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. Rose

    Apparently none of you are watching the coverage of Pope Francis and World Youth Day. A million people ages 18-35 are there – of their own free choosing.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      used to be more. apparently you aren't paying attention to statistics like 90% of brasil was catholic - now only 65%. religion is falling in all but 3rd world nations.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Bill Graham

      Actually, the author hit on your point. She said the millennial generation is leaning toward mainline Protestantism and Catholicism over evangelical churches precisely because they appear to be more authentic and less pretentious than handing you a latte and pretending everything is hip. In fact, that is the point of the article.

      July 27, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  2. Ralph_in_FL

    The author can live any way she wants. She does not need a church to do it.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Jingle

      Exactly. No one needs a church to follow Jesus.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      exactly. no one needs jesus to live a good life.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
      • Jess

        You don't need anyone at all but your own tired, selfish self. Hail Bootyfunk.

        July 27, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
      • ozztam

        True. But how do you know if the life you're living is good enough? Jesus said no one is good but God alone.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  3. Bootyfunk

    from everything this lady is saying, she wants christians to be less christian and to follow the bible less. the bible very clearly says g.ays are to be put to death. she knows that's a disgusting and inhumane philosophy, so she cherry-picks the bible, like most christians, taking out what she doesn't like. best way to be a better person - stop following the bible.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Ralph_in_FL

      I have always suspected that "cafeteria Christians" are actually closet agnostics.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • CrankyYankee

      You state: "the bible clearly says g*ys (sic) are to be put to death." So you want to stand by that? You bible also says that adulterers should be put to death but the evangelicals in South Carolina just elected Mark Sanford, a pretty high profile adulterer, to Congress. And what about TeaParty favorite Newt Gingrich? Philandering while his second wife (whom he cheated with when married to wife number 1), while she was undergoing cancer treatment. Rudy Giuliani? The list could go on and on and on. Bottom line is, those that adhere to those beliefs are NO DIFFERENT than the Taliban. And you're EXACLTY THE REASON, younger people with open minds are leaving your churches in droves. Methinks, however, that YOU will be the one having a bit of explaining to do when you finally get your audience with St. Peter.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • CrankyYankee

        Sorry, Bootyfunk, misread part of your post, so ignore the comments directed at you. The rest of my post stands.

        July 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  4. Erik

    Thinking about my own lack of faith... I have no religious opinion because I don't see the point in arguing over the origin of creation, meaning of life, or what happens when we die. I can respect that some believe they have the answers, but I remain unconvinced. I don't know the answers and don't trust anyone who says they do.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Patti

      Perfectly said, Eric

      July 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  5. Augustus Gloop

    I think us "millenials" are leaving the church because it's becoming painfully obvious to most that religion is a load of B.S.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Good to hear!

      (not so good on the "us millennials" though. It's "we millennials". I know, I know, language changes too and it gets the point across, but so does "I ain't got no money." Correct and classy is better.)

      July 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • lunalovebad

      This. Exactly this.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  6. Atheism

    Is the fastest growing religion... but not fast enough

    July 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • LinCA

      It's not a religion.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • John W.

        Correct. And absence of a belief in a make believe being is not a religion... or even, for that matter, a matter of "belief." It is a matter of "fact."

        July 27, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.

      restricts science? lol. how so?

      July 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
      • Larry Homes

        Or like abstinence is a se x position. 😆

        July 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • kimjongseriouslyill

      1) "I don't want a religion"
      2) You have a "no religion" religion.

      I just shake my fking head at Christian stupidity.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  7. ross burman

    You should all look into apologetics

    July 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • John W.

      I have... and it's all still BS. You cannot rationalize a belief in something where there is not a shrivel of proof in its existence, though as in "apologetics," you can certainly make a ton of money writing books that pretend to attempt to convince people otherwise.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Larry Homes

      Apologetics is the use of twisted language in an attempt to make something sound more reasonable than it actually is. Ask yourself, if you need to be talked into believing something through elaborate, long-winded, convoluted wordplay, is the thing really as good as it's being made to sound? Normally, people's wariness of being conned would see that this is the same technique being used, but they are conditioned to trust religious leaders almost without any question.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  8. Sue

    Man is stupid.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • NeilV

      Yup, even the guys who wrote the Bible, and Jesus too. All men.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm |

    dina, you didn't create anything. You had a kid. Big deal! What do you worship? Your body? An actor? Mother Earth? You worship something and I be it t is the material world, not the Creator.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      worshiping a coffee cup is better than worshiping a god that doesn't exist.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Donald? Perhaps your mother never told you this but the stork didn't really bring you.

      Babies are indeed "created" within the womb. For nine months, a woman's body is taken over by something that taxes her energy, can make here physically ill. and changes her body in ways that are not entirely pleasant. Then at birth the child is delivered in a process that is generally extremely painful.

      It is a pretty big deal. You may not understand that because if you a man, as your name implies, your biggest contribution to the process would be as a sperm donor.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  10. JoJo

    If you will read very carefully you will notice the entire article is based on "self". For years I lived as a religious person and tried to make "my" life as happy as I could. Then one day God revealed to me I was searching for me and not Him. The truth is when we truly come to faith in Christ and abandon our own self we truly find the peace we were looking for. Then, following the Word of God as my guide is not a burden but more light for the path of life!!

    July 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • tallulah13

      That's really sad. I'm sorry you gave up on yourself.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Erik

      That sounds like the religious version of - you'll find love when you stop looking for it and least expect it!

      Pardon me, but I don't really think either idea makes much sense.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bill Graham

      I couldn't disagree with you more. The article was not about self. It was about several generations and their desire for something authentic instead of performance and style changes. You projected your own feelings into this article, and that is your problem, not the author's.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  11. tarod

    Ancient 2000 year old middle eastern folklore and mythology, plus, right-wing conservative narrow-minded points of view. All you hear is "god hates this...and god hates that..." Politics !! Everyone is sick and tired of hearing all the crap!! And tele-evangalists suck millions with their 'fear mongering' prattle... pedophiles, con men, and all the usual criminal activity hidden behind the cross.... and that is just the basic reason to leave!!

    July 27, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  12. jason mead

    "we want" "we want" "we want." Is there any better phrase than this to define this generation? Nowhere in the article is there any mention of what God wants. Ironically, the author wants the church leaders to sit down with some of her ilk and find out what it is they want. It is exactly this sort of thinking that has gotten the church offtrack – marketing itself to target audiences. Jesus taught the truth, even hard truths. When people started to leave him, he didn't run after them. He kept teaching the truth. The church is not supposed to target any demographic. It's supposed to teach the truth no matter how uncomfortable the truth is and it is supposed to love, no matter high the cost. Whoever is attracted to God's truth and God's love will come. Whoever isn't, won't.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Philip

      If you want authentic Christianity, why not just open the Bible to find it? Its in the book of Acts!!!! Thats the truest form of Christianity, how it was established, organized, and conducted, before it was adulterated. Those first century Christians obeyed Jesus command to preach and teach people about God's Kingdom, meet together in groups to be educated in Biblical truth, not participate in politics or worldly affairs, and be completely unified in thought and action. Then use the Bible's standard of Christianity to see which religion today is meeting that standard. It really not that hard.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Sue

      Delusional thinking without reason. The invention of deities and worship of the imaginary harms us all.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  13. M.E.

    I'm not fleeing the church, primarily because I never had a church to begin with. Thanks to a lucky fluke of parentage, I was never baptised and raised a godless heathen. However, I was raised with a healthy dose of what is essentially philosophical Buddhism, all the ideas and concepts, just minus prayers and temples. In essence it just means I try to be really nice to everyone and learn as much as I can.
    I can understand why Christians are running away, churches are too heavy handed. They demand followers be a certain way and in trying to be that, many people struggle because they don't quite feel that way and therefore suffer. It's a classic desire=suffering problem. Remove the desire and you remove the suffering. You can still be christian without a church, beliefs and the actions that stem from them don't require a building or a leader.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  14. Nan

    In late spring 2010, the Pew Forum’s administered its religious knowledge survey to approximately 3,500 adults—it included 32 questions about aspects of religion: the Bible, Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, world religions, religion in public life, and atheism and agnosticism. While previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world's developed nations, this survey shows that large numbers of Americans are not well informed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions - including their own.

    So what groups were the highest scorers? Atheists and agnostics! … followed by Jews and Mormons. So while some of the commenters quote some verses, mostly their pastors stick to favored topics and texts, not covering the totality of the Bible.

    It’s been said the best recruiting tool for atheism is to actually read all the Bible.

    If you look at the composition of secular humanist groups, you’ll find an astonishingly high number of former ministers, priests, nuns, missionaries and other religious leaders. They know deeply what they are rejecting.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • jason mead

      Been said by whom? I've read the whole Bible and have never been drawn toward atheism in the least. Also, your incredibly simplistic take on God's love and damnation makes it pretty obvious you haven't put much effort into reading and understanding God's word. Kinda read like something a freshman in the dorms would say

      July 27, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • Susan

        What he meant was, for MOST people, if they read the bible their first reaction would probably be WHAT? Why that's all just a bunch of crazy Horse S.! simply because it is so filled with outdated nonsense, all unprovable, and all really just quite silly 🙂

        July 27, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  15. DONALD

    All the reasons listed for leaving the church are bogus. They have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. You go to church to worship, not to be entertained, or be subjected to a rock concert.

    The reasons listed show that people haven't a clue what Christianity is all about.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Jingle

      Probably because what they find IN the church isn't Christianity a ALL.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  16. dina

    I think maybe we're smarter as a species now and have evolved past the story that a bunch of medieval guys made up to keep the masses in check. I personally don't buy that a loving God who cares for every hair on my head would throw me into the lake of fire for eternity because I don't worship him. I "created" two beautiful kids. I don't expect them to worship me, and there is nothing they would ever do that would make me want them to burn for eternity. I think God is for people who need a daddy figure and/or fear death. Mary was elevated to worship status for women who had a problem with the God guy.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • PMH, MD

      Religion aside, how did you "create" a child? A bit fascinating isn't it? I, like many here, cannot fully reconscile science with religious dogma. What I do know when I witness the product of two virtually invisible strands of nucleic acids in two single cell coming together in 9 months to become a person with all his/her pieces so finely connected and coordinated into a living, thinking, feeling, self-healing (the list goes on) organism, it humbles me tremendously. Man searches incessantly for his source, his reason for existing, how to negotiate through life in its complexity. One of those, is belief in a creator. Then to try to figue out how he is to fit into the cosmos. I use to wonder if a person would "become" religious in one way or another were he never "taught" so by family or society. Then, it occurred to me, and the answer is obvious. Yes. How did I come to this? Because I doubt there were any churches in our early evolutionary, hominid era. Was religion the brainchild of a sinle australopithecan? I doubt it, but who knows? And we are just referring to a very tiny piece of the universe! I think
      "religion" or belief in a creator and, hopefully, some model of character stays with us throughout our life cycle. However, it evolves with our life experiences over time. Not to get too personal, but were anything to happen to those precious children you will not likely stick them in the ground and walk away. In your own reflection, study an anatomy atlas, read physiology, biochemistry, pathology, endocrinology, plate tectonics, star/ galaxy formation. Watch an aunt walk, watch a colony of ants work, Then, and I say this in sincerety, write out the formula for creating a child. - Still learning, ever amazed.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  17. Dirk HardPec

    I would sooner believe that we are all part of some incredible computer simulation than we were created by 'god' ... I'm so over people throwing their hands up in the air when something incredible happens and calling it merely an act of god. What a disservice to our own intuition.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Would you like for us to pray for you?

      July 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
      • What is going on? FREEDOM

        Would you just stay in your basement and leave the rest of us alone?

        July 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          The Lord has blessed me with two nice homes here that I own outright, but I do understand your need for the kinship of other basement dwellers.

          July 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • Doobs

          So you just had two houses handed to you? You didn't pay money for them? You didn't go to work and earn the money? Or did you wake up and find that your bank account had some large deposits mysteriously put in them?

          July 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Doobs

        Would you like us to dance around a cross and bang on some drums for you?

        July 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          The first amendment protects your right to worship Ba'al.

          July 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
        • Austin

          was there an amendment in the old testament protecting baal worshipers?

          I am not excessively devoted to the law, that would be worship. don't worship what is secular.

          July 27, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  18. Philip

    If you want authentic Christianity, why not just open the Bible to find it? Its in the book of Acts!!!! Thats the truest form of Christianity, how it was established, organized, and conducted, before it was adulterated. Those first century Christians obeyed Jesus command to preach and teach people about God's Kingdom, meet together in groups to be educated in Biblical truth, not participate in politics or worldly affairs, and be completely unified in thought and action. Then use the Bible's standard of Christianity to see which religion today is meeting that standard. It really not that hard.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Doobs

      The bible was put together centuries after Jeebus supposedly lived by a committee of wealthy men who saw an opportunity to gain power and enrich themselves.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The problem with Acts is that in one version the conflict at Ephesus is with the goddess diana and in the other version it is with Artemis. Luke being of Artemis would have been burned at the Salem witch trial under one version.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  19. One one

    People are leaving the church because its teachings are simply to ridiculous and absurd to believe.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Copenhagun

      That's one reason I left. The other reason, it's people. That's just a couple. I have more, but I'll digress.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  20. sociotheology

    What the writer describes is pretty much mainline Protestantism. We have been here all along and we are not going anywhere. When the ex-evangelical, "me-first" millennial generation (and GenXers) want to come back to the faith of their forebears, we'll be here waiting for you. Really, you just need to step out of your big-box, consumerist, "it's-all-about-me" mega church (and their storefront mini-mes) and you will see that the faith you have described as the one you are looking has been here since the Reformation. =)

    July 27, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Charles Brenneman

      Totally agree.Couldn't have said it better myself...

      July 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Drew Nathaniel Keane

      Exactly! All of Evans's essays make me want to ask her why she just doesn't become a mainliner. I mean, we in the Episcopal Church have been continually doing the thing she's been advocating for a long time now. Rather than try to make Evangelicalism change its spots (which it's not going to do), why doesn't she just join a mainline denomination? It baffles me.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
      • Chris

        Really, Drew? Why doesn't RHE join a mainline denomination which, like all mainline denoms, is dying and completely failing to reach new generations with the gospel of Jesus? That is a rhetorical question.

        July 27, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
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About this blog

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.