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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. NLA

    How can I get copies of Rachel's essays on this topic?

    August 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  2. Dan

    Great article. Confirms what I hear all the time from young people. The value authenticity and compassion. The author refers to people seeking "jesus", I would argue that they are seeking what Jesus is an icon for: compassion. I see evangelicals proclaiming their cause to try to win more political and monetary power, and be more effective at social engineering. I see much less emphasis on compassion and authenticity. Young people are beginning to cast suspect on the church the way previous generations viewed corporate America.

    August 4, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  3. truthinquirer

    I am 30 years old, as of this year, and I just graduated from UCLA with a BA in English. From my own experience, after reliving and/or experiencing the latter part of my 20s, I too developed the common doubts and troubles with religious belief like some of my 20 something peers. However, I am a Christian and I have seen vast changes in our society at a rapid rate. When I was 18 years old, I knew I needed substance and so I would bounce from one church to the next, so I've seen it all! I have wrestled with doubts and problems that have emerged since 2001 and very few churches address such issues or give the substance needed to a generation that knows the world is changing at a rapid rate with or without the church alongside it. Too many churches seem like they are trailing decades or ages behind the unbelief that seems to be ahead at every turn. Instead of Christian intellectuals competing at every turn, we have Christians renouncing what they once believed because either they were never taught or simply they were never believers to begin with. Too much of the fan-fair of Christian social gatherings continue to pervade Christian culture, instead of social gatherings that are meant to stimulate, edify and help Christians to articulate their love of God with all of our minds.

    August 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
  4. RL

    I'm gonna ramble for a minute...To those who say religion is a crutch for the weak and keeps them from reality– Jesus IS my crutch. I am broken, I have sinned. I'm not being delusional, I'm facing my reality honestly. He helps those who cannot help themselves, who know they've messed up. Jesus said "the healthy don't need a doctor, but the sick. I came, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Many think they are good enough on their own. Their pride gets in the way of seeing themselves for who they really are–sinners needing forgiveness. The bible says that Jesus was tempted in EVERY WAY we are, yet without sin. At the cross, he made the trade, our sin for his righteousness. He rose to show he indeed is Lord over life and death, other wise he would have just been another crazy man making crazy claims and dying and that being the end of him. There have been many who have made religious claims, and all are still in their graves, except Jesus. The craze over Jesus would be long over if it had not happened. Peter would have remained a coward and not become bold and willing to die for the sake of telling others about Jesus. He saw the risen Lord and it was life changing. Paul was also completely changed when He saw the risen Jesus. Before this, he was adamantly against Christians. You don't live your life completely against something, then one day just change your mind and be willing to die for it's sake...and it wasn't for a belief, it was for what they themselves had witnessed. There is SO much evidence for Jesus' resurrection.!! I encourage you not to just write it off as fable, please investigate it for yourself. It is not blind faith, it is evidence based. The Christian faith is hinged on the belief in the resurrection. As Paul said, if Jesus didn't rise, our faith is useless and we are still in our sins. The resurrection of Jesus is either the biggest lie, or if it's true, it's EVERYTHING. If Jesus did truly live without sin, if he is who he claimed to be (God's son, the Only way to God, the one who will judge us), then He is the only way to God. Not everyone can be right.
    I could go on and on. For anyone interested in learning more about who Jesus was and what the bible says, I highly recommend starting here: http://marshill.com/media/luke/eyewitness-to-jesus It is a sermon about the book of Luke in the new testament. Luke was a highly educated man that investigated the life of Jesus. Pastor Mark Driscoll shows video clips of places talked about in the Scriptures. He is my fave bible teacher, he explains so well.
    "The same sun that hardens clay softens wax, just like the Gospel. It hardens some hearts, but softens others"

    August 4, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • photografr7

      There is no sin because there is no moral standard to gauge sin against. There are, however, civilized and uncivilized people, so I act in accordance with the civilized ones. It doesn't take an objective moral standard to know that bludgeoning someone with a hammer is not "good," or killing your neighbor, or raping your daughter. If you need a Bible to tell you that, then there's something wrong with you, not society.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
      • Dr. Smiley Friend

        @photografr7

        So where to objective moral standards come from? How do you know something is right or wrong if you don't have a standard to compare it to?

        August 4, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          Modern democracies do a fine job of determining what acceptable behaviours are and how offenders should be punished with no gods required.

          August 4, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
        • redzoa

          Is murder objectively immoral?
          Is it ok to murder a murderer?
          What if killing the murderer saves 3 other innocent lives?
          What if killing the murderer would result in the loss of 3 other innocent lives?
          What if killing the murder would result in the loss of 3 other innocent lives, but would also result in saving 10 other innocent lives?

          August 5, 2013 at 12:33 am |
        • Paul

          @HotAirAce

          So you're saying that there is no objective moral standards. That what's "moral" is determined by common concensus.

          @redzoa

          Do you understand the difference between killing and murder?

          August 5, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
        • photografr7

          There's a difference between morality in a community (or civilization) and personal morality. Yes, I believe that morality in a community is by consensus. One community might think that throwing a Jew in a gas chamber is moral, even a necessity. I also believe that an individual who would otherwise be against that might do it only because if he doesn't he might be punished or imprisoned or ostracized for it. Personal morality is entirely different. I believe there are good people and there are evil people, and that no Bible is needed to tell them apart. If a person is seen catching a baby that has fallen off a ledge, he's probably good. And a person that is walking around stabbing people with a screwdriver is probably bad. If you can't tell the difference between the two without a Bible, you are the third kind: SICK..

          August 5, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
        • Paul

          @photografr7
          "I believe there are good people and there are evil people, and that no Bible is needed to tell them apart."

          Then how exactly do you tell them apart without an objective moral standard? When you wrote that, were you using your own personal standards or the standards based on the community in which you live? What do you base your personal standards on? Why did you use the terms "probably good" and "probably bad"? Are you uncertain about such things?

          August 5, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
        • photografr7

          There are no objective moral standards. Anyone on earth would know good from evil if they saw it; even if they never saw a Bible who were told that a God exists as a child.

          Suppose a person lived his first 20 years of life in a cave. And when he emergedhe saw a man coming at him with a giant club. The caveman would know the club-swinger was evil and would run the other way. No Bible is needed. Even my dog would know if someone was trying to kill him, and he never read the Bible; passed Genesis, anyway.

          August 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
        • LinCA

          @Paul

          You said, "Then how exactly do you tell them apart without an objective moral standard?"
          Do you mean a standard like the one provided by the christian fairy tale? The one that endorsed murder, rape, forced prostitution, etc.?

          If you can't tell what is right and wrong without relying on your fairy tale, I feel nothing but pity for you. You have to be a pathetic individual if you would resort to rape and murder if it weren't for your imaginary friend.

          August 5, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
        • redzoa

          @Paul – Actually, I understand them quite well, but chose to use the two distinct terms to bypass some apologists notions of legally sanctioned homicide, i.e. to bypass the "law" to address the underlying "morality." Nonetheless, I'm happy to use the definitions under section 210 of the Model Penal Code. I see you didn't even attempt to address the questions . . .

          August 6, 2013 at 1:57 am |
        • Paul

          @LinCA
          You didn't actually answer the question.

          August 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
        • photografr7

          I did. There is no moral standard. In communities, it's by consensus. In individuals, it comes naturally. If a baby is drinking from his mother's breast: if he sucks, that's good. If he bites, that's bad. No Bible is needed to tell one from the other. Even animals know the difference between good and evil. If a nice person approaches a dog, he licks. If an evil person approaches a dog, he snarls. Is there a strict moral standard for dogs in the Bible? My dog can't even read that well.

          August 6, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
        • LinCA

          @Paul

          You said, "You didn't actually answer the question."
          I wasn't answering any questions. I was pointing out what a sad human being you must be for not being able to tell right from wrong without your imaginary friend telling you.

          August 11, 2013 at 1:29 am |
    • Chris Riser

      RL, You said it exactly how I would have liked to say it!!!

      August 5, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • stevef00

      RL....Heresay is not evidence. They won't even allow that in a court of law. How exactly is there SO much evidence of Jesus' resurrection?

      August 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  5. Joe Helfrich

    Real answer: "Because they never should have started going in the first place."

    August 4, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • KNIGHTS tEMPLAR...SLEEPER

      https://www.facebook.com/kenneth.chamberland

      August 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  6. Robert

    Rachel:

    Thanks for the post. I've read your commentary twice. Nicely written.

    You have some good points and indeed the churches have their shortcoming. No surprise there, they are comprised of sinful, fallen people in need of a Savior. After some thought and prayer, the dominant thing I see in your description of the the millennials is this... "we want."

    Given your description and the survey results coming out now in various places, it's become clear that what's occurring is nothing new. Many of the millennials leaving the church, "overall," want god on their terms. They choose to not accept God as He is and as He gave us insights to in His Word.

    Instead, they want God and the Church to change, to adapt to their lifestyles and desires. Not surprising, it's U.S. society's perception of the world - it's all about me and the world should change and owes me.

    When you look at the heart of what some Millennials are saying, they want to be god (litte "g"), so they don't have to obey God's commands or submit to His principles, character and laws. They want Him to change to fit their desires.

    Is the Church flawed... ABSOLUTELY. Many churches and pastors/priests are playing church. They no longer preach and teach from His Word, they don't talk about sin, hell, judgment, suffering, sacrifice, etc. They don't want that. They too are a reflection of today's U.S. society.

    These "churches," and I use that term very loosely here, think they can pick and choose the principles and doctrines they like, and create the god of their choice. It's no wonder that some Millenials and others are running from these churches - I would too. God is not present.

    I am very hopeful that those Millennials who are "truly seeking God," and not a license for their own chosen lifestyle, will find Him and find (or form) a real church. But, that church, if indeed it is real, must seek and pursue God on His terms, according to His principles and Word.

    The Bible is the Living Word of God and it will stand true, no matter what the false teachers and prophets or others think. As Jesus told us "heaven and earth will pass away" but His Word and commands will stand.

    God does love and pursue us, but He will not force Himself upon us. If we chose to deny Him and pursue our own ways, He is a gentleman, so to speak, and will allow you to do that. And we will receive the appropriate judgment in the end for those choices.

    Consider the following passage, which rarely is quoted fully.

    (John 3:16) For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

    (John 3:17) For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.

    (John 3:18) He who believes on Him is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

    (John 3:19) And this is the condemnation, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil.

    (John 3:20) For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light, lest his deeds should be exposed.

    (John 3:21) But he who practices truth comes to the Light so that his works may be revealed, that they exist, having been worked in God.

    As He warns us, "seek the Lord while He may be found."

    August 4, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  7. gerryfisher61

    Awesome essay. (FWIW, I'm 52.) I have only one word of warning. Just because the old rituals and liturgy avoid the modern BS of "spin," don't automatically assume that they are spiritually "genuine" or "authentic." Or, better yet, can you reach into the old-time BS of religious ritual and pull out the nugget of genuine spirituality? It's not simply a matter of "modern=BS, old=genuine."

    August 4, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  8. Rae

    I think all the author was saying was that it isn't "the great apostasy" or even mere self-indulgence (we want an in-church barista type thing) that is turning some people of faith – both young and old – away from corporate "traditional" gathering. Of course this article doesn't address ALL the reasons people leave churches or even Christianity as a whole, but it just so happened to express almost all of my reasons for leaving. Her take on it is the one that most of the authority figures in Christendom don't want to hear. And a lot of us feel alone, thus why this article was a comfort to me. There are those of us who wish the church in general to demonstrate love and compassion instead of criticism and judgment. Yes, we can go to social gatherings elsewhere, but for people of faith who don't want to look at the world as hopeless and destined for disaster, we wish the churches we know and love would join us and do the same.

    August 4, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  9. Bonita

    You could have been describing my church...Mormon, except for the rock music, we're still old-fashioned that way. You members are leaving in droves. I'm 55 and I'm running out of the church.Many of the issues you pointed out are most certainly my concerns as well. Faith crisis-es abound.

    August 4, 2013 at 2:51 am |
  10. Glenn Jericho

    Why are Millennials leaving the church? Because they are becoming post-millennialists.

    Barack Milhous Obama is the Second Coming and He has brought about His thousand year rule on earth. And He will lay down His own law and tell "fo'ks" what they can and cannot do. We will do away with those pesky 66 books of the Bible and replace them with one book, "Dreams From My Father." It's all rather "Progressive," you see.

    For more, google "Positive Christianity"

    August 4, 2013 at 12:41 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      That view sounds equally arrogant and ignorant.

      August 4, 2013 at 12:48 am |
  11. GOOD NEWS

    Because the doctrine of The Church stinks;

    but the Words of Jesus Christ is absolutely Real and Wonderful.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    August 3, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • photografr7

      SPAM

      August 3, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • chris kena

      Good news, thats the best post ever. Good job

      August 3, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
      • photografr7

        Chris, I think you left off the "t" at the end of your first name.

        August 3, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
  12. Fred Cline

    Maybe it's a good idea for American Christians to take a sabbatical from traditional church for a few years and focus on how how each individual relates to the teachings and example of Jesus outdisde the influence of ecclesiastical thought control.

    August 3, 2013 at 7:15 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.