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. drturi

    All you have to do is to Goggle Dr. Turi and read all about religions or Dr. Turi and the POpe and you will learn a lot about the reasons why the world is waking up!

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

    Wow!! That couldn't have been more smack on. Add to that all the judgementality, arrogance (epitome of ignorance, BTW), and hypocrisy of the blind followers and leaders toward their fellow humans, and that about completes the picture. I'm a senior, btw, and I've seen more than my share of all those characteristics stated above. I just simply live by the simple principles of the 11 commandments to the best of my ability and recognize the great sacrifice that was made for me and everyone else.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  3. drturi

    All you have to do is to Goggle Dr. Turi and religions or Dr. Turi and the POpe and you will learn a lot about the reasons why the world is waking up!

    July 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  4. us_1776

    The Sky Fairy does not exist !!

    GET OVER IT !!


    July 28, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  5. Darin Kleeman

    Actually, the truth is that every single generation has "left the church". And, every single generation has blamed the church for leaving! The problem isn't the church, it is wild young human hearts. There is a great deal of pride and rebellion within youth. They are the ones being arrested, and they are the ones that know everything. This is not a struggle for our age. It is a struggle of life. How can a young man keep his way pure?

    July 28, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Awesome word salad.
      My invisible pink unicorn was hungry and she says it was pure delight.
      Many thanks.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • denver

      Ya know, there are a couple realy good reasons to not be religious apart from youthful "pride and rebellion." In some circles, people will tell you that there's really no good reason to be religious at all aside from simply wanting to be.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  6. denver

    It's pretty clear that what you want is Unitarian Universalism. I'm not religious, but everything I've heard about them suggests the atmosphere of apolitical spirituality and inclusiveness that you're demanding.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • spaceysteph

      UU is fuzzy on the divinity of Jesus, I think as an attempt to lure non-Christians in as well. What she wants is something more Christian than that.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • jhslove

      Oh my God, I was literally about to suggest that the author check out Unitarian Universalism!

      July 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Actually, the UU's are neutral on the divinity of Jesus. And God for that matter. They have no dogma or creed at all.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  7. naiemahmad

    why does truth have to be so hard to find (knowledge is a quality whereby the ignorant are made wise) , Millennial and all others have been deceived by there Churches, for so long. It is not the searchers fault, for seeking the truth, but it's not having the fear (love) of God that should have been instilled in to the heart s of the lover (seeker)of God. All Churches have preached blind conformity, making it enter into the knowledge of God, by doing that they have dismissed His attributes of perfections, which must be known(for the seeker) thru His attributes of perfections. This can be attained only thru his Grace and favor of God, Who has absolute control of our minds. If He so will, He makes one of our action a guide that shows us the way to Himself, and if He will otherwise, He makes the same action an obstacle that prevents us from reaching Him. Thus Jesus (peace be upon him) was some a guide that led them to gnosis, but to others he was an obstacle that hindered them from gnosis ; the former party said, "This is the servant o God," and the latter party said, "This is the son of God." Similarly some were led to God by idols and by the sun and the moon, while others were led astray.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • TriXen

      Islam is no more or no less valid than Christianity.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
      • Gadflie

        Very true. Zero does still equal zero.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  8. Gabi

    "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."

    EXACTLY. A few years back, I sat in a pew alone. I'd just finished talking to the priest about how my views as a feminist and member of the LGBTQA community meshed with the Catholic church, and I found myself looking up at the crucifix in the front of the sanctuary. And all I could think was, as long as I am who I am, however much I love being a Catholic, there is no place for me there. No room at the inn, so to speak.

    And so now I am, sadly, an ex-Christian. Coffee-shop-and-skinny-jeans churches hold no appeal, and the faith I was raised in has closed its door in my face. Hopefully someone, somewhere can figure out that I am not alone.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • JJ

      Don't be sad, rejoice! You rejected your church because they are filled with intolerance and hate of those who do not follow their dogma but you should further reject religion all together because it has no place in civil modern society.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • david

      Try an episcopal church. The most open and accepting of the mainstream churches in my experience, with even gay and female priests accepted.

      that said, i am a nonbeliever.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Stephanie

      You are very welcome at my church, where we believe that everyone is exactly as God created them to be! We're based outside of Atlanta, and if you're not local, my talks are on our website. Message me for more if you're interested. Sending love to you!

      July 28, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  9. Jeebusss

    Let's see, because it's supers†itious nonsense and in the information age it is getting harder and harder to brainwash people? That is a good place to start if you are seeking answers.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Finch

      If it's getting harder to brainwash people, then why was it so easy to brainwash so many people into voting for Obama?

      July 28, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
      • Observer


        It was easy to vote for Obama after the church-going clown that was in office before him.

        July 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Oh, Finch. Still bitter about your party being beaten? (Twice! And by a black man!) Don't worry. There's always next election.

        July 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
      • jbcal

        Simple, they just listened to what his opponent was saying.

        July 28, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  10. Jeebusss

    Let's see, because it's supers†itious BS and in the information age it is getting harder and harder to brainwash people? That is a good place to start if you are seeking answers.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  11. Who appointed you spokesperson for 76 Million people?

    Was there an election I was unaware of?
    The self-importance of Journalists knows no bounds.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  12. Casual

    Reblogged this on Casual Contentment and commented:
    Saw this on the CNN Belief Blog. Why Millennials are leaving the church by Rachel Held Evans. Very good read indeed. Something for all of us to think about here. I tend to agree and have many of the same feelings Rachel expresses in this blog, so I thought I'd share. I hope you find something worth while to think about in her words as well.
    God Bless and Good Day! 🙂

    July 28, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  13. Rob

    "...I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular." Immensely true, yet I've been hearing people like Held Evans and other "church" leaders/voices (as well as mine) pointing things like this out for years now. The responses inevitably seem to be linked to program: "so, let's make a second service that's 'untraditional'" or "let's do more that focuses on the millennials" or something along the lines of "hipper worship bands." Ultimately, the efforts revolve around targeting millennials more, or being more effective at it. I have to say that being targeted is just about as off-putting as is church-as-performance, because it's patronizing and negligent of the church body in its entirety. As an aside, being targeted in this way is probably the closest I'll get to feeling the way many non-Christians must feel when Evangelicals target them for "outreach." I actually don't see this whole thing as merely a generational conundrum. To me, it's more a symptom of a larger condition within Evangelical church thought and practices, which is why, as Herd Evans points out, you hear 40-somethings, retirees, etc., resonating with the frustration as well. The issues seem so cyclical, and it can get very frustrating. So, what to do? In regard to the comment about how Herd Evans provides little guidance in this critique, I would encourage readers not to seek step-by-step guidelines for what to do next but to exegete the situation on their own by engaging the tension through ongoing dialogue with millennials (or anyone who has become jaded with church). Nothing will ever change or evolve if the majority of Christians continue relying on their church's pastoral staff to engage the issue or to unveil a new program focused on this demographic. Unfortunately, "Christian" has become a term that carries a lot of pretentiousness, so it seems to me that we might need to do a bit triage by shelving the label "Christian" if it helps us figure out what it means to be human, which may help reinvigorate the term as people see Christ in our human engagements rather than our church attendance. The change begins with relationship, not program. Herd Evans's preamble of "We wants" in this article is the closest thing we'll probably get to a list of guiding steps.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  14. mklsgl

    Because Christianity cannot reconcile itself with modern Society.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  15. Beckie Erwin

    We have left not one church, but two. The first being a "main stream denominational" and the other "non-denominational." Leaving had nothing to do with our faith. It had everything to do with the government of the church. Both became so anti-worship and so much more about how to increase membership and funds than about prayer and worship. It felt unholy to be in church. There were far more meetings going on than services. Meetings to plan meetings. It got so out of hand we simply said "enough." Church is not worship.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Sue Anne

      Yup, I'll bet it felt like meetings to plan activities for your every waking hour, right? Did you get the same feeling that I did that they just wanted to control you, make sure that you didn't interact very much with the outside world?

      Remember, if you're going to be independent, don't start following some TV or web preacher, or buying a bunch of Christian books. They're just as controlling, and only looking for your vote.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  16. topcat

    Blind faith must trample underfoot, all reason, sense and understanding. – Martin Luther

    July 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • mleavi1

      SO BRAVE

      July 28, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Dave

      And how do you feel about Martin Luther and his prescription of Christian dogma?

      July 28, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  17. John Vance

    Many of them will drift back over time. Like every generation coming of age, a substantial portion will ask questions that can't be answered within the restricted confines of religious doctrine. Many will find the questions can't be answered outside those confines either. Some will choose to head back to the comforts of well-defined boundaries and soothing nostrums. Others will keep on keeping on, never ending the search but never finding the answers.
    In the end, both will need to ask themselves if they have done more good than bad. If they can answer yes, it will be a life well-spent.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Rick

      Just like how many drifted back to conservative Christianity once the embarrassment of racism was (mostly) extinguished, this group will return once gays are equally welcomed. Since conservative Christianity requires some enemy to fight in order to polarize the membership and distract from its internal theological problems, I wonder who will be left for them to fight against? The liberal churches will probably be almost nonexistent by then, and the atheists will be too strong and vocal to attack head-on, so what does that leave them? Muslims? Jews? Scientologists?

      July 28, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  18. bartcrowe

    Gonna guess these comments broke down into militant Atheist berating militant Christians and vice versa. I thought the article was spot off if a little too short.

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

      Spot off?
      And do you have anything relevant to contribute to the conversation, or are you just being a mensch?

      July 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  19. Tyler

    We don't go to Church anymore, because we are not all so gullible. Religion is a sham and goes against everything we know as a species. People that cling to this ancient tradition are only scared of letting go.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jenny Shaneyfelt

      I'd say Jesus would agree with you. He couldn't stand most of the religion going on during his time and openly made fun of the leaders of religious law. If you stop listening to what people are telling you about the Bible and go see for yourself, you'll realize you are actually right. Jesus said those who worship the law will die by the law (the law meaning those ancient religion junk). When Jesus died, he broke the law. He didn't just die for those who believe, he died for everyone. His death made it so you cannot be held accountable to anyone for your sins because they are forgiven; but you have to accept the gift because Jesus operates only in Love and love does not demand his own way. You've got to want it and chose it daily, and this is where your life will begin. I love you my friend and so does Jesus. I pray he reveals all of this to you as truth in Jesus name. Amen

      July 28, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        I don't know how to accept an invisible and undetectable "gift." Plus, the bible seems stupid and presents a very horrific god. If the bible's horrible god is real, then he and his gifts are untrustworthy anyway.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  20. OpenMindwithYou

    Dear Open Mind, and I say this in an endearing way. Keep searching, questioning and learning, the truth is out there for you and everyone to discover. There are many paths but only one way to the truth of universal laws and love. You will discover this on your journey. We are all searching for guidance and Truth within science and faith, yes faith! Faith in Love as the most important lesson to learn. Learn to love one another, care for and lift one another up to higher ideals. I believe you have heard this before?? This is the basis for which we all live for, love, acceptance and equality..someday. When we stop blaming, hating, judging others do we grow in LOVE. When we look inside our hearts and think, all we want in this life and forever more is to be loved and to love. Keep your open mind and grow. You are doing so well. I must commend others that have commented on corrupt churches and greed which comes in many forms. When you have the opportunity, lift your brothers and sister out of this environment. Take their blinders off and love them and accept their wanting to belong, they were mislead. Some people comment that they do not believe in God. God is the ultimate expression of LOVE in the purest sense. That is why we search and ask many questions. We grave love and truth! Some of us still ask what is truth? That is the spark of light that encourages us to move forward !! Love to all on your journey.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Thank you for your definition of god. That does not jibe with the primary religions definition.
      The god of the bible for instance is as much hate as he is love, as much good as evil. For he is all things, alpha and omega.
      Otherwisek, god loves a lot of people to death according to the bible.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:37 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.