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. Steve Sybesma (Lafayette, CO)

    I couldn't possibly agree more. Evangelicalism needs to die a quick death to spare us all the continued suffering we've been through with them and their ridiculous, destructive behavior. They do society absolutely no good whatsoever (even when they give, it's guaranteed to be a 100% pure pretense to get people trapped into their church and for no other reason) they have lost every issue they've tried to fight (near perfect zero track record for how many decades now?) and all they do is contribute to the 'noise' in society instead of doing anything constructive...they just need to go away and get born again (so to speak) back into humanity. If there is a 'god', they sure don't represent 'him', I'm utterly convinced beyond a shred of doubt and I've seen a lifetime's worth of their BS to have a qualified opinion of this subject. A large chuck of my life was ruined by this stuff.

    October 1, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG


      October 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  2. Ethan

    Some day humans will read about the world religions in history books. The world needs less religion and more compassion. Stop praying to "God" and instead help out your fellow man. The imaginary man in the sky is long dead.

    October 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  3. Jeff K

    "evangelical Christianity" thats your problem right there. How about going with less obnoxious forms of Christianity.

    October 1, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  4. It'sSoObvious

    You have it all wrong. There is no such thing as "god". Millennials, who have instant access to more information than any other generation before them, made this realization long ago. The root of the problem is not the substance of faith, the root is that faith itself relies on the very ignorance that technology has eliminated... at least when it comes to god. Hopefully by mid-century this argument will be the relic it should be and we can join the rest of the developed world by putting our energy into more productive efforts.

    October 1, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • George

      "The root of the problem is not the substance of faith, the root is that faith itself relies on the very ignorance that technology has eliminated."

      Well said, and may I add another relevant quote:

      "The level of faith involved in making any assertion is inversely proportional to the amount of evidence supporting the assertion."

      As we amass and disseminate more and more knowledge, the levels of faith required to persist in religious belief will finally become unsustainable.

      October 3, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  5. choir loft

    Ms Evans has it half right.....

    Protestant religion today is in self-destruct mode. It's all dog and pony show with no substance.
    And the substance protestants have forgotten, as well as Ms. Evans, is the person of God and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.
    Jesus didn't come to make bad people good, He came to make dead people live.
    Until and unless protestant leaders go back to this most basic tenant of the faith all they'll really have on their hands is a highly mortgaged venue with diminishing audiences. And well meaning folks like Ms. Evans will never know the power of religion.
    and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    October 1, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  6. Dennis

    It sounds to me like you want the warm, fuzzy Jesus part of Christianity without having to deal with the inconvenience of the rest of Bible. As much as I want to have respect for Christian folks who want to not be bigots or ignore scientific facts, it seems ridiculous to demand that your church completely ignore what is in the text it has derived its doctrine from simply because those things make you uncomfortable and are shaping up to seem more and more idiotic as we make advancements in knowldge. If you are craving the Jesus part, but don't want the ugly, screwed up part that comes with it, maybe it's time you consider leaving Evangelical Christianity. Sorry.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Love Jesus

      ........that is why people are leaving the church [and the point of the entire article!]..................

      October 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  7. sam41445

    I am 54 and quit church for the exact reasons above,, good article and you have it right 100%

    September 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  8. Robert Rice

    The responses to this article are precisely why people are leaving the church. There is no thoughtful reaction and nor respect for anyone who disagrees with one point of view. I say well done Rachel.

    September 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  9. Adam

    So...hipper bands then?

    September 30, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • Traci B

      That made me laugh, thanks 🙂

      September 30, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  10. mike jeremiah meredith robert III

    Them certain style of reborners is all nasty stankies! Trust me. I ought to no.

    September 30, 2013 at 2:05 am |
    • Seth

      Uncle Ruckus?

      September 30, 2013 at 5:28 am |
  11. robert

    Indeed, that report says that atheists never become addicts. Every atheist is loving, kind, patient, clean and sober, upright, awesome and nearly perfect.

    September 30, 2013 at 1:57 am |
  12. J Plowman

    I disagree with Rachel our problem in America is we have to many Pharisaical Christians running around casting judgement on people.

    Unfortunately, It sounds like there are a lot of bitter people on here. Because there was a preacher some where in there life that ruined them from ever wanting anything to do with the church. either because he liked running peoples lives or he lived a double standard. It is preachers that like running people lives that end producing Pharisaical Christians that want to use there bible to tear everyone down cause other people don't live what they live. I can say very thankfully and humbly my father is a Pastor and he has told the people that attend the church. He's not going to run there lives for example don't come ask the Pastor if you can go hang out with some friends or go buy a car or house, that is none of my business. Unlike many mega church pastors my father has said multiple times if you can't give your money cheerfully then he don't want it keep it. My dad doesn't Pastor a large church we have about 50 people in it. Many months my dad has had to pay most of the rent out of his own pocket. But unfortunately there are to many Pastors that want to be dictators and run peoples lives and treat them like children. It is those Pastors that have ruined people from every wanting to return to the church.

    September 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  13. Trudy Crandell

    I am so impressed with the comments of Rachell Held Evans. I am 69 years old, and I agree with her view completely. I wish I could find a church where God is the main event. I have found that a lot of pastors seem to preach their own views, instead of adhereing to the Bible. The women seem to follow the lead of the Pastor's wife. If she wears make-up, they will as well. If she dresses a certain way, so will they. I think most Pastors are just plain old trying to control the congregation; their thoughts, their political views, etc. I have a second cousin who is a Pastor, and he had power of attorney for his mother. After his dad died, and his mom was having some health problems, but could still manage on her own, he forced her into a Convalesson home against her will. When she managed to get herself set free, and took away his power of attorney, he refused to come see her, and didn't even go to her funeral when died. I believe in God, but I'm skeptical of ministers. I'm sure there are a lot of good ministers out there, but you just don't know which ones they are. I prefer to just have my own belief in God, and interpet the Bible for my ownself.

    September 29, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • Boz

      Have at it, Trudy. Go read that bible and do your own goat sacrifice just like it says to.

      September 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
      • dissidentfairy

        Boz you are not being very respectful to someone I assume is older than you! If you are older than her then I consider you rather hopeless as a sentient individual.

        September 29, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
        • Robert

          Respect does not come with age, but with demonstrated accomplishments and value which many believe this article provide neither.

          September 30, 2013 at 1:11 am |
        • dissidentfairy

          Robert I'm not a fan of this article either but that doesn't mean one has to be rude or condescend.

          September 30, 2013 at 1:41 am |
    • Mike

      unfortunatley when we make sure God hates all of the things we hate, we are no longer created in his image. We are creating him in ours.

      September 30, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  14. Amy Sumter

    Millenials are leaving the church because they have no privacy. If you want a free, secure phone, text and internet service that is public open source, send this crowd-fund campaign link out everywhere, post it in all of your blogs, post it on comments sections of news articles, put it in the footer of your email and text messages and spread this around: http://igg.me/at/freephone/x/4895502


    September 29, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  15. Jay Wilson

    "Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus."

    Interesting. As part of a group that comprises just 1/7th of the world's population, you claim to speak for the other 6/7th's. What makes your beliefs right and every non-Christian wrong? Got any proof?

    I have a 19 year old daughter. She and her friends have absolutely no interest in religion or the dogma of centuries past, especially that which is touted by the Church of Rome whose opulence knows no bounds. Why does the Catholic Church need to own the largest fine art collection in the world when so many of their flock right outside the gates of the Vatican beg for food and change?

    OK, so you don't respect Richard Dawkins. But how about Christopher Hitchins? I think he hit it right on the head when he said, "Religion...Spoils...Everything."

    I'm tired of the world's increasing religious chauvinism. I'm tired of religion's overt misogyny.

    Do you honestly believe that a benevolent "God" would allow people to suffer an eternal, fiery punishment just for not accepting the dogma as your scriptures profess?

    Come on. It's the 21st century. We no longer need the concept of an invisible bearded man in the sky who hears the thoughts and answers the prayers of every being in the universe.

    I have no doubt that one day science will answer those questions about the origins of the universe that prompted mankind's belief in a super-being. Will you change one iota as a result? I sincerely doubt it.

    September 29, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • mymomsapreacher

      i hate to have to respond to someone like jay wilson, who obviously only chose to read the parts of the article that made him (or her) mad, but as an athiest raised in a christian church, i thought this was a great article from someone's perspective who wasn't trying to convert you. you (Jay) sound as bitter and self righteous as the "christians" i grew up with, which is hilarious because your response was trying so hard to be insightful but turned out sounding just like another person a soap box, which we all loathe at this point. misogyny? did you read the article Wilson? how you worked misogyny and the oldest christian bearded man cliche and math (thanks for helping us out with 1/7th and 6/7ths) into a reply makes me wonder how bad your day is going to be.

      September 29, 2013 at 10:48 am |
      • yourmomisstupidandsoareyou

        "not preaching" is B-S

        September 29, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
      • d murdoch

        "you (Jay) sound as bitter and self righteous as the "christians" i grew up with..." mymomsapreacher

        how tragic. you both sound just like the bitter, hateful, rotten, stinking, disgusting, stupid, two-faced heroin addicts (all atheists) i grew up knowing. that's y i joined our wonderful local church filled with kind, generous, brilliant saints

        September 29, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
        • Robert

          It's a fact that in addition to more teenage pregnancy, that addicts are more likely to associate with a religion than with atheism as a percentage of the population. Care to try again?

          September 30, 2013 at 1:14 am |
        • robert

          In fact, only religious zealots are addicts and depressed and nasty and vile and raunchy deviants. Just look at our wonder of wonders, Sam stone! She is almost divine, if we believed in that sort of thing!

          September 30, 2013 at 2:01 am |
      • d murdoch

        "you (Jay) sound as bitter and self righteous as the "christians" i grew up with..." mymomsapreacher

        how tragic. you both sound just like the biter, hatful, roten, stking, dis usting, stoopid, two-faced hern addicts (all atheists) i grew up knowing. that's y i joined our wonderful local church filled with kind, generous, brilliant saints

        September 29, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
        • Robert

          Judge not lest ye be judged ..... your god's words, not mine. You are a hypocrite ... by your own rules!

          September 30, 2013 at 1:15 am |
    • Leonore H. Dvorkin

      Very well said, Jay. Thanks a lot. I am an ex-Catholic, and my husband (David Dvorkin) is an ex-Orthodox Jew. His father was even a rabbi. Yet we both grew out of religion - any religion - before we were married (at 21 and 24). We are both authors, with more than 20 books to our credit, most of them by David: mainly science fiction, horror, and some nonfiction. We are now in the process of writing a book about our own journey to atheism and atheism in general. You can be sure that we will also be praising the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins, and other prominent atheists. As we keep reading about young people moving away from religion, it gives us a lot of hope for the future. Maybe someday this country will be as enlightened and mature as various European countries, in which the populations are now at least 50% atheist.

      October 1, 2013 at 2:12 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.