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)


    September 23, 2013 at 10:23 pm |


      September 23, 2013 at 10:30 pm |

    sure babe. first, admit who u r. right! phony punk. then, prove love exists. lol feel free to go into detail. stupid fool.

    This is not sam, honey. So D, why is it that I don't "no"?
    You see to be a drive-by pigeon without any substance. You want to take a crack at demontrating how you objectively know you God's will?"

    delores, how was work today? kill any jews?

    September 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm |

    Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come,your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

    September 23, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  4. Seth


    September 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
    • .

      certain words are banned, fyi... like const.itution t.i.t. circ.umstances c.u.m. ja.pan j.a.p.

      September 23, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
      • D MURDOCH


        September 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
      • D MURDOCH


        September 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
        • Seth

          Somewhere in Africa, a jungle is missing its chimp.

          September 23, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  5. SoldierOfConscience

    they want it to become a buffet line not a 7 course meal. that is just wrong. The chef (i.e. the clergy / preacher / church) gives you want you need in 7 courses not what you want.. in which case you end up eating just hamburger and a slice of cake, no veggies or liver.

    another point of principle is that there is good and there is evil. When a church coddles us and does not inform us of evil then it is useless. I dont oppose g @ys for any other reason. its simple. man + woman = good. anything else (man / man, woman/ woman, man/ goat, man/ child) = evil. its black and white. dont make it sea of grey.

    September 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • SoldierOfConscience

      FYI. im in my late thirties myself. when I shopped around for a church I rejected 90% of those I saw around.. coz I asked

      1. do they teach the bible literally?
      2. do they differentiate clearly between good adn evil

      its not the fashion nowadays, alas.

      September 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
      • Seth

        Teaching the Bible as literal and removed from its historical and lingual context is dangerous.

        September 23, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
        • D MURDOCH


          September 23, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
        • D MURDOCH


          September 23, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • Seth

      Also, you mention that millenials don't want the entire meal. I'd argue that this article is saying the opposite, that preachers focus way too much on some parts of the meal while completely ignoring those parts that are arguably the most important.

      You see condemnation, exclusion, and judgment on the part of God's finest in the Bible belt, not the compassion and awareness of their own sin that would be expected of a person truly following Christ's teachings. You see rigid literalism instead of a contextual and intellectually considerate approach to interpretation of the OT. You see, it's not about what God wants, it's about what Pastor Billy Bob says God wants – And that's why, Evans argues, you see so many "kids" leaving.

      September 23, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
      • D MURDOCH


        September 23, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
        • Seth

          I have to give you some credit. Most trolls don't seem to know that laziness is the better part of their craft.

          September 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
      • Brandon Stanley

        Could it be that the kids are leaving because they are rejecting God and God's revelation the Bible? Does the Bible not say that this will happen in the last days? People will be lovers of themselves, boastful, proud, disobedient, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Why should we be amazed that this article is wanting to censor the preacher of the Bible just to gain popularity among the masses. Christianity may not be as popular as you would like, but remember Jesus and the prophets were never popular. Wide is the road that leads to destruction and narrow is the road that leads to life and only a few will find it.

        September 24, 2013 at 11:48 am |
        • Seth

          It's certainly a possibility, but you seem more interested in yours than to consider mine. Isn't that part of the problem in the first place? Again, it's got nothing to do with what any God wants, it has to do with how you're interpreting what God wants and what you believe is prophesied – and you're not willing to budge from that even when other interpretations are not in conflict with the facts, or even when other interpretations are more in line with the facts.

          Don't get me wrong, the Bible would be an inconvenient truth for me. No doubt you're losing a lot of people who just don't want to deal with the rules or implications. But there are just as likely to be people who have seen the divide between what their religious leaders say, what those religious leaders do, and between logic and evidence and what those religious teachers are pushing.

          September 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Doris

      "dont make it sea of grey."

      Again, your argument here is ridiculous. Why? Because homosexuality is a natural part of nature across many species including humans. Now if feel this comes against teachings from Biblical times, that's simply a matter where science could not explain it then. If you're going to continue to judge based on what you think are divine "truths" then you seriously need to look at the source of information that you are assuming to be divine. Otherwise, like the people that didn't believe Galileo, you will fade like the dust in a cave that never saw the light of day.

      September 23, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
      • Doris

        correction: if you feel

        September 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
        • D MURDOCH

          as usual, u speak of that which u no not, sam

          September 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
        • Doris

          This is not sam, honey. So D, why is it that I don't "no"?

          You see to be a drive-by pigeon without any substance. You want to take a crack at demontrating how you objectively know you God's will?

          September 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
        • Dippy

          don't feed the troll!

          September 23, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
        • Option

          "don't feed the troll!"

          Or, keep him busy here. It could be our little contribution to society... and I'll bet it's quite appreciated by his mother or caregiver.

          September 23, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
  6. Mary

    My mom wrote a poem about the church which I think fits nicely here.


    One of God’s children, so you say?
    To other folks it doesn’t look that way.
    You come to church each Sunday morn,
    Your countenance filled with utter scorn.

    You see your neighbor, his past you remember,
    “Well he’s only been here since last September.
    What does he know about teaching that class?
    I could tell him a few things if only he’d ask.”
    “I’ve been here for years and know how it’s done,
    They’ve turned this church into laughter and fun.
    That singing and preaching, they are not the same.
    Now you can be sure that I’m not to blame.

    We need a service with everything timed.
    If it goes past 11:30 it’s not worth a dime.”
    “That preacher, he can’t even preach, poor dear,
    His sermons are not what I want to hear.”
    “I could do better with no education,
    Or at least I’ve been told that by all my relation.”

    I must have been placed here to give this church a
    It’s strange, maybe God made a mistake.
    I’ll tell everyone that this church is a mess,
    For I know just how to get God to bless.

    What misled creatures some folks are,
    With a heart full of hate and a tongue full of fire.
    Please do me a favor, don’t say you’re a Christian.
    People see your actions and won’t even listen.
    God’s grace is sufficient to change us all,
    If we ask his forgiveness and before him we fall.
    The church will move forward when we learn to love,
    For there is no power to change,
    But God up above.

    © Marian E. Blake

    Marian was a minister's wife for 61 years and certainly would agree with this author.

    September 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      Nice take on the hypocrisy of religion. "Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut up the kingdom of the heavens before men; for you yourselves do not go in, neither do you permit those on their way to go in." Matthew 23:13.

      "Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit." Matthew 15:14.

      "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Matthew 7:21....The prolific words of Jesus Christ.

      September 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Robert

      Succinct poem and the way that many atheist see many religious people .... hypocritical. Religion is no more guarantee that someone is good than it is a non-religious person is good. Some are, some are not.

      September 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
      • dissidentfairy

        Any savvy believer in God also sees tremendous hypocrisy in religion. You don't have to be an Atheist or a rocket scientist to see that.

        September 22, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
  7. sunnylovetts

    Why would you ever have to choose between "compassion and holiness" do you not know that compassion IS holiness?

    September 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  8. qwqw

    Why millenials are leaving CNN.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  9. Name*Janet Robertson

    Thank you for making this clear to me. I've been trying to put my finger on some of the unease I have identifying myself as evangelical. Maybe I am not really.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  10. lisa60510

    What you're describing, without the longing for Jesus, is Reform Judiasm. And remember, Jesus was a Jew.

    September 21, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  11. Melissa Reynolds

    Thank you for sharing what we who seek to be disciples of Jesus need to hear. As I read some of these comments, I am confused by the attacks – the millennials are leaving the church – we know that – and you give us some reasons why and we attack the messenger and ignore the message. I hear you loud and clear.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:35 am |
    • Anon

      Jesus is myth and Christianity is a complete farce. The sooner humans realize this the better.

      September 21, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  12. Anon

    The sooner the better. This desert blood cult is dying and education is killing it.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  13. KLSKLS

    Is life always about "me" and "what I want"? There's no picking and choosing when it comes to God's word and his faith. You either take it for all that it is, or go about your own way. Just as we can only love our parents and children for the good and the bad, that's how faith and religion is. If you only take the parts that suit your needs, then you are missing the point.

    September 20, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • jarhead333

      Great comment. It is always funny to me when people decide to use religion as a spiritual "grab bag".

      September 20, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      That's Christianity! A smorgasbord – take what "tastes" good and forget about the rest, and then call yourself a good christian... No, if you are a christian, stand up for your religion, which also means you should be stoning people who work on Sundays.

      September 21, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • CommonSensePrevails

      Here's one: Sunday after church, christians love to go out for breakfast.
      Shouldn't they be stoning the people who are serving them breakfast???

      September 21, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  14. Shawn Irwin

    Awwww!!! Poor evangelicals are loosing their meal ticket . . . . they might have to get a real job that actually produces something useful!

    September 20, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  15. brads2sense

    Author is basically saying she wants people out of the religion. They are the ones who corrupted it. Perhaps people have surpassed religion and are seeking something greater. May I suggest we all "conquer/find" our own selves first?

    September 20, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • jarhead333

      Most level headed comment I have seen on here in a while. I am a Christian, but I believe that everyone needs to figure things out on their own.

      September 20, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  16. Will

    I was always under the impression that people leave the church due to increased intelligence and actually READING the bible. I guess that's what they mean by the "BS" detector.

    September 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Robert

      As most people are "in the church" via forced indoctrination (their parents), odds are some will wake up and say this does not make any sense. Many are sheep and will just remain with the flock. I expect there is a not insignificant number that do not believe, but just stay due to the social nature, social pressure, spouse, family, etc. These people are likely leaving in greater number now that they do not feel they need this association any more.

      September 20, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  17. Catholic Millennial


    You have hit the nail on the head. When my new husband and I are discussing our reservations about bringing our future children to church because we're worried about the messages they'll hear, that's a problem.

    September 20, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • brads2sense

      May I suggest exposing them to several different faiths or even philosophies and see which one they resonate with the most?

      September 20, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Adam C

      I'd suggest shielding them from religion until they are of an age to understand what it all means. Then, introduce it to them slowly and in digestible parts.

      September 20, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
  18. BrightAurora

    I have a lot of appreciation for what this article has to say! The idea of our "BS meters" being finely-tuned resonates with me in particular. I was raised in the church and have much love for it, but many places give me a feeling of doubt in the genuineness of the "body's" focus on God's true call for humanity: Love! We were made to love ALL of humanity, love creation, and love God; yet, our world is so bogged down by hate that it sometimes becomes suffocating!

    That being said, is it bad that in reading the comments I quickly abandon any care for what people are trying to say, no matter their stance or opinion, and only see the glaring grammar errors...? They pain me.

    September 20, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Amber

      Oh the humanity!!

      September 20, 2013 at 2:36 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.