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. The Carnivore

    All I saw in your essay was "we want." Don't you think that this divide is bigger than anything you talked about? Who cares about what "you want?"

    July 27, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn cares.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  2. RAWoD

    The kjb has been revised at least 75 times since the 1860's. Why would any thinking person say it is any ones truth?
    No wonder you are confused.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  3. loukief

    Great article, Rachel. I'm afraid your common sense statements of the facts will fall on still deaf ears. The "church" doesn't know how to change, it's as simple as that. The clurgy is still under control of a generation who actually believe the Bible is the literal word of God...complete with all the insane comments in the book. Of course they pick and choose what is really the "true" word of God from whatever passages suit the message or threat they feel they need to make to control the population. The simple truth is that the internet and social media has userped the power of the "church" to control the people, and people who once occupied pews now find it easier to find like minded believers (of all fathis and creeds) online and can be exposed to any theology they want by simply using Google. I left the Lutheran church and found Unity. It suits me fine. I think people are discovering they don't need anyone in between them and God. We don't need a priest to hear our confessions and we don't have to swollow as "gospel" all the hatred that is spewed from pulpits anymore. I am sure God is looking down on all of this with a smile and a sigh of relief.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • iceman4

      Ridiculous article. So the church should change their points of view just to suit a spoiled generation that pretty much has been catered too and given whatever they want by their parents?

      This is the very thing wrong with mellennials. They are used to getting whatever they want; they are self absorbed and Rachel is so out of touch it's ridiculous. In my dealings at colleges and high schools, the mellennials are far more self absorbed and needy as past generations. This article is ridiculous

      July 27, 2013 at 11:41 am |
      • Sally

        Well, but does that matter to a true Christian? In the Bible, are we commanded more often to judge, or to evangelize? If they're as lost as you think they are, shouldn't you love and speak kindly of them and try to bring them to Jesus? That's not to say we should condone negative/sinful traits, but speaking about them in this nasty way just reinforces to them that you don't love your neighbor as much as you're concerned with being self-righteous. I don't think she's really asking the church to change so much as she's challenging the body to examine their own hearts for sin and hypocrisy. Even those of us who have been walking with the Lord our entire lives are on a spiritual journey, and it's just as possible for us to be led astray by the world as it is for them. It's sinful arrogance to assume that's not the case.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  4. Jon

    I do not see an increase in the number of millennials attending Liberal Protestant churches that espouse what the author is suggesting the generation is desiring. In fact, those churches are declining at an even more alarming rate. Could it be that the millennial generation (and our society in general) has too many 'things/stuff" and not enough 'time' to get involved with church? As a millennial, I find this article quite depressing...not because of the church but because of my generation.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  5. Richard

    Rachel, you are naive in believing fundamentalists want dialogue, even among themselves. They want allegiance to the cause an d adherence to the rules. Anything else is blasphemy. And the punishment is, at best ridicule, banishment and condemnation.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • Sally

      Yes, you hit the nail on the head, Richard, and it's so sad.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  6. Zedd

    "To everything there is a season"... For thousands of years, history has witnessed the ebb and flow of countless religions... the rise and fall of a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Christianity is not so unique as to be immune to impermanence. What you hold so dear today will be but a footnote in the history books of tomorrow.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  7. innerselfdom

    We are social creatures. Church meets our innate need to be a part of a social structure that feeds our survival instinct of "safety in numbers". Studies have also shown that "worshiping" (singing hymns and praying), activates endorphins and chemicals in the brain akin to narcotic substances. The belief in a "God" or higher power satisfies the ultimate instinct of survival in that an afterlife guarantees life everlasting. Immortality. To that end, the author of this piece is not denying her addiction to the God drug, just the method of delivery.

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

    This article is spot on! I know many Christians that no longer go to church seeing the modern church as same heartless rule bound church that Jesus criticized. As a Christian who regularly reads the new testament, how Billy Graham could endorse Romney is beyond me. Obama is a Christian and his actions as president are very much in line with the teaching of the new testament, yet I couldn't dare say that at my Evangelical church where the ACA has literally saved the life of our pastors child but here is so much hate for Obama it's down right scary.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • Amera

      Thank you Rachel. All you have written is true to me and my circle of friends born in 1964 and after.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  9. FriendofBrazil

    Wow! I could not have written it better myself! I totally agree with all of your points and references as well as believe that if something doesn't change, many are going to walk away and be lost in translation.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  10. Tallgrass05

    "Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy"

    I'm sorry, those denominations are based on strict patriarchal control. The rituals are just religious theatre, complete with costumes, major actors, supporting roles, choreography, music, and an audience. Don't look there for your satisfaction.

    "We want a truce between science and faith."

    Why do you want a truce? You should support the advancement of human knowledge and understanding, even if it means the possibility that religion might be diminished.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Zebediah

      Worship of science leads to Hell. That's what caused the separation of the 'ethne' at the Tower of Babel. Humanistic arrogance leads away from God and on to Satan.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
      • laguna_b

        Tower of Babel????? Are you seriously going to believe in that obvious fairy tale? So, test your hypothesis here. it is some few 1000 years ago. The BEST human buildings got to maybe 100+ feet. They knew this. They also knew that they could see virtually nothing in the sky above them for 10s of 1000s of feet (ie NO heaven to climb to). They could climb mountains 50X the highest buildings in height and still only air and sky. Do you REALLY think they would have set out to build a structure for such an obviously futile venture???

        July 27, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  11. Seyedibar

    Why milennials are leaving the church:
    Because they are more intelligent and better educated than previous generations. The more we scientifically uncover about our world, the faster they flee. I'm quite sure at least half of all American christians don't believe a word of their holy book anyway and are just waiting for the moment it feels socially acceptable to leave the philosophy behind.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:33 am |
    • Austin

      sYEDIBAR, should we free the devil and supress the truth?

      July 27, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • CBEAR

      You sound like someone who believes more in his own intellect than in a higher power. Remember the more scientists discover, the more they discover they don't know everything.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:41 am |
      • Robert J

        I don't get this. I don't really have a problem with the universe being created by a power beyond ours. I just don't understand the leap people make from a higher power to the Christian God.

        For all we know it could've been Zeus, or some alien race, or a giant hairy octopus.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  12. Chris

    "But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters"

    Congratulations. You have just solved the riddle. THIS is why people are leaving religion. Not because they recognize that churches are trying to sell them on the "God" product in a new, hip way, but rather because they recognize that the product itself is a BS concept in and of itself.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  13. Owl Creek Observer

    I agree with the author on the music - maxed out amps with singers and dancers - but not on much else. We have to be careful about creating God in our own image, and I think too many folks today are trying to do exactly that.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Bob Grefe

      So, it's more important to understand
      god in the image of some 4,000 year old itinerant goat herder to approach the true meaning of
      god. I am a member of several 12 step groups and a very important part of recovery is God as we understand him!

      July 27, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  14. Steve

    Godless communists. /discussion

    July 27, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  15. Puzzled in Peoria

    Rachel, your essay is characterized by "We want...we want...we want." What about what God wants?

    While I agree with your complaints that evangelical churches are too political, the Bible and the Ten Commandments are not suggestions that can be changed to make a given audience happy. Certainly some churches are more legalistic than others, but for every compassionate saying or act of Jesus, he also lays down requirements and restrictions.

    The bottom line is that God makes the rules and sets the standards. We don't. The Bible is God's unchanging truth and to dilute it because "truth is relative" or "there's no absolute truth" is simply not Christian.

    Millennials seem to be saying, "If we can't have it our way, we're not attending." If Christianity met all your demands, it would no longer be Christianity.

    It's time to grow up and acknowledge God as he is, not as you want him to be.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Robert J

      How do you even apply the word "want" to God? By definition, something omnipotent will be free of wants or desires or any other emotion.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • MagicPanties

      And you know "what god wants". Wow, that's amazing.

      Even more amazing is that you "know" this based on an ancient book that was cobbled together thousands of years ago and stole stories from pagan mythology.

      I know what Santa wants, and he wants you to get a clue.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  16. Ben

    NOT ME!!!!

    July 27, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  17. In Sum

    The moment the Christian churches begin Attuning themselves properly to Jesus Christ and Preaching His eternal message of LOVE for Everyone, Without Conditions, and Teaching about the Afterlife as God has promised us there is, and Teaching about the laying-on of hands to heal the sick as Jesus did, and begin truly Sharing their money with the poor as Jesus did, THEN you will find people flocking back into the church. But until you see those things incorporated into church practices in lieu of prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance for others for who they are and the way they were born, they will Never see people return again! They would, effectively, have accomplished the task of driving people Out of the church by preferring to embrace prejudice and hate instead of bringing them back into the church with Love, Respect, Tolerance, and Compassion for ALL.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  18. Austin

    This morning on "New Day," CNN's Karl Penhaul reports live from Santiago de Compostela, Spain on the deadly train crash that has now claimed more than 80 lives including one American.

    @cnn no my....... not an american! did that say AN AMERICAN?

    July 27, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  19. Former Agnostic

    This article, and many of the blog responses, are based on the assumption that the Millennials are more "enlightened".

    First, let us consider the widespread opinion among sociologists and physiologists that narcissism is epidemic within the generation in question. Second, many are not demonstrating more disciplined reason, as they are falling all over them selves to embrace many types of spirituality which are completely baseless and clearly entirely self-serving. Hardly objective.

    No doubt, many corners of Christendom have become anti-intellectual and in more subtle ways also self-serving. People can corrupt anything, and that is one of the main points and intended remedies of faith in the Christ.

    HOWEVER, there does not exist a strata of the more scholarly, thoughtful, or pure-of-heart Christians. See NT Wright, Timothy Keller, Eugene Peterson, Douglas John Hall, Keith Ward, John Stott, Dinesh D'Souza, Ravi Kumar Zacharias, just to name a few. Please also consider the powerful minds (scientists, philosophers...etc) who, upon honest examination, ended up changing there minds and becoming believers (Dr. Francis Collins, Dr. Hugh Ross, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Malcolm Muggeridge, Alister McGrath, CS Lewis, and theist Anthony Flew... just to name a few.

    FIRST: The Creator created a world that had to potential to create, through free-will creatures, that could share in, and enjoy His attributes (made in His image). This required both freedom and a wide range of realities to choose from. Our first hopeful objectives as humans is to decide that Good id better than Evil and that we want to be part of one over the other (while humanity is making strides in this regard through the help of God, we're still not there yet).
    SECOND: Humanity is to realize that we can't do this on our own – we need communion with our c=Creator for this life to be all that it can be (like a child that breaks free if its parents at an amusement park, we, hopefully, find that our safest and best experience will be had with Mom & Dad.
    THIRD: We discover, that the reuniting with the "all powerful", the "Creator", our "Daddy" (Abba) as Just put it. is the only way to set things write. We find that what we cannot do through human efforts, can be done by Christ, if we're humble enough to accept it (Remember, the – I believe allegorical – story of the "The Fall" in Genesis was about mankind wanting to do things on its own and be "like God").

    Check this out ( https://www.robbell.com/resurrection ). I don’t agree with this guy on some of the details of the faith, but this ~ 4 minute video talks of something very important. It is an awesome representation of power, nature, and divine-intention behind the faith (not just how to push the magic button to get into the “Saved” club). Though we tend to get bogged down in debates about who’s in and who’s out, this is an excellent illustration of why the faith is beautiful… why it’s beauty goes beyond the self-serving appeal of thinking that we’re on the right team and in line for having our butts saved. Christianity should be more than appealing than that, it should be beautiful in our eyes.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  20. Canuck

    Young people leaving the church isn't a bad thing, it's great! The church is what's been holding us back scientifically and socially for thousands of years, and if religion (not just Christianity, but ALL of them) petered out, the world would be a better place. There would be no debates about whether or not LGBT people are evil or immoral, there would be access to women's health and education throughout the world, and people would stop blowing each other's heads off over some worthless wasteland in the Middle East.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • lol??

      Jerusalem in the middle East is obsolete. Politicians' ideas created the problem.

      Rev 21:2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • History

      Not really. We still have a whole host of reasons to hate and kill and delude each other.

      Nationalism, philosophies, race, culture, and what shoes we are wearing, to name just a few

      July 28, 2013 at 5:31 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.