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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. Colin

    Her reasoning as to why Millennials “need” the church boils down to 4 sacraments (baptism, confession, confirmation, communion), “Union with Christ” which she essentially describes as the other sacraments, leadership and community support.

    Well, all sacraments are only relevant if you buy into the Christian faith in the first place and support and leadership can be found anywhere and certainly without believing in the supernatural.

    No, if this is the best reasoning for a person questioning Christianity to “return to the flock,” I expect the exodus to accelerate. I hope so.

    August 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Jan

      Her reasoning was not about why millennials in general need the church, but rather why those millenniels who believe as Christians but who have specific issues with their churches have much to gain from staying with/returning to the church. Personally, I think she left out what are, to me, the most compelling attractions of being in a church (and this comes from someone who is neither Christian nor a church member): the great value 1) of belonging to a community that is held together by a body of shared beliefs as well as by loyalty to that group, and 2) of doing what is in your personal power to steer the community that is most aligned with your own beliefs and values to act in the ways you personally think are right, good, wise, and best.

      August 4, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
      • ReadMoreBetter

        Finally, someone else who is not just literate, but also can comprehend that which was read.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
      • skytag

        What you describe in 1) and 2) are the major reasons religions churches exist and have accomplished so much good despite the fact they are based on a false premise. At least one study has shown that people who consider themselves religious give more of their time and money to good causes if they are active members of a church community.

        August 4, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  2. chilipeppr1111

    Rachel Held Evans: Your article is all about why YOU think you need to belong to a formalized. monotheistic religion. Many people around the world do just fine without it, and they demand more for themselves than to follow a system of prejudicial, patriarchal, fabricated myths to get through their lives in a balanced manner.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  3. Peter Q Wolfe

    When do christians ever rail against usury? Its mentioned in the Bible that Jesus threw out the money changers out of the temple but conveniently no mention in the economic discourse in this nation. Its never mentioned about gluttony just coveting and hardly little to no mention of the herendous cuts to NEI freezing at 4.5% or 36 million annual apropriation fyi 2014-? into the future or whatever.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  4. McBob79

    I agree. What many will find as they get older is that faith in a higher power is important to overcoming adversity and becoming a more productive member of society. There are plenty of reasons, but if for nothing other than the fact that they hear and are reminded of the things religion teaches use. Honesty, integrity, charity, forgiveness and others. For many, if they don't hear about these things somewhat regularly and spend some time thinking about them then they don't practice them.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Religion is not necessary to overcome adversity and to become a more productive member of society. Nor is religion required to be honest, have integrity, be charitable, to forgive, or anything.

      August 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
      • annie

        I agree. You don't need an archaic belief system to be a good person.

        August 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Funny. The older I get, the less I need god. I certainly don't need a god to get through the difficult times of my life. I can solve my own problems, and my parents taught me how to be a productive member of society. Sure, it would be nice to think that there was a supernatural parent looking out for me, but I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Religion, as far as I can tell, is a waste of time for people who are willing to be adults.

      August 4, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Jan

      "Faith in a higher power" is one, proven avenue to the things you mention, but it is not the only one. Certainly valuing, respecting, and recognizing more important things than one's own, limited perspective is part of it. The whole idea that it has to be about a "higher power" is based on an authoritarian, hierarchical world view, but there are other options for folks who do not share that kind of top down view of the nature of Being.

      August 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  5. Not a sheep

    I agree that Atheism is not healthy, You just need to add ... not healthy for church finance...

    August 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  6. Woody

    A church is a business . Sure they need you . Without your money they have no church ! Wish I could sell something that just might not exist . We already know the bible was written by people . People that needed money and they had noting to sell . Except for a story or two written by people 2000 years ago when they did not even know what a car was .

    August 4, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  7. Peter Q Wolfe

    Thanks Mid West Rail but being an atheist or agnostic that being civil should be key. By the way, I agree that Mid West is prime in Ohio to have rail in my view. I have family in Cleveland, Ohio so am biased as Hell!

    August 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
  8. Fargon

    Would you be a Christian if you were born in Pakistan or India? Of course not. There is no evidence at all of any God, much less trying to claim that your God is the only God. Get real. Try to understand that you were programmed to believe in a Christian God. No proof at all. None. If you were brought up as a devil worshiper, that would be ingrained in your brain housing group until the day you die. That doesn't make it true or real. Fargon

    August 4, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • zeyn2010

      So true! One's religion mostly is determined by their geographical location! So divine!

      August 4, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
      • skytag

        Obviously God sends the spirits he likes to be born in Christian countries. 😉

        August 4, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  9. Peter Q Wolfe

    Can you not mock me on my plight? Where everything went wrong is with financing with the greedy Venicians in Italy that is where it all went bad on a global financial level. Broadly speaking now its the modern xionist financial ensslavement that couples Big Business with Main Street and selling hoaxes by the backs of the poor who are compelled by necessity into enslavement.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Don't worry about lol??, Peter. If you take his posts here seriously, you'll be the first.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  10. David Moore

    Millennials... run very fast. Do not look back.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
  11. Peter Q Wolfe

    Hate to say it but the most greedest people who I've known and met are the most selfish people I've ever known in my life. My religious ex-brother-in-law Ed making $100000 per year wouldn't even help me pay for my sisters burial in October. Funeral homes wouldn't even work on flexible payments in rural counties to do so either under any condition or agreement. I've even had a pure blown out alcoholic baptist great uncle like KKK members as well of the supposed christian church in Texas. Lastly, church to me is like war that are games for the wealthy to manipulate the small people to go along for their scheme to steal all the wealth of the toils of the land for thier selfish gluttony.

    August 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  12. John Davis

    Rachel, you naive and supremely ignorant. Jesus died over 1900 yrs ago. The "church", especially the Catholic church, is run by people (mostly conservative men) for profit and to control how other people behave and think. It's just another (huge) corporation. The pope and the priets are the members of the church how peddle salvation for which the people pay.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      If Rachel is 'naive and supremely ignorant' then you are judgemental and intolerant. According to the modern Western calendar Jesus died and was resurrected 2013 years ago. The Catholic, by which I presume you mean Roman Catholic, Church has roughly twice as many women religious (a.k.a, Nuns) than priests. Together they have fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated more people than any other organization in History. At least the Franciscans and Carthusians are devoted to poverty. There are no doubt more so your problems must be with the typical Parish Priest. What did they, or God, do to you to make you so angry?

      August 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
      • tallulah13

        The calendar used by Western societies was put in place by leaders who believed that Christ existed. It is not proof that Christ actually did exist, any more than the use of the names of pagan gods for the days of the week indicates that the pagan gods actually existed.

        August 4, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  13. HereticX

    Just press the 'I believe' button. Then you don't have to be accountable, the end justifies your means, get re-born as often as you want, don't care about global warming, vote republican so you can thump you chest about abortion when it's really tax loopholes you want, support NRA craziness because you're really a nobody and talking 'guns' empower you, and then you can throw 'Jesus' or 'Christ' in your dialog and make it sound all OK some people will believe your BS. Sure, everyone go to church. Put 2000 year-old hocus pocus before 21st century facts so you have a reason to spew nonsense from your big fat pie-hole.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  14. BECAUSE THE CHURCH NEEDS YOUR MONEY

    DUH!

    August 4, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  15. Peter Q Wolfe

    Someone earlier said that they know that there is a loving God who loves us all right? This is news to me being blind with 70% unemployment and having my sister taken from me like my mother and being starved by my own father as a child. Curious as to see where the answers are for these atrocious characteristics that contridict a loving God...

    August 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • skytag

      They have rationalizations for everything. I can probably tell you what they'll say if you're really interested.

      August 4, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  16. John Vance

    Many young people drift away and then drift back again when they discover the answers they can't find with their faith can't be found without it either.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • One one

      It's because they are drifters.

      August 4, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  17. mark

    I can tell you personally this has been true in my own life and I am not a young man. I have struggled with my faith many times over the course of decades to fit in, and yes I have doubted about all the things I have seen when it comes to injustices and in this world..and asked WHY do You allow this to happen. But I have found that not one agency, government party, etc, etc, etc, can answer nor provide solution nor comfort but One. In this fast paced, ruthless existance on earth the only true respite and rest is with Christ's church of fellow believers and worshippers. Yes the Christ's church has had its share of problems solely by its IMPERFECT (yes sinful followers) but is because we are so imperfect and sinful that Christ came to us when He did. Christ's church (Read this as New Testiment) has been here for 2+k years and for better or worse I will also continue to follow my Lord until my last breath.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • Veronica

      So I guess everyone who lived before Jesus was perfect?

      August 4, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • Roger that

        'So I guess everyone who lived before Jesus was perfect?'

        No. That is why they had animal sacrifice. As long as something bled to death, God was happy. It's all about blood.

        August 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • hee hee

      Theodicy (the problem of reconciling the existence of god and evil) is not that compelling, either as a serious question or a reason not to believe in religion. "If there is a god, why is there so much evil in the world?" seems to me to be like the question: "if there are gnomes, why must I do yard work?"

      By the way, to anyone who thinks this is rude, I have the following question. How do I express this politely yet compellingly?

      August 4, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  18. Religions Are Poisonous

    Religions are no more than a business. No matter what they're selling, businesses need customers. As ever fewer people are gullible enough to buy what religion is selling, of course churches are dying.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      All evidence to the contrary. At Mass this morning I heard there would be more Seminarians than ever before this year. Try as you might, the majority will always believe in what you don't. If you ever get tired of being the minority all the time might I suggest you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for an understanding of what the Church teaches instead of how individuals interpret or abuse it. It is online so it is easy to find if you are open minded enough to look.

      August 4, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
      • I've changed

        Over a billion people have no problem interpreting the Quran to justify belief in Islam.How is this any different from your interpretations of your holy book?How is your religion any different than any other religion in history?Oh I know-You have been convinced,your heart tells you it is correct or you've talked to Jesus.Your statement is fluff.

        August 4, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
        • SouthernCelt

          And there are approximately 1.2 Billion Catholics, plus all the Protestants. How many Muslims do you know that would listen to what a Jew had to say? God, Allah to you, sent Mohammed to turn the children of Ishmael back to their Creator. Many paths, same destination.

          August 4, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
  19. Larry L

    Her argument was largely based on ridiculous rituals. Baptism? Confirmation?

    Millenials are simply too well-informed to believe the same old line of cr@p.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • mark

      how do you know..have you ever reached out to Jesus? you might be very surprised in what you find if you open your heart a little.

      August 4, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Mark, have you ever reached out to Shiva? You might be surprised...

      August 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • SouthernCelt

      Jesus was baptised. What is your problem with it? Too devoted to sin :-)?

      August 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
      • hee hee

        I agree: being disinterested in baptism is evidence of sinfulness. I know this, because if it's false, then I've wasted my life on a falsehood.

        August 4, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  20. DJR

    The article as well as the posts describes the problem facing the church. Minsters will have to reduce their hopes of riches as will our society. A society that does not follow and knows will suffer. (see) The church like any academic venture is about maturing and growing to knowledge. There are few people who graduate college with any idea as to what their work will actually requirer. That takes years of actually doing. Same with Christianity. The BIBLE covers every single aspect of life including the seeds along the road way, good soil and bad. Weeds and blossoms. You don't need GOD, but more definitely HE doesn't need you. The scary thing should be told. If GOD has not shown HIMSELF to you you, you should worry, It is written HE chooses us not the other way around.

    August 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • skytag

      More unsupported claims.

      August 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • One one

      If god has not shown himself to me why should I worry ?

      August 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
      • SouthernCelt

        I heard His Voice. Maybe you weren't listening or didn't like what He Said. Try again, it is worth it in the long run.

        August 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
        • loupy

          Did you forget to take your chlorpromazine?

          August 4, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
        • hee hee

          Buddhists claim to attain Nirvana. How is this different?

          Keep in mind that there are dozens of religions with adherents claiming transcendent experiences. Explain it in such a way that an intelligent and educated outsider can clearly see that your experience is more valid.

          Before you do that, you'll probably need to learn about the different religions and the varieties of experience adherents claim. Otherwise, how can you distinguish yours for us?

          August 4, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
        • drturi

          Its all there for you my friend – http://www.drturi.com/meet-christian-cosmic-unconscious-god-fearing-singles/

          August 4, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
        • required

          Paul is one of the best examples in so many ways. Just alone, Paul saw and heard Jesus after Jesus rose from the dead. But anyone that heard what Paul told them, just had to believe him. They could not prove he saw anything, or heard anything. They could potentially prove he was blind by trying to frighten him during the period of time he was blind. But afterwards, nothing, he can't prove it. The people with him only heard Jesus, they didn't see anything. Anyone they told about their experience, them too, they just had to believe it.

          Someone today is in the same position as Paul if God interacts with them. There is no proof, no evidence, and people either believe what they say about it, or they don't. For that, just look at Paul, if you don't believe him going to his death writing him a letter and telling his son to continue on, without changing what he's saying about Jesus... there you go.

          You got what you wanted from it, either way.

          August 4, 2013 at 9:32 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.