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. johnmoore1120

    Reblogged this on perfectingasaint.

    January 22, 2014 at 11:18 am |
  2. His panic

    She may be in a State of Panic, anxiety or even mass hysteria. She may be having bad dreams about it, but those who really Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son WILL NOT Panic.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:49 pm |
    • boogysattva

      Only BEGOTTEN Son.

      "Anyone who follows the spirit of God is the son of God."–Romans 8

      January 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm |
    • Doug

      Well I don't know about her, but we all should be in a state of panic over the cave man delusions people are falling for these days. Has anyone seen christian prophecy teachings on tv lately?

      January 15, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
      • boogysattva

        To be fair, by the 4th century the Pope still hadn't decided if Revelations should even be put n the Bible. It's really not compatible with the Gospel. Real Christians focus on the Sermon on the Mount, mean-ass loonybin pseudo-Christians focus on Revelations. An ugly violent future-tripping piece of crap, except for a few lines.

        Personally, I think John ate some bad pizza and had a nightmare, then marketed it. It should be called the Book of Bad Pizza.

        January 22, 2014 at 9:18 pm |
        • JoshtheApologist

          Typically I would ignore such subjective criticism of the Book, but I'm just deciding to educate the doubters today. When Jesus is seen, His clothes are seen as a symbol of His power over the Church, they resemble those of priest's. When Jesus said He knocks on the door, it is the door to our hearts, and the destruction that happens shouldn't be an excuse to insult the validity of the Book.

          January 22, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
        • boogysattva

          There's such a thing as sacred insults, holy insults, insults that make God laugh and sing.

          Self-seriousness is a sign of spiritual deficiency.

          "Why is it people think that because I am not solemn, that I am not serious?"

          "I have nothing against Christianity. I just think it's never been tried."

          –George Bernard Shaw, the most successful playwright since Shakespeare,
          and a sacred clown if there ever was one.

          Usually I don't eat beef, but sacred cows are my favorite food. It's a holy duty.
          Only the heart is sacred. The rest is pretentious pomposity.

          January 22, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
        • boogysattva

          The people who decided what books went into the New Testament, and which would be left out (including the brilliant Gospel of Thomas), were highly fallible human beings with an agenda that was anything but pure.

          And if you don't know Greek and Hebrew, you've never read the Bible. You've read a translation of a translation of a third hand account. Did you ever meet the translator? Was he God?


          Now I dig Jesus, and Paul and James and John had some real zingers too. But truth is in YOU (the Logos, the REAL son of God, as in John 1, horribly translated as "In the Beginning was the Word"–ah no, that's not what Logos means at all, and not what John meant at all. That's why I say, you've never read the Bible. QUACK!

          Truth is not ink on paper. The word "dog" will not guard your house, the word "food" will not fill your belly.

          Friggin' clowns. Only the "peace that passes understanding", "heaven within you" is the truth. Words are only words.

          And no scripture, no religion, no belief system comes within miles of the reality of God within you.

          "You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows."–Gospel According to Bob

          "I thank you Father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual, and revealed them unto babes."

          Which scripture do babies read? The Gospel according to WOW.

          January 22, 2014 at 11:32 pm |
  3. Keith

    They are leaving because Religion is no longer relevant to modern life.

    January 14, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
  4. Doug


    January 13, 2014 at 7:25 pm |
    • boogysattva

      Ah, Dawkins and the funless mentalists are flip sides of the same coin. Equally dogmatic, equally unwilling to do a real scientific exploration of the God question, of whether the Universe has a Consciousness. Who's the biologist whose team created the first cloned human embryo? And who helped cut post-heart surgery deaths in half, with Christian Baarnard? Now he's got something called "biocentrism", is it? The idea that our consciousness is completely distinct from the body, in fact completely distinct from time and space. HE'S got something to say, beyond the pseudo-scientific materialism of Dawkins et al. The hallucination that there is such a thing as a solid, objective material universe, and that we can perceive it through the senses. Dawkins' dogma. 19th century stuff, a true dinosaur, pre-quantum, pre-string theory, a real sleepwalker. Yes, we are inches away from scientifically discovering "God", meaning Consciousness beyond all form. This is gonna be fun. "Biocentrism", I think that's the word. Let me go find the biologist, hugely successful guy. And one of the biggest names in stem cell research.

      January 13, 2014 at 8:44 pm |
      • Doug

        I don't agree totally with Dawkins either – I read The God Delusion as well as Sam Harris' book The End of Faith, and I doubt total materialistic atheism is the truth- not everything that exists is material. I just like how Harris and Dawkins expose the moral and intellectual bankrupcy of modern day religious fundamentalism.

        January 13, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
        • boogysattva

          Modern science is only a model of reality. It is not reality. All myths are a model of reality, a way of explaining.

          And so-called "paranormal" phenomena which defy materialist dogmas, are everywhere.

          My father's stepmother was Vaughn de Leath, said to be the first person to sing on radio, in 1920. She invented "crooning", later popularized by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. You can hear her at the beginning and end of "Cider House Rules".

          One day my father was out in the fields, and he heard Vaughn say "Gordon!"

          He ran back to the house, and said, "Did you call me, Vaughn?"

          "Not audibly," she replied. She and my grandfather were into that woo-woo stuff, as Sam Harris contemptuously calls it. Hey, Relativity is pretty woo-woo. Who would believe it if we didn't know it was accepted truth, from Einstein?

          That kind of practical woo-woo is normal in my family, and my life. There are worlds and worlds beyond the materialist myth.

          Joseph Campbell, tongue in cheek, defines "mythology" as "other people's religion". Our religion, our myth, is real of course. 😉 And the idea of a material universe with no conscious Creator and no purpose, is just one more mythology. There's nothing scientific about it.

          Is there a reality beyond ALL myths? Ah, that's what we're about to find out. The REAL science.

          January 13, 2014 at 10:37 pm |
        • Doug

          Yeah, its got to be something. That's for sure

          January 13, 2014 at 11:02 pm |
    • boogysattva

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biocentric_universe–the idea that Life transcends the universe. The scientific approach to God.

      January 13, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
  5. Doug

    "I had therefore to remove knowledge to make room for belief"

    -Immanuel Kant

    January 13, 2014 at 6:32 pm |
  6. Doug

    If you are a born again, evangelical, pentecostal bible believing Christian who believes in hell, watches Daystar, and likes reading Left Behind, please listen to these points.

    Your God knows everything and declares the end from the beginning, He knew everything that would happen and predestined who would be saved (Romans 9). The "elect" are saved and those not predestined are sent to hell. (Like it or not this is what "God's word" says) So, God ordained everything and deluded humans into thinking they had free will, when in reality every event, thought, and action was caused by arbitrary decisions that God made before time began, including salvation. So your being saved from hell or condemned to hell is based on an arbitrary decision that has already been made.

    In Matthew 7, Jesus says "nice try, but I never knew you." You can try avoiding "worldly" pleasures, and "die to yourself", but it is not possible to know if you've done this well enough to hear "well done faithful servant". You may think you know, you may feel holy or pure, but you really don't know- to know which way God decided heaven or hell before time began requires infinite knowledge, which only your God has.

    I'm not trying to be rude, I'm just stating observations about how evangelical theology is a philosophical impossibility unless there is no free will and God makes people sin and go to hell. If there is a less moral view out there I haven't found it yet.

    January 13, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
    • bastique

      Ugh, don't conflate "evangelical" with "fundamentalist". I tend to think that Rachel Held Evans is evangelical in the truer sense of the word and that's not a bad thing. Get past the hijacking that televangelists have done of the term in the last 30 years.One can be evangelical and still be non-biblical-literalist high church Protestants (take the ELCA for example)

      January 16, 2014 at 6:41 pm |
      • boogysattva

        Jimmy Carter was the first evangelical President in modern times, and he's the real deal. Many of the rest wouldn't know the Gospel if it sat on them. Aligned with greedheads, mass murdering militarists, and bigots.

        "God told me to blow up hundreds of thousands of civilians and make millions of others homeless. And to lie about the reasons with fake intelligence."–George W. Bush

        "Gen. Rios-Montt of Guatemala is in favor of human rights and democracy."–Ronald Reagan, the same week that the General's troops grabbed dozens of children by their ankles and bashed their brains out.

        On and on and on. "By their fruits you will know them."

        January 16, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
  7. outspoken91

    As a millenium, I simply just think that the church worries to much about docterine instead of the core of Christianity. Also, they judge if you follow anything else. I strongly believe in God and the Bible but I also follow the teachings of Buddah. Buddism isn't really a religion but rather a lifestyle and extreamly supplemental to Christianity. There is actually a theory out there that Jesus actually went east and spoke with buddists during the gap of time where we have no record of where Jesus was, because, when he returned his teaching lined up with those of Buddah. Also, I just want people to understand that God is a supernatural being and therefore, by having us put everything spiritual in a box is counterproductive. We need to be open to divine intervention instead of just interpreting things so literally. It's OK that the Bible mean different things to different people because we need to feel personally convicted by the holy spirit.

    January 10, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
    • lionfou

      There were Buddhist missionaries in the Eastern Mediterranean long before Jesus, and some of his teachings are word-for-word identical to the Buddha's. Where he differs, is in the focus on physical miracles and heaven here on earth. "As you believe, so it is done." Healings, being taken care of, "Take no thought for what you shall eat...and wear."

      God so SO far beyond any human concepts, religions, scriptures, beliefs. It is the height of arrogance to think that our interpretations and ideas about God are within miles of who God really is. Words are only words.

      "I thank you Father, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual, and revealed them unto babes."

      January 10, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
      • outspoken91

        Right but in reference to what Jesus highlighted as being the most important concepts, where also what Buddah spoke on the most as welll. Buddah emphasized on concepts very similar to divine intervention and miracals just with different terminology. You should read "Living Buddah, Living Christ" It is a phenomenal book. I think you might actually enjoy that book. Written by a Buddist Monk who spent time in a Catholic Monestary.

        January 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm |

    We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers..............

    This is impossible with any religion........YOU MUST HAVE PREDETERMINED answers...otherwise god is not god....undetermined questions means god is fallible and didn't create the world correctly....ie...he makes mistakes....that's a NO NO.

    December 31, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • lionfou

      That's Western religions. The meditation-oriented ones are not about dogmas and beliefs, They're about letting go of dogmas and beliefs, and discovering by your own experience, the heaven or liberation within, the "peace that passes understanding." I believe so was Jesus, but the followers and control freaks took his teaching somewhere else. It's still there, hidden between the words, beyond all religions or beliefs, the real-deal Gospel, "love your enemies", "as you do unto the least of these, so you do unto Me,", "get the log out of your own eye," "let him who is without sin cast the first stone," "judge not," "do good to those who hate you," "heaven is at hand/within you/in your midst/does not come with observation/is not a place, it's a state"–all the stuff that "Christians" ignore in favor of pie in the sky when you die, God's gonna get you if you don't toe the line, wives be subservient to your husbands, and all that dogmatic BS.

      December 31, 2013 at 2:39 pm |

    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.......

    ONE HAS TO UNDERSTAND religions are about total and absolute control of the individual ...look at the MORMONS and all the new religions that SPRING UP IN THIS COUNTRY.... you don't see this is Europe...it's mostly about the IGNORANT IN THE SOUTH AND MID WEST IN THIS COUNTRY...they're terrified through the use of shame, guild and being born with sin...lololol...the religious organizations are the BEST WHEN IT COME TO CONTROL THROUGH FEAR.....republicans come in a distance second....but they catching up fast.

    December 29, 2013 at 11:00 am |
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