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. smanonymous

    This, all of this. This really is the main reason I stopped going to church and have taken up the phrase "If having to choose between faith and religion, I will take faith every time. Faith is how we *feel* about our God, religion is what man *does* to that faith."

    November 19, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  2. No Win No Fee Claims

    Hi, probably our entry may be off topic but anyways, I have been surfing around your blog and it looks very professional.

    November 11, 2013 at 5:16 am |
  3. Steffteel

    Maybe it's the fact that younger people are beginning to through the BS that organized religion truly is...

    November 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  4. Hasanga

    As an outsider to Christianity, Islam and other faith based religions, I would say that no religion is bad, only people make religion look bad, at the end of the day all religions must serve a personal purpose, what the masses say and do are completely irrelevant to your faith as long as you use your faith to guide you through life's obstacles. There's isn't and shouldn't be anything more to any faith than that.

    Preaching your faith to others in my opinion should only be done to those who seek it. In my country (South Asia) you often see, protestant and other forms of Christians go from door to door in neighborhoods trying to convince folks to embrace their faith, (these same people often get beaten up in the name of the good lord),and it is these very misguided ideals such as being motivated to convert people of other faiths that will ultimately bring demise to Christianity and other similar faiths.

    Like the writer quite rightly points out with advancement of technology today, many questions are raised that completely contradicts faith based belief systems (by this I refer to all faiths that believe in God, heaven and hell) but instead of trying to strike a balance between science and faith they box on with denial and claimed superiority completely ignoring science.

    Why? one may ask.... A very simple answer: they want to hold on to power. Undeniably, the Catholic and Christian churches have held far greater power than any country or individual for centuries, but with direction the world is heading now with science in the forefront, they are losing the grip of that power, so they are fighting as hard as they can to hold on to their former glory completely forgetting the core values of their faith. These faiths no longer serve their followers with the original purpose of guiding them through life, but are using them as pawns to win a losing battle.

    It may not happen today or tomorrow, but eventually all faith based religions will die out, rather than fighting it, the leaders of these faiths must change their approach and start guiding their remaining followers help them find themselves in these tough times, the way that Jesus and Mohammad intended.

    November 7, 2013 at 4:46 am |
  5. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    2 cute

    November 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
  6. S.E.Brown

    To: Maranatha~ I just LOVE your quotations from Romans! They go right to the heart of why people are either Believers or not. First, God wrote His Moral Law on the HEARTS of all people{Their "Consciences"). Then He wrote His Moral Law in Tablets of Stone ("The 10 Commandments"). Since He KNEW, in ADVANCE, that these two things would NEVER bring Salvation to ANYONE, He gave His only BELOVED and begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to EVERYONE who would ever be born into this world, as THE "Propitiation" for EVERY SIN, past, present, & future, that every human would ever commit, by having Him die on the Cross, shedding His SINLESS Blood, and Resurrecting on the 3rd Day! He PROVED His Power over Death and Hell to WHOSOEVER should Believe upon Him as Savior & Lord, and to these He gives ETERNAL LIFE as a FREE GIFT!
    Whoever REJECTS this sacrifice will one day stand before Him for judgment, and they will be "without excuse".
    It breaks His Heart, that people will make such a horrific choice, of their own free will, and will regret it eternally. However, they cannot say they were not told, nor that they did not know~ they will be "without excuse". Maranatha, Maranatha!

    November 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • lionfou

      You know, there are so many religious traditions that are so rich and deep and true,
      and to you they're just "the Devil".

      What if the Devil is just the disrespect and closedness in YOU,
      missing out on the beauty of the Creator all around you,
      in the Hindu bhajans and dances, the pagan festivals at times of the year,
      the irreverence and ecstasy of the Sufis,
      the secular morality of the atheists
      ("Simple caring is the source of all value"–Albert Camus,
      indistinguishable from JC, John and Paul in that particular thought
      ("All commandments are subsets of 'love your neighbor'")

      And your arrogance keeps you from seeing God and Her holiness all around you,
      and you want us to join that closedness and consider it progress?

      The Devil
      is that part of you that sees the Devil and not holiness in all those wonderful traditions,
      many of which show far greater spiritual depth than much of what you share.

      And Jesus is AMAZING, absolutely broke the mold, love and genius and raw courage and integrity.

      What would he think of his "Christians"?

      I know what he'd think of the ones who judge not and love their enemies and "do unto the least of these".

      And I'm pretty sure he'd be really fond of some of those atheists,
      even prefer their company of many of his so-called "followers" who haven't quite got it yet.

      November 6, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
      • Doug

        Its no use, Lionfou. Might as well save your time....

        November 6, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
        • lionfou

          Well you know Doug, one of the keys to staying in touch with constant peace and joy, is what they call in the East "karma yoga", which is action without attachment to the fruits.

          Meaning if it feels good to the soul to share what is precious to you, then do it. If they love or hate it, that's their business. As the great Gloria Steinem said it, one of the wisest lines ever spoken:

          "The truth will set you free,
          but first it will p*** you off."

          Deep inside everyone, I believe, is what John called the "Logos" (badly translated as "the Word"),
          which is the light of true comprehension.

          Beneath all the drivel and the dogma and the delusion,
          is the place that knows.

          Scripture AND science are trying to reach that place.

          That light inside us is the Son/Daughter of God, the Creator in us. The one who can walk on the moon, or cure smallpox, or find a way to break out of the mental prison of limited possibilities.

          We're heard a lot of religious terrorism on this site, which would be unrecognizable to the Jesus they claim to represent.

          "I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly."

          Bring it on.

          November 6, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
        • Doug

          I guess you're right about some of that, lionfou.

          Now that I think of it, every change or shift in church history involved free thinkers who questioned tradition and pet doctrine at risk of being called "false prophets"- just look at the reformation era.

          Ironically, the american evangelical church owes its very existence to the same free thinking it now tries to supress

          November 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Seth

      Mr. Brown, Paul's logic in Romans is clearly flawed. Anyone could take the same set of facts Paul cites as concrete evidence of God and come to a different yet intellectually valid conclusion about the world. Just because humans are able to originate things does not mean that something that shares similarities to humans originated morality or the universe.

      I find it interesting that some Christians will claim that salvation is a free gift, yet on the other say that it is an agenda on the part of those who reject that free gift that leads them to that rejection. Clearly, the gift carries a cost, or there would exist no such agenda on the part of anyone in the first place. There is something required; it is in no sense of the word free.

      November 6, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • Doug

      So you see, SE Brown, I am not the intolerant monster you've made me out to be. I have studied a variety of views from several independent sources, including popular prophetic teachings on television. After doing so, I am not a believer in the rapture, and I'm trying to get more information out there so people can make INFORMED decisions. I did not mean to come across so blatantly, but you must admit Tom's opening phrase was FAR from gracious. YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE INDEED.

      November 6, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
      • Doug

        For further reading:

        "Rapture Exposed" by Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament studies at Lutheran theological seminary

        November 7, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • sam stone

      if god is omniscient, and knows what we are going to do before we do it, there is no free will, s.e. brown

      November 7, 2013 at 5:24 am |
      • John C. Vincent

        Knowing and controlling are not the same thing. I can fall of a bridge and know I am going to die, but still lack any power to change it.

        Freewill lives.

        November 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
        • Seth

          But God is omnipotent. If he defers his omnipotence, he does so deliberately.

          November 8, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
      • Krhodes


        November 27, 2013 at 4:41 am |
    • sam stone

      also, s.e. brown, allowing an innocent person to take the punishment you feel you deserve is not a moral act,it is the act of a coward. yet, christians not only flock to it, they brag about it

      your proxy threats are empty

      November 7, 2013 at 5:28 am |
    • sam stone

      lastly, posting some words in caps does not make your drivel any less drivel

      November 7, 2013 at 5:31 am |
  7. James

    1 in 3 people under 30 identify as secular, nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic. Some of this is down to leaders of the faith holding to rigid dogmas, but I believe what my generation is doing is largely rejecting religious ideology in all forms. This article mentions a truce between science and faith, but the problem is that the two are inherently incompatible. The ideas put forth about creation in the Abrahamic religions simply do not sync up with what we know from science about the origins of the universe. My view is that the two cannot be reconciled, and more people my age are simply choosing the ideas presented in the scientific arena rather than the religious one. We do not "long for Jesus", as stated in the article.

    It's true that religious leaders can do things to make their faiths more appealing to my generation, and those ideas are thoroughly discussed in the article. However, what I am seeing in America and in other parts of the developed world is a cultural shift away from religion. We view religion as backwards and noninclusive because it IS backwards and noninclusive. We are slowly realizing that 90% of what has been taught to us regarding religion does not help us in the long run and in fact makes us more close-minded people. Being close-minded in this day and age is not "cool."

    TL;DR – religion sucks and my generation is leaving it behind

    November 6, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  8. Tom

    As a born-again believer for 20 years, it seems like people want the watered down gospel which fits them and their sin. God's word has never changed and it won't change to fit into people's life style. There's going to be a day, and it can be any day, when all born-again believers wil be raptured (taken to Heaven) and all of you who are athesists, agnostics, religious, will not have to worry or concern yourselves with Jesus, God or the Holy Spirit. It amazes me that the same God you ridcule, curse, don't believe in, etc, is the same God who shows you mercy, grace, forgiveness and allows you to take a breath each second and allows your heart to beat. It's the ungratefulness of people that gets me.

    November 6, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Seth

      Tom, you cannot be grateful toward something you do not believe exists. It would be effectively the same as being grateful for something a fictional character did, absurd.

      Like I and others have said many times in this comment page, you cannot expect others to believe the same way you do. Although the Bible implies that all recognize your God on some level, the truth of the matter is that you can't prove that, or even the existence of your God, as facts. Reality could be different than you believe. You don't have to sacrifice faith to admit that.

      I certainly admit it.

      November 6, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Doug

      The rapture is a myth as is the hifhly political beliefs of christian zionism

      Reputable scholars say Jesus was talking about his own day when he said "this generation", and the apostles thought so too.

      The "Left Behind novels are books of fairy tales for adults, nothing more.

      November 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
      • S.E.Brown

        Doug~ you certainly have every right to your belief or DISBELIEF, but please do NOT call another's beliefs "Filthy", "Dirty" "Fairytales", as it shows you to be an intolerant, rude, disrespectful "scoffer", who does not deserve the respect of others, as you are not willing to give any to people of a different viewpoint! You get what you give in this life~ that is a point of fact.Think about it.

        November 6, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
        • Doug

          If you recall, I did not describe anybody's beliefs as "dirty" or "filthy". I am typing from my phone and I meant to say "highly" but it came out as a typo-"hilfhy"-so don't put words in my mouth.

          And yes, I do believe the left behind series to be fictional tales because I am an atheist, so in your view that makes me an intolerant scoffer? I am sorry if my worldview offends you, but you must remember, Tom was not very respectful when he basically consigned most of the world's population to an apocalyptic holocoust for disagreeing with his views, so I wouldn't be so quick to call people intolerant.

          November 6, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
        • Doug


          You believe every book from the muslim Quran to the gnostic gospels to be myths and fairytales in your worldview if you are a conservative christian, which is certainly no less intolerant than my views

          Not to mention the fact that there is a difference between respecting beliefs and respecting human beings. Personally I respect human beings too much to respect your beliefs.....

          November 7, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • Maranatha

      For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

      For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
      Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

      For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

      Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

      but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

      For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

      Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

      But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

      He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

      It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

      Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

      1 Corinthians 1:18-31

      November 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
      • Doug

        I know, I'm not speaking your language- how foolish of me

        But what would you say if I told you many bible believing christians don't believe in the rapture?

        Or even worse, that believing the rapture is a damnable heresy?

        They can use the same scriptures you just used to support their theological claims... uh oh...

        November 6, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
        • S.E.Brown

          You do NOT have a CLUE of what you are talking about here, Doug! Proverbs says:"Even a fool seems wise when he keeps his mouth shut."

          November 6, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
        • Doug

          I do know what I'm talking about. I was born and raised in a pentecostal church and taught pre-millennial dispensationalism my whole life. I have also been to many other denominations and studied a variety of theologies
          as well.

          By the looks of your posts it is clear you are not interested in
          discussing different views within church history and methods of textual criticism regarding scripture.

          November 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
      • Doug

        But wait just a minute, the rapture's supposed to be up next on the prophetic calendar, the man on tv said so! he's got to be telling the truth....right?

        Well, not exactly. The fact of the matter is there have been many differing viewpoints on Christ's return in church history and this christian zionist/left behind theory is a 19th century view, not a biblical one.

        I'd be happy to elaborate, but if you're going around thinking its the end of the world and your God is going to leave you behind for entertaining these horrendous "doctrines of demons" I have just said, there is no reason for further discissions on the matter.

        November 6, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          good. beat it

          November 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
        • Doug

          You as well, my friend

          November 6, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
    • sam stone

      it is the pompousness of evangelicals that gets me

      who the fvck gives you the authority to speak for god?

      November 7, 2013 at 5:34 am |
      • Krhodes

        And you are not pompous? You claim no God exist which means you have absolute knowledge. Pompous much?

        November 27, 2013 at 4:45 am |
  9. Robin_NC

    Very good points in this article, I myself am not a believer in Christianity but many people in my life do and I know from many lengthy conversations over the years that much of what the author is saying is how many truly feel. Especially when it comes to evangelicals. Whom ever supposes to speak for God and know his will, surely does not. They exert their own will upon those who are in attendance and it's becoming every more apparent that the church's agenda comes before any other. Politics in any form is not gospel or church doctrine. Wanting to impose one faith's beliefs upon millions who don't share that belief is tyranny. Stop trying to force your religion down my throat, stop trying to hijack our government with your religion.

    November 6, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • lionfou


      Those words could become soundbites for millions.

      When Jefferson said "I have sworn on the altar of Almighty God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man," he was writing specifically about the dogmatic "Christian" conservatives who opposed his candidacy for President.

      November 6, 2013 at 11:03 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.