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. God

    God is fake and you guys believe a 2000 year old book that was made to cover up the biggest lie in history about how Mary cheated on her husband lol\...this is soo stupid its revolting

    July 27, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
  2. Mike

    Let's get real, folks. There is no god

    July 27, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • SmartLawyer

      Said no one with any understanding. "Only the fool says in his heart there is no God" – Psalm 14:1.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        "... but whosoever shall say, Thou FOOL, shall be in danger of hell fire."
        —Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:22

        See ya there, SmartLawyer.

        Or maybe not. If you're that smart a lawyer, you'd know that that's exactly the same thing as the con artist asking "What, don't you trust me?" It's a claim anybody can make, trustworthy or not.

        Maybe you're NOT that smart a lawyer after all.

        July 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
        • lolz

          Ad ignorantum at its finest.

          There's something that most people apply when reading different books and all sorts of different passages, its called context. Doesn't matter if you're Atheist, Christian, etc., go do your homework.

          I literally laughed out loud, hence my username. It's like, come on dude. Comments such as these make me question people's credibility.. :/ Sorry, but I just had to comment.

          July 27, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
      • LinCA


        Can you let me know where you practice? I'd like to avoid accidentally hiring you if I ever am in need of legal advice.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  3. Observer

    The younger generation is more liberal. They often see the massive hypocrisy in Christians who pick on gays. Bigotry isn't selling like it used to.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  4. Mxh

    Millennials are leaving religion because with immediate access to all types of information, they would prefer to make their life decisions based on their own research, rather than what an old man in a fancy building or their parents tell them.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  5. Dave

    The word of god is eternal. As long as it changes constantly to keep up with the times.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  6. RichardSRussell

    I am still waiting for all the fundies who regularly show up on the Belief Blog to bemoan the fact that CNN is once again pushing the same godless, atheistic, anti-American agenda that they ALWAYS do EVERY week.

    ALWAYS! No exceptions. EVERY week. Just like THIS week.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  7. Burzghash

    Here's the question I ask myself; if your primary goal is being a good person (helping the poor and sick, love thy neighbors, etc.) – why do you need an imaginary friend for adults to do it? Why do you need religion at all? Because all religion is, is the arrogance of certainty from people don't really know. Religions, priests, churches, etc., all claim to KNOW what happens after we die. But the fact is, they really don't have a clue. Priests don't know, nuns don't know, the religious don't know, religion doesn't know. And how do I know that? Because I don't know, and these people have no more special mental or cognizant powers than I do.

    The correct answer should be to say, "We don't know." And you don't need to know, in order to be a good person. Religion is not required for morality. All that's required is reason, and logic. The ability to empathize with others. If you don't know the difference between right and wrong, you lack empathy, not religion.

    In the sense that religion attempts to provide concrete answers to things it really doesn't know or understand, I find it to do more harm than good. Just admit that you don't know what happens to us after you die, and get on with your life being the best person you can be. You don't need to meet weekly with a bunch of other people and sing songs to an invisible cloud wizard in order to feel good about yourself, and do good things.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • ES71

      Well put. Why do we need the church or religion at all?
      Be the best person you can be. It doesn't matter whether the God exists or not.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  8. Peter Q Wolfe

    How would me making my own religion be anymore valid than Abrahamic faiths e.g. monotheism? All to often that we neglect that the derivitive of Christianity was The Epic of Gilgamesh or mysticism in Egypt that came from polytheism in the Middle East. Crap doesn't take a biblical scholar to realize that it was made up from thin air just like Hindusm that is older than Christianity duh!

    July 27, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
  9. "I Believe in the word of God"

    Read the bible for yourself and stop blaming the church and other christians for your choices. Truth be told, there are only a few christians out here and the others are trying to be christians, being human, they get up everyday and fight the good fight and continue to run in the great race. Allowing themselves to change by repenting. For we all far short of the grace of God . . . For Jesus said, "On this rock, I shell build my church" Not build you a church to suite you or them a church that will accommodate their sins. We all will be judge according to our individual work as we walk the path that Jesus has laid for us. The millennial generation need to grow up and realize it will be their lost . . . it's all about our personal walk with Jesus. Period. Amen!

    July 27, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Tell me, if you've taken a personal walk with Jesus, what brand of running shoes does he prefer?

      When you're having your little chats as you stroll along, is his voice high or low? Does he still speak with an Aramaic accent? Does he get a little winded if you've been jogging for a couple of miles?

      Since you and he are such great personal buds, would he lend you 20 bux if you were in a bit of a jam?

      Since you've got this great, PERSONAL relationship, I'm sure you'll have no trouble answering these questions.

      July 27, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
      • NameIsNotImportant.

        Please do not ask questions that you know have no answers to justify your unbelief.

        July 27, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
        • Athy

          Why don't these questions have answers? Is it illegal to ask them?

          July 27, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
        • LinCA


          You said, "Please do not ask questions that you know have no answers to justify your unbelief."
          Most atheists unbelief is more than justified by the complete lack of evidence of any god. The complete idiotic ranting by believers about their "personal relationship" with a zombie, and other bullshit, are just gravy.

          These questions should encourage the believer to rationally evaluate his or her infantile beliefs. Not that very many do.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
        • RichardSRussell

          Hey, I wasn't the one who said I knew the guy personally. I COULD answer all those questions about people I DO know personally. That's the difference between the way real people living in the real world use the word "personal" and "relationship" vs. the special Christianity-flavored versions of the same words, that only have meaning within your peculiar delusional bubbles.

          July 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • Bob

      It is a very good thing that we don't have more Christians who follow the word of god, when it includes nasty guidances like these, straight from both foul testaments of the Christian book of nasty:

      Numbers 31:17-18
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man,
      18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

      Revelations 2:23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

      Leviticus 25
      44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
      45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.
      46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

      Note that the bible is also very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      And then, if you disagree with my interpretation, ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  10. NameIsNotImportant.

    The issue is mankind's hardness of heart towards God. Anyone who is not seeking out God will disagree with me until they are blue in the face.
    It is a choice. In this tiny finite life, you have a choice for an Eternal destiny. Live this life as though God does not exist and you get your way for Eternity. My friends that is scary. At least, God is present now whether we choose him or not.
    Or live life seeking to know Him. I did not say you have to be perfect because none of us are. Believe what he has allowed us to understand about Him and that He sacrifice His own for us and we will be in His presence forever. Period.
    If He has statutes for us to follow, why do we act like children when it comes to obeying Him. If you do not want to follow His lead then you do not have to. Follow what His Word says or not but do not water it down so the proverbial fence can be ridden. Not "He meant this, not that". Or my favorite "He meant it for those times and is not relevant now". Your eternal choice is yours and yours alone. I will not hate you for it but pray that you understand the Love that He has for each of us.
    This cycle has gone on generation after generation. The tombstones you see in the world are people just like us who once had a choice to make. God sent His Son to save the world and not condemn it. If you are offended by what I present, ask yourself why you are offended. Please, by your choices in this life, do not condemn yourself by taking Him on like Job did.
    There will always be those who think that you can get to God only by them. These people are wrong. Just like religious leaders in Christ's time. His door is open and ready for you! All you have to do is to seek.
    Quit looking to others and things to make sense of this life and just turn to the One who has always been by our side.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  11. fishey

    Good, about time people realize church is the biggest farce in history.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
  12. Travis

    There are few articles on this site with which I agree 100%. This is one of those articles. Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, for finally speaking some truth to an issue that too many people know about, but so few people know why the issue exists.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  13. Sean

    What about the reason that religion is just dead wrong?!
    I find it refreshing that churches are emptying simply based on people realizing that religion is false.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    Elsewhere on the CNN website, we see where a busload of Baptist teens got smashed up in Indianapolis, killing several of them and mangling many others. What's finally dawning on the millennials is that "knowing Jesus" or "having faith" or "finding God" doesn't matter diddly when the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate points at YOU.

    Religion is all a smoke, a hoke, and a joke, and exposure to a huge range of information, available via the internet, makes that fundamental fact ever more apparent every day.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
    • Answer

      Hey their god called them home and for that we are glad.

      July 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • lol??

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      The second death is the is the one to avoid.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
      • UncleBenny

        News flash: There's only one.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:51 am |
  15. In Santa we trust

    "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."

    I don't see that changing any time soon. Literal interpretation of the bible is at odds with our ever increasing knowledge. Selective reading of the bible leads to dogma that alienates many. It seems to create an "us against them" mentality which seems to create or reinforce a sense of belonging.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  16. Chloe

    Good article. The church will continue to morph and thrive as it has for 2000 years. People have been declaring that Christianity has run its course for centuries, yet it continues to move and grow against all odds.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
    • Answer

      A perpetual lie that has gone on for ages.. time will end it.

      July 27, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      "Eternal truths" continuing to morph in order to survive.

      Sounds like evolution in action to me.

      July 27, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  17. Peter Q Wolfe

    I'd have more faith in God but only if he would have faith in me. Imagine the suffering of the disabled, turminally ill, starvation, diseases, war and etc that are all God's or a dieties creation not that of man. Tired of the games like God blaming Satan cause God created Satan but who created God? Nobody cause God is a myth and my only religion is SCIENCE!

    July 27, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • bonis

      Typical atheist asinine response...

      July 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
    • Snowdog

      Peter, science will not save your eternal soul. Only Jesus can.

      July 27, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        What eternal soul?
        Find one for me before I'll take you seriously.

        July 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
      • Veronica


        July 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
      • Burzghash

        You claim that.

        You have no proof of it however.

        You only believe it, because you desperately wish it to be true.

        Unfortunately, reality is not determined by what makes us feel good. Reality is indifferent to what does or doesn't make you comfortable. So you can go on with your false security that you're right. The rest of us are waking up to the reality;

        You really don't know. You just pretend you do to make yourself feel better.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • Answer

      People who mumble about their eternal soul are just inane cretins who are afraid.

      They want their salvation so bad.. they have to create their security blanket within their minds.

      July 27, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  18. ......

    if you have "intellectual integrity", you have no faith.. there is no choice to be made.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
    • Ben in SoCal

      Which explains why so many scientists are priests and people of faith? You can count many Jesuits amongst that number. God bless.

      July 27, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
      • Austin

        still trying to kill HIm?

        July 27, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
      • Doug

        "so many scientists are priests and people of faith"

        Are you kidding? There was a study done in the early 2000's with over 1000 scientists, and something like 91% of them were atheists. If I can find the study, I will link it.

        As the poster said before you, if someone is intellectually honest, the BEST you can say is "maybe there is something spiritual going on, but there's really no reason to think so."

        July 27, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
      • Austin

        Ben, not at you there!

        July 27, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
  19. el flaco

    The religions we inherited from the Middle East – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have run their course. They have nothing to say to the 21st century.

    July 27, 2013 at 9:27 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.