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. theologyarchaeology

    in addition to my last comment, evans want to put the blame upon the churches instead of people like herself. they can do all that she says in the church but they don't want to because they do not like what scriptures says and they want to change scripture to fit their personal ideas.

    April 17, 2014 at 5:15 pm |
    • hotairace

      You are wrong. Young people are shedding religion because they know it's all manmade bullsh!t, without any actual evidence for any god.

      April 17, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
      • awanderingscot

        Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, NKJV. – stop being at war with your creator and be reconciled to him. we want to save your soul and do not want your eternal separation from God. you are gnashing your teeth now because you have no hope, but it doesn't have to be that way. Jesus Christ offered Himself up as a sacrifice for you too!

        May 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
        • bacbik

          Too much unnecessary capitalization.... too much BS...

          May 8, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
        • awanderingscot

          BACKBIT, Jesus loves you too even though you deny Him.

          May 8, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
        • bacbik

          Consolation prizes from myth-makers are of no use to me...

          May 8, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
        • vicdemented

          Yea...but there are some people like myself that find the idea of vicarious redemption (scapegoating followed by blood sacrifice) to be morally repugnant. So please don't be offended when I tell you where you can stick that offer of 'love'.

          May 9, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
    • awanderingscot

      that is exactly right theo. "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." 2 Timothy 4:3-4, NKJV

      May 8, 2014 at 10:13 am |
      • igaftr

        yeah, Satan put a lot of that kind of stuff in the bible when he inspired it to be written, to deceive you. He's tricky like that.

        May 8, 2014 at 10:35 am |
      • otoh2


        Paul might as well have been saying, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The Great & Powerful Oz has spoken!"

        Paul was afflicted with an itching tongue.

        May 8, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
        • awanderingscot

          TOTO, Jesus Christ loves you too even though you are at war with Him. Seek Him earnestly and He may forgive you.

          May 8, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
  2. theologyarchaeology

    rachal held evans is wrong. people leave the church for many reasons but the most important one is that they do not want to obey God or believe the bible. they want science over God's word and do not want to make choices that mean they have to sacrifice

    April 17, 2014 at 5:13 pm |
  3. stephanie0813

    Reblogged this on Stephanie the Senior.

    April 8, 2014 at 4:42 pm |
  4. virginia87106

    RIGHT ON post! Exactly on point. Christians support dogma more than people, and doctrine more than love. Jesus would have nothing to do with the fundamental Church as it exists today.

    April 1, 2014 at 12:36 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.