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. AtheistHuman

    Because they know its all BS. ; ) Good for them.

    September 19, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  2. DLW

    Recently, I have read many posts just like this one and I have never posted a comment until now. It does not matter what anyone of us thinks. It only matters what God thinks. We split hairs over things that don't really matter, which is something the devil loves to keep division in the church stirred up over. All that really matters is what the Word of God says about any given situation, as the Word of God was given to us as a blue print to follow for ALL our lives. And to really know what the Word of God says, we must know Him. We must be intimately acquainted with him (just like our best friend), as this is what the Lord of Heaven and Earth longs for the most is to be in relationship with ALL of humanity,
    We can't point fingers at this church or that church because they did this, or they did that; they said this, or they said that. God through His Son, Jesus Christ has made a way for ALL to know the truth, and once we really know Him the truth is easy to find.
    2 Timothy 3:16
    All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

    September 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Melissa

      Even if there is a god, thinking you could ever remotely know what such a creature thinks is beyond arrogance and completely foolish.

      September 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • Peace

      If God knows it all and does it all , why would God "Think " ? Isnt thinking associated to someone who is searching for answer and not for someone who knows the answer?

      September 19, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • JustSarah

      Interesting choice of words with "inspired." That generally means you took some part of it and incorporated it into something else. Therefore it's not the same. It doesn't said it is the WORD of God. It says the scripture is INSPIRED by God. Therefore EVERYTHING should be up for interpretation.

      September 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      DLW, why is it that religious people always quotes pieces of the bible that suites them for the moment? Do you ever quote Leviticus? Of course not, you're smart enough not to do that. It's that type of reading that has turned many away from the church too.

      September 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  3. Jose Castro Art

    I love:
    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’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.
    Now, the truth is, that when some religions -eg. Jehovah's Witnesses- actually do this that you are wanting for : not giving political speeches or not getting involved with politics at all, but only announcing God's Kingdom, like their Watchtower magazine has been doing for over a century, and have no TV shows that turn the Bible into a philosophical and self-help speech; they get banished, rejected and despised by society. Well, that's what Jesus said would happen to his real followers, but most people don't like the idea of being hated or left out of the crowd. And that includes most religions today. So, there's that.
    I firmly believe there is a tru path, a real way to God (not to a three-headed god that burns his children in a hell fire when they do wrong, because the Bible doesn't talk about that + God loves goodness because it is good to be good, not for fear of a punishment, so he doesn't force poeple to love goodness either) There IS a Truth about God, and saying there is not truth is an oximoron itself. Humans have always been able to lift up an airplane in the air, because the physical laws have always been there. But it took milleniums to actually design a working airplane. It took time to understand these laws. But only the people who really wanted to do it was able to make it work. My point is that whomever is HONESTLY seeking the Truth will find it. Is out there, but it takes time and a sincere and humble heart...even lowering our standards.

    September 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Your argument could just as well come from a Muslim or a Mormon; they have just as much proof of a god as you do. In fact, why don't have faith that Joseph Smith really found the golden plates.
      So, you are an atheist towards their gods, right! I'm just taking it one god further...
      To compare flight with religion... well, there is no comparison; it's an insult to intelligence.

      September 20, 2013 at 1:24 am |
  4. montyross

    THey are leaving because the bible said they would, "in the last days many will depart from the faith, listening to seducing spirits etc"

    September 19, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  5. Maranatha Kairos Eden

    Actually, the 25 to 35 age bracket is leaving church because they aren't getting anything out of it. They are neither being uplifted or convicted with any substantial message. The Christian church's decision to become as ambiguous as possible, become a real life social network obseessed with constant work-related projects, and rely on pop-psychology mixed with popular culture entertainment and marketing techniques is leaving many people finding very little solid Gospel in the place that is suppossed to be the authority on it. This article just simply isn't true and makes me want to puke.

    September 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  6. Igor

    Oh, things are VERY simple. Because Chritianity tells you that what you do is wrong, and tries to stand between us and all our bad habits and indulgences that we crave for. So these generation (and I am relatively young myself) of spoiled self-absorbed brats do not like that. And we say we are "spiritual" and "atheist", whatever, as long as we can do whatever we please to.

    September 19, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Kim

      AMEN! You hit the nail right on it's head!

      September 19, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Igor, so you're saying you need the bible or christianity in order to not "sin" and that you are not sinning because you are afraid of going to hell??? Really? I guess whatever it takes to keep you from sinning then.
      How about *choosing* not to "sin" because you care about people and want to be part of a working society that shows respect to my fellow citizens.

      September 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Seth

      It's frustrating how ignorant people like you are – You say that we always believed in your nonsense from the very beginning, whatever our denials, only for the sake of picking the morality we find convenient. Whether or not that is so does not change the fact that your beliefs are not rationally grounded. You also can't claim that this psychoanalysis of yours is true for everyone who disagrees with what you believe. You're no better than atheists claiming that you believe in Christianity out of fear.

      September 19, 2013 at 5:24 pm |

    Great article – absolutely agree with and thankful for it, hope to hear much more of the same in the future !

    September 19, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  8. Kenman

    Because of blasphamies like that just conducted by the pope saying they have no right in dealing with sin! If they stand for nothing, why bother attending?

    September 19, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • Robert

      Wow, never ceases to amaze he how little people understand their own religion. He is the first pope perhaps to actually admit he is just a man, not god, and to that end, it is not his place to judge sin, ONLY gods ... if you believe in that sort of thing.

      September 19, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  9. Anthony Deisla

    At 32, you don't qualify as a millennial at all. Millennial were born in 1982 or later.

    Back to the subject at hand, they're leaving the church because the church has alienated them, granted I dont think church should cater to political correctness, but when you are demanding that people take positions that are far outside the mainstream, these are the consequences that follow.

    September 18, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
    • Kyle

      Now i'm not particularly good at math, but wouldn't 2013-32=1981? Which in turn qualifies them as a millenial by your own standards?


      September 19, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • Daniel

        Lol bro 1981 comes before 1982, not after...

        September 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  10. Mike

    I feel that being religious and being Christian are two very different things.

    September 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  11. DW

    'Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.' Me too!

    September 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  12. Will Kirk

    a very good article...honesty with God is proof of ones faith more than questions are an indication of ones lack of...however we can discern through Jesus teachings what he may say to the gay...as he did the woman at the well...with his love and forgiveness past anyhting we can comprehend he still said " go and sin no more"....sin exist...I didnt say it he did...faith in Jeuss is not liike going to a cafeteria where you say...yes I will take that...no I dont want that...its more like going to a diner....you get the WHOLE dish...hey until you are fully reconciled that your either ALL in ....your essentially ALL OUT.

    September 18, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      That story is not part of the earlier manuscripts (about the woman at the well), but religious people love quoting it... It's a made-up story that was added much later. So much for the word of god...

      September 20, 2013 at 1:40 am |
  13. FREEDOMofReligion

    Millennials are leaving the church because the new generation is all about popularity. They have to Do whats popular, WEAR whats popular, LISTEN to whats popular. They aren't able to have their own view on things because they just want to fit in, and fitting in means adopting someone else's beliefs. They jump on board with the 'progressive' movement, but if whats going on in the world today is progressive, you can keep it. People need to wake up and realize that we are not moving ahead...we're falling behind, and it will lead to our doom.

    September 18, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • John M.

      Clearly, you have no idea what you are talking about.

      September 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Velveeta Crucifix

      Funny, I always though religion was just about a bunch of weak-minded people following along with the crowd.

      September 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      I'll tell you what's popular: TRUTH
      Young people today want to know the word of TRUTH, not the word of some imaginary friend.
      You talk of doom – the doom we've seen so far are due to religious wars, and you are right, the doom may be coming, but it will be due to ignorance and non-acceptance of others who are not "like you".

      September 20, 2013 at 1:49 am |
  14. theecclesiapage

    The first thing we must consider all the time and for all things is the WORD of God. Intellectualism must align with the scriptures else it is satanism in disguise.

    While I agree on some points, some others are not acceptable. LGBT is not!

    September 18, 2013 at 5:19 am |
    • Seth

      Evans isn't asking you to accept LGBT itself, she's asking you not to reject them wholesale on the mere basis that they are sinners. That would make hypocrites of you.

      September 18, 2013 at 7:26 am |
      • Oba Fairbian

        People change, cultures change, popes change, civil rights change, Marriage change, adoption change, relationships change but the truth (GOD'S word) does not change. Held is just another paid fly-by, talking-head. "There is no other god but me." Please organize a Millinium Church. Free yourself of the old fashion, selfish evil ways. Move on to the new holy way of life. "If you love me keep my commandments." Am I allowed to have my own opinions or the popular opinions? Is it possible to oppose the new thoughts of any special interest group and not get lumped into the racist or phobia boat? We (including Seth) are free to think for ourselves. What happened to "Lets agree to disagree." No more civil discoure. Put your emotion at your feet. Fads come and go.

        September 19, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Robert

      You can call me a satanist. As written by you, I would consider it a badge of honor. Please wear your "stupid" badge with the same pride. If you actually followed your own teachings, you would NOT pass judgment on the LGBT community. That is god's place to do that, NOT YOURS. It would be good if religious people studied their own beliefs.

      September 18, 2013 at 7:36 am |
      • A Pastor

        As a Pastor, Robert, I have to agree with you. The audacity of Christians to judge others is maddening. And science is no threat to the Bible at all. To ignore it is to prove a lack of understanding of the Biblical teaching of the God given gift of knowledge and the pursuit thereof.

        September 18, 2013 at 9:41 am |

        Show your understanding of life beyond mere pleasure.Seek to please your creator and leave the derailing path WHICH YOU-LGBT, DREW UP for your satisfaction.Life can be more meaningful than that for you and the rest of the human race;after all,you believe that THE SPIRITUAL COUNTS FIRST IN THE LIFE OF EVERY HUMAN.
        -THINK OUT SIDE SELF PLEASURE AND GRATIFICATION OF A SELF-CENTERED COMMUNITY AND ACCEPT CHRIST JESUS,NOW! It has a peaceable reward for you now and in the life that is to come,dear.

        September 18, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      I intellectually cannot condone slavery. I guess you do condone slavery to be aligned to the scriptures.

      September 20, 2013 at 1:54 am |
  15. Dimple May

    I think people have turned out to be atheists as they have lost faith in the religion they have been believing in. Most followers of the religions are born believers, believing in the religion they were brought up by the parents. As time passes with maturity, they began to doubt in their belief and thus becomes atheists before finding out the truth. And .. those who failed to put in more efforts in finding out the truth remained as atheists.

    September 18, 2013 at 4:04 am |
    • Seth

      It is good to see someone who understands us better. I have to ask, however – Why do you believe that theism is the truth? What did your "efforts" bring you to, that it is now reality to you?

      September 18, 2013 at 7:27 am |
    • Robert

      Then again many (most) atheists have never ever believed in religion.

      September 18, 2013 at 7:32 am |
      • CommonSensePrevails


        September 20, 2013 at 1:58 am |
        • Robert

          Noodles 🙂

          September 20, 2013 at 3:25 am |
    • Robert

      NO ONE IS BORN RELIGIOUS! .. It is indoctrinated into them by their parents. My parents are religious, I have never been. I do seek the truth every day ... hence why I am not religious.

      September 18, 2013 at 7:34 am |
      • CommonSensePrevails

        Good for you, Robert! It's nice to hear some common sense =)

        September 20, 2013 at 2:00 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      And let me guess – the ones who convert to YOUR religion are the ones who put in the effort to find "Truth".

      September 18, 2013 at 8:52 am |
  16. annieL

    I agree with Rachel. However, the best the evangelicals could do to attract educated, thinking people, young and old, is to move away from their literal interpretations, especially of Jesus' life and teachings. Jesus himself taught in parables to make people think about spiritual concepts. He used metaphors and similes, "The kingdom of God is like...." to describe complex spiritual truths. The very fact that most Christians are sure that God is a man and ONLY a man because Jesus called God "father" tells you how literalism kills spirit. In what sense is God a "father", we are supposed to ask and how does that affect us, his "children"? We might also ask, why is God not a "mother"? Being tied down to literal interpretations based on words written in a different language thousands of years ago is what turning people off the message. Words are poor teachers of spiritual truth and should never be confused with the truth they can only point us to find for ourselves.

    September 18, 2013 at 12:02 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.