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. David Hoffman

    Whatever happened to paragraphs. You know the grouping of sentences into a coherent thought. The use of paragraphs was once common in English composition...required even.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • matt

      "Whatever happened to paragraphs.(?) You know(,) the grouping of sentences into a coherent thought. The use of paragraphs was once common in English composition...(;) required even.'

      Let he who is without sin..

      July 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Hoffman's larger issue is the object of his derision. What sample of writing is he criticizing for being to "wordwall-y?"

        The no paragraph thing is a huge deal, but Hoffman's punctuation was not so poor as to obscure his meaning, so it's not that disconcerting.

        July 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Ruby

      What are you referencing? The spaces between in the above article is clearly delineated as paragraphs.

      What is your complaint, exactly?

      Sheesh. Everyone's a critic these days.

      July 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  2. Toby Cameron

    This is an awful article. How is could the Catholic Church (as stated by the author) meet the needs of young people today...there is no welcoming of gay people etc.? Religion is the cause of most of the worlds problems... it is created by men that wanted to keep the status quo (e.g., don't be worried now if you are poor ... you will get paradise later... good grief!)

    July 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  3. Bill Mason

    One of our historical conflicts of our species has been when Science, Faith, and Religion, try to define and often exclude each other in our world of epistemology and comprehension. ( Yes, this is a run on for sure )

    July 28, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  4. Harry Cline

    "We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against"

    You want to change tradition, fine go start your own church. Stop with the b.s. line about how you millennials are so adapt at the b.s. meter. You are confused because you have never taken the time to explore, your world is built around technology. You can't function without it.

    The problem is that technology has lend to the dumb-ing down of humanity.

    God Is Not About Religion, a Church, or an organized belief system. God can only ever be experience on a personal level. And evolution and God don't exist without each other.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Gadflie

      That was fun to read. A whine about the dumbing down of society followed by claptrap about God and evolution not able to exist without each other.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Athy

      Well, there is no god and evolution is getting along just fine.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
      • mel

        We cannot prove there is no god, but if there is one or many, he, she, or they are not worthy of being worshipped. I refuse to believe in a Holy god that can sit back and allow children to get kidnapped, molested, or murdered. I refuse to believe in a Holy god that allows innocent children to suffer ANY kind of way. Maybe evil is the work of the devil, but if god is so great and powerful, why can't he stop all the madness? Christians say God will condemn these evil doers to hell – they will suffer consequences. But the victims of terminal illnesses, poverty, and heinous crimes are forced to suffer the consequences as well – while the great and powerful Oz, i mean, God, sits back and watches. This is why I do not need church.

        July 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
        • Harry Cline

          Relax Mel,

          If I had all the answers I'd be a God right. Suffice to say you have to understand how this God operates, and it's not in the affairs of mankind. Mankind created that notion. Now if you'll excuse me my smart phone is ringing.

          July 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • Robert

      Well said,.. its scary there are a lot of angry and abusive people out there, thats because they dont have true compassion in there hearts.

      July 28, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  5. Realist



    ..... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ...

    ..... and thank goodness because he emanates from the .....

    ..... http://www.EVILbible.com


    ( PLEASE visit those sites and learn the truth )

    July 28, 2013 ..... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

    July 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  6. Realist



    ..... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ...

    ..... and thank goodness because he emanates from the .....

    ..... http://www.EVILbible.com


    ( PLEASE visit those sites and learn the truth )

    July 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  7. Barron Sinclair

    One picture of a young man had a poster with this text: "Hi Mom! I'm an Athiest!" Let me guess... He's never had children and Mom is NOT an Athiest.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Let me guess. You are trying to make some odd point based on stereotypes but aren't being successful?

      July 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • saroban

      That poster is clearly a commentary on the fact that many atheists remain "in the closet" because of fear of retribution from religious family or friends.

      There. I did your critical thinking for you, as an example. Now go learn how to do it yourself.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  8. Gadflie

    I'm calling Poe's law on JustTheFacts. Not even close kid. You need to be less obvious.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  9. Terik Ororke

    Science and religion are against one aother? Then please explain how the Big Bang theory was put forth by a Catholic priest who was also a scientist.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Every single scientific advancement in history was made by someone who didn't settle for "God did it" as a sufficient answer.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
      • millennial


        July 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
        • Gadflie

          The obvious truth is trolling now?

          July 28, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • Athy

      What's that got to do with science and religion being against one another?

      July 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • BrotherCavil

      Science and religion are against each other because religion says "Accept without question." Science says "Question everything." They are inherently opposed to each other.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
      • millennial

        *Accept, despite all the questions

        July 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • Jake

        You can talk all day about how they are against each other, but you miss where they do go together: the search for truth.

        July 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • skytag

      Religion needs people to believe God is responsible for various phenomena we see in the world around us, and in fact has attributed many phenomena to God of the course of history. Every time science debunks one of those myths in exposes the fact that these claims are just fabrications with no basis in fact.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Science has no aim or goal other than to logically explain. It's history study that adamantly disproves religion. I'm much more critical of historians that still believe religion because they're clearly lousy researchers. The last half century of archaeology (particularly the Qumran and Ugaritic finds) has completely demolished judaism and any religion that grew out of it. As soon as public textbooks start reflecting this, religion in the USA will begin to vanish like a bad dream.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • ArtaudD2

      Georges-Henri Lemaître SJ should count his lucky stars he wasn't around during Galileo's time when he suggested his theory.
      "To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin." Cardinal Ballarmino, procurer and torturer of Galileo during his arrest and trial.
      Of course if Lemaitre were around back then no doubt J2P2 might have rehabilitated him and his reputation 350 years or so after the fact, just as he did with Galileo.

      Are you familiar with Giordano Bruno? He was another priest who speculated that stars might be other suns with planets orbiting them. Galileo got off lucky-Bruno was burnt at the stake.

      July 28, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
  10. Anne

    I straddle "gen X" and the "baby boomer" generations. Never the less, I THOROUGHLY agree with Ms. Evans.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Anne: then you might find this book review eye-opening...

      July 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
      • MagicPanties

        oh dear, a review by some fool that takes everything in the greatest fiction ever told as the literal "word of god"

        July 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Dippy

      It's "nevertheless," not "never the less."

      July 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  11. karl from az

    Because they need an environment where they are free to make God into their image!

    July 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Sokesky

      All the churches do that. It's why there are so many different sects, many at odd with each other.

      July 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  12. that guy 420

    "we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there"... thats why I left

    July 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Athy

      Well, he can only be in one church at a time. You just need to wait for your church'e turn.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
      • that guy 420

        HA HA ..... um no... u r sad

        July 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
        • M.R.

          No. Spot squarely on the tale.

          July 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      Of course not. If he existed at all, he died two thousand years ago. I wouldn't expect to see him anywhere.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  13. Russ

    Rachel Held Evans would have us conveniently forget that mainline churches in the US have been doing it her way for years... and as a result have been consistently shrinking for over 50 years.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Really? But at least they have been shrinking far slower than in the rest of the industrialized world.

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

        @ Gadflie:
        So what do you call China? Most economists readily admit it is the next great economic superpower.
        When Mao took over in 1949, there were only roughly 10 million Christians in the entire country. Now, only 60 years later, even by the most conservative estimates, there are hundreds of millions of Christians.

        July 29, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  14. the truth shall set us free

    '7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

    9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.'

    July 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • sam stone

      quoting edited, translated hearsay is only so effective

      July 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  15. Mike

    You could shorten this article by a lot:

    Why millennials are leaving the church – because no gods exist.

    It's not that the church isn't providing the correct sermons, or because religion is in tolerant to gays, it's because with the creation of the internet logic and reason are winning out, rendering church ridiculous.

    July 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  16. JEM

    Let's see: Jesus teaches love, mercy, kindness, gentleness...love your neighbor; love your enemy; turn the other cheek; sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor...he condemns pride, greed and judgmentalism. Unfortunately, many churches seem to embrace/teach the exact opposite behavior. They seem to worship the Republican party, racism and guns 1st and foremost and just throw God and Jesus' names around like just calling oneself a Christian makes one a Christian (w/o actual behavior modification in line with the Bible's teachings.). God isn't a fool nor is he blind/deaf.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Actually, god is deaf, dumb, blind and ignorant. Just like every other god that never existed.

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

        Unless you are wrong...

        July 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
        • sam stone

          JEM: You could be wrong as well

          July 28, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
        • GEM

          JEM, your post has a strong odor of Pascal's Wager to it. Look it up so your future posts don't reek quite so much.

          July 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • JEM

      Yes, I know. However, if I am wrong, I'm wrong. If there actually is a loving God, what a total waste: to spend life just saying that there isn't.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        It's not a waste to say, "No, I don't think so," when someone asks you if you believe that the Tooth Fairy exists. It is a horrible waste to spend much of your time talking about the tooth fairy and what you need to do to be on good terms with it and argue about how the tooth fairy's existence is obvious even though she is invisible and undetectable.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
      • Tony

        JEM, Pascal's Wager is for cowards. Stupid cowards, that is.

        July 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • veritas

          1000 thumbs up

          July 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  17. Robert Rowley

    People are leaving the church because of Jesus. Jesus was an exclusivist, and he demands faith and obedience in himself alone. We don't get to make up the rules...sorry! In John 14:6, Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me." The Bible proclaims the manner in which one must come to the Father through Jesus. Acts 16:31 states, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." Fail to believe and embrace Jesus and you remain condemned in your sin (John 3:17-18). As millennials are confronted with this dogmatic truth of Scripture they can either embrace Christ or reject him. As Jesus himself pointed out above, He is the exclusive way to truth and the Father!

    July 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • snowboarder

      @bob, you didn't read the article did you?

      July 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • One one

      Thanks for the heads up Bob.

      July 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Fred

      So, Robert, have you sold all of your possessions to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:21)? Have you dined with sinners and loved them (Luke 5:31)? Have you sacrificed your job, or your relationships with family, for the sake of living a Christian life (Matthew 19:29)? If not, how can you call yourself Christian? The Gospel says Jesus doesn't ask us to give 1/10th of our money, 1/10th our life to him. So how can churches with pastors earning more than their congregants be true Christian churches? How can capitalists proclaim steadfast Christianity, when Jesus preaches that it is the poor and dispossessed who are his true adherents?

      July 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  18. hee hee

    Hey, a whole thread on the question of Hitler's atheism was just deleted by the mods. (I didn't even know there were mods).

    Dear mods: the idea that Hitler was atheist is a wide-spread belief, and in my opinion it would be better if the idea were aired and refuted than if all discussions of the issue are deleted. I think legitimate discussion of the issue serves a purpose.

    I realize that this one's a tough call – please consider it.

    July 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      No, it is just a couple of the Christians were getting their butts handed to them and decided to report the truthful posts as abuse, there is no moderator, it just gets deleted. The christians are once again trying to re-write history, by taking one of Hitlers tactics by the way, and doing the equivelant of book burning.
      Cowards often act that way.

      July 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
      • hee hee

        I think it's pretty likely that the person reporting the abuse thought the point was to condemn Christianity by saying Hitler was Christian, rather than to establish the facts in response to the erroneous claim that Hitler was atheist. (I don't think it's clear that he was Christian – he was not consistent on this point).

        Actually, it's of no relevance to me whether hitler was atheist, Christian, or pagan. I just hate falsehoods and like people to have the facts straight.

        July 28, 2013 at 6:20 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.