home
RSS
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. Linda

    Am seeing a lot of "emotion / feelings" here, a lot of opinion here, but not much mention of what God says (i.e. the Bible). What does He say... "Follow Me".... obey my commandments... don't think he asked Peter and James how they "felt" about it... only to make the commitment to "follow Him". Just saying!!!

    July 31, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • skytag

      The problem is that there is little agreement on those "commandments" as they pertain to life in America in 2013. Nothing in the Bible addresses political activism, abortion, pornography, smoking, what's appropriate entertainment (if any), the role of men and women in society and families, offers any details regarding how to help the poor and so on.

      Even the most devoted, sincere believers are left to divine on their own what they believe God would have them do regarding so many modern-day issues, and the result is a Christianity that's more of a religious smorgasbord than an actual religion, ideal for the church-shopping crowd, people who want all the benefits of the core narrative but want to be able to pick and choose how and to what extent they have to incorporate it into their daily lives.

      Having known people in a variety of Christian denominations, including Baptists, Mormons, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists, it's been my experience that despite differing beliefs about what God expects of us, they're all sincere, and believe the others are also sincere, but misguided.

      July 31, 2013 at 11:35 am |
      • LotusNotes

        That's why there is a Prophet. God has always spoken through Prophets to warn His children in that particular time. Many didn't believe Prophets during their own time. Just look at Noah or Moses or even Jesus Christ himself. It's easier to believe in a dead Prophet than a current one. Why do you think the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so ridiculed? Even the Bible says it plain and clear, "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7)

        God does not have to be a mystery. He is not some floating, airy thing that is everywhere and nowhere. God is the Father of our Spirits and there IS a purpose to all this. God is not random. There is a plan.

        July 31, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
        • CatLover

          Current prophets are locked up in a rubber room with Prozac piped in intravenously. Has it ever occurred to anyone that the Second Coming has already transpired, and Jesus is in a strait jacket in a state mental hospital?

          July 31, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
        • LotusNotes

          CatLover – My point exactly!

          July 31, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
        • skytag

          @LotusNotes: "That's why there is a Prophet. God has always spoken through Prophets to warn His children in that particular time. Many didn't believe Prophets during their own time. Just look at Noah or Moses or even Jesus Christ himself. It's easier to believe in a dead Prophet than a current one. Why do you think the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so ridiculed?"

          You've been brainwashed to believe that ridicule is evidence you are right. It's a silly notion. In 2011 a bunch of Christians quit their jobs, left their lives behind, and travelled around in motorhomes telling people Jesus was returning on May 21, 2011. They were even more ridiculed than Mormons, and wrong.

          "Even the Bible says it plain and clear, "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7)"

          If I recall correctly the Bible does not mention any New Testament prophets comparable to those of the Old Testaments such as Moses or Isaiah. I assume most Christian denominations take this as evidence that Amos' declaration was no longer valid after Christ came, just as they reject so many other parts of the Old Testament.

          "God does not have to be a mystery. He is not some floating, airy thing that is everywhere and nowhere. God is the Father of our Spirits and there IS a purpose to all this. God is not random. There is a plan."

          I accept that you believe this. I have never seen any evidence of this, just lots of claims.

          I'm an atheist, but I suspect that if I were to become a Christian I would be a Mormon. There are many good things in the Mormon church, they have an excellent system for taking care of their needy, they are not wishy washy, they have a lay ministry, and they expect their members to make sacrifices. I've never had much respect for religions that promise everything while asking for nothing. They only seem to exist to make people feel good about themselves while keeping the harsh realities of life at bay.

          July 31, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Following that which cannot be seen or heard. Good idea.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  2. Linda

    I'm seeing a lot of "emotion" here, a lot of opinion here, but not much (if any) mention of God's Word. What does God say – am not seeing much mention of the BIBLE in these comments.

    July 31, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  3. hermannsohn

    Thank you very much for taking the time to research and presenting your findings about a question I have been asking for more than 50 years.
    It doesn't surprise me that there are pastors who still insist that they need to market Christianity and your reaction ("And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.") is poignant.
    The article in the Christian Pundit (http://thechristianpundit.org/2013/07/17/young-evangelicals-are-getting-high/) states "Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism." How much longer will it be before these traditional churches will have gone the way of the evangelical churches?
    I live in a small Great Lakes community where newspaper interviews of church pastors almost always include a picture of the pastor with a guitar, where church activity invariably includes the words "praise band", and where church attendance is dominated by elderly women. Most of my friends and relatives here were raised in the Lutheran Church and at least half of them have changed churches more than twice in the last year. They keep asking me to come and worship with them. Worship? The modern church is not a place of worship any more.
    Religions have changed from a theological dogma to a dogmatic theology. Religious leaders have gone from explaining their conclusions based on their perceptions to explaining their perceptions based on their conclusions.

    July 31, 2013 at 8:39 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125
Advertisement
About this blog

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.