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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. kyomi

    I have no doubt there are "millennials" who are serious about spirituality searching for a belief system that makes a difference in there life and "grounds" them.

    One of the ideas coming through the article is – this generation doesn't want hipper christian bands they like the old traditions and ceremonies they feel less pretentious. But really sometimes, it's just saying I think retro is way cooler than modern or a deeper feeling of nostalgia and it has nothing to do with living a spiritual life or including god in your life.

    A lot of people were buying up the old polaroid cameras and creating art photos and thinking that was way cooler than all the new digital cameras. So is that what appeals to these people the old ceremonies are cooler than the 80's and 90's christian bands that seem so last year.

    Better to stay out of organized religion completely than to just join it because it feels cool to wrap yourself in a prayer shawl and smell incense burning

    August 12, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  2. mishyshades

    I love GOD almighty! Whoever or whatever that is I have no idea. None of us know what GOD is we simply know that we all are creation of something great. I do not like religion. It is to biased today and very commercialized. You have to dress a certain way or your looked down on. Maybe I can't afford those kinds of clothing for churc. You have to hate or despise gays and lesbians and I am not a lesbian or gay. I love everybody. Thou shall not judge. You cannot listen to certain music or you are the devil. They are just words and a form of expression. If you are not this you are the devil, if you are not that you are the devil. We don't want you in our church if you fornicate or commit adultery. What happened to simply preaching love and acceptance. It is very political, very commercialized and very judgmental. I love me some GOD but I do not like religion.

    August 12, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • photografr7

      If you want someone to love, find a girlfriend. But unlike God, find one that actually exists.

      August 12, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
      • mishyshades

        I respect your opinion. We all come from something that originated human life. What ever that source is, it is my GOD. I cannot get caught up in the rest of the drama and debate.

        August 12, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
        • photografr7

          So I suggest you read a few books on evolution while you're at it.

          August 12, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
        • hermannsohn

          What books have you read? You don't even know where the indigenous inhabitants of South and North America came from.

          August 12, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
        • photografr7

          What does that have to do with evolution? That's migration. So you think God plopped man in the Garden of Eden? I don't debate jokers.

          August 12, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
        • photografr7

          Besides, I didn't ask how the Indians got here. I wanted to know how the "existence" of Indians fit into the Story of Genesis. (in 1492)

          August 12, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • hermansohn

      Well said.

      August 12, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • fbcx

      You are not alone, mishyshades.

      August 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  3. photografr7

    If you think science and evolution are hokey, you'll LOVE this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGxBUyHbn2E

    August 12, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  4. Mohammud Al Abeckim

    USA MUST EMBRACE ALLAH TO TRUELY BE PEACEFUL

    August 12, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • photografr7

      Allah is peaceful? Whatever you say.

      August 12, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Moohamed can suck my farts.

      August 13, 2013 at 9:26 am |
  5. photografr7

    HEAR YE, HEAR YE. Here's what one of your fellow true believers said about the President of the United States. Luckily you live in a free country or she'd be locked away in a prison for the rest of her life. Maybe she should move to a country where a belief in God is even stronger than it is in the U.S.A., such as Iran or Syria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NDIcvoIaoG8

    August 12, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • cosmostheinlost

      Don't forget the prez is a Christian.

      August 12, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
      • photografr7

        In his home he can be a Satan worshiper, but I don't want him giving Mormon services.

        August 12, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          Why are you so intolerant?

          August 12, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
        • photografr7

          Because Christians on TV are so belligerent. Do you listen to yourself? If I hear one more fire and brimstone speach, I think I'll puke.

          August 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          I'm not Christian. I'm Catholic.

          August 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
        • photografr7

          No, you're not a Protestant, but if you believe in Christ, you're a Christian... unless I didn't receive the memo.

          August 12, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          When did you earn a comparative religion degree?

          August 12, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
        • photografr7

          2011, with honors. hahaha
          But if you think a Catholic is not a Christian, your Priest needs a talking to.

          August 12, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          That's what the Christians keep telling me.

          Anyway, you do say some pretty ignant things for a person with a degree. A good day to you sirrah.

          August 12, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
        • photografr7

          I know I'm "ignant" but there's not much I can do about that. By the way, if you want to understand religion, the very last person you should turn to is a religious scholar. Their just a tad biased on the subject. It's like asking an expert on UFO's if UFO's exist. What's he going to say, "No, I've been wasting my whole life studying something that doesn't exist"?

          August 12, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          *They're. Orthography has gone the way of New Atheism.

          That's funny what you say about comparative religion scholars, because many, if not most, would say precisely that. Where did you get your degree? Phoenix U?

          August 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
        • photografr7

          No, Oral Roberts University that teaches that men rode dinosaurs.

          August 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          Oh God!

          August 12, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
      • kyomi

        well – perhaps some Catholics follow Mary more than Jesus Christ – if Mary is tops with them then they could argue they are not Christians (or followers of Christ) – wasn't Pope John Paul II very much the one to evoke Mary – please correct me if I am wrong about that.

        So if you have a triune god who is father, son, and holy ghost but you have a mother of the human manifestation of father/son god – then Mary is arguably the mother of god and in that way could be argued as the more divine at some point in the history of the transformation of the triune god in heaven to the triune god on earth and of course the few days when the triune god on earth was dead (but not really dead) before rising. Would Mary be in charge at some point? the bible accounts don't attach much significance to Mary other than that she was a god-fearing woman. The almost deification of the mother came post bible.

        what is a follower of Mary called? maybe it is a Catholic or some Catholics who don't call themselves christians?I am sure this question has been asked and answered many times

        August 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
        • cosmostheinlost

          Trinity? Not mentioned directly in the Bible at all.

          Didn't you know Catholics are actually pagans? I explain it here:

          http://cosmostheinlost.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/pagan-symbols-and-the-coming-christianity/

          August 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
        • photografr7

          Certainly not a "Jesuit." Maybe they are called "Maryites." I'm a lowly atheist. Not much confusion there.

          August 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
        • Bill Deacon

          Kyomi, Catholics are Christian. In fact, Catholics were the first Christians and the only Christians for 1500 years before the Protestant reformation. The trinity was a theological development from a series of councils in the first 400 years or so of Church development of doctrine. All Christian churches owe their roots to Catholicism, even those who vehemently disavow that fact. Mary is honored as a holy person, not divine, but holy. Only God is divine. Mary is an example for us all of a person who unconditionally surrendered herself to the will of God, and being selected by Him to bear Christ into the world, is deserving of our honor and respect. She is the human model for the Church. Thursday is a Day of Holy Obligation for Catholics who are urged to attend the mass of the assumption. At that mass, we will commemorate Mary's assumption into heaven in body, and spirit, as an act of grace bestowed on her by God.

          August 12, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
        • photografr7

          Why do Catholics run away from Protestants and Protestants run away from Catholics? But when an atheist enters the room, they join forces against the "non-believer."

          August 12, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
        • kyomi

          cosmostheinlost< yeah I know about trinity not being mentioned specifically in the bible – just didn't want to open the can. The religion I was in as a youth didn't teach about a trinity so Mary never came into the picture so much. Many christian religions do not rely on the bible completely for their dogma – I am not into organized religion anymore nor do I want to be 🙂

          August 12, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  6. JustMe

    I wish there was a DISLIKE button! 🙂

    August 12, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • photografr7

      Your comment is WAY MORE powerful than any old DISLIKE button.

      August 12, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  7. Darren

    At the risk of being disrespectful. What a load of rubbish. What you are asking for here is that we would ask the millennial generation how we should interpret the scripture. This is a false and dangerous idea. The bible can only be interpreted by itself and context in which it is written, some things changing with culture and others that reach across every generation and time span from eternity to eternity. You can not expect that the youth of today will find the true Jesus BY SHAPING THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE TO SUIT THEMSELVES. Christ called us not to conform to the world and that is what you are asking us to do. This will not work. This will create a generation of people with a false notion of the scriptures and a theology so far from what Christ originally taught so as to be unrecognisable. Please rethink your strategy and ask yourself. Is this really what Christ called us to do?

    August 12, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • photografr7

      Why is it that the Bible is not a subject for debate (among atheists), since Scripture is the indisputable Word of God? And yet, every day, that same Word of God is debated among Biblical scholars? I say, "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

      August 12, 2013 at 10:16 am |
      • kaylaeby

        Scripture is debated largely because of the cultural bridge we must cross in order to understand the intention behind the stories told, the poetry used, and the rules described. The Bible was written over hundreds of years by 40 different authors. The Creation account of Genesis is often taken as literal historical narrative, yet in reality is is a beautiful example of ancient eastern poetry, with many truths hidden within it. The Books of Law are a part of the Old Covenant (they are not required for those reconciled to God by Christ's sacrifice), yet we can learn about God's desire to be near His people through them. In the New Testament, there are so many teachings that can be misunderstood if not read within context, yet they teach us how to live peacefully with those around us, and how to honour the God who saves us. The Bible as a whole is unbelievably consistent in the messages it teaches, and the story of humanity it tells.

        August 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
        • photografr7

          That's true, because love is good and murder is bad. I don't need 40 authors to tell me that.

          August 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • hermansohn

      Sir, I think you got Rachel's conclusion reversed. Millenials do not want to change the interpretation of the bible. "Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus." The church needs to stop with the praise bands and flag waving.
      Rachel: take two aspirin and quit banging your head on the podium.

      August 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
      • photografr7

        Since I was a child, I've longed for the Tooth Fairy and the dollar under my pillow. It doesn't make the Tooth Fairy true.

        August 12, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  8. Jen Bradbury

    As another way of engaging with this piece, my small group and I discussed it. Here are the questions we used: http://ymjen.com/blog/posts/20-questions-for-discussing-rachel-held-evan-s-why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church

    August 12, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  9. Buzzy

    Dear Rachel,
    This is an open letter to you. Thank you for what you're doing. Thank you for trying to reach out and form relationship and bridge believers and non-believers. This is love. You're doing it–keep on.

    August 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • lol?? Pithiest, YES!!

      Facilitators are for the debaters dancing the Hegelian dialectic.

      Hot, cold, lukewarm.

      August 11, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  10. ellimcdonald

    So, what you are saying is that young people are leaving the evangelical churches because they don't want to be evangelical Christians? I'm not sure what the evangelical community can do about that. Unless it wants to become something other than what it is.

    August 11, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
  11. photografr7

    I have one question: If the Bible story of Adam and Eve is true, I suppose European were simply explained by saying that early man migrated to Europe. OK, that makes sense. But then in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered a tribe of "primitives" in "India." Again, according to the Bible, how did these primitives manage to discover the "new land" even before the great European explorers did, or did Indians somehow manage to survive the long trek from the Mid East to North America? That doesn't sound very primitive to me.

    August 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • John McGrath

      Genesis is "true" as a long poetic metaphor for : ... 1. An evolutionary process of creation, from the physical to biological life to human life. Days are long periods of time, not 24 hour periods. Of course the sequencing is not quite right, because the poem was written/inspired (take your pick) before science did its work.But the intuitive observer could see a clear evolution form plants to animals to human life, with continuities and differentiations. ... 2. The potential of this world, a well governed world that we can create if we wanted to/ God entrusts this world to humanity to govern, using human free will to make the decisions that keep the world healthy and reflective of God's glory, not humanity's exploitation and arrogance. ... 3. Human free will and human destiny. Free will is required to be like God, and God will not intervene to control human action. ... 4. Human capacity for good and evil, and the need to make moral discernments and decisions. The Tree pf Life is a metaphor for animal life and the innocence of a sheltered early childhood, a state of living by instinct rather than moral decision making. This inevitably must come to an end, we have to grow up, exercise our free will, and live with the consequences of our decisions and live with or struggle against the decisions of others that affect our lives. The story of God driving us out is also true – God gave us free will and demands that we live with it, not believe that he controls every action of ours and others. ... If you start with this metaphorical/poetic nature of divine inspiration then you can read the rest in a very different ways from the childish reading of taking Genesis literally. Of course this reading is dangerous. It implies, for instance, that the evangelical slavish devotion to laissez-faire, exploitative capitalism (which they call liberty) is a sin against God's vision for this world, a vision God has entrusted to humanity to carry out.

      August 11, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
      • photografr7

        I don't think you answered my question. How did the Christian world explain the Indians when they realized that North America was not part of India?

        August 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
        • dlormand

          How _did_ they explain it? As in history? That's a great question. Probably they didn't think about it much. Too busy competing at setting up colonial empires.
          How _do_ we explain it? The Spaniards weren't the first ones sailing around the oceans, just the first ones in our Europe-centric history tradition.

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

          The same way the trees and plants got there. Spontaneous generation.

          August 12, 2013 at 8:33 am |
        • photografr7

          @hermansohn You are so cruel, and accurate.

          August 12, 2013 at 8:57 am |
        • photografr7

          Like the Virgin Birth?? I get it now! Thanks.

          August 12, 2013 at 8:58 am |
        • John Munday

          Those earlier Christians who believed Scripture teaches a young Earth and human origins only 6000 years ago could not explain Indians in America without unsupported speculation. Today, valid interpretation of Genesis 1-4 allows an old Earth and recent Adam, a pre-Semitic leader with God-imbued moral capacity. Read "Historical Genesis: from Adam to Abraham" [Richard James Fischer]. Earlier hominids did not count in Scripture's rendition because it focused on Semites, which allows for Indians in America, and Chinese in China. Creation days were long - Gen 4.22 has Tubal-cain forging bronze, and the Middle East bronze age is about 3000 BC. All bronze artifacts lie on top of the geologic column, therefore the column was in place earlier, during "Creation Week" and thus the days were long.

          August 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
        • John McGrath

          Please, no early Christians believed the earth was created 4000 years before Christ. That nonsense was invented by Bishop Ussher of the Church of England in the 19800s.

          August 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
      • Just the Facts Ma'am...

        If "Genesis is "true" as a long poetic metaphor" then the actual event of eating of some fruit that was forbidden did not happen and thus there was no inherrited sin and thus no need for a ransom sacrafice from some savior which means the entire bible falls flat on its face.

        August 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
        • photografr7

          If you believe that God is a metaphor for some unattainable perfect reality and the Bible is that unattainable perfect reality in words, go ahead, it doesn't bother me. You are just deluding yourself. But don't try to delude my children of my neighbor's children who don't know any better.

          August 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
        • John McGrath

          The western church, Catholic and Protestant, has seized on the idea of a "Redeemer," that is, a buy back merchant deal in which Jesus Christ must be a human/divine sacrifice in order to "buy back" (redeem) humanity's right to eternal life. Jesu, in this view, came to suffer and die and rise again from the dead, bringing humanity, or at least the baptized, with him.

          There are other traditions about Jesus. To keep it simple, he is the Atoner, the "At Oner,;' uniting humanity and God in grace and resurrection. His mission was to come, teach, die and rise again. No need for torture or crucifixion or human/divine sacrifice. He deliberately chose to suffer in order to be truly one with humanity in all its suffering, including the suffering of injustice.

          "Redeemer" is a merchant metaphor, very Roman, very pagan. As is human sacrifice.

          Original sin? No, just a divided human nature, ith a capacity for good and evil. And even in pursuing the good often committing evil. Growing close to Christ, his teaching, his example, his presence, sets divided humanity on a path to choosing good over eviil, in line with the freedom given to humanity by God. That freedom includes the option for evil, so often exercised in how this world is misgoverned. Christ directed his friends to build a kingdom heer on earth where people would help each other choose good over evil. Just another viewpoint on Christ and his mission, more in line with the Gospels. Choosing good involves not imposing religion on anyone.

          August 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
        • IHAVESEENT THELIGHT

          Nice John, very nice, well stated. Now watch as they correct the typo's! it's kind of funny

          August 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          "a buy back merchant deal in which Jesus Christ must be a human/divine sacrifice in order to "buy back" (redeem) humanity's right to eternal life."

          Here is the point you apparently keep missing. IF Genesis is allegory and Adam was not really the first human and didn't really eat of any forbidden fruit THEN THERE IS NOTHING TO BUY BACK!! No inherrited sin means no need for a redeemer. Our DNA shows that our ancestors had roughly the same life span as we do (though shorter life expectancy due to environment/medical knowledge). Our DNA shows we did not come from a single pair of ancestors. Our DNA shows humans interbred with neanderthals which were a competing bi-pedal species closely related to humans. None of that fits with the account in Genesis. There was no Adam, there was no global flood, there was no young earth creation. You worship a mental back massager. You think about your invented God and believe he is thinking of you and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. It makes you feel like you know all the answers and you don't have to worry about continuing to search. It tickles your ears and you like it so much you ignore all of the signs that shout "FAKE! FAUX! LIES! HATE!" all because it makes you feel good, better than the rest, better than those Muslims, just like a person who puts down others to make themselves feel more important religion sneers at competing faiths and casts insults and injuries at those who believe differently. Well it's just to bad that science is proving how false religion has been and the backlash as more and more people find out the truth will not be soft, it will knock religion off its feet and it will never recover. Thank you internet and access to real science and truth, good riddence organized religion.

          August 14, 2013 at 1:28 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.