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August 2nd, 2013
08:00 AM ET

Why millennials need the church

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN

(CNN) - For a time, I counted myself among the spiritual but not religious, Christian but not churchgoing crowd.

Like many millennials, I left church because I didn’t always see the compassion of Jesus there, and because my questions about faith and science, the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism were met with shallow answers or hostility.

At first I reveled in my newfound Sunday routine of sleeping in, sipping my coffee and yelling at Republicans who appeared on ”Meet the Press.”

But eventually I returned, because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us. Here’s why:

Baptism

As former Methodist bishop Will Willimon has often said, “you cannot very well baptize yourself.”

In a culture that stresses individualism, the church satisfies the human need for community, for shared history and experiences.

And in a world where technology enables millennials to connect only with those who are like-minded, baptism drags us - sometimes kicking and screaming as infants - into the large, dysfunctional and beautiful family of the church.

Confession

“Sin” is not a popular word these days, perhaps because it is so often invoked in the context of judgment and condemnation.

But like all people, millennials need reminding now and then that the hate and violence we observe in the world is also present within ourselves.

We can be too idealistic, too convinced we can change the world from our iPads.

The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride.

Healing

While the flawed people who make up the church can certainly inflict pain on each other and sometimes on the world, we also engage in the important work of healing.

At their best, local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless.

Millennials who have been hurt by the church may later find healing in it.

Leadership

Like a lot of millennials, I am deeply skeptical of authority - probably to a fault.

But when I interact with people from my church who have a few years and a lot of maturity on me, I am reminded of how cool it is to have a free, built-in mentoring and accountability program just down the street.

We can learn a lot from the faithful who have gone before us, and the church is where we find them.

Communion

One of the few things the modern church has in common with the ancient one is its celebration of the sacred meal— the Eucharist.

There is simply not the space here, nor in many volumes of theology for that matter, to unpack the significance of remembering Jesus through eating bread and drinking wine. But when I left the church, it was Communion I craved the most.

Churches may disagree on exactly how Christ is present in these sacred meals, but we agree that Christ is present. And millennials, too, long for that presence.

There are some days when the promise of Communion is the only thing that rouses me from bed on Sunday morning. I want a taste of that mystery.

Confirmation

Many churches practice a rite of initiation, sometimes called confirmation.

Theologian Lauren Winner, in her book “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” quotes a friend who said:

“What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

The church, at its best, provides a safe place in which to wrestle with this story we call the Gospel.

Union with Christ

Those who follow Jesus long for the day when their communion with him becomes complete, and Jesus promises this will happen through the church.

The apostle Paul compared this union to a marriage. Jesus describes it as a banquet.

No matter what the latest stats or studies say, Christians believe the future of the church is secure and not even “the gates of hell” will prevail against it.

As much as I may struggle to fit in sometimes, as much as I doubt, question and fight for reforms, I am a part of this church, through good times and bad, for better or worse.

The astute reader will notice that each of these points corresponds loosely with a sacrament—baptism, confession, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, communion, confirmation and marriage.

Some would say there are many others. We could speak of the sacrament of the Word or the washing of feet.

But even where they are not formally observed, these sacraments are present in some form in nearly every group of people who gather together in the name of Jesus.

They connect us to our faith through things we can eat, touch, smell and feel. And they connect us with one another.

They remind us, as writer and Episcopal priest Sara Miles put it, that “You can’t be a Christian by yourself.”

This is why I haven’t given up on the church, and I suspect why it hasn't given up on me.

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 her.

Evans has written two previous posts for CNN's Belief Blog: Why millennials are leaving the church; and Not all religious convictions are written in stone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • evangelicals • Faith • Opinion • United States

soundoff (4,825 Responses)
  1. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    August 4, 2013 at 5:15 am |
    • lerianis

      Bull. Atheism is the healthiest lifestyle in the world that teaches people to think on their own and to realize that if they are not physically harming someone else without their permission or damaging property not their own? They have the right to do whatever the hell they wish in the real world.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:19 am |
    • Observer

      Atheists have brutally tortured and murdered more innocent people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries. I guess to a so called atheist the rotting stench of millions of people is a healthy thing?

      August 4, 2013 at 5:23 am |
      • Minchoko

        I truly believe I am stupider now after reading this.

        August 4, 2013 at 5:31 am |
      • Jim

        Weren't the Nazis "proud Christians"?

        August 4, 2013 at 5:32 am |
      • tony

        @observer. You have your name wrong.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:08 am |
      • One one

        How about a little bible brutality ?

        Jeremiah 19:9  “And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend…”

        Psalm 137:9: “May the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks! “

        "Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately." Numbers 31:17

        "utterly destroy all that they have, and don't spare them; but kill both man and woman, infant and nursing baby, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'" 1sam15:3

        "Yahweh struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it was very sick." "It happened on the seventh day, that the child died."
        2 Samuel: 15 & 18

        August 4, 2013 at 7:12 am |
      • John Sharp

        Okay, I am dying to know. Which Atheists killed 100 million people in the name of their non-god.

        I mean I assume you are trying to compare Atheists to the Crusades or Inquisition and the billions of people that have been killed in some imaginary god's name.

        August 4, 2013 at 7:15 am |
    • Lou

      prayer = spell casting

      August 4, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  2. Richard the Lionheart

    To all the atheists that come here just to throw your poison....trust me when I say as Christians most of us do not care about your poison. Keep it to yourself. You are still all going to burn in the fires of hell. There, you can spew your hatred towards God for thousands of years. And there, He will not listen to your pointless cries. Just like we won't be listening to your garbage now.

    Amen. God will be glorified from your smoke.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:15 am |
    • BD70

      Wow.....pretty damning aren't you?

      August 4, 2013 at 5:29 am |
    • tracy

      And this right here is why so many are turning against religion. This person "gets off" on the thought of "sinners" suffering eternal pain in hell. This person is not a true christian, you see none of the passion or love in their heart.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:45 am |
      • Matt

        tracy, I am a Christian. Please know that Christians find no joy in the tragic consequences for those who do not accept Jesus. Discussions of sin in a forum like this are difficult to do because it can be difficult to demonstrate love through just the written word, especially when those involved in the discussions have never met. Looking into the Christian faith takes a lot of thoughtful consideration. A decision to accept faith in Jesus is not an easy one. We have to give up control of our lives, We don't always understand and we don't have 100 percent proof. If we did have 100% proof there would be no need for faith. In fact, those who believe in atheism don't have 100 percent proof for their beliefs either. I would suggest that because of the body of evidence that it takes a whole lot more faith and a lot less critical thinking to accept atheism than it does Jesus. Sometimes the religious aspects of Christianity can be a turn off, but Christianity is so much more than just religious activity. Read His word, get involved with Christians in your community, not just on-line. By doing that, I am confident that you will find that embracing Jesus will bring a far greater blessing than just avoiding horrific eternal consequences. I pray that those who do not believe on this post will give Jesus another chance.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:23 am |
        • lerianis

          Tragic consequences? Hardly. Have YOU died and come back to life to tell us what is after death? No? Then shut your yap, the truth is that you are basing your whole 'belief' on a book that was written by HUMANS and is no more than toilet paper in the real world.

          August 4, 2013 at 6:24 am |
        • Matt

          Rachel, Nicely written article. Thank you for expressing your faith and the importance of being involved.

          August 4, 2013 at 6:27 am |
        • One one

          "I would suggest that because of the body of evidence that it takes a whole lot more faith and a lot less critical thinking to accept atheism than it does Jesus."

          Is this also true for not accepting Allah as your god ?

          Your argument is both flawed and condescending.

          August 4, 2013 at 6:44 am |
      • lerianis

        tracy, 'true christian' is a misnomer because 'true christians' are the most judgemental people I have ever met, always wanting to force their religious tenets on others.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:23 am |
        • Mark

          Spoken like a true judger of people. Enjoy your time on earth self gratifying. your time is short.

          August 4, 2013 at 6:48 am |
        • lerianis

          Yes, I do judge people.... because I am ALLOWED to judge people because there is no 'god' who is 'great, grand and good' who is going to be judging me after death... and if there is, I'll kick him in the nads and send him to his 'hell' for being an absent caretaker!

          August 4, 2013 at 7:28 am |
        • Mark

          You are but a blip, although your ego tells you you matter, that is your god. Worship your self gratification and egomania. Blind!

          August 4, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • NavinJay

      Judging us are you? What does your archaic Bible say about judging people?

      August 4, 2013 at 6:05 am |
      • Matt

        The Bible does talk about judging. Mathew 7 talks about judging. This passage is often misquoted. Judge not lest ye be judged is prohibition for Christians not to speak about an individual salvation. I am prohibited from saying/thinking. "Mr. Smith is going to hell because...." It is not a prohibition to repeat Jesus' words about sin and the need for a Savior. We all make judgements every day about a great many things. As far as the poster who asked me if I had died and come back, the answer is no I have not. I need faith in Jesus because I don't have 100 percent proof. Do you have proof that there is no God? There is plenty of proof outside of the Bible that a man named Jesus lived on the earth and was crucified. Sources that date back as close 60 years after he died, believe he was God. I have chosen to put my faith in Jesus, you have chosen to put your faith in a yourself. We are the same in that we both have faith, we have just decided to put it in different people.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:48 am |
        • One one

          "The need for a savior"

          Interesting thought. Do you worship the god from whom you need to be saved ?

          August 4, 2013 at 6:56 am |
        • Maani

          At the risk of having some of the atheists here jump in and say, "See? They can't even agree on what their Bible says!" (LOL), you are incorrect about your interpretation of Matthew 7. ALL Scripture must be read "in context," and you are guilty of the same thing that much of the Christian Right (and most atheists) are: taking Scripture out of context. Here is the full citation:

          "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

          Read in its context, Jesus is admonishing us not to judge others FOR THE SAME THING FOR WHICH WE ARE JUDGING THEM. That is, if I judge someone for adultery, but I am an adulterer, then I have no business judging the other person. However, this would not be applicable if, for example, I am NOT an adulterer, and I "judge" someone for their adultery.

          That said, Jesus even nips THAT one in the bud (LOL) with his comment that, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone." it is THIS citation that makes it clear that we should not judge anyone else for ANYTHING, since we, ourselves, are guilty of at least SOMETHING.

          August 4, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • tony

      Which god?

      August 4, 2013 at 6:09 am |
    • lerianis

      You only call it 'poison' because you have been brainwashed from birth to think that there is some 'higher power' dictating everything in your life. We Atheists are more sane and realize that, even if there ARE more powerful beings than us in the universe, they are not 'gods' in the slightest.

      Also, judging by how faulty mankind is, 'god' messed up on creating humanity if he actually did.... but wait, numerous pieces of evidence show that we were created by E V O L U T I O N on this planet and not by any 'god'.

      August 4, 2013 at 6:22 am |
    • One one

      Can you feel all that Christian love ?

      August 4, 2013 at 6:35 am |
    • One one

      "You are still all going to burn in the fires of hell."
      "He will not listen to your pointless cries."

      You ARE talking about Jesus right ?

      August 4, 2013 at 6:51 am |
    • John Sharp

      God will be glorified by your smoke?

      OMG, what kind of child-like god would be glorified by the smoke of people suffering from eternal damnation?

      Answer; a made up one.

      August 4, 2013 at 7:17 am |
  3. Carl

    Good grief what a load of brown bean sprouts.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:58 am |
  4. Tim Brown

    It's about time the fairy tale worship began to ebb in this backward country. Thanks millennials.

    August 4, 2013 at 3:04 am |
  5. lol??

    CNN spins like witches. Turner didn't LUV his wife. God gave mercy to Jane. Ain't that sumpin'??

    August 4, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  6. pastordt

    Beautifully done, Rachel. Thank you.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:54 am |
  7. seattlerox

    Is it a coincidence that Christian mingles is CNN's biggest advertiser and these articles show up? Head on used to be their biggest ad for years and that product was total BS. Taxmasters was then their big ad forever until they were busted for fraud.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:54 am |
    • NavinJay

      I'm an atheist but I date girls off of Christian Mingle because oppressed women are the wildest in the bedroom.

      August 4, 2013 at 4:47 am |
      • tony

        I second that. They are the easiest to fool too.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:10 am |
      • Mark

        More personal self gratification from an atehists

        August 4, 2013 at 6:53 am |
        • Mark

          And more bad typing from a believer..atheists.

          August 4, 2013 at 6:54 am |
        • lerianis

          What is wrong with self-gratification? Since there is no 'god' to punish us after death, why should we not gratify ourselves in our time on this planet, the ONLY THING WE GET before a 180 back into another body on this planet or non-existence.

          August 4, 2013 at 7:26 am |
  8. Jonathan L.

    It is a good thing Millenials are leaving the church. It shows maturity and critical thinking. We should not be brainwashing our children PERIOD. I am not an atheist BUT if you are educated in Christianity ( or Islam for that matter ) you would understand that it is a man created mythology. The story completely falls apart when put under any scrutiny. Christians are famous for not knowing anything about the origins of their own belief system. Truth does matter and our children are depending on us.....so yes it is a very good thing Millenials are leaving primitive false belief systems behind.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:46 am |
    • snowboarder

      I might actually agree if I had not torn my Achilles last spring and was in need of a teen to cut my lawn. after several inquiries my neighbor informed me that his son would be cutting my lawn. when my lawn started to get unreasonably long my neighbor informed me that he would get his son on the job right away. the next day I noticed my neighbor out mowing my lawn.

      millenials won't get much sympathy from me.

      August 4, 2013 at 1:55 am |
      • Blair

        Gee of all the possible reasons the son wasn't cutting the lawn it MUST be because he is a lazy millennial.

        Sounds similar to this train of thought:

        I don't actually know and can't currently explain it, god must have done it.

        August 4, 2013 at 2:56 am |
    • lol??

      No, it shows they recognize mama fell for the qweirdo killers. Lead them back to scripture.

      August 4, 2013 at 1:57 am |
      • snowboarder

        what does that nonsense actually mean?

        August 4, 2013 at 1:59 am |
  9. Alan

    delusional...one needs none of the things listed

    August 4, 2013 at 1:44 am |
    • Reasonable Approximation

      No kidding, right? I'm reading this as an atheist who grew up a church-going believer, and it's like I'm reading an excerpt from a novel about some sci-fi universe. The pointless and all-around-awkward rituals like baptism and communion were some of the worst aspects of church for a rational-minded and introverted kid like me! I just cannot begin to fathom caring about such meaningless things. Not to mention having to put up with the gossipy congregation, nosy elders, and ministers who actually believe they're uniquely qualified to offer you moral guidance. No thanks, I have zero desire to be a part of such a community, and that's before even taking into account the fact that I reject their belief system.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:51 am |
      • lerianis

        Right on, Reasonable. It's really past time that we made it illegal to introduce religion to children until they were 13 or so.... old enough to tell their parents where to stick it if they do not want to adhere to their parents religious tenets.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:26 am |
  10. snowboarder

    welcome to the 21st century. please deposit your deities in the bin for disposal.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:38 am |
    • Jonathan L.

      Amen!

      August 4, 2013 at 1:47 am |
  11. Atheists do it better ;)

    and then the rest of us who realize god is a form of control realized that the oppression of religion was not necessary to ensure the health of the human species turned the channel and created a utopian society.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:33 am |
    • Observer

      Atheists are much better at brutal torture and murder of innocents. Atheists have brutally tortured and murdered more innocent people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:20 am |
      • lerianis

        Name on Atheist who has done that? Don't say Hitler, because he said ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS that he was a Christian. Don't say Stalin either, because he was a man who thought that he was a living god.
        Don't say China or Mao either, because they have their own religion, a religion of the state.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:27 am |
      • John Sharp

        Your answer is disingenuous. You are comparing people killing in their imaginary's friends name to people that don't believe in God and have killed someone.
        There is no comparison.
        When the Atheists kill people in their Non-God's existence than you will have a comparison.
        Kind of shifting logic used by religious people since truth is not on their side.

        August 4, 2013 at 7:22 am |
  12. lol??

    Make yer choices carefully. Does anybody love Truth?

    August 4, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • snowboarder

      there is no such thing as "truth"/

      August 4, 2013 at 1:29 am |
      • lol??

        OK, quit being a creep and supporting the bullies.

        August 4, 2013 at 1:36 am |
        • snowboarder

          @lol. your comments never make any sense. the bullies are the vast majority that attempt to step upon the rights of the individual.

          August 4, 2013 at 1:39 am |
        • Mirosal

          The bullies, as you put it, are the ones who come to someone's door, tell them they are inherently bad, and MUST atone for their sins using YOUR belief system. When was the last time you saw an Atheist knocking on doors telling people they are wrong from birth, or having his/her TV show begging for money?

          August 4, 2013 at 2:04 am |
        • lol??

          Mirosal, a man is in BIG trouble when da Commies do da knockin'!

          August 4, 2013 at 2:13 am |
        • Mirosal

          The Commies?? The 1980's are OVER, it's time to grow up. But, since you want to use that line of reasoning, ok. When was the last time a Commie came to your door to preach the "merits" of Communism, or had a TV program to elicit funds from you?

          August 4, 2013 at 2:19 am |
  13. Carrie Harry

    I need the church like I need to step on a bear trap.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:21 am |
  14. virtualyaya

    Personally I think confession is a load of crap and is used to give weak and or ignorant people comfort, and to give the catholic church a sense of power. I use prayer to confess not a man.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Athy

      Why confess at all? What's the point? Be true to yourself.

      August 4, 2013 at 1:24 am |
    • sloppy.joes

      Houw bout skippin out altogether and not believin in magical skydaddyjust because your parents told you to when you were a child?

      August 4, 2013 at 1:26 am |
  15. snowboarder

    no one needs "the church"

    August 4, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • lol??

      Israel is the name of the bride. Church is the americultian legion. It's getting late! Lost Israel, saved Israel, don't be stupid.

      August 4, 2013 at 1:30 am |
      • snowboarder

        the only stupid I have seen so far is you.

        August 4, 2013 at 1:34 am |
  16. Steve

    I think people are leaving the church because they see through the B.S. I can believe in god, and my god believes in science and reason.

    August 4, 2013 at 12:54 am |
    • Athy

      Well, if you believe in science and reason, why include god? No god needed.

      August 4, 2013 at 1:09 am |
      • virtualyaya

        Science is needed. I don't think God wants us to be ignorant or he never would have given our brains the ability for curiosity, and reason... think of all the advancements we have made from science... not the Bible. The Bible actually simplified a lot of what we are currently learning about the world around us. Like the creation of the planets, and our place in the solar system as well as the basic shape of our planet. its all in there but simplified. to advance you need science

        August 4, 2013 at 1:19 am |
        • snowboarder

          it is not all in there, as we will always have individuals like "buck rogers" that believe their god made the earth the center of the universe.

          August 4, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  17. aallen333

    This nation has been blessed because it has given God a place of preeminence in society. When we have faced challenges as a nation, church has been the unifying force that brought us together and made us persevere. Whether it was a time of economic turmoil or a time of war, the church's door has always been open and the place we came to cry out to God because it was in our heart to do so. We now have a generation coming up that is in danger of being deprived of this source of strength and encouragement because there hearts have grown cold to the things of God. I fear for the future of our nation because this lack of God consciousness. When the next crisis comes (and it will), to whom will our young people rally and be strengthened if they lose the light this nation has always turned to in times of distress.

    August 4, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • snowboarder

      meaningless supersti tion. take your witchcraft to the ignorant.

      August 4, 2013 at 12:50 am |
    • lol??

      You can read about the actual endings for dirtball dustballs. Science will tell you time is slippery.

      August 4, 2013 at 12:55 am |
      • snowboarder

        and you, as usual, will tell us nothing.

        August 4, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • Elkhorn

      I agree. Look at Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE. They are also blessed as they have given God a place of preeminence in their society. Also look at China, they have given their God a place of preeminence in their society. What a great point!

      August 4, 2013 at 12:59 am |
      • snowboarder

        oh the sarcasm. it burns.

        August 4, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  18. Bill

    The premise is false.

    Millennials, or anyone in fact, do not need church. God exists outside of any religious structure, and it is those structures that corrupt Him.

    No, it is the church that needs the millennials as the next generation of slaves to their corruption.

    August 4, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  19. sybaris

    The "church" needs the millennials because it needs their money.

    August 4, 2013 at 12:31 am |
    • Ding Ding Ding

      Johnny tell'em what they won.

      August 4, 2013 at 12:58 am |
  20. LP

    The author's remarks might make a little sense to a millennial who considers himself to be a Christian that has simply stopped attending church. For that person, renewed involvement in the rituals associated with a religion he already has could add significance and meaning.
    However, she is ignoring a more significant group: those who have left the church because the belief, the religion *itself* has lost meaning. For those people, participating in the rituals isn't going to carry any meaning whatsoever.

    August 4, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • atomD21

      Then, as you had said, the people that have left church because they count all the religious belief as false are not the target audience of this particular opinion piece. This was more of a reminder of the good points of attending church to those that left due to the negative, but did not reject the faith they developed.

      August 4, 2013 at 12:47 am |
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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.