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. thykingdomcome-thywillbedone

    this means you are unknowingly sending your "millenials" comfortably to hell's direction..
    do you know that??
    A generation that wants God on their own terms......who do you think you are really? The church is not a market place
    but God's congregation on the earth. Whosoever believeth not is damned.

    September 20, 2013 at 8:21 am |
    • Robert

      They again you hate spewed vitriol could quite possibly have your coals to the fire while the non hating atheist is welcomed with open arms because while they did not believe in god, they lived good lives.

      September 20, 2013 at 9:24 am |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Look who's talking! ".. who wants god on their own terms.." – guess what, when you pray for something, aren't you doing the same? You are asking for something; why ask god for something when he's already got a plan for you. Praying is to want god on your own terms.

      September 20, 2013 at 11:02 am |
      • Robert

        Damn you using logic where religion is concerned.

        September 20, 2013 at 11:30 am |
        • CommonSensePrevails

          I'm damned with common sense 😉

          September 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • SoldierOfConscience

      exactly. its a 7 course meal not a buffet. if something is not good then its evil.

      September 23, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  2. Tom on Cape Cod

    I found Ms. Held's article insightful and thought-provoking. The idea of standing for something as opposed to being against something seems particularly Christian to me. It is so easy to deal in vitriol and condemnation. Screaming slogans, name-calling and vilification should never be part of religious discussion. Responding with understanding and faith-based charity seems a much more Christian approach.

    September 20, 2013 at 7:33 am |
  3. Luke

    It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that supernaturally regenerates the heart of men who are dead in their sins. Cool worship music, coffee shops in Church, good works, and being more accepting of other people are all great, but these things do not save people. Jesus lived a perfect life and died, suffering the full wrath of God, as a propitiation for our sins. Our punishment (because God is a just God) was placed onto the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In return, God looks upon all who trust in Christ, and sees the righteousness of a perfect man who has never sinned. It is an unfair trade.. it is the Grace of God... Friends put your faith in Christ... He is the only way to heaven, the only way to have victory over sin, and the only way to have complete joy... The book of John is a great place to start if you are not familiar with the Bible... Blessings...

    September 19, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      "John" was written anonymously, so not the word of god! I think Leviticus is a great place to start! Read the whole thing and see what you think. Scary stuff...

      September 20, 2013 at 12:31 am |
      • Luke

        Jesus tells us that everything in the old testament is about him (Luke 24:44, John 5:39). Leviticus emphasizes the holiness of God, and the seriousness of sinning against Him. It also is a foreshadow of the Messiah who would come into the world, live a perfect life, and die for the sins of wicked men. In the first chapter of Leviticus, the Israelites are commanded to sacrifice male sheep, goats and bulls without blemish as atonement for sins. But these atonements were only good for a short amount of time… By God’s grace He has made the final, lasting sacrifice as atonement for our sins through His perfect, spotless son… Look to Christ, He does save… God bless

        September 20, 2013 at 1:23 am |
        • CommonSensePrevails

          Do you condone slavery? Your god does. Do you believe the bible is the word of god? If so, did you stone anyone lately?

          September 20, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • Seth

      I found no joy in faith because I am incapable of it.

      Never mind that, though. Did you read the article? Are you agreeing or disagreeing with it?

      September 20, 2013 at 3:38 am |
  4. LUCIA

    So, what you're saying in this article is……the churches need hipper worship bands?

    haha great piece

    September 19, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  5. Morton Crockett

    Dude.. I'm not substantially into studying, but somehow I obtained to go through lots of post subject material with your world wide web website. Its brilliant how attention-grabbing it definitely is for me to go to you pretty frequently.

    September 19, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  6. Amber

    Great! Now I have to rub shoulders with Millennials at mass?!?!?!?!

    September 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Behold!


      September 19, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  7. Puggs

    Social justice is uber hip.

    September 19, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  8. Veritas

    The Pentecostals, The Charismatics have hijacked Christianity. Too much emotionalism and drama. We can thank the people @Daystar and all the frauds with their dyed goatees and plastic hair. You have turned people away from the Gospel and have turned to the Golden calf of money and vanity. $$$

    September 19, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • Behold!


      September 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
      • Beheld?


        September 20, 2013 at 2:53 am |
        • Withheld

          : )

          September 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Jesus Loves You

      Why becoming a hateful and judgmental Christian. You can hate all the time but it is waste, use your positive energy in sharing God's salvation through Jesus. Even Apostle did not become so much judgmental to the Christian preachers of his time with earthly motives.

      September 19, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • ann

      Read the Azuza Street Revival. I am not one however, you will find that the pentacostal churches are the ones that are growing the fastest. The young people are switching to that now.

      September 20, 2013 at 2:25 am |
  9. Behold!

    If I owned a sheathed sword, persons would know that I have knowledge of the sword and have mastery over it. If it was handed in to your hands, the sense would bring the smell and feel of leather that encases that sword. But when the sound of the pulling blade and the reflection in the summer sun blinds you temporarily, you then would know that this sword wields power. It is not used at the moment for defense or offense, but also to direct left, right, forward or point, no damage has been done right? When an untrained person handles this magnificent sword the potential to hurt yourself is great and you would feel offended even clumsy. for not understand how and why this sword is...just like the Word of God.

    September 19, 2013 at 5:54 pm |

      Godless Vagabond
      Honey, you've got to get out of that church for a few hours a day.

      September 20, 2013 at 2:55 am |
  10. Behold!

    “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all." Luke 17:28-29

    What were Lot's days like? raise your hands please, not all at once. What exactly was the culture like in those modern times before fire rained down on them? Please one at time.

    September 19, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • Seth

      Gee, I'm going to venture a guess and say they were a lot like any other point in human history.

      September 19, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
      • Michael Girouard

        I'm just guessing, but I think that was not the expected answer...

        September 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
      • Behold!

        Yes exactly history is the evidence of things not seen. You've not once lived in World War 2 except if you were there and know it was in existence because of the all the records and archeological substances. Therefore, God Loved LGBT's, with exception of everyone to come to understanding His Word. Yet man's testimony has ruined it, from thieving pastors to hypocritical members. It is true. In the last days, the world and the "church" will be in the worst apostate condition and the news and this article can confirm that.

        September 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
        • Seth

          History is evidence of things not seen that are not supernatural.

          September 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
        • dissidentfairy

          Seth even science relies on faith. "Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: 'Ye must have faith.' Max Planck-Physicist-Quantum Physics...

          September 19, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
        • Seth

          The faith it takes to construct a working model or that the bus will get you to work in the morning is not the same kind of faith it takes to believe that there was bread raining from the sky.

          September 19, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
        • dissidentfairy

          I actually found it very touching when God sent the quail to cover the ground with a sweet dew like substance known as manna to feed His people:) "That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp." Exodus 16:13

          September 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
        • Seth

          Show me columns of fire and smoke with no plausible naturalistic origin or cities being destroyed by fire and brimstone from God. I might have some faith then.

          September 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
        • dissidentfairy

          Be careful what you wish for...that day may come. A friend of mine told me about a paranormal experience that happened to him. He said he never forgot it. He has a very scientific mind and being an inventor is very familiar with the laws of physics. He recanted a time in his parents home when he was in the restroom standing in front of a mirror, he said a light fixture that was bolted down, the glass portion, flew off the fixture at a fairly high rate of speed. He was completely astonished by the experience and never forgot it. He analyzed the fixture and there was no possible explanation for what had happened. The point is if something supernatural doesn't happen to someone then they do have a hard time believing in things such as that.

          September 19, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
        • Robert

          I can't explain it ... does not mean it cannot be explained. That is the first point. Psychokinesis, if it exists, is ALSO no proof of a god ... though a lot of religions would equate that to the devil.

          September 19, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
        • dissidentfairy

          It's proof of a force to the person that experienced it. It didn't fall to the ground it shot out straight across the room like a bullet. He said it completely defied all the rules of reality. He said it was "the impossible" and the experience convinced him that anything is possible.

          September 19, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
        • Robert

          Of course managing not to shear the bulbs and sockets off as it shock straight sideways, not down ... but anyway, whey apply logic to it. As I said, because he does not have an explanation does not mean it is not explainable. I can tell you one thing, I know he was not looking right at it when it happened as people never directly stare at lights for any period of time. Hence he really does not know exactly what happened ... it just surmises what happened once the globe was actually in his vision.

          Either way, it is not remotely a proof, or even remotely an indication of "god".

          September 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
        • Robert

          If you are going to quote, at least understand what it means! The faith referred to, it faith in one's self, one's own abilities, not a god.

          September 19, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
        • Webby

          * dissidentfairy,

          You need to look up the definition of "recant".

          September 19, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
        • dissidentfairy

          So I had a word out of place big Wow! There may be more so keep looking:) You guys seem to live for typos and ridicule instead of taking to heart what is said.

          September 19, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
        • CommonSensePrevails

          Religion is an insult to intellectual integrity!
          The difference between science and religion is that once an idea has been disproven in science, it's discarded, and scientists try something different – science is the pursuit of truth. Religion is the complete opposite: if an idea is proven flawed, hold on to it for dear life, and tell the offending disbeliever they will go to hell – now, that's logical.

          September 20, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • The Lord of Excess

      BEHOLD! Hey "Behold" go read your book of Leviticus and then tell me how well you follow that one. Stoned any infadels lately?? Know anyone marrying their brother's widow, or practicing polygamy or slavery? The bible has many rules and suggestions about how to be a good slave owner, are you following those "Behold." Just wondering.

      September 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
      • Behold!

        As it is written:
        “There is no one righteous, not even one;
        there is no one who understands;
        there is no one who seeks God.
        All have turned away,
        they have together become worthless;
        there is no one who does good" Romans 3:10-12

        Lord of Excess–The Old Testament only had the power to condemn, it cannot redeem or justify not one, yet the Blood of the Lamb came to destroy what was written against you and me and which was contrary to you and me, that is, it would have been impossible to hold every law written in obedience without breaking one, for if we did, then we would be as criminals. You are now a bearer of your own cross dear friend, that is, the Law of Consciousness is in effect for all. A toddler does not know that gravity cause a fall, but through time and maturity the law of gravity now becomes an understandable force. Equilibrium, and so on are mastered and even used to great advantages.

        September 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  11. Behold!


    September 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  12. Behold!

    I want, we want! What about what God asks of us?

    September 19, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • ????

      The faith communities should always be willing to hear and respect LGBT's, but also try to help them understand that God's word does condemn this lifesytle. It is written in the Holy Bible, and most all other major religions. It is not a man made "rule", but an order and instruction from God himself!

      September 19, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      The bible is a book you want to follow. Why don't you and other believers leave others alone to live a common sense, caring and normal life to ourselves? We do quite well without an imaginary friend and don't need the promise of hell to keep us from sinning. We do not sin because we care about our fellow humans. It's not what you believe but how you live your life and care about other people. Stop judging and start caring.

      September 20, 2013 at 12:55 am |
  13. Bible Clown©

    I never believed, never joined, never thought it was anything but a myth. Boring old stories and the moral was always "God is bigger than you are so say He's correct." Might doesn't actually make right, even on a cosmic scale.

    September 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Real Reality

      Another non believer? *gasp* No, but right makes right. There is truth and the stories are only old and boring because your, well, a clown. Bye now

      September 19, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
      • Robert

        No he is not a clown, he brings up very valid points. I know, hard to respond too hence you don't. Might does not make right and the way that "gods" are described in religion .... does not make them sound like nice creatures. Mean, petty, and full of human foibles ..... not something anyone in their right mind would ever worship.

        September 19, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
      • CommonSensePrevails

        The bible is just another story book just as books about Greek mythology.

        September 20, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  14. MattD

    Why? Because they're self-absorbed, immoral fools.

    September 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Ongobongo

      I'm thinking it's more likely that they're trying to avoid self-righteous people like you. Sin much yourself?

      September 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  15. Velveeta Crucifix

    Just read these comments and see why people are dumping the church. All you pious thumpers who are telling everyone else that they're doomed to hell are driving people away. All you thumpers who stick your noses into other people's bedrooms are driving people away. All of you who tell others how to live their lives while you yourself live a life of sin are driving people away. Don't be angry now that some people are finally waking from that Dark Age stupor and realizing that religion is nothing more than hokum that has been perpetrated upon the weak-minded for centuries.

    September 19, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  16. Roman

    Lovers of pleasure, rather than lovers of God. Sizzle in hell, in the next life, unless you turn to Jesus Christ for salvation.

    September 19, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Melissa

      Or just give up the religion garbage altogether and grow up out of the monster under the bed era of your lives.

      September 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Truth

      However, it's hard to "love the sinner" and judge them at the same time.

      September 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • Robert

      I love, you hate (obviously). If there is a god, one of us is going to burn, but it won't be me, it will be you. Practice what you preach. I don't believe in god, I don't feel there is value in religion any more, and I think it sets humanity back in so many ways. I do not hate religious people in general, but I do not tolerate those who will force their views on others in whatever manner they will try.

      On the other hand, you actually seem to hate and wish poorly on all that do not follow your doctrine. I believe I understand your religion better than you. You are judging, and you are sinning. Burn sinner burn 🙂

      September 19, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Roman, I thought it was a sin to judge, so guess you're going to "hell"..
      It's sad to see grown people cling to an imaginary friend.

      September 20, 2013 at 1:03 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.