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. Mopery

    Funny that C N N auto-censors comments that might offend the religious. So much for freedom of speech.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Mopery

      It seems that any reference to i g n o r a n c e or s u p e r s t i t i o n trigger this censorship.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
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      July 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  2. Alan

    They leave because the church is a sham...any church..any religion....a con....

    July 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  3. Bob Brightman

    Love and compassion for all, yes! But not at the expense of rewriting Scripture or what God says is right or wrong. The millennials are growing up in a time of great compromise and seemingly want those compromises to become part of the life and community of faith. This can't be done. Every generation must accept God's righteousness and not our own, nor the dictates of a lost world. "The Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." No man, nation, culture, church, pastor, or leader can change that.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • seriously

      reading stuff like this that makes you feel quilty for something you have not done nor would – and predisposes your ignorance and sinfulness before you even step foot in the door of a church filled with persons brainwashed to hold similar views is reason enough not to want to be subjected to that type abuse willingly

      July 27, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  4. 1BS Detector

    I think it has more to do with them realizing what all religion is about Ignorance,Fear ,Hatred, Sadistic Cruelty and Money.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  5. naturechaplain

    Well said. As a former Evangelical I agree with much of this. I walked out the door to follow Jesus. Then I just kept walking. . .into a beautiful, wonderful world beyond Jesus, beyond faith and beyond God. Now it's easier to be "evangelical" about the wild gospel of Nature. Oh, excuse me, i have to be going: there goes John Muir, one "spiritual teacher" I follow now!

    July 27, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  6. Susan

    I like peanut butter better than almond butter

    July 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  7. Bootyfunk

    education and the internet are killing religion. people can fact check the religious b.s. these days.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  8. LemmyK

    How about they are leaving in droves due to the historical transparency the internet has provided. Or, as George Carlin has quoted, they 'reached the age of reason."

    July 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  9. Sandie

    Good and evil have reigned forever together. While learning about all the "bad stuff" is history that we are doomed to repeat anyway, no one is teaching the "good stuff". I would not feel loved or enlightened by a bunch of religious, holier-than-thou thugs who preach fire and brimstone, eternal punishment. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves with layers of rules and deep-seated hatred of anyone not like us.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  10. Ed Scanlin

    Neither the Pope nor the Bible are infallible. The Pope is just a man. He has been trying to tell us that.
    And the bible was written by men. Only God is infallible. We all know right from wrong. Only people like
    Cheney believe they are "infallible". These are the things young Snowden was trying to tell us !

    July 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • NeilV

      But, we first got the idea that God is infallible from the Bible, and it's been passed on by men (and women), so there is really no way of trusting that it's true, right?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  11. Bob Howard

    Ok Rachel Held Evans claims that millennials want “substance” but not “politics.” She continues “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.” Wow - OK it sounds to me like “we want substance and Christ on our terms”? In other words we have already come to the right conclusions -- we just need a church that will validate our conclusions, make us feel good about our intelligence, and tell us we are on our way to heaven. Is that what she is saying? Is she telling me that millennials have no room for critical thinking? Is she telling me that millennials are so enlightened that they really have no time for “the lessons of history” or “the lessons of Christianity” unless it is used to validate their enlightened conclusions? Does Ms. Evans realize the Greeks would likely call this “hubris” and the Puritans likely call this a “manifestation of pride and the working of the devil”? Does she even care?

    July 27, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Jen

      Yes, Bob, I think that's what she's telling us. She and others like her choose to like only the parts of Jesus that make them feel good. They only want to hear part of the gospels, part of the commands, etc. I'm kind of tired of that viewpoint, but I know it will only get worse as we get closer to end times.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  12. John Diomitron

    People and societies may change, but the Word never changes. It is True and Everlasting. You conform your life to It. It does not conform to you.

    Luke 21:32-33 (NKJV) – "32 Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away."


    July 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Colin

      Actually that quote is one of the basis on which serious biblical historians have concluded that Jesus was likely an apocalyptic Jew who thought the end of the worl was iminent – 2,000 years ago. Not a very liekly mistake for a "god."

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

      He was quoted as speaking to the generation of people listening to him at that time. Then every generation for the almost 2000 years since he said that all believed that they were that generation. Why should anyone take you seriously?

      July 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Jen

      Thank you John!

      July 27, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  13. kimjongseriouslyill

    Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Rush Limbaugh are/were the current leading voice for the Christian Evangelical Conservatives. "Get rich and f the poor and the immigrants" strategy is working out quite well for the church at the moment.

    God damn this world.

    July 27, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Jon

      er..uh...Rush is a Mormon...not the same as an Evangelical Christian....but often just as kooky.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  14. Seyedibar

    I can picture the lecture in a history classroom in a few hundred years:
    "... and they gathered on sundays to pray before a large wooden torture device and share impossible stories of magic and alien beings. When they had children, they would hold ceremonies where the infant was held under water or had his genitals mutilated. They seem to have held a belief that a person's body contained a secondary invisible brain,and that after death, this brain would travel to another dimension to live out another life. They seemed to have believed they worshiped one single god, though their holy book is filled with many gods, but most adherents weren't literate enough to even know the names or histories of their chief god. Their dogma delivered a mixed message of peace, family, love, hatred, bigotry, and above all anti-intellectualism."

    July 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      lol! exactly.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Dan

      Humans are highly irrational creatures. Even the best of us tend to think our decisions are rational, when they often are not. We tend to think we understand a lot more than we do. But before you pat yourself on the back, understand that includes you as well. Just like the church needs to stop pretending they have all the answers, so do self-proclaimed 'intellectuals'

      July 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • bratex1218

      Love your comment about the wooden torture device. Lenny Bruce said that if Christ had been executed in the 20th century then instead of crosses hanging around the necks of Christians they would be wearing necklaces of little electric chairs.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  15. SusieKJ

    It's a little hard to keep the masses when the outward message is about "love", but then all you see in practice is the propagation of hatred and condemnation and a healthy dose of hypocrisy by followers. When you push to teach in schools that the earth is only 6000 years old and man walked with dinosaurs, despite so much evidence to the contrary, it's hard for educated people to not consider you a cult of purposeful ignorance. I don't care how you try to gift wrap it, more and more are becoming informed enough to see it for the tool it is, rather than "enlightenment". You can be a "good" person who lives a life of generosity and compassion without doing it because you fear magical consequences.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Skitzkitty

      Wonderfully intelligent and well thought out reply. I love the fact that a person can state their 'beliefs' of rational thinking without being condescending and resort to name calling. SusieKJ, you have renewed my faith in mankind! 🙂

      July 27, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  16. Politics vs. Spirituality

    I think it has more to do with politics than anything else.

    And political prophecy.

    Like everyone keeps looking for the end times – and pushing it through the church – through a heck of a lot of politics.

    And you can only study the bible for so long before it becomes quite apparent that a lot of it is used for political purposes that do not relate to today's world – yet keep getting shoved on today's world – and then you get to revelations and look at all the wars and greed through the church in the world – and you are like – really??? Then you look at your elders – and they are all confused by the politics – and their spirituality is desperate for simple god like relief in the form of salvation from suffering – so you are like – fiiiiiing church – do your job – but they never do because of the politics.

    so – if you want politics – go to church
    if you want spirituality – spend sunday morning (etc.) in meditation and quiet thought and prayer – skip the politics
    there isn't enough understanding in church's yet – ever see a segregated church yet – no – there are black churches – and then there are churches where the blacks never go – so yeah – politics as usual

    July 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      what's the most racially divided time every week in the united states? sunday morning.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  17. Colin

    A quick 10 question quiz might help explain why millennials are deserting religion in droves.
    Q.1 The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings on the planet are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in an “afterlife” comes from the field of:

    (a) Astronomy;

    (b) Cosmology;

    (c) Psychology; or

    (d) Religion

    Q. 2 You are only capable of believing something as patently absurd as the entire Universe beginning less than 10,000 years ago with one man, one woman and a magic talking snake if you are influenced by:

    (a) your education;

    (b) your diet;

    (c) your family history; or

    (d) your religion

    Q. 3 I believe that an all-knowing being, powerful enough to create the entire cosmos and its billions of galaxies, watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty" (like protect myself from disease with a condom, for example). I am

    (a) A victim of child molestation

    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover

    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions; or

    (d) A regular Christian, Jew or Muslim following my religious belief

    Q.4 I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am being obstinate and closed minded due to my:

    (a) hetero$exuality

    (b) genetics

    (c) nationality; or

    (d) religion.

    Q5. I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Christian, Muslim or Jew who believes that prayers are answered

    Q6. Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    Q.7 The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:

    (a) Architecture;

    (b) Philosophy;

    (c) Archeology; or

    (d) Religion

    Q.8 What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:

    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they MUST believe under threat of “burning in hell” or other of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;

    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “God is comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;

    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas all religion is regional and a person’s religion, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than a matter of upbringing; or

    (d) All of the above.

    Q.9 If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:

    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;

    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;

    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or

    (d) my religious belief.

    Q.10 Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am

    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker

    (b) the mafia

    (c) A drug pusher; or

    (d) any given religious organization

    In short, nothing in history of human endeavor can make otherwise smart, functioning people believe the most implausible of supernatural absurdities the way religion can.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Colin

      What's the difference?

      July 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • keiyuuki

      Excellent Questionnaire! If you dont use 2000 year old medicine, dont use 2000 year old morals and idiotic ideologies..
      .. thats my stance on things.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Biopunk

      Religion isn't the only answer that could work for #7 actually, nationalism is another known cause of that.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • TomBuchanan

      Awesome! Did you come up with that yourself? If so, brilliant! If not, what was the source (website, etc.) b/c I bet that would be worth checking out.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
      • Colin

        I did. I have been posting it in various adumbrations for over a year now.

        July 27, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
        • lol??

          Your comment is awaiting moderation.
          All are on supervision?? No, but they will give an account. I stopped there.

          July 27, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Tkp353

      And you Sir, are stating judgement as if you are in a secular court of law. Obviously, you put a lot of effort and thought into your questions and answers. It is a fearful thing to fall into line with statements like these. As intelligent as you sound, you obviously have not given your time in reading the Bible enough to distinguish between the old and new law.

      July 29, 2013 at 4:10 am |
  18. rene b

    Good point to this article. Many are leaving the church because they don't find Jesus there. Good reading.

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

      the point of the article is that people are leaving the church because of the hatred they preach about lgbt people. the bible says to kill g.ays. people are leaving the church because the following the bible makes you a worse person, not a better one.

      modern ethics > biblical morals

      July 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  19. No More

    A host of other former Catholics and I left that denomination for good years ago! We saw that they simply became too intolerant when they refused to give communion to a person who was divorced. Can you only imagine that! If God calls you to take Holy Communion, who can take that right and directive away from God! That weighed-in very heavily in my leaving that church that appears to be quite self-serving. If they truly want to teach what God says then they would embrace those who worship with them and love them Without Any Conditions as Jesus would have us do. And they like to sell images of saints and pray to them (the Bible warns us not to worship graven images) which should therefore, never be done since saints are mere mortals. Incidentally, popes cannot make a saint. Only God can! And one should pray to and worship only God!

    Another thing is having to confess your sins to a man (a priest) with the belief that only he can absolve you of your sins. He can no more absolve you of any sin than a piece of wood can. Only God can forgive you but again, they feel they were given that authority to do so. They are very wrong. And their Baptisms have the priests pour only a little water on the head of the recipient instead of Full Immersion in water as Jesus taught should be done. And their inherent belief in a "Purgatory", a soul-cleansing place where all must go to after their death is so in error since Jesus died and then resurrected for us so that we may Live Eternally after we have become Saved by giving our life to Christ by becoming Born Again thus, cleansing us of our sins. We don't therefore, go to Purgatory as they strongly believe. Popes (mere elected mortal men) also seem to like to equate themselves with God. There are many other things that people simply cannot continue to tolerate and condone thus, go along with in the Catholic church, so they are fleeing that place posthaste never to be seen again. But the church has brought this mass exodus upon themselves through their intolerance and misunderstanding of God's word.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • NeilV

      "And one should pray to and worship only God!"
      So, you've stopped the worship of Jesus and this "Spirit" character then? Remember, that Trinity theology is a Catholic invention.

      July 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
      • No More

        No Neil, you are very wrong in what you say. The Holy Trinity is All-Inclusive of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. They are Three Persons in One and the Same. The Christian religion, which has many different denominations, hold the Trinity as their Truth, not only the Catholics. Therefore, when saying one should pray only to God, I am, in essence, saying that God is composed of the Three Persons therefore one should pray to God as all Three are also included.

        July 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  20. TheyNotHim

    There is no god. We exhort the Self. The Jesus myth has been debunked a thousand times over. Better luck next time...

    July 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
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