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. krhodes

    So the church is anti-gay, woman, science, and truth? It must be nice to make these nonsense statements and never bother to back them up.

    August 1, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • photografr7

      Even different churches and religions can't agree with each other. Religion is a joke.

      August 1, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • skytag

      "So the church"

      To what exactly do you refer when you say "the church?" Religious people use a lot of jargon to encourage people to think in sound bites and not spend too much time thinking about they're saying.

      "is anti-gay"

      Depends on your definition of "the church" and what it means to be "anti" gay. Neither of these are well-defined terms. I'm pretty sure most people would agree that the Westboro Baptist Church is anti-gay.

      "woman, science, and truth?"

      In all these it depends on your definition of "the church" and what it means to be "anti."

      "It must be nice to make these nonsense statements and never bother to back them up."

      Must be nice to rely on ambiguous language to attack people for things they may or may not even believe.

      August 2, 2013 at 8:14 am |
  2. steve

    Churches need to stop apologizing for the least amount of offering structure, order and discipline. Most people that want an "anything goes" church are less than willing to contribute time, effort and money to a church without a rudder.

    August 1, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      If you want order, structure and discipline, go join the military.
      Maybe a little mandatory military service wouldn't be such a bad thing for North American youth.

      August 2, 2013 at 8:23 am |
      • Saraswati

        It would be a much fairer system and provide a unifying cultural experience...not to. mention keeping a lot of people busy during what in our culture can be some problematic years.

        August 2, 2013 at 8:41 am |
        • Bill Deacon

          Sara you have a call on line one from Dear Leader

          August 2, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  3. discovering vashti

    Fascinating comment on why some people leave the evangelical churches for high church traditions. Seems to me to be more authentic. Performance and consumerism don't hold much attraction for those who have good BS meters, as you say!

    There is so much more to high church traditions – it is so variegated and there is so much more any sincere follower can do in those traditions.

    August 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • skytag

      Where does the Bible advocate "high church traditions?"

      August 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
      • Bob M

        Nowhere, of course. Church traditions have grown out of the expressions of worship that believerrs have found meaningful over the last 20 centuries.

        August 2, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
        • skytag

          Traditions and rituals bond people together in a common, shared experience and offer a sense of familiarity and security, but discovering vashti said they seem to be more authentic. What would "authentic" mean in this context if not consistent with what the Bible teaches?

          August 2, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
        • Bob M

          "What would “authentic” mean in this context if not consistent with what the Bible teaches?"
          – Nothing; that's it exactly. Bearing in mind that 'authentic' does not equal 'perfect'. Perfection (i.e. 'holiness' in Christian-speak) is an ideal that, like other ideals, often exceeds our grasp.

          August 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
        • photografr7

          "Perfection... is an ideal that, like other ideals, often exceeds our grasp." Maybe it exceeds your grasp. But as someone who has taken more math classes in college than he is willing to admit, I can declare without equivocation that EVERY circle is perfect. That is, the distance from the center to the outside is equal, down to the last decimal place (infinite). The circle I DRAW might not be perfect, and the circle you DRAW might be even less perfect, but the circle is perfect. In fact, if it wasn't perfect, the laws of mathematics wouldn't work. Oh, and by the way, God didn't make the circle (even though it's perfect) and He didn't make the square root of 3 either (even though it has an infinite number of decimal places). I said that just in case you mistakenly believed that the only thing that's infinite and perfect is God. Does God make you happy? Well, math makes me happy. So there.

          August 2, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
      • photografr7

        When a Priest molests a child is he doing it because God instructed him to, or is he practicing cutting-edge Catholicism?

        August 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  4. Richard G. Shuster

    Christians do not have to live in the either/or way of life you have described. Most Christians I know balance their lives with both Faith and secular knowledge. As a Christian one does not require isolation from society, scholarly endeavor, or rational discussion. Although I hope not your position, the dialogue you use is similar to the one found in counter-culture argumentation, to develop and build anti-Christian positions and attacks against fundamental belief and faith central to real Christian teachings. These anti-Christian arguments are part of the dilution of faith in many Christian communities today. Many pseudo- New-Age-Christian Churches are using such argumentation and the result, they are watering-down the Word of God and demoralizing their own congregations.

    August 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  5. aallen333

    A baby has no chance to determine whether they will be born. However once that child reaches the age of accountability, the choices and decisions they make will determine where they spend eternity. Sadly, so many adults resort to infantile behavior and pretend they have no control over what comes next.

    August 1, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  6. My Dog is a jealous Dog

    CNN – please fix the bug in the "Recent Comments" links to properly specify the page number. This is very annoying and it is not that complicated (if your IT dept says otherwise – fire them).

    August 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • skytag

      It may be more helpful to use the Contact Us link at the bottom of the page to report a problem.

      August 1, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • *

      Yep, what skytag said, in addition, you can drop Belief Blog Editor, Daniel Burke a note too:


      August 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
      • photografr7

        Belief bloggers should state their believes up-front before posting a message so we know where they're coming from. We already know where they're going.

        August 1, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
        • skytag

          Interesting idea. You don't know what has transpired in the past, but you know what will happen in the future.

          Rational people know it's actually the other way around.

          August 2, 2013 at 8:17 am |
        • photografr7

          Asking for a religious blogger's beliefs is like asking a political blogger for his or her political views. Or in the academic realm, it's like knowing up-front if the writer has a Ph.D. in physics, or math, or religion, or philosophy, or the philosophy of science or the philosophy of religion. It matters.

          August 2, 2013 at 8:36 am |
        • Saraswati

          @phot, I agree it would be nice to see that info up front, but I generally look the person up before reading anyway, so it is arguable that including a bio these days is a bit superfluous.

          August 2, 2013 at 8:44 am |
        • photografr7

          Not a bio, but how about something like this: "Joe Schmo, an atheist from Idaho, says..." or "Ratz Asce, a minister from Topeka, says..."

          August 2, 2013 at 8:47 am |
        • skytag

          Sorry, I misunderstood what you were trying to say. More of that "who are 'we'" problem. 😉

          August 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
        • skytag

          @photografr7: To be honest, I prefer to read comments without preconceptions about the person. Two people could be Baptists from Missouri and still have different views and different capacities for critical thinking.

          August 2, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
        • Bob M

          ...and such a statement of faith could run to volumes before ever getting to the actual comment.

          August 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
        • photografr7

          There we differ. When someone says, "Did you hear what Obama just did?", the first thing I ask is, "Did you vote for him"? So when someone says, "Did you hear what God did?", I basically ask the same question.

          August 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
        • skytag

          @photografr7: "There we differ. When someone says, "Did you hear what Obama just did?", the first thing I ask is, "Did you vote for him"?"

          Sorry, but that seems like a dumb, partisan question. My question would be, "To what are you referring?"

          "So when someone says, "Did you hear what God did?", I basically ask the same question.""

          You ask people if they voted for God? I didn't even realize he'd run for office.

          August 2, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
        • photografr7

          Maybe you missed my point. It happens. When you want to support your Democratic (or Republican) candidate, you register Democratic (or Republican). Then, on election day you vote for him or her. It's the same with religion. When you support this or that religion, you attend that church. If a blogger is writing about a Republican issue and is a Democrat, I want to know it. And when a CNN blogger is writing about how certain former church-going types no longer go, I want to know if that blogger is religious, which church he or she has (or hasn't) attended recently, or if he or she is an atheist. It makes a big difference. No matter how hard you try, you can't help but let your "lefty" ideas creep into your writing on Republican issues any more you can help but let your "a-theistic" ideas creep into your writing on religious issues. .... I'm a writer, and I know for certain I couldn't write a piece on religion without my strong atheism roots affect the words I use and the points I make.

          August 2, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  7. myview

    We could all respond with our thoughts till He comes...and that would be tragic......He doesn't care what age group we're in. We know there is a" FATHER OF THE BRIDE" Heb, 12:9.. and if we would spend as much time , listening to the father of our Spirits, as Jesus (the Bridegroom) did.I doubt we'd be having this conversation. IMAGINE what could really happen !!!!

    August 1, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  8. edlyn

    we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there. too true! good article

    August 1, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  9. Kyle

    While I agree that the church could definitely be less political and break with tradition in some areas, I think that a lot of this has to do with people hardening their hearts to the truth of the Bible. Social justice is great and all but when it's not rooted in Biblical truths it loses the ability to cure anyone's spiritual state. If you want to see what Jesus thought about this issue see John 6:26. If we accept Jesus, it's going to look radical to someone no matter what step of the narrow way we're on. Christianity will always be controversial because Christ and the things that he taught are controversial. So if the solution to get millennials back in the door is to make up a different Christ and offer him instead, then it's really not Christianity anymore.

    August 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Sarah

      Well said.

      August 2, 2013 at 2:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      Where you look at non-Christians as hardening their hearts to the Bible, you need to be aware that many see Christians as softening their hearts to a harsh bible in the same way one loses objectivity in viewing an abusive spouse. Love, for a partner or an idea, can cause one to see only what one wants to see, ignoring the difficult and dangerous parts.

      August 2, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  10. myview

    Oh...the Bride is getting restless..Submit to the father of your Spirit...and LIVE!!!

    August 1, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • skytag

      I'm an atheist, and as best I can tell (I just checked) I'm living now.

      August 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
      • Mouse

        She was talking about the Church as a whole, and how can you be sure you're not just existing?

        August 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
        • skytag

          "how can you be sure you're not just existing?"

          If I were not alive I would not be aware of my existence. Do you talk this way all the time or only when you haven't had enough sleep?

          August 2, 2013 at 8:20 am |
        • photografr7

          I have a more profound question: How do YOU know YOU exist? Because you believe it? That's not good enough. Do you know there's a syndrome in which blind people BELIEVE they can see? It's true. They act as if they can see, and if you ask them why they keep hitting walls, they'll tell you something like, "I haven't been feeling myself lately." But it will never occur to them that they are totally and irrevocably blind. So, if you can't be certain that YOU exist, how can you be so certain that God exists?

          August 2, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • mindless lackey # 473


      August 1, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • photografr7

      Why do CNN blogs seem to draw religious zealots out of their holes. It's time to crawl back in, guys and gals. The only truth is "reality" and you won't find that in the Bible.

      August 1, 2013 at 8:31 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.