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. bob

    The implication of this article and any of the hundreds of others that echo it is that somehow the goal of the church is to be popular, liked, and filled to the brim with people.

    There is a reason the faith has survived for some 3,000+ years now, and that is it's NON-transitory nature. Cultures, generations, beliefs come and go, but the Bible remains foundationally the same. Rachel Held Evans is not the first upstart, me-focused, coffee swilling intellect to challenge the norms of the Bible, nor will she be the last. History is filled with people who have great-sounding advice for the Bible and the Church, or people who have predicted the end of the faith... those people are long since gone, many of them their writings forgotten by any but the highest intellectual circles... but the Bible remains, and will remain.

    God has not, nor has He ever been concerned about how many people like Him. We're talking about the dude who denied AN ENTIRE GENERATION admittance to the promised land because they complained too much. You think he's sweating over Rachel Held Evans' opinion of Him and His Word? Don't think so...

    ... thanks for your input Rachel, but don't worry about the size of the church today... we'll be fine.

    August 7, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • t morin

      Well done, Bob, well done.

      August 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • Grady

      Bob, I'm not sure you completely understood the article. I believe the author was trying to communicate that the Church needs to be less concerned about whether or not people like them and more concerned about spreading the message of Jesus:

      "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."

      Obviously any critique of the Church can be difficult to hear, but I believe you and the author actually have the same message in this case.

      August 7, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • David

      Grady is spot on. Bob is missing the point. Persons are searching for the clear point message and not what the church has become. God maybe agrees with Racheal. Churches are big business now and I find it hard to belive he was more interested in packing pews with the few that have the my way or the highway thought than delivery the services and teachings. Bob, I don't think he is sweating over her comments but I gather he could be over yours. Far too many people have validated their own short comings by use of a story telling book.

      August 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Steve L. Vernon

      Obviously you don't get it, either, do you Bob. Did not Jesus instruct his disciples to "go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation"? Yes, he DID want all people to not only like God, but to develop closer, stronger and more genuine relationships with Him. Your statements are a perfect example of why the Church is dying and not its intended positive effect on the world, and hasn't for a long, long time. It has become a "good ol' boys" club in many ways. "If you don't think the way I do, then get out" seems to be a theme that runs rampant among too many who call themselves "Christians". I truly believe people are increasingly looking for that closer relationship, They are looking to grow spiritually and to seek a higher purpose. Unfortunately the Church has never been very good at providing a venue for doing so.

      August 8, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • LRC12

      So that whole redeeming the whole of humanity by sending his son to the cross to die bit was what, exactly? God demonstrating his disdain for man? How much he doesn't care who 'likes' him?

      Er. Wait.

      August 8, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

      August 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • KAnne

      .... except that the Christian religion IS transitory. The church USED to ban people who said the Earth was round, and revolved around the sun. The church USED to shun divorce. The church USED to shun evolution, however, these are all things now accepted in most churches – (among many other transitions that I haven't named here) because to refuse to adapt to a changing society is asinine and detrimental to the growth of the church. To say the church is non-transitory shows that you know very little about the history of your own religion. You say that the attendance of your church is just fine, but if it doesn't grow at all – you'll all die off and no one will be there to follow.

      August 9, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  2. Adam

    Read a view from the UK on this issue here http://www.balmofgileaduk.blogspot.com

    August 7, 2013 at 7:25 am |
  3. Leigh Anne

    And why not leave? The church offers little more than a religious social club nowadays and the teachings of Jesus to love thy neighbor (or in this case enemy) like the Good Samaritan did, or not to cast the first stone unless you yourself are without sin are left in the dust as the church pants after man-made creeds and sermons.

    Spirituality without man-made religion is far more honest.

    August 6, 2013 at 9:50 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.