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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. Ari

    Ironically, I found the Lutheran church becoming hostile to "real" social justice such as feeding the poor and homeless, giving shelter street youth and going backwards toward a mixture of "high church" and liberal theology. As they became more "gay" friendly, they abandoned the most vulnerable in society, that being the poor and homeless and they abandoned the proud preaching of the gospel good news in exchange for a dull watered down version that was more "PC" friendly.

    I found the charismatic evangelical pentecostal and baptists to actually care about the most vulnerable in society and the preach the gospel instead of trying to be political and to bend to the whims of society. The church I moved to had no interest in even talking about the secular issues of the worldly world and instead focused on the mission jesus called the church to be on which was to proclaim the gospel to the unchurched and help the hurting and needy.

    The PC friendly churches have become blind to those living in poverty because they are too busy trying to be friendly to the worldly people.

    August 1, 2013 at 3:57 am |
  2. teleskeptic

    Rachel Evans said,
    We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

    Really? You sure of that? Careful, without predetermined answers that are supposed to placate the questioner and put them back into their docile trance, you might get an honest answer, like "I don't know," or "I have my doubts about that too," or, "Yeah, there's no evidence. It's a myth." Honestly answered questions tend to encourage even more challenging, more essential questions, rather than settle the matter.

    Without the most popular predetermined answer, "Well, you just have to have faith," which translates to "Well you just have to stop thinking carefully and accept what you've been told," religion will not last very long.

    August 1, 2013 at 2:15 am |
    • Lawrence

      Well said.

      August 1, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  3. teleskeptic

    Ms. Evans said,
    We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

    Really? You sure of that? Careful, without predetermined answers that are supposed to placate the questioner and put them back into their docile trance, you might get an honest answer, like "I don't know," or "I have my doubts about that too," or, "Yeah, there's no evidence. It's a myth." Honestly answered questions tend to encourage even more challenging, more essential questions, rather than settle the matter.

    Without the most popular predetermined answer, "Well, you just have to have faith," which translates to "Well you just have to stop thinking carefully and accept what you've been told," religion will not last very long.

    August 1, 2013 at 2:14 am |
  4. Name*James

    imho, religion only works in a disfunctional culture. "god so loved the world that he sent his son to save us" only gets off the ground when people feel a need to be saved, they feel insecure or bad or guilty.
    The word "religion" means "re-connect" (re-ligar, if you know Spanish). The whole game falls flat with people who experience proper nurturing as children. They grow up without the terror that is necessary for religion to ply its trade. I don't care how you spin it, "Jesus died for you" is a phrase to brainwash innocents into believing they owe something that can't be repaid. It's an outrageous con. Any reasonable upbringing should allow a kid to feel loved and valued, no strings attached. The healthier our society gets, the less it needs or will even tolerate religion. There's notjing wrong with any of us that needs to be fixed with the gruesome christian sacrifice story.

    August 1, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • SusanB

      "god so loved the world that he sent his son to save us" only gets off the ground when people feel a need to be saved, they feel insecure or bad or guilty.

      This is so true!!!!

      Humans can't begin to know how flawed they are until they try to be flawless. The harder they try, the more obvious and heinous those flaws can be seen to be. Try it some time. We can't be truly good, no matter how loving our upbringing was or how sincerely we try. Our sins may not be outwardly obvious, but they are often inwardly very painful to see and even more painful to admit. They may be ugly thoughts about others, selfishness, judgmentalism, conceit, hate, unforgiveness...The miracle comes when we muster the honesty to confess our tragic shortcomings. It's the opposite of pride, and it grabs God's attention. He lifts us out of the pit by forgiving us completely, for it is the only way to escape the torment. So the torment is actually a blessing because it induces, in those anxious to accept it, the miracle of salvation. "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me... Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved, how precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed."

      August 1, 2013 at 2:35 am |
      • WASP

        @susan: "torment is actually a blessing"

        ok see right here is where you truly lost me. 🙂

        torment means you require PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP. if a person is tormented because they have "flaws" then seriously they need mental help.

        the only time i ever felt bad about being FLAWED, was while i was christian; southern baptist was my families flavor of religion. 😄

        once i stepped back and viewed the world as it is from a scienctific point of view i found i'm not that bad off. after billions of years my species has become the top of the food chain and evolved to the point that we can change nature to suite our needs, instead of the other way around.
        the greatest thing about being human is we have IMAGINATIONS, no other animal has that ability anywhere on earth. we can see things around us, or just picture something we would like to have and we can make that idea real using the things around us.
        some animals may construct "housing" but let's see them install indoor plumbing then i will be impressed. so as it stands ONLY RELIGIOUS freaks feel the need to feel bad for being human.................AGAIN SEEK HELP.

        August 1, 2013 at 8:08 am |
        • Ryan

          @ WASP
          You just transitioned from salvation via science into some kind euphoric human exalting new age "mumbo jumbo." To boot you praised the evolutionary process for its divine path and purpose. You can't see how silly that is?
          Yet, Christian's are silly for our "Sky-fairy" who can ultimately explain everything...? I've learned that many in the secular world are very condescending in speaking about theists’ proposals about humanity’s origins, but ignore the fact that naturalism gives us no "whys" just proposed "how’s". Yet, I read and hear so many pretentious emotional, moral, philosophical and dogmatic statements from atheists and agnostics. Do people not realize they have no foundation for argument? They have nothing to stand on...some are adamant about the claim that there is no basis for life. Somehow they still engage life as if it has purpose, all the while borrow from the deluded religions they attack. Science may fill in the some of the "how’s", but it will NEVER tell us “why”. At the core of our being you wanna know "why" much more than you ever wanna know "how." Please stop deifying evolution, science, and human reasoning. In so all you're doing is validating scripture. Much love to all of you. I hope you find Truth and bow to Him when you do.

          August 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
      • Lawrence

        You appear to be one of those who are the most pitiful type of Christian, the type who goes around with the idea that all humans are just filthy sinners, deserving only torment and destruction, but God in his infinite mercy is giving you eternal life instead so you owe him big. What a wretched existence.

        August 1, 2013 at 10:05 am |
        • CatLover

          Every time I hear one of God's professionals get up there in front of a crowd of the faithful and go on about how wretchedly unworthy we all are, I want to puke. Mostly, though, I just get up and walk out. Our own pastor doesn't do that, but sometimes we'll have a guest preacher, usually some evangelical revivalist, who goes on like that. If one is going to accept the whole premise of Christianity, it is self-evident that we are not worthless; otherwise, why would Christ have died on the cross for us? Clearly, he did not think us worthless.

          I

          August 1, 2013 at 10:36 am |
      • tallulah13

        My parents raised me to be honest, responsible, hard-working and eager to learn. My own experiences taught me compassion. That's good enough for me.

        It sounds like you don't like yourself very much, Susan. That's quite sad. It sounds like someone convinced you that you should be ashamed of yourself, and that too is sad. This is why religion can be dangerous. It can drag people down until they're willing to believe whatever they are told. Religion is a terrible, insidious invention.

        August 1, 2013 at 10:21 am |
        • SusanB

          I would challenge you, as an experiment, to read Romans 7, and ask God to show you what it means. (That's the tricky part, because you must have an open mind and really want to know.) There is a dose of reality that will be coming, and afterward, an experience of what love is really all about: love from God, for God and, consequently, for one's own self and others. It is a simple but powerful lesson that children and adults and people of all economic and intellectual states have come to cherish over the centuries.

          August 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
      • John D.

        Wow.

        Just wow.

        This kind of thinking (if you want to call it "thinking") is the real reason that religion is dying in the West.

        August 1, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        Why are you so ashamed to be human? Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has regrets, but if you don't believe that you have the ability to be a good person without someone watching over your shoulder – I truly pity you.

        August 1, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • skytag

      You don't seem to understand why religions exist. A primary reason for them is to encourage people to be better members of the societies in which they live, and they do this in part by teaching there are rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad behavior.

      Human beings being what they are, a significant majority engages in a lot of bad behavior. Not really bad behavior such as serial killing, but lying, getting angry, thinking about retaliating for some perceived injustice (real or not), jealousy, and so on. For example, studies show that everyone lies or engages in some form of dishonesty many times a day.

      If you just teach people these are bad things with no form of redemption for this constant stream of failures people would just get discouraged, fatalistic, and cease to care about the punishment. "I've messed up so much no it doesn't matter any more."

      If forgiveness requires any significant sacrifice or redeeming action, again, the frequency with which those actions are needed would become oppressive.

      If forgiveness is automatic and free, as you suggest it should be, then the incentive to be good evaporates. Why does it matter if I'm good if forgiveness is automatic and there is no penalty?

      Christianity deals with this in a very clever way. There is a way to get forgiveness (accept Jesus as your savior), and it's easy enough it won't overburden anyone. It's almost like automatic forgiveness in theory (it's a gift — you can't "earn it") but in practice you're told that if you really accept Christ as your savior you won't want him to pay for any more of your sins than absolutely necessary. So yes, once you're "saved" technically there isn't a reason to avoid sin in the future, but doing so will sadden Jesus and make him have to pay a higher price for your additional sins.

      This this system cleverly converts the selfish motivation of avoiding punishment into the selfless desire to avoid hurting Jesus, and even when you fail, the consequences to you are minimal because Jesus is paying the price. Clever, eh?

      August 1, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  5. Doctorstrangeluv

    FINALLY a sign that the 20-somethings in this country do have a brain and are capable of some critical thinking, reason and logic !!!! I was getting worried, because I rarely even see anyone under 25 even raises their eyes up from their cell phones and Ipads

    July 31, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Every generation has distinct areas of enlightenment and areas of ignorance.

      August 1, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  6. A. Reasoner

    It's not surprising that anyone would think to leave religion, but that anyone thinking would stay.

    July 31, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • LinCA

      @A. Reasoner

      You said, "It's not surprising that anyone would think to leave religion, but that anyone thinking would stay."
      Funny that there is an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity. Same for education levels. That would lead a reasonable person to believe that those that actually think will leave.

      Religion thrives on ignorance. As information becomes more available and easier to consume, religion will have a harder time to hang on to its sheeple.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
      • Mark from Middle River

        I guess the information is that proof that God doesn't exist you Atheist have been preaching all these centuries. 🙂

        The best piece of information, which is coming out now from the Atheist camp, is that there are 700 club/Westburo Baptist Atheist and moderate Atheist.

        July 31, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
        • LinCA

          @Mark from Middle River

          You said, "I guess the information is that proof that God doesn't exist you Atheist have been preaching all these centuries."
          No, the information that is readily available will allow other views to be presented. It removes the ability of the charlatans to spout only the propaganda.

          August 1, 2013 at 2:23 am |
  7. beni

    that is one massive nose.

    July 31, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  8. Shafman

    Ad hominem attacks are the last refuge and resort of those without competent reasoning.

    July 31, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  9. Dr

    I just want to know where we really came from. I don't believe it was total evolution, but I definitely don't believe that we magically appeared in Eden.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      Why don't you think that evolution explains the origins of man? There are numerous transitional fossils and genetic evidence. Chances are that you yourself are not fully human, but have traces of Neanderthal DNA.

      August 2, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
      • photografr7

        Dr... if I can call you that... probably believes that man can't possibly be the result of evolution because he would hate to thin he descended from apes (or as the religious say, "from monkeys"). Well, it's true, we share a common ancestor. It's sad but true, and it's in our genes.

        August 2, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
        • Francis Farvis

          Someone looked like they read of the evidence of mitochondrial DNA which looked very much like it indicated we all descended from one woman; guess what that woman was called?

          August 3, 2013 at 5:54 am |
        • photografr7

          Ape #84411300646102.6?

          August 3, 2013 at 7:48 am |
  10. Shane Patrick +

    My thoughts: http://accordingtowhat.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/we-should-do-what-exactly/

    July 31, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  11. Janet

    The church was established by Jesus. Those in the church are supposed to be followers of Jesus. Since the Bible is God's word, it is where we should look for how God tells us to live. Whether culture has other ideas or not, a follower of Jesus doesn't have a choice in what he or she believes or how he or she lives. When we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord, we agree that we will do his will not ours. So, even if it would be easier or more pleasing to others, we don't have the option of saying that people can live however they want and that is fine with us. Yes, we still have to love them, but it would be a lie to say that they are fine living any way they choose when God clearly has laid out how he wants us to live in his word. It is only in my lifetime (I am 52) that disagreeing with someone has come to mean hating them. Jesus loved people, but also told them "Go and sin no more." Although there are a number of points in Evans' article which I could agree with, the one I most take exception to is when she says, "We want questions that don't have pre-determined answers." Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father by by me." Truth is unchanging. God has predetermined the answers. No one person has all of the answers, but God has given us the place to look for those answers. When we find an answer we don't like, we are the ones who need to change, not the answers.

    July 31, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • manangdi22

      Nicely put Janet!

      July 31, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
    • Lisa E

      I am with you! We dislike the sin not the sinner.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • Debra

      EXACTLY! Thank you for articulating what I was struggling with in answer to someone who posted this article!

      July 31, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • Ari

      Amen. There were similar issues in the early church. These people trying to change the message to make it more palatable have been around for a long time. The letters to the various church show this clearly.

      Some of my atheist colleagues have a kind of moral relativism where they think some things that people do are worse than others but in god's eyes, all sin separates us from god and that all of it required the sacrifice christ's blood on the cross. We have all fallen short and so we all require the redemption that christ provides.

      The people of the world like to compare themselves with each other and say that they are better or worse than the next guy but in christ, we are all one. In christ, we try to live good lives not to "earn salvation" as the unbelievers think but rather because the world judges the church by looking at us. If we can be good examples, that can attract unbelievers to the faith more than any religious tract ever could. We are called to be friendly with the unchurched so that when they see us, they will be inspired to ask questions about our faith.

      August 1, 2013 at 4:10 am |
    • starfeldtc

      Excellent Janet. We are not going to change what God's word says and therefore proclaims for a the new ideas and waves of opinion. God Word has always spoke against things that people didn't agree with and it is the job of the church to teach God's truth even in the midst of differing opinions. Read Acts 17. Paul did an amazing job speaking against the views of the day.

      August 1, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      A friend of mine is 22, majoring in psychology. He started looking for a church he was comfortable in. He wanted a place that welcomed him, made him feel good about his relationships and gave him a sense of purpose. He went to a wide variety of places with friends and was welcomed all over town. Then one day he realized he didn't need a church that validated him. He needed a church that gave him the truth. He returned to the Catholic Church, changed his major to theology and entered the seminary.

      August 1, 2013 at 9:13 am |
      • Saraswati

        "Reverts" are the most common "new" memebers in most religious organizations.

        August 1, 2013 at 9:25 am |
        • Bill Deacon

          The Church recognizes that the second largest religious affiliation in America is "lapsed Catholic".

          August 1, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  12. ElmerGantry

    Bootyfunk stated,
    ______________________________________________________________________

    Bootyfunk

    education and the internet are killing religion.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    ______________________________________________________________________

    Exactly; why do you think there is such a push by the right to defund education an fund vouchers for home schooling?

    July 31, 2013 at 8:10 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.