

      Well, random nothingness. There was no life, then Zammo! Either a sky fairy made it or super random chaos coolness did. What's the diff?

      July 28, 2013 at 10:44 am |
      • snowboarder

        try again.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  6. Sunnysmom

    What a fantastic article!! I'm a Gen-X'r and this is exactly how I feel. Every church I've been to in the last decade espouses Jesus but does very little to prove they actually believe in what he stood for. You can praise Jesus and in the next breath say something so horrific, judgmental and exclusionary...well, you can, but don't expect people to stick around.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  7. Wake up Fools

    Republican Evangelical Christianism is a vile political philosophy. These so called Christians are just plain mean and lack compassion and caring for others in need. They are interested in forcing their narrow minded ways that have nothing to do with what Jesus came to teach us. They are the American Taliban of hatred. They can fool some people but not all of the people.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  8. Robert

    I felt EVERY SINGLE ONE of these sentiments. I found a church that addresses all of them and satisfies every single longing and disconnect addressed here. I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm now a Mormon. Who'd have thunk? Before you dismiss it out of hand and criticize it, I ask you to use some of that millennial "intellect" to come and see for yourself. See if this church does not address every single one of the issues raised in this article. You'll be as surprised as I was.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • On and on

      Oh, my. You have fallen even further. Come back.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • just me.

      If you can convince yourself that a 19th century con man communicated with some form of god and was told to start a church,you can pretty much believe anything.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  9. Jeannette Solimine

    Sounds like you all should be heading back to Episcopal, Lutheran, and UCC churches. Time for people to come to understand and realize that Christianity is a diverse group and that there are individual churches and entire denominations that can answer their needs if they will just look... and stop expecting to find what they want only in large churches.Some of the most wonderful caring active and welcoming churches are the small churches that are more interested in responding to the needs of individuals than in programs.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  10. Kim M

    There are many Christian churches which will welcome you and all your friends. Find one. The need to find a church where one gets fed is hardly newsworthy.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • Austin

      exactly and what you said is a hush hush held secret around here.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  11. Andrew

    I think to a large extent the spell is broken. It happens to all myths eventually.

    An invisible, silent and completely evidenceless god, which has expectations of us, is a fundamental contradiction. A god which has expectations of us would simply appear as a giant head above the largest cities on the planet and say, "About masturbation my peons..."

    The judeo-christo-islamic god's days are numbered.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  12. Roger that

    Or could it be that Atheism is increasing in numbers and becoming more accepting.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  13. Julie

    Mathematicians have calculated that within 100 years religion as we know it here in the states will only be practiced by a very small minority. Less and less children are indoctrinated from birth each year. This is the ultimate residual effect from people leaving organized religion no matter what the reason. Once Stockholm syndrome style brainwashing stops, critical thinking will win out as we are now witnessing before our eyes.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  14. On the Right Side

    Remember what happened to Rome when they turned their back on Christ. The same fate awaits America, Europe and all nations that were once righteous. Revelation says that in the end times the masses will turn against Christ. The anti-Christ will rise during this time. The return of Christ is approaching. True Christians rejoice in this development, but weep for the lost. Only faith in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone can save us now. That is truth.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Andrew

      Pure mythology.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      That is not truth, that is belief and speculation. There are a great number of other stories about the world in many other religious texts. There is nothing to back up your a$$ertions.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • One one

      How unfortunate that religious indoctrination has people eagerly hoping for the end of the world. Such a waste.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • cristian

      You forgot to mention that, when the rapture will happen, all these un-believers will explain that as alien abductions....doohhh! Some of these clowns would rather believe in aliens than in god. Well, eventually they will find out won't they? No running away from that. I wonder what would the excuse be then?

      July 28, 2013 at 10:43 am |
      • JWT

        Aliens have an infinitely better chance of existing than god does.

        July 28, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Drew

      I do know that Rome made Christianity the official religion around 400AD and was sacked 5 and 50 years later leading to the Dark Ages.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
      • Dave

        Actually no. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 300 AD's thereabouts. Rome would have been sacked nearly 100 plus years later. It has been argued in fact that had Rome not embraced Christianity after the death of the 5 good emperors, that Rome would have been sacked much sooner or at least disintegrated.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Johnny

      Actually the Roman Empire collapsed not long after turning towards Christ, but you can believe anything you wish I suppose.

      July 29, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  15. mrs.t

    A little contradictory: "We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities." and "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." But those are the churches that take the Bible literally and are saying that being gay is wrong. Of all my family and friends who are members of the more traditional churches, ZERO of them are open to the LGBT community.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • On and on

      But being more accepting is being more Christ-like.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:41 am |
      • mrs.t

        Yes, but the majority of those churches and the people attending them are not more accepting. They are the ones holding our country back from progress and blocking two people in love from being married saying it "diminishes family values."

        July 28, 2013 at 10:46 am |
        • On and on

          Agree we need to be more accepting because it is the human thing to do.

          July 28, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  16. straighttalk

    America is full of corrupt people.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  17. straighttalk

    America is full of thieves and snake oil salesmen selling the Gospel.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  18. LifewalkswithMe

    You know a religion has lost its way when someone feels compelled to choose "between compassion and holiness"

    Good essay.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  19. Purple Sky Fairy

    The problem is most of you here believe in sky fairies, this is illogical.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  20. Elaine

    I thoroughly agree with much of what the author says. I helped the church I attended found a "daughter" church with contemporary worship and all that, and after sticking it out for years I quit being a Protestant completely and became (gasp!) Catholic. It was all because of what I saw as a lack of substance in so many Protestant churches. It was all about "let's feel good and sing cute music about how Jesus is my best friend and everything is so wonderful." But here's where I disagree: as a Christian, you can't have it both ways. Yes, you can be inclusive, and not hateful, and indeed that's what Jesus wants from all of us. But to say "millennials want a church where this is OK and this is OK and our LGBT friends are welcome..." ? Christianity DOES have morals at its core, like it or not, and it says you DO have to live your life differently if you're going to call yourself a Christian. Not EVERYTHING can be OK. If you want an anything-is-acceptable church, then you don't really want to have any standards for moral living, and that's not being a Christian either. Like it or not, to follow Christ you can't just live the way you want to. But, there's a DIFFERENCE between believing some things are wrong, and being hateful about it. To me, the hateful ones aren't Christians either.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • On and on

      As an atheist I have to say that her morals come across much more appealingly than yours.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Joe

      Elaine, you hit the nail on the head. They don't want to conform to God, they want God to conform to them. 2 Timothy 4:3 comes to my mind.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Johnny

      Christianity has bad morals at its core, for example Christians somehow think it is o.k. to let someone else take their punishment.

      July 29, 2013 at 12:54 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.