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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. lol??

    Churches are obsolete and never were very gud at their ____________. The gubmint is in charge of every last detail of existence and the mob agrees to divide up the disagreeable. False prophets and the Beasts in action.

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

      more gibberish from lol, as we all expect.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  2. sybaris

    If you had some way to wipe the slate of everything we knew about Gods and Science eventually a thousand different Gods would spring up with a thousand different explanations. As for science eventually the same bodies of evidence would arise to form the same theories and facts as before.

    Religion, just a filthy perverted disease of the mind

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

      @syb, of course, we already do have thousands of different gods.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  3. Claire Demetre

    What a wonderful writing and so so well explained and accurate about this issue of leaving the churches in groves!

    July 27, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  4. Kn0wledge

    I'd have to say that a lot more millenials are taught to use critical thinking and come to find out that Santa Claus doesn't exist.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  5. Bob

    Perhaps they have finally realized that a person can have no belief in god and still be a moral and productive member of society.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  6. bibledoctor

    millenials and gen xers are lazy even life lazy and bible dumb, work ethic is shabby. selah

    July 27, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  7. cthulhu78

    Im not Gen X, but Im not Millenial either. I graduated high school in 1996. I have the same problem. My solution? Dudeism.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Bob

      You're out of your element.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Sally

      Keep on abiding... 🙂

      July 27, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  8. NoDoubt

    I'm sorry, but I'm not willing to take the Bible as literal truth. I just can't, not even for the *promise* of heaven. I believe Jesus existed, but he didn't perform magic tricks. I have to respect the people that DO believe in this, but until I find a church that is more spiritual and less about literal myths, I'm going to abstain from the whole process. I believe in karma, and it feels better doing good even if nobody knows you're doing it.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  9. maestra730

    Ms. Evans' argument is nothing new or earth-shattering, even though she seems to believe it is. People have always found ways to justify not going to church, even though the actual "issues" they blame have changed over the years. Funny how she talks about "cherry picking" when she herself espouses an incredibly hypocritical, cafeteria-style approach to Christianity and the church; i.e., "If I don't like it, I'm going home." So sorry to disappoint you, Ms. Evans, but sin is still sin. All of your technological and intellectual arrogance won't change that. It has nothing to do with tolerance or compassion or even forgiveness, which are required regardless. It has to do with the pursuit of holiness in light of God's grace. Good grief, get yourself a Bible and read it, for God's sake, before you start spouting off. Your article is one big, long whine. Grow up.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • Valerie

      I agree with this post completely and you worded it much better than I could of. The writer of the article entirely misses the point of going to church to begin with.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • pick and choose

      The Bible is either true or it is not....each of us must decide. Neither God nor The Bible ever offer picking what you want to believe and ignoring anything inconvenient to you. Truth us truth...even if many millennials view it as old fashioned.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:15 am |
      • dzerres

        Easy. It's not true. There, done, next. Now if you want to get into details here's a few: not a word was written down until at least 60 years after Jesus' death. Around the year 400 AD some bigshots got together to decide which gospels would be in the new Bible and which were to be excluded. Also before that time Jesus was not a deity – he was a remembered as aprophet. That whole Jesus is God stuff came waaaaaaay later. Bottom line? It's all made up by men with great imaginations and probably a little too much to drink.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Sally

      I suspect the author she spends more time in the Word than many of the commenters.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Lisa Hulbert

      I could not have said it better myself. Stop whining, get out your bible and read it! Pray. Church is not there to please you.

      July 29, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  10. Suz

    As a 50 something, lapsed and no longer interested Catholic or Christian, I really appreciated the article. I turned from the Catholic church , 35 years ago, disgusted, when they would not marry a young couple, because the girl was pregnant. The "old high church traditions" are not necessarily the best ways. I turned completely away from Christianity, when I moved from Boston, Mass to Houston, TX and the evangelicals started invading science, my body and our bedrooms. I still believe in a God , but, my church of choice is now and has been for many years, Unitarian/Universalist. They listen appreciate and even read the writings of other religions. Its very refreshing to be amongst open mined people. I applaud your honesty and it gives me hope that there will be others like you, that will continue to fight to restore my appreciation and respect of Christianity, as a whole.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • lol??

      God does the marryin'. Look it up, not churches or gubmints.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  11. L Larson

    ME TOO – this article is refreshing and right on target in my opinion. The desire, my desire is to be spiritual – spirit filled – not dogma based religion – someone else's point of view. I'm finding my own way down the path – on my own.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  12. Silvius

    The reason is because the Millennials are being effectively preached to by, and worshiping at the Church of Liberalism. With the help of the media, unionized academia, and Hollywood, the Cult of Liberalism has been effectively brain washing impressionable and ignorant young people. Leftists are by nature are religion haters, god haters, and pro-abortion, pro-LGBT, extremely bigoted and hateful against anyone who steps out of line and questions their ideology.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Kn0wledge

      I think it's safe to say that pro-choice and pro-LGBT people are so incredibly hostile towards religious groups is because you don't see LGBT or Pro-choice people standing out in a picket line in front of churches like you would church groups in front of abortion clinics or gay parades. The majority of LGBT people and supporters accept a large number of people, because they see how often religious groups do not.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Tn

      This comment pretty much sums up why millennials don't go to church.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Nycport

      I find it comical that you use the phrase "brain washing" when speaking about people you call liberals. If it wasn't for brain washing how would religion continue? It starts with brain washing in your youth as you are dragged to worship something you have no proof exists and are forced by your parents to participate in. If you continue to follow the rules you must do the same thing to your children as well. Stop believing in fairy tales designed to control uneducated people 3000 years ago!

      July 27, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Sally

      No. It's the other way around. Fox News is doing the brainwashing. Look at every over 40 member of your church and see if any of them are spending more time ministering or discussing Jesus than they are freaking out about their gun rights or gay people or Obama.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  13. Sally

    I'm a 40-something Mom, and the funny thing is that all of these responses reinforce REH's point. I see anger, sarcasm, derision, belittling, chicken littling, judgment.
    Hardly any representations of Christ. No, "sure, we have differences, but how can we go out together and serve the world as people of God and servants of Christ?" "How can we worship him first regardless of wordly differences?"

    To millenials, most older Christians don't quote or sound like Christ. They sound like Fox News.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  14. JOHN THOMAS

    Maybe, perhaps like me they had time to study & found that the god of Abraham to be something quite unreal. as the religions. It was formed at a time of stress ( great wars of religious & political nature ) in which the promise of everlasting life given to the humans from an alien( he is an off this world god ). Can't be argued with cause he is suppose to be the undefeated ( who wouldn't go over to the enemy who is winning ). If it is all made up in order to control you, good job, but now people are more intelligent & want proof! Agnostic I am not & is very dumb as is in the definition, call me a nostic.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  15. Jeremy

    Religion will go the way of the dinosaurs they don't believe in. There are hundreds of millions of people all over the world living their lives according to the writings of ancient middle eastern chauvinist men. Many of the same people hate and fear modern middle eastern people. It's all pretty absurd, really.

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

      And they've made Jesus a YT.

      July 27, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  16. Winston5

    ...Why? Probably because they're smart as heII!

    July 27, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  17. An Episcopalian

    You are welcome at the Episcopal Church, where we value scripture, tradition, *and* reason. We are imperfect, squabbling, loving, Christian people. You are allowed (gasp, encouraged!) to use your brain.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  18. Zon

    Well said. But it's not just milleneals. Ask most who are leaving evangelical churches and hypocrisy and hate will be the biggest reasons. The sad part is there are enough in the congregation that buy sales pitch these pastors think it works on everyone.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  19. Babduck

    Another words, you would like to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy but facts get in the way? It sounds like you want to believe in the 2,000 year-old Bible fiction story of Jesus, but like so many before you, you think there is some different and more enlightened way to do it? Have you ever noticed how many off-shoot churches there are out there? They all had the same idea to exclude something or other or include someone or something different than what they were originally taught. The preachers who seek your advice are no different than the previous generations. They are just looking for the answer to get more suckers to come in and add to their wealth. If your a good Christian, Catholic, Mormon, or whatever, you will donate 10 percent of what you make and guarantee your mansion in the sky. I'm a born-again atheist from the Baby Boom generation. With a biological background and all the doubts in the world it still took decades for me to shake the fear of not believing. I'd like to believe that more of the younger generations are less interested in religion because they have more educated/enlightened parents. Parents who do not pass on fairy tales of heaven and hell the moment they have the ability to understand and fear.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  20. cheeseroll

    Millennials leave the church in droves because of blatant hypocrisy by the people in power.

    Just one simple question for all those "church leaders". Have you practiced the tenet of "love thy neighbor" recently? Or were you guys busy hoarding all the money you could find from the donations box and the offering bag?

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

      In power and just in the pew next to them. Church is full of hypocrisy. Most things are, but it is worse when the people doing it are so fervent in their "knowledge" of what is right and moral and good and the stakes they claim are involved.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:52 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.