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. Anna

    EXCELLENT article. You've hit the nail on the head regarding why I, a Christian millennial, no longer attend church and am struggling with religion in general. It all seems so commercial, so shallow, so FAKE. Unlike some, I am not attracted to more traditional and formal denominations such as Catholicism since I see that as fake in a way, too. (Though I do prefer a traditional service with hymns and a sermon over a "hip" service that seems designed more to entertain and pander to me than to edify.) Personally, what I'm looking for is pure, raw, true spirituality. No entertainment and shallowness, no pomp and dogma, no politics and bigotry. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to exist in modern Western Christianity. I imagine it is something found in the underground house churches in nations where Christians experience persecution. That is NOT to say that I want Christians to be persecuted. Far from it. I just want us to strip away everything disingenuous about our faith, and come together to worship God and fellowship with each other, nothing else.

    August 19, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      You are me a decade or so ago. I've been an atheist for a while now.

      August 19, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
      • Anna

        I went through a short period when I felt I was more agnostic than anything else, with a strong pull toward atheism. Something was missing, though, and now I have decided not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" so to speak. I'm now on a journey to find spirituality without the garbage that people have added to it for their own advantage. So hopefully in 10 years time I will have found that, rather than ending up an atheist. But I have to say, I completely understand why you are.

        August 19, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
        • graywills

          Searching – even walking alone – is good for the soul.

          August 20, 2013 at 12:39 am |
        • Tara

          Check out a book called Life After Church.

          August 20, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care


          You've always been agnostic. Agnostic refers to a lack of knowledge. No one has any evidence for the existance of a god therefore all theists are agnostic theists.

          August 21, 2013 at 10:24 am |
        • photografr7

          That's true. All theists are agnostic theists. And if anyone says they believe in the existence of the Judao-Christian God without a shred of doubt, they're delusional. If I'm not mistaken, even Jesus acknowledged that doubt was a part of human nature, so his story would be hard to believe. The only "person" capable of knowing that God exists 100% is Jesus himself, and Jesus was the son of God, In fact, he WAS God, so his opinion doesn't count! LOL

          August 21, 2013 at 10:31 am |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          existance = existence

          August 21, 2013 at 10:25 am |
        • photografr7

          I hate bad speeling.

          August 21, 2013 at 10:32 am |


    August 19, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  3. enness

    I shake my head reading this. It seems what too many people are exposed to is a weak caricature of the Church and not actually the Church. I think you'd be just as attracted to our robust intellectual life as to our rituals if you were more aware that it existed.

    My primary source of discussion for things Catholic is the National Catholic Register. They draw from a lot of bloggers and I can't say indiscriminately that I endorse every little thing there, but in general it's good. In fact, it led me to this response, which is how I knew you wrote this blog post in the first place: http://catholicstand.com/eek-the-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/

    "We want an end to the culture wars."

    I'm sorry but that won't happen as long as something vitally important is at stake - and it is.

    August 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Your mistake is supporting a cult that protects pedophiles.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:16 am |
      • hermansohn

        What a bigoted response!

        August 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          I admit to being bigoted when it comes to people who harbor pedophiles. I'd rather the innocent children be protected than grown men who should know better.

          August 21, 2013 at 5:15 am |
        • hermansohn

          I thought that maybe I did not know the meaning of bigot so I looked it up.
          a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
          Seems like I did know the meaning.

          August 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          Does the RCC or does it not harbor pedophiles and keep them from prosecution??? If I'm a bigot for having an issue with that, so be it! I would hope most people would have an issue with this.
          Don't believe me, check out bishopaccountability.org and then tell me again I'm a bigot!

          August 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
        • photografr7

          The truth hurts, don't it?

          August 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • hermansohn

          So you agree with this statement: "Your mistake is supporting a cult that protects pedophiles."
          If there is such a cult, then we should issue bench warrants and arrest them all.
          By the way, as a philosophy major, you surely heard of the Cynics?

          August 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
      • graywills

        How sad that a response is simply the same tired old nonsense.

        August 19, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
        • graywills

          Jerome, does the expression 'to sell newspapers' not spring to mind?

          August 20, 2013 at 1:47 am |
        • Jerome Haltom

          Tired? Maybe. Yet for some reason it persists in the news. Wonder why that is, eh?

          August 20, 2013 at 12:53 am |
        • truthprevails1

          That response is reality. The catholic church harbors pedophiles, this is a well known fact that quite apparently you turn a blind eye to.

          August 21, 2013 at 5:13 am |
        • photografr7

          Posting a few CNN stories on the topic will shut up your critics....

          August 21, 2013 at 5:36 am |
        • truthprevails1

          Do you really think they care about facts?

          August 21, 2013 at 5:44 am |
        • photografr7

          A better question is, "Do you think they can read?"

          August 21, 2013 at 6:02 am |
        • truthprevails1

          We know they can read, it is a matter of whether or not they comprehend what they are reading.

          August 21, 2013 at 6:20 am |
        • photografr7

          That reminds me of something my third grade teacher once said after reading my book report: "Did you even read the book?!?!"

          August 21, 2013 at 6:34 am |
    • Bubba

      There is no "weak caricature of the Church". There is only the Church, who are supposed to be God's Hands, Feet, and Voice. This same Church, then spends its days damning those who fail to perform their jackbooted high stepping to a ridiculous standard which they themselves have never met.
      Today's Church, is a Vile, Tax Evading, Self-Serving, Cadre of loons who praise God by following none of His Tenets, and by looking down at those whom they should be helping up.
      Millennials are not leaving the Church, the Church left them.

      August 19, 2013 at 9:55 am |
      • graywills

        There is no doubt you are talking about some minor sects of the wider Church – but to lock us all into such an idiom is frankly insulting.

        August 20, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  4. John McGrath

    Evangelical = Republican – Tea Party and this is what they stand for:


    August 18, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
  5. tony

    Because the "ship" is rudderless as well as having no destination. So there is no point or value.

    August 18, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  6. Doug

    Religion, all religions should die a peaceful death. They sure have caused enough deaths over the centuries. How anyone can believe all those BS stories and lies is beyond my scientific mind. My advice to the religious... go read and study the universe, the living organisms on earth, the quantum physics, and get your head out of the sand. Hey, by the way there's no tooth fairy either.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Athy

      Doug, the same thing that makes them religious also prevents them from being interested in the sciences. Namely, the lack of intelligence, curiosity and an inquiring mind.

      September 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • graywills

      What a silly response ( but one must be mindful of the original meaning of the world silly ) and it does an obviously intelligent mind no good – no good at all.

      August 18, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  7. John McGrath

    Let's take a strictly literary look at this Adam and Eve story. This viewpoint may or may not be compatible with a belief that the Bible is divinely inspired and written by humans under the influence of that inspiration. Hence communicating in human, culture specific ways.

    From a literary pint of view a bridge is needed between the magnificent and sinless vision of creation in Genesis 1 and the rest of the Bible, where people act with a mixture of good and bad, with some doing mostly good, others mostly bad. That bridge is the Adam and Eve story and the story of Cain and Abe.

    When we look at humanity we see people committing evil, which we call sin. Where did this capacity and tase for sin come from? From the at of two people, Adama dn Eve, Or from the acts committed by people having nothing to do with Adam and Eve and the so-called Fall?

    Could the story of the Fall be an allegory for the origins of humanity's tendency to sin based not on "original sin" but on the freedom given to humanity in Genesis 1 and the responsibility given in Genesis 1 to govern ourselves and this world as free agents, not puppets or childishly dependent on God?

    As an allegory about humanity's moral freedom, the Tree of Life would represent the instinctual innocence of the animals and very young children. they do not make moral decisions, they act on instinct. In that way they are not like God. But adult humans must make moral decisions, they cannot govern this world wisely based on the instincts pf territory protection and expansion, slaying the offspring of others to make sure ours thrive, fighting, freezing, fleeing, fretting, or withdrawing into a fantasy world where we alone make decisions. and others take care of our needs. As we mature into adults we MUST eat of the Tee of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is, we must learn to discern good and evil and act accordingly. God will not doing our thinking or our acting for us.

    Later, in the story of cain and Bale, we see te issue of good and eveil acted out in a more realistic, less mythic framework. Notice that the origin of Cain's evil is his desire to hold onto his own fruits, profits, and not share the best with God. he develops a relentless persecution complex not unlike that seen in the politicized Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, the obessession that "his" is being taken from him. He also reminds the reader of the resentful "good" brother of the Prodigal Son parable. But that "good" brother heeds his father's rule of mercy and forgiveness and generosity and brotherhood and sharing, despite his instinct to hoard and overemphasize merit.

    One reason so many – not just Millennials – are leaving Christian churches is that the churches think and act more like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and not like the father.

    August 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Frank

      Well said:
      One reason so many – not just Millennials – are leaving Christian churches is that the churches think and act more like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and not like the father.

      August 19, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  8. darkmajixx

    hmmmmm, the science part of me reads comments comparing heaven and such to easter bunnies and Santa Claus and thinks the comparison is certainly does not make any case against believing in creation as opposed to science. My belief as a Christian is more about living a life from a standpoint of caring about my fellow man or woman. The science side of me looks at the systematic ways that systems, elements, molecules and atoms come together to form life and I realize it is very easy for me to believe that an intelligence greater than mine is definitely a possibility too.

    August 18, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • JimK57

      Good post, that sounds like an intelligent and open-minded way of looking at things.

      August 18, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • Phil Lacefield

        I believe millenials are leaving "The Church" today probably because they have not read,their New Testament enough to know what "The Church" truly is! :-)

        August 22, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
        • graywills

          True -very true!

          August 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Your post seems mostly sensible. Where I cannot agree is where you describe Christianity as some overriding moral structure. Many Christians throughout history and today use the bible and the Christian belief to justify horrible actions against others. (Please, don't with the "No True Scotsman" argument. It's silly) And since the belief and the book can be used to justify evil actions, then it's really about how YOU interpret the belief, because others can interpret it in a completely different way and act "immoral' by their exegesis.

      August 18, 2013 at 11:27 am |
      • JimK57

        I don't think you will find many people commiting crimes in the name of christianity out there today.

        August 18, 2013 at 11:39 am |
        • Richard Cranium

          If you believe that, you aren't paying attention. People trespassing at abortion clinics, killing abortion doctors, passing unconst!tutional laws forcing their religion on others, blocking efforts to reverse those laws.

          August 18, 2013 at 11:55 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          JIm, pay attention. I didn't say "crimes," did I? I'm talking morality and immorality. And yes, most believers will disobey the law if they feel that they are following a "higher law" demanded by their "god." So the blade is double-edged, right?

          August 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
        • photografr7

          WRONG! It happens every day. Recently, a family relied on faith in their Lord Jesus Christ for their two children to recover from life-threatening illnesses. They both died, and now the parents are in jail. Christianity is not just wrong, it can be fatal.

          August 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  9. Lyndon ward

    Science cannot prove there is not a God. Religion itself, is about faith. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." Hebrews 11, 1 KJV. Now science has its place, but science has always attempted to disprove Christianity: " O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith." I Timothy 6:20-21. It is a choice. Do you choose to have faith in God, faith in science or no faith at all. Personally, I choose to believe in God and I think that science and history confirms his existence. But I really don't need confirmation do I, only faith.

    August 18, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • photografr7

      True, so why don't you do us all a favor: Keep your God, and admit that the Bible, the Torah and the Qur'an is nothing more than a collection of myths and fables.

      August 18, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • Anthony

      Great statement. I feel the same way!

      August 18, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • Anthony

      I was agreeing with "Lyndon ward" by the way.

      August 18, 2013 at 9:30 am |
      • truthprevails1

        You may be clueless (as is evident from you agreeing with Lyndon) but not many others here are. It was obvious who you were agreeing with!

        August 18, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Faith is belief without evidence. I have reasonable expectations based on the evidence that science provides, thus it is not faith. Science does not set out to prove a god does not exist, it is impossible to prove a negative. The christian doesn't exist in any way shape or form. Read your bible and you'll comprehend why this is. The christian god is a vindictive prick who apparently killed his old son; condones mass murder; condones child abuse; condones slavery; condones rape; condones oppression of women and LGBT...it is not something worthy of worship!

      August 18, 2013 at 9:36 am |
      • photografr7

        Why don't you tell us how you REALLY feel? lol

        August 18, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • truthprevails1

        The christian should have read the christian god.

        August 18, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • Lyndon ward

        Actually, He does not condone those things. Those things came into the world after sin came into the world (the fall of man in the garden). Because of sin, man was driven out of the Garden of Eden. Through His Son Jesus Christ, God is giving all men a chance of redemption (to be born again) through Jesus Christ. For further enlightenment, read the Bible; if you so choose.

        August 18, 2013 at 11:17 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Firstly, belief is not a choice, it's a compulsion. You can't choose to believe that a dead body is alive. You are compelled to believe according to the facts and determine that the person is dead, as they are.

          Secondly, there were no "Adam and Eve," as you can find out by reading even the most basic of books on evolution. There also was no flood, so Jesus either didn't know the facts or he lied. At any rate, god believers have no evidence for their belief that is sufficient to compel an unbiased individual to believe. (That's why a person's religion is almost entirely determined by the household and/or society in which the person lives).

          August 18, 2013 at 11:32 am |
        • photografr7

          That's correct. Man was made in God's image, free of sin. If only he hadn't taken a bite of that apple from the tree of knowledge. Then again, why did God make apples so delicious and bright red? Just to entice man to take that bite? Maybe it's the same reason God made Eve so hot looking to entice Adam to plant his seed and multiply. However, making that apple so enticing is like wrapping poison in colorful paper with a bow. If a parent did that, he'd be in jail. I guess no one has the right to judge the ultimate judge. (READ: STRONG SARCASM)

          August 18, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • JimK57

      I agree.

      August 18, 2013 at 11:23 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Jim, why do you consider "faith" to be a good thing when it is incapable of determining falsehood from fact?

        August 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  10. Skyler Perry

    For true Christianity we understand based on Jesus' prophecy in the book of Matthew the 24 chapter verses 11 and 12 that many would leave their faith because of the hypocrisy of their leaders and truly not being able to help mankind out as a whole. They have distorted the truth for hundreds and hundreds of years and this is why although most say they believe in God our world continues to spiral down morally. But despite the fall of mainstream Christianity and the moral decline of our world society many people are finding the truth that people can believe in and have a solid basis for those beliefs. Revelations 22:17 and yes, it is completely free!!! Will You find It?

    August 18, 2013 at 9:19 am |
  11. T Stroede

    But I have not given up on my Lord I dont have to go to church to believe in God

    August 18, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  12. Arthur King

    Christian=slave, where the sole purpose of christendom is the maximizing of the profits of the capitalists.

    August 18, 2013 at 8:59 am |
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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.