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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. Geraard Spergen

    "I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith"

    Boy that's a fact. I'm happy that I chose integrity many years ago.

    July 31, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  2. Frankb3

    No surprises here. I am a dad to 20-somethings now. I offer a challenge to this great age group...if you don't like what is...then start something new! Lead the way for your generation.

    July 31, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      They already have... its called atheism.

      July 31, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  3. There is no god

    LOL at all these idiots talking about god like it's a real thing. Morons.

    July 31, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Matt

    #1 You can't just throw out the "rules" or it isn't Christianity. Jesus Himself said "those who love me, love my commands and keeps them." If all the younger people want is freedom to sin, the church may meet them halfway eventually, but Jesus won't be there.

    #2 There is no need for a truce between science and faith. The actual evidence actually proves the Bible is correct. But you have to stop listening to the anti-religion news media, because all you'll hear from them is how "backwards" and "anti-science" we "Bible-thumpers" are.

    July 31, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • michael

      Matt,

      I think you're confusing science and faith with secularism and the sacred. Our current advances in science are proving God's handiwork in our daily lives, and thus a cohesive truce is realized. But between the sacred and the secular, there is no such ground.

      IMO, this is what the author is eluding to. Today's youth (like all "youth" from before) want to live secular lives without having to aspire to the holiness that the Church deems as a requirement.

      July 31, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
      • Alexander

        I think you are mistaken. The author says the opposite: The Youth of Today are desperate to live Holy lives, but the average church of today is not filled with Jesus. Young people want to see real change, and real Love, and real CHURCH....but its hard to do that when the church is "Whited sepulchers, filled with dead men's bones."

        July 31, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
      • skytag

        "Our current advances in science are proving God's handiwork in our daily lives"

        It's more accurate to say it debunks the myths offered by various religions attributing phenomenon in the world around us to supernatural forces.

        July 31, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Alexander

      I would not say that we need to throw out the Rules, per se. But we needd to reprioritize them. We see a Brother os Sister in Christ commit a sin, and what is the first thing that happens? We always get that mindset. THAT mindset...you know, the one where we start cutting them off from the body because they did something wrong? We start passing judgement on them, but its okay because they're the ones with a problem, right? What we SHOULD do, is instead of 'following the rules", and ostracizing them from the Body, PULL THEM EVEN CLOSER. We should exhibit God's Love in every action, thought, decision. The Law was not made to be followed, but to show that it can not be followed. (James 2:10 – For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.). The law is there to show us that we can not attain righteousness by our own works. The Law and the Rules and the Traditions...they are meant to BREAK us, so that Christ can show us a Better way! (Hebrews 8:7 – For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second)

      July 31, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • skytag

      "#1 You can't just throw out the "rules" or it isn't Christianity."

      Too funny. There are so many flavors of Christianity and sets of rules it isn't even funny. Christianity isn't a religion as much it's a religious smorgasbord, 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.

      July 31, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
      • Alexander

        I agree with that observation wholeheartedly. Christianity was not meant to be a Buffet Religion, where you picked the virtues you wanted to uphold and left off the ones you wanted to ignore.

        July 31, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
        • skytag

          I seriously doubt any other religion has anything like the range of "flavors" you'll find in Christianity. It includes the Amish, Catholics, Mormons, various fundamentalist denominations, churches that handle snakes and speak in tongues, churches with t-shrts and jeans and rock bands and churches where people still wear their Sunday best and the the only music is from pianos and organs. Some are fervently opposed to gays while other marry them and admit them to their ministry. Some allow drinking and some don't. Small, closely-knit congregations and mega-churches with 10,000 members.

          However your tastes run, there's a Christian church out there for you if you just shop around enough. Frankly I think that's one reason Christianity is the world's largest religion. If every Christian had to follow the same set of rules and make real sacrifices I don't think there would be nearly as many Christians in the world.

          Ignoring their unique doctrinal issues for the moment, think about the Mormons. If being a good Christian meant you couldn't drink alcohol or coffee or smoke and you had to give 10% of your gross income to your church, if the church you attended was determined by where you live (no church shopping allowed), and if all the men were encouraged to spend two years on a mission wherever the church decided to send them, there's no way there would be as many as many Christians.

          Or imagine if to be considered a Christian you had to handle snakes and speak in tongues, or live like the Amish. Do you think there would still be 2.1 billion people who considered themselves Christian? I think not.

          July 31, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
        • michael

          Skytag,

          You're clumping all of the various denominations into the same basket (Christianity) and in the process using said definition to build a false argument. While true that theological differences exists from denomination to denomination, as well as cultural impositions, your argument is hollow.

          If your point is that millennials don't understand all the various intricacies that define each denomination, then that's certainly true, for even some (most) elders don't. That doesn't mean that that denomination is wrong per se, but rather that the teachings of said churches ascribe to a set of predetermined rules. Interestingly enough, even the blog author indicated that millennials are seeking some sort of tradition and that's why the established denominations (like Catholicism) have not seen a drop in youth like the evangelicals.

          In my "youth", I witnessed the explosion of "house" churches (mostly Calvinistic) because my peers did not like what the Elders were giving them either. Of course, this also happened to be the early 70's and there was a general consensus (fall out) from not trusting the "man".

          Is today's youth culture really that different? Granted, I haven't read all of the posts in this blog, but of the ones I have read, the same arguments have been played over again. I haven't read anything that I didn't experience back in my day.

          July 31, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • not so much

      Evidence overwhelmingly shows a *literal* interpretation of the Bible is not at all justified, if we're to go to the extremes of young Earth creationism and Noah's ark actually housing every animal, etc.

      Scientists don't disagree with these things because they hate religion (many of them are religious actually), but because they're patently ridiculous. YEC fails all sciences: physics (age of the universe), chemistry (radioactive dating), biology (fossils), geology (meaningful strata in rock), etc. The style of religion that Christian scientists who accept (any of) modern science is one millennials would not mind emulating.

      I think the author suggests is that millennials would be much more open to churches that don't push literal interpretations in the face of very-many-pronged potent attacks - e.g. the Catholic Church acknowledges an old universe, evolution, all with divine guidance - if evangelicals were more likely to take such a position, millennials would be more likely to see them as serious beliefs.

      July 31, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  5. Sage

    //We want a truce between science and faith.//

    This assumes there is a schism between the two. History tells us otherwise. Isaac Newton, and others, long predicated their scientific inquiry on, "thinking God's thoughts after Him." The notion that there is a conflict between science & faith is a rhetorical device used by anti-religious materialists to assert that the notion of a metaphysical reality cannot co-exist with an understanding how materials function. This is patently false. And Christians should feel no need to accept the false premise that such a reconciliation is necessary.

    July 31, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • skytag

      History tells us that science has repeatedly over the centuries debunk explanations offered by religious leaders for phenomena in the real world. And the more science explains the less need people feel a need to turn to the church for answers made up out of thin air.

      July 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
      • Alexander

        http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/ScientificBible.htm

        July 31, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
      • Beloved

        Actually, that is a false statement. Historically science debunks itself and the beliefs of the bible have stood the test of time.

        July 31, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
        • skytag

          @Beloved: "Actually, that is a false statement."

          No it isn't.

          "Historically science debunks itself"

          Science replaces flawed understanding with better understanding, but science does not debunk science. Religion never replaces flawed understanding. Once religion has taken a stand on something it only changes that stand when forced to do so. The Catholic church taught that the sun revolved around the earth and resisted accepting the conclusions of those in science who said it was the other way around. The pope didn't come out one day and spontaneously declare that God had told him they'd been wrong and it was actually the other way around.

          "and the beliefs of the bible have stood the test of time."

          From a scientific standpoint that's only because it makes no testable scientific claims that can be debunked. However if you hadn't been in such a hurry to deny an unpleasant truth you might have noticed I didn't say anything about the Bible I said "explanations offered by religious leaders for phenomena in the real world."

          In the future you might try reading what people say before you claim its false.

          There are many, many examples of supernatural explanations for phenomenon science eventually debunked. We now know disease isn't caused by evil spirits and that seizures are not caused by demonic possessions. We now know lightning isn't caused by Thor throwing his hammer (note that nothing in my comment was even specific to Christianity). We know the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, as was the church's position back in the days of Copernicus and Galileo.

          A major driving factor in the creation of gods and the religions based on them was a desire to explain things that couldn't be explained by what those people understood about the world at that time. Those explanations were all made up out of thin air and many have been debunked as scientific knowledge as advanced.

          July 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
      • skytag

        @Alexander: Your link points to a classic example of how believers are willing to see proof where there obviously is no proof. Here's the first item on that page:

        1. The Bible said the earth is round and is suspended in space:

        The earth is round!

        You may be surprised to learn that the Bible revealed that the earth is round. Job 26:10, Prov 8:27, Isaiah 40:22, Amos 9:6. Today, we chuckle at the people of the fifteenth century who feared sailing because they thought they would fall over the edge of the flat earth. Yet the Bible revealed the truth in 1000 B.C. 2500 years before man discovered it for himself!

        Someone should tell this dimwit that a circle is round, and flat. Not one of those scriptures cited suggests the Earth is spherical. In fact, three of the four make no mention of any shape at all:

        Job 26:10 He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end.

        This one is a disaster. It doesn't suggest the "bounds" are circular or contained on a round object. Anyone who has ever seen water would assume any body of it had bounds. Hardly takes divine revelation to figure that out.

        Proverbs 8:27 When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:

        Another disaster. This one makes no mention of shape.

        Isaiah 40:22 It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:

        Finally we at least get to a claim that the Earth is circular. Unfortunately, it isn't circular as circles are flat (trust me, circles are flat), the Earth spherical. Another failure.

        Amos 9:6 It is he that buildeth his stories in the heaven, and hath founded his troop in the earth; he that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord is his name.

        No mention of any shape whatsoever. Another spectacular failure.

        I didn't even read past this. If the very first example is such a disaster I have no reason to believe the rest of it will be much better.

        The fact that the person who authored that page said, "This is the most scientific book I've ever read and changed my perception" and that you posted it here only shows how anxious Christians to believe they have proof.

        July 31, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
        • skytag

          Alexander, I assumed you posted that as a rebuttal to my comment, but assumptions are evil and if your intent was to reinforce my point I apologize for assuming you believed that page contained valid arguments.

          July 31, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
        • Alexander

          I believe that we see what we want to see. I want to see a world divinely inspired and created by a loving, supernatural Deity I call "Father God.
          In my opinion, not based on any fact, not trying to put words in your mouth, you want to see a natural universe built purely by logic and reason where everything can be explained factually and intellectually.
          I don't see why we can't just agree to disagree and stay out of each other's way, really.

          July 31, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • skytag

          @Alexander: "I believe that we see what we want to see. I want to see a world divinely inspired and created by a loving, supernatural Deity I call "Father God."

          This agenda colors how you see everything and virtually guarantees you'll be able to convince yourself that what you believe is true. It is not a search for truth when you start out wanting to prove a particular result, it's a search to find justification to believe what you want to believe.

          "you want to see a natural universe built purely by logic and reason where everything can be explained factually and intellectually."

          You are mistaken. I don't want to see anything, I am simply willing to see what I see and accept it as it is without embellishing it with fairytales that have no basis in fact, evidence, or reason. I can accept that there are things I can't explain without having to make up explanations, has believers have done so often in the past.

          July 31, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
        • skytag

          @Alexander: "I don't see why we can't just agree to disagree and stay out of each other's way, really."

          As long as we inhabit the same country, even the same world it's naive to believe we can "stay out of each other's way." History has shown that isn't man's nature.

          A major problem I have with religion in general is it fosters your kind of thinking in which justifying what you want to believe takes priority over finding the truth. And while you would probably claim you don't do that, it's inevitable when you approach something wanting to find a particular result. Once you embrace that "faith trumps facts, logic, evidence and reason" mindset in the religious realm it quickly spills over in to other realms, such a politics.

          Once that happens we get people trying to base law and public policy on what they want to believe about human nature, the cause of a particular problem, what would be the best solutions and so on what they want to believe (their ideology) instead of what the facts, evidence and reasoned debate us. In other words, we get a government driven by ideologies instead of informed understandings of the challenges we face.

          This is a major reason our government is so dysfunctional today. Congress is paralyzed by hyper-partisanship fueled by competing ideologies and a profound ignorance of issues because people today think they don't need to study issues to have valid opinions about them.

          "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" — Isaac Asimov

          Religion fosters this notion by teaching people belief (faith) is a more reliable way to find the truth than study, evidence, and reason. Here's an interesting observation about Christianity. When I hear the word "truth," I think of that which can be verified beyond question by observation, a valid logical argument, and so on. When a Christian hears the word "truth," he thinks of what the Bible teaches. Unproven claims based on the supernatural can be elevated to the status of fact and truth without any validation at all.

          So no, we can't just stay out of each others way in my opinion.

          July 31, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • LotusNotes

      I agree that science and faith were never divided. The division is "If faith is needed, which one?"

      July 31, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  6. thewingedone

    The minute the church is seeking advice about how to bring young people back to church, it has revealed its true color as a number driven enterprise. They don't get it, do they? Using the name of evangelism in the post-evangelism world to recruit as many members as possible at all cost. Don't they know the work has already been done? The Word has also been preached to the world by the Apostles, who were the ones given the commission by Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations. May the truth be told in God's own Word. The rest of us – we have God's (spiritual) laws written in our hearts, if we belong to Him.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • michael

      Winged,

      While general attendance is a factor, the Church is also responsible to assure that the message of Christ is passed from one generation to the next. "Making disciples" requires effort, and this is the primary mission of the church (at least it should be). And that is a far cry from what you propose.

      The farther we are from the source, the less potent the source becomes. How watered down do we want our "education"? To the point where the education is meaningless?

      July 31, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  7. wintersong

    The minute the church is seeking advice about how to bring young people back to church, it has revealed its true color as a number driven enterprise. They don't get it, do they? Using the name of evangelism in the post-evangelism world to recruit as many members as possible at all cost. Don't they know the work has already been done? The Word has also been preached to the world by the Apostles, who were the ones given the commission by Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations. May the truth be told in God's own Word. The rest of us – we have God's (spiritual) laws written in our hearts, if we belong to Him.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  8. Jerome Haltom

    Most of my friends are no longer in church because they no longer actually believe much of the stuff. Somebody forgot to mention that.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  9. Alexander

    As a millenial, I find this article to be hit-and-miss. I agree that the Church, (not speaking of any particular denomination, but of the entire Body) and Christianity, is losing a large amount of the younger generation. Its not simply because "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". There is more to it. We are leaving the church because our lives are becoming hectic and cluttered. We're having to live in these play-by-play situations where one problem arises, and just as we finish handling it, another makes it's entrance. Young people are finding that "Church", in the old sense of the word "A place to go for an hour on Sunday Morning, Sunday Night, and Wednesday night" is TOO MUCH OF A COMMITMENT. We're finding that we live in the world, and the world does not make time for Churching. What this young generation needs to hear, before it is too late, is that "Church" is NOT a building you go to....in fact, Church STARTS when you exit the building. It begins AFTER the service on Sunday. Worship is not 2 songs sung by a band or a singer or a group...Worship is how you act, how you think, the choices you make every minute of every day, and how they affect your PERSONAL walk with Jesus. I've found that I am more of a Christian in my friend's eyes, when I stop badgering them about coming to Church and I start BEING the Church to them every day in every way. An exhibition of the boundless, unending, never-failing Love of God. Its time for us to quit worrying about Tradition, Legalism, The politics of the Church, and say NO MORE. Its time we understood that "Seek ye out the old paths and walk therein" doesn't mean "have a bluegrass band at church, never say a cuss word, don't drink, and take up an offering BEFORE preaching, or you're going to hell", but rather "Seek out GOD and walk with Him". Its time we understood that Christians are not high and mighty, they're everyday, hurt, sinful, broken people just like everyone else, with the exception that they have connected to a Love with God. It is time for a revolution in Faith in America and in the World.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • ladyrev

      AMEN. May I quote you?

      July 31, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • Alexander

        You may indeed quote me.
        You might also enjoy this video.
        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKeFRv6JFFU&w=640&h=390]

        July 31, 2013 at 1:08 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.