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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. Pravda

    Millennials are leaving the churches in droves because they have become very liberal, accepting many teachings and lifestyles that aren't biblical and have become powerless...

    August 10, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • John McGrath

      Why must "biblical" mean ignorant?

      August 10, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  2. photografr7

    It says, "I'd rather have a mind opened by wonder than closed by belief." Who can view this jpg image? >> https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-CkK7M56D8Kw/UYEEVpIM67I/AAAAAAAAATQ/qCxo7bKoboE/w506-h750/20FUB.jpg

    August 10, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • cosmostheinlost

      Yeah, the skipped over the next frame where the leopard eats the butterfly.

      August 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  3. cosmostheinlost

    I've lost my faith after reading this piece. Here's my confession:

    http://cosmostheinlost.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/confession-how-i-lost-my-faith-after-reading-rachel-held-evans/

    August 10, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Not very interesting, but perhaps your replies and arguments on this blog will be. Looking forward.

      August 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
      • photografr7

        Family Guy was funny, though.

        August 10, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
      • cosmostheinlost

        The reply is now available here:

        http://cosmostheinlost.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/confession-how-i-lost-my-faith-after-reading-rachel-held-evans/

        August 10, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          It's the same as what I already read. Boring. What's your point? Why should the reader care about your v.a.gue, ranting opinion?

          August 11, 2013 at 10:50 am |
        • cosmostheinlost

          I don't care what you think unless you're my clergy. Now go an rand somewhere else.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:00 am |
        • photografr7

          Yeah, I'm sure your Clergy will give his honest and unbiased opinion.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:10 am |
        • cosmostheinlost

          Always. He's not Protestant.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:12 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          I bet you would have cared about my opinion if I had written that I liked your blog and agreed with you. Also, I don't know what "go an rand" means. Good luck to you in your future writing endeavors. Endeavor to have a point, maybe?

          August 11, 2013 at 11:08 am |
        • cosmostheinlost

          You sound like an Ayn Rand reader. Hope you get paid for trolling.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:11 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Are you serious? I post about a hundred words, and you think I sound like the sort of person who reads a certain author? And when you spell it the first time, you miss two capitalizations and two spelling errors in just two words? Get real. You're a laughing stock.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:13 am |
        • cosmostheinlost

          hope i made u r day.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:15 am |
        • photografr7

          That was the first time I ever saw "your" spelled "U R"... but then again I haven't been 9-years-old in a while.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:27 am |
        • cosmostheinlost

          i bet you came out from behind the curtains as old and wrinkled as pelosi.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:28 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Well, you've solved the mystery of exactly who is lost in the cosmos. Better luck on making sense next time?

          August 11, 2013 at 11:31 am |
        • cosmostheinlost

          Write your own merde blog instead of latching onto my trolling.

          August 11, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  4. Cpt. Obvious

    I HATE how the links for specific comments do not work on this article!!! CNN svcks azz.

    August 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • OTOH

      Yup... and several other articles here too. It's ridiculous that CNN can't or won't fix them.

      August 10, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  5. Jacob

    The fact that you and many people believe that a "war" is going on between science and religion shows how little you really know.. A great class on DvD that will help you is Science and Religion by Professor Lawrence M. Principe (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=4691). The fact is if one wants true Christianity they must take up their cross and follow after Christ, the road to salvation is not an easy one, but their is only one...

    August 9, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • Jacob

      wrong there x.x sorry its late...

      August 9, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Jacob

      You said, "The fact that you and many people believe that a "war" is going on between science and religion shows how little you really know."
      It's only the religious that believe that science is trying to disprove their fantasy. It isn't. Science couldn't care less. If through scientific advances, religion is shown to be completely bunk, that is, as they say, collateral damage.

      The problem boils down to religion being static. It doesn't adjust to changing understanding of the universe. It relies on an outdated model, and updating the model implies that it was wrong from the start.

      When it comes to explaining nature, religion is like a drawing of a clock for telling time. It will occasionally be correct, but it is only so by accident and there is no way of knowing when.

      Science, on the other hand, is a working clock. It may not be absolutely correct, but it is close enough to work for most circumstances. And we're working on an improved model.

      August 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • Hello

      people need to read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill.... this book finally reveals they truth behind the myth...

      August 10, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Dippy

      Jacob, it's "there," not "their."

      August 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  6. photografr7

    Parents are on trial for letting their child die. Instead of offering medical care and medicine when their child was ill, they relied on faith and pray. He died. And this is not the first of their children to die for the same reason: Read about it here: http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/crime/2013/08/08/ac-pkg-tuchman-faith-healing.cnn.html When will theists give up and admit that no one is listening when you pray.

    August 9, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
    • George W

      If prayer doesn't work can you tell me what cause the following:

      A friend was on vacation and fell. In the fall she broke her arm. The surgeon, we she was on vacation, said that he need to open her arm up to fix the bone. She said that she would wait till she got home. We prayed for her. The doctor at home said that the arm wasn't broken just a bad sprang. He immobilized the arm and told her not user arm for four weeks. The original x-rays show a bad brake but new x-rays didn't she a break.

      Also, can you explain this, if prayer doesn't work:
      I was following a friend to lunch . The roads were slick because of rain. The light changed from green to yellow. She managed to stop for the light even though she was more the half-way across the stop line. I hit my brakes as soon as I could. I went into a skid. I said a little prayer that I didn't hit her. I managed to stop. I got out to see how close I was to hitting her. There was enough room to put a piece of paper between the bumpers no damage was done.

      What is your take on tnhish?

      August 10, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
      • photografr7

        I'm not going to respond to modern stories of miracles. If you went to the press or the police with such stories, the first thing they'd ask for is proof. In the case of the broken arm I'd want to see the x-rays, and in the case of the auto accident, I'd want to do a full inspection of the car's break system. Here's another "miracle" for you. On the History Channel was the story of prehistoric creature at the bottom of the sea that could not have existed. When the mystery was examined more carefully, it was found to be entirely untrue. Science has a way of debunking old religious tales.

        August 10, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  7. Liza Alsbury

    Thank you. Real, honest, and has been my heart for so so long now... I say, sure, let them allow beautiful flag waving "in the spirit" and water color painting during worship and coffee bars... But let the message be always true. Not a list of rules produced by people who all sin .... People are people, not God or divine. Love is love. Jesus is the bridge for sinning people to God. What an amazing post!!!

    August 9, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
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About this blog

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.