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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. Matt

    Thank you for writing this article. I can not agree more with what you have written here. I am more surprised by the reaction you are receiving on here from both two opposing sides, well not too surprised. The hatred espoused by evangelical "christians" and evangelical atheists turn off most in our generation to not even bother. At 33 and as someone who studied genetics in college, the perspective you speak of weighed heavy on me as well. I felt most churches wanted to deny science, and those that did accept them would still make choices not grounded in that evidence.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:53 am |
    • Me

      I was just wondering what these are, "and those that did accept them would still make choices not grounded in that evidence." I think you are guilty of all that you are accusing the church of as though Science has all the answers and if the Gods of Science say something then it trumps everything. Accept of course when they change their minds, which is about every ten years, but then its not really changing their minds but a discovery of a new hypothesis. Read Allister McGrath if you dare, 2 Doctorates in Molecular Science and 1 In Theology

      July 29, 2013 at 7:09 am |
      • AtheistSteve

        You have it backwards Me. "Science has questions that may never be answered, religion has answers that may never be questioned." Discoveries in science aren't usually wrong, just imprecise. New information tends to give answers that are more refined. Science doesn't make claims of absolute truth...only religion does that and many of those have been shown to be wrong.

        July 29, 2013 at 7:17 am |
      • Colin

        Science evolves and refines its descriptions of nature as new data comes in. That's what makes it so powerful and why we have things like modern medecines, transportation, communication and a knowledge of the Universe that no previous generation has ever enjoyed.

        What has releigion given us? Nothing. Still the same vacant promises of life after death and a benevolent sky-fairy that it has been making for the last 2,000 years. Science has taken us to the moon. Religion is stuck in its parent's basement.

        July 29, 2013 at 7:25 am |
  2. deadlyserious

    "Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus."

    Especially all the Jewish millenials, right? And all the Muslims, Buddhists and atheists?

    You want to know why people (not just millenials) are leaving your churches? Because of the self-righteousness that's pretty much required to remain a member of these ridiculous places.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:45 am |
  3. computerhoncho

    "Religion is the opiate of the people" Lenin

    July 29, 2013 at 6:39 am |
    • Me

      Lenin did say that, but I think our entertainment culture is, mass people watching meaningless things as though they have meaning.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:41 am |
      • AtheistSteve

        Why assume that? I watch lots of movies and play video games but not because they have meaning. It's because they're fun.

        July 29, 2013 at 6:44 am |
      • jungleboo

        You mean like us reading your drivel? Yes, I finally think that you have posted something which makes sense. I for one will save my soul and start my real day, and leave the entertainment for those who need a few more laughs. Ciao!

        July 29, 2013 at 6:45 am |
      • AtheistSteve

        jungleboo

        At least my appreciation of imagination and fantasy isn't mistaken for reality.
        Gods, souls and an afterlife make a pretty fascinating story but only a fool would think they're real.

        July 29, 2013 at 7:00 am |
        • jungleboo

          My mistake, Steve, I was posting to "Me", not you. Next time, I'll put @ to be clear. And now I'm really off.....

          July 29, 2013 at 7:07 am |
        • AtheistSteve

          That's cool....I wasn't sure either.

          July 29, 2013 at 7:11 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The tools of statecraft never change.
      There is always a need to keep the unwashed masses from revolting. Religion has been uncommonly successful in that regard, though it's influence has waned in North American culture. Even in so called atheistic regimes like Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, the forms of religion stay in place. The proles faithful fervour is simply redirected away from a God and onto whoever the Leader is in the cult of personality.

      It's always about panem et circenses.
      The 'panem' has gone a bit overboard in America, what with all that bread making half the population obese, and our choice of circuses is unparelled! You home theatre can become your window the world and the heart of your social life.

      Distraction and anesthetization make for the ideal citizen, at least from a power-mongerers perspective.

      July 29, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • Get Real

      Actually, it was Karl Marx who said that - I don't know, maybe Lenin quoted him at one time or another, but here is the original quote:

      "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."

      July 29, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  4. theromans6man

    For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20

    July 29, 2013 at 6:35 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      The only thing that's clearly seen is physical reality. Labeling it as "creation" presupposes a creator. You can't use reality as proof of your invisible agent.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:51 am |
  5. DB

    Religion is an addiction that starts early in childhood. Science and logic are only known tools to get out of it.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:30 am |
  6. DB

    David Koresh, Branch Dravidian, took our sins and died for us. Why not accept this is truth? Just making a point.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:23 am |
  7. Anon

    Jesus is myth, wake the fúck up.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:17 am |
    • Me

      Where is your evidence? or is that just a statement of beliefe?

      July 29, 2013 at 6:19 am |
      • jungleboo

        Can't prove a negative. Next.

        July 29, 2013 at 6:22 am |
        • Me

          Thanks for confirming your statement of faith!

          July 29, 2013 at 6:23 am |
      • One one

        Are you really expecting someone to prove that a cosmic zombie who is his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that he put there that is present in all humanity because a rib-woman was convinced to eat from a magical tree by an infinitely sadistic being disguised as a talking snake with legs is not real ?

        July 29, 2013 at 6:27 am |
    • Anon

      All I can say is do research on comparative religion and try not to let yourself be hoodwinked by apologists.
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80BeyRYlMSQ&w=640&h=390]

      July 29, 2013 at 6:21 am |
  8. DB

    Jesus died for us, oh yeah? So did millions of soldiers since then. Pray to all of them. Snap out of it!

    July 29, 2013 at 6:12 am |
  9. Tom

    The main reason is that is it simply BS and a racket.

    July 29, 2013 at 6:11 am |
  10. tomas

    Evangelical Christianity has focused more on 3rd world countries, trying to win the hearts and minds of the desperate brown people.

    July 29, 2013 at 5:59 am |
  11. John

    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.

    Uh, all religion is made up and hates facts/science. now you want a truce because religious people look dumber by the day

    July 29, 2013 at 5:57 am |
  12. bystandernojudge

    God is physics laws..omnipresent..it will let die or let you live..that's His option...He may not save you when you are in need.. but when you cross over..He's there to welcome you..saying something like.."I know it must be hard and painful for you..but now here you are..welcomet! just like millions of rivers on earth..small and big ones..they are all heading to the sea.. no judge. Have a nice day

    July 29, 2013 at 5:56 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      The Easter Bunny is physics laws..omnipresent..it will let die or let you live..that's His option...He may not save you when you are in need.. but when you cross over..He's there to welcome you..saying something like.."I know it must be hard and painful for you..but now here you are..welcomet! just like millions of rivers on earth..small and big ones..they are all heading to the sea.. no judge. Have a nice day

      See how delusional that sounds?

      July 29, 2013 at 5:58 am |
    • jungleboo

      So physics laws speak English, and converse with you? You are dreaming, and imagining that your dream must be real for everyone. Let me ask you, why would you have such contempt for this incredible journey called life, and display it by conjuring up a story about "an After-Life." Why not be satisfied with what is already on your plate? Oh – you're human. I get it. Humans are known for their lack of Satisfaction.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:20 am |
    • Damocles

      So it says 'hey, sorry about all the torture and torment I put you through, but, hey, now you get to worship me and love me for all that torment and torture'. That loud blast you just heard was my snort of derision.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:24 am |
  13. WhatDoIKnow

    Asking the church to change seems a bit silly to me. all the things you named are just part of religion and if you are smart enough to see the harm in the churches horid intolerance than it seems like you would be smart enough to just disavow god instead. Contorting god's hatefull message so that you can believe in the one bit that you like just seems a bit backwords.

    July 29, 2013 at 5:50 am |
  14. sam stone

    "The message of the Gospel, and the depravity of man, is not to be compromised and negotiated"

    No, but it should be examined. The concept of man being depraved benefits those who purport to offer the cure.

    Without guilt, Christianity is dead in the water

    "jeebus died for your sins"

    What drivel

    July 29, 2013 at 5:45 am |
    • Me

      Next time you see a sign while driving that says Speed Limit 65, Go 100 or more and when you get pulled over tell the officer that their is no law. Their is no authority and how can he expect him to do anything, in fact their is no meaning the symbols of 65 apart from what you think of them. See how far that will take you.

      July 29, 2013 at 5:50 am |
      • sam stone

        laws change.

        i believe that police exist

        i do not believe that a "god" exists

        how do you expect that a non-believer can be bullied into belief

        can you fear retaliation from a being in which you do not believe?

        if not, how can you expect others to do so?

        July 29, 2013 at 5:54 am |
        • Me

          I believe that the everything around us Cries out their is a god. Beauty and Evil the complexity of the Universe and the cell all Cry out that their is a God, but most don't want their to be a Creator God and so decide their is not.

          July 29, 2013 at 5:59 am |
        • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

          @ me:

          I believe that the everything around us Cries out their is a Magical Well-Endowed Leprechaun named Steffie . Beauty and Evil the complexity of the Universe and the cell all Cry out that their is a Magical Well-Endowed Leprechaun named Steffie, but most don't want their to be a Creator Magical Well-Endowed Leprechaun named Steffie and so decide their is not.

          Ridiculous, right? Or is it? What makes your God more real than my Steffie?

          July 29, 2013 at 6:28 am |
        • sam stone

          i got not issue with the idea of a creator. i don't believe it, but that's another issue. it seems to me to be a huge non sequitor to say the possibility of a creator proves a god, heaven and hell, or sin

          July 29, 2013 at 6:42 am |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

        @ Me: Except that in this case, there isn't one single, all-authoritative sign that says "65". There are signs that say 65, some say 85, some say 500, some say 2, some that say, "drive carefully for the conditions". You are simply making a claim that your view – in this case, the limit is 65 – as the one true authoritative limit, with no evidence that is is so. Same with religions – a zillion rules, all claiming to be the ONE TRUE RELIGION.

        It's all a load of crap.

        July 29, 2013 at 5:56 am |
        • Me

          For many people religion is about rules, you are right, They hope that by following the rules they will win favor with God. Thats not what I believe though. I believe its about a relationship. With a relationship I choose to do things that will benefit others. I have some form of relationship with those around me. In the article he said people were leaving the church because its all about rules, gods word says that the law is their to say we can never be good enough. That Jesus came to fix the relationship between us and God, that the fix could only be him dying on the cross. Its sounds foolish, but then many things do that are true, and even beautiful.

          July 29, 2013 at 6:07 am |
        • Damocles

          @me

          That's fine, have a relationship with those around you. Be a shoulder to lean on when they need and turn to them when times are tough. I don't understand why you need a deity to do these things. I'm not aiming this directly at you, but why does it seem like many people who believe are convinced that this is the only way they can be a good person? Are they afraid that they would be raving lunatics if they didn't hold fast to their beliefs?

          July 29, 2013 at 6:12 am |
        • Me

          Their are plenty of awesome people who are atheist, but its not about having a shoulder to cry on, but about living a life in harmony with the creation. Its not about rules but a life of joy and Hope. Everyone I know wants their life to mean something, most who deny God want it to have meaning on this earth and space ship earth to go on until we evolve off of it.

          July 29, 2013 at 6:21 am |
        • Damocles

          @me

          Ahhh... yes... let us be one with nature. Tell me, do you admire a strong tree or a weak and sickly tree?

          July 29, 2013 at 6:31 am |
      • Brejack

        Where do you think the rules for religion came from, actually religion is only around because man decided that by putting the fear of hell out there that people would follow rules and law. Why do you think there are so many different religions, depending on your location in the world your laws of religion are different. One religion is really no better or worse than another, they are all based on falsehoods and fears.

        July 29, 2013 at 6:21 am |
      • Geoffrey

        Me please learn the English language. "Their" is a possessive pronoun which means something belongs to someone ex. It is their belief. "There" is a place ex. The church building is over there.

        You lose your credibility with anyone by not being able to speak correctly. But, what can we expect from the government schools?

        July 29, 2013 at 6:46 am |
    • One one

      Jesus "saved" you from the curse he put on you in the first place. And he died to do it. Well, not really, he rose after 3days. You have to be pretty gullible or desperate to believe that story.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:19 am |
  15. MTD

    Rachel Held Evans, the problem isn't the "church" (as in the the Body of Christ, not a denomination) it's "believers" like you who confuse the mission of the church with issues like acceptance of LGBT lifestyles, "creation care", etc... Biblical Christianity and it's "rules" are simple. You either choose to follow them or you don't. The Church is about what is right, not what is popular. If that bores Millenials (or any other demographic), that's their issue, not the church's.

    July 29, 2013 at 5:34 am |
    • skytag

      "who confuse the mission of the church with issues like acceptance of LGBT lifestyles"

      She didn't say anything about lifestyles.

      July 29, 2013 at 5:39 am |
    • sam stone

      if god knows what you are going to do before you do it, then there is no choice. sorry.

      July 29, 2013 at 5:47 am |
    • sam stone

      which church is about doing what is right?

      they don't agree

      which one is right?

      July 29, 2013 at 5:50 am |
    • Greg

      Check the Bible (especially Leviticus) and get back to me on how many things you do that the Bible says not to. Hint: the number of things won't be zero.

      People that use the Bible to say "X is wrong" cherry pick what they believe, because they wouldn't be able to live their current life if they followed everything the Bible said.

      July 29, 2013 at 7:17 am |
    • Trump

      Established churches have money and power as their first priorities. Don't believe the advertisements.

      July 29, 2013 at 8:22 am |
    • Say what

      Really? The rules are simple? Which rules are you speaking of? Some obscure ones pulled selectively out of the bible from Leviticus (when the church ignores other rules right beside it)? How about basic rules like "love thy neighbor as yourself"? So very much love actually missing from Evangelical Christianity. So much about those that speak for this strain of religion that sounds quite not Jesus-like.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  16. Phil

    The REAL question here is: do you love Jesus–who died for you so that you might live forever with Him in Heaven–enough to do exactly what HE commands you to do? Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep MY commandments." And, we are also told that, "If we love Jesus, we will keep His commandments. And, His commandments are NOT burdensome." So again, the question everyone must ask themselves is this: "Am I wiling to submit to Jesus and HIS will?" That's the only way this works. Jesus also said, "Come, take up your CROSS and follow me." This would necessarily include keeping Jesus' commandments. If we do this, we will live with Jesus forever–for eternity–in Heaven! 🙂

    July 29, 2013 at 4:58 am |
    • sam stone

      seems like an awful lot of conjecture, phil

      July 29, 2013 at 5:03 am |
    • Damocles

      Meh, I'll just continue to try and be the best person I can be and accept the fact that, while I will make mistakes, I can learn from them. For some reason, for some people, this is a complicated thing, but it gets me through the day.

      July 29, 2013 at 5:08 am |
      • sam stone

        sounds like a good plan to me

        July 29, 2013 at 5:10 am |
      • Shane

        That was perfect. Thank you for your sane remarks.

        July 29, 2013 at 5:17 am |
      • Glued

        A moment of clarity. Well said.

        July 29, 2013 at 6:21 am |
    • skytag

      I think I'd have to be delusional to love something that doesn't exist, so no, I don't.

      July 29, 2013 at 5:27 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      Jesus died, but he's alive? Hmmm – so he didn't really die, then – he just went on a three day bender and was on hiatus for a bit? How's that a sacrifice? God would have known before hand what was going to happen. He sends a minuscule piece of himself in human form to earth – Jesus – knowing that human form will live, die, live again and ascend to heaven. Sacrifice? Where?

      July 29, 2013 at 6:02 am |
      • Me

        Why don't you read the bible from matthew to find out, well even start with John. Most now a little of the Bible, but If God is real and we really come with a honest heart and mind then he would reveal himself, most are not honest but looking for reasons to disbelieve because of the price, its not free as most say, it will cost you everything. Then I think its worth everything.

        July 29, 2013 at 6:12 am |
        • Anon

          Newsflash whether you want to admit it or not. Many atheists are ex-Christians that have actually read the bible and reached the conclusion that it's as best mythology. Oh and that Pascal's Wager canard is getting kinda old since Pascal lived in a time where comparative religion probably didn't exist.

          July 29, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • Lee

      Spot on Phil. I'll just add that one can judge it in the flesh (as in sin nature) but it doesn't change the fact that God is righteous in His judgments and infinite in wisdom.

      July 29, 2013 at 6:03 am |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

        @ Phil: And what exactly are you basing your claim on when you say God is righteous? When he wiped out that bus in Italy yesterday, killing 37 pilgrims? The 79 killed in that train crash in Spain? The 50 killed in Quebec when that train full of oil rolled into town and exploded? The million in Rwanda? The 6 million in the Holocaust? Childhood cancer? Alzheimer's? ALS? Multiple Sclerosis? Birth deformities? Starvation? Child abuse? Murder? Mental illness? Tsunamis? Earthquakes? Floods? Forest fires?
        Righteous? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

        July 29, 2013 at 6:15 am |
        • jungleboo

          Phil actually means that he (Phil) is righteous. He means that he has a feeling that whatever he is doing is the only way to go. He bands together with other righteous people, and they ho and hum until they begin to disagree with each other. Then, by a series of excommunications, shunnings, protests, fractures and postings-on-the-door-of-the-church, they re-draw their lines of agreement to form new churches. Do that for a few thousand years and you'll have cacophony. Sheep like making a lot of noise to know where they are and what they are doing. The shepherd likes it that way too.

          July 29, 2013 at 6:37 am |
  17. Me

    People are leaving the church because its not "real".
    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about communion with God who brings you into community with People, but in the last hundred years its become Leadership focused with a false sense of Community. As people work busier lives it is probable that those who just want to do their thing are choosing to do it rather than live a false life and see no value in attending something else when all they want is a meaning full life and good coffee. The church has been giving out barely adequate coffee and chair warmers and mediocre music and no intellectual stimulation and a rabid defense.
    They have more integrity than most churches because they realize that what their being fed is empty, but because the church is built around one leader who is dependent on his or even her people telling them how great they are they don't realize they are going to loose everything.

    July 29, 2013 at 4:50 am |
    • skytag

      @Me: "People are leaving the church because its not "real"."

      I agree, although I'd leave out the quote marks.

      "The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about communion with God"

      This isn't real ether. Obviously you practice selective reality.

      July 29, 2013 at 5:36 am |
      • John Cavendish

        I curious–How do you know it isn't real?

        July 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  18. richmahn

    The message of the Gospel, and the depravity of man, is not to be compromised and negotiated. Christianity include EVERYONE, so it isn't exclusive, but if you want to be a goat and sin away, then you shouldn't be trying to get the church to suit your needs and accept your sin as if it isn't sin. Churches are sadly doing that today though.

    July 29, 2013 at 4:47 am |
  19. richmahn

    The message of the Gospel, and the depravity of man, is not to be compromised and negotiated. Christianity include EVERYONE, so it isn't exclusive, but if you want to be a goat and sin away, then you shouldn't be trying to get the church to suit your needs and accept your sin as if it isn't sin. Churches are sadly doing that today though.

    July 29, 2013 at 4:47 am |
    • sam stone

      i do not think that man is depraved, so your initial a-s-sumption casts the remainder in doubt, at least in my view

      July 29, 2013 at 5:09 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.