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. Observer

    i think anvil is back.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  2. Jehu

    "GOD is GOOD"- most terrifying scripture in the bible is Mark 10:18 . GOD is righteous. Man is unrighteous and deserves to die in his sins (wage of sin is death). Good News! The LORD sent his SON JESUS, that will save those who believe in HIM. Entry to the Kingdom of GOD based on one word-BELIEVE.

    Righteousness and power is imputed, supernaturally, to those who believe (Romans 5 and Hebrews 12). "heal the sick.."Matthew 10

    The Gospel is simple-You are In or out. Saved or unsaved. Powerful or powerless. SOZO- Healing, love, joy and peace, available to anyone who believes, by faith,in JESUS the SON of the LIVING GOD. Free will is a gift, and the LORD wants SONS, not robots.

    We are in the last days. It will get far worse, before HE comes back. "As in the days of Noah.." Matthew 24

    July 28, 2013 at 12:12 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Off your meds? Or undiagnosed?

      July 28, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      "GOD is GOOD"- most terrifying scripture in the bible

      Shoulda stopped there. The Big Book o'Horrors should be hidden from small children.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  3. Charlotte, North Carolina

    Nothing to see hear. Just prophecy being fulfilled.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:12 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Like the prophecy in Matthew 1:23, 25?

      The New Testament couldn't even get out of the very 1st chapter of its very 1st book without delivering a huge whopper of failed prophecy. And there are dozens more to choose from. Why would you fall for this bilge?

      July 28, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • Dottie

      You got it right Charlotte, NC! They, "millennials", want it both ways. No accountability with their same lifestyle, but with a little bit of the Holiness of God

      July 28, 2013 at 12:26 am |
      • timrmcgrath

        Actually they and I want to go back to when it was called the way. When followers of Christ followed in his foot steps. When loving God with all you heart, you being, your strength and your mind as well as treating everyone as you wanted to be treated was followed. A time when His followers loved everyone unconditionally. Jesus only condemned those who knew better IE the leaders of the church.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  4. RichardSRussell

    "We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.", claims the author.

    Wrong! Another lie!

    The only questions you want to ask are the ones that have your FAVORITE predetermined answer, "God did it!"

    If religion were any good at answering questions that didn't have answers known in advance, we'd call it by a different name: science. But nothing of any value in our lives has EVER been discovered by religion, because it's worthless at finding out new things. All it ever does is regurgitate tired old lies. I suppose we could give it some minor credit for recycling, but that's about it.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  5. Joe

    "Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus." Talk about pretension. I still have hope that the coming generations will be free from the silliness that is religion. God is a lie. Millennials are leaving the church because we grew up with the entire sum of human knowledge at our fingertips and as the generations become more and more intelligent, one day everyone will look at Christianity, etc the same way we look at Greek and Roman mythology. It's no different, and I think this lady should stick to generation x. She's clueless.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • zinjo

      I'm a millennial, please don't call my Jesus silliness.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:09 am |
      • HotAirAce

        Your jesus is silliness, unless of course you have evidence for any of the associated supernatural claims.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:13 am |
      • Joe

        Or just continue to blindly follow an idea that his tortured, killed, and oppressed people for thousands of years. Yeah, you're right, maybe it's not silly. Perhaps it's just plain disgusting. I chance for people to try and justify the horrible things they do to one another.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:19 am |
        • Dave


          I could not help but humor over your statements. You try to come across as being enlightened but have not idea of history or religion. A few points however;

          1. It is right that the evangelicals most specifically ignore social justice to follow a party that assume put everyone in economic chains in the name of capitalism.

          2. It is also true that people have misrepresented Christianity to perpetuate hate.

          However, a few points worth mentioning

          1. Jesus did not cause the Crusades, man did. They perpetuated evil in the name of good.

          2. If you knew the New Testament, there were a few examples of Jesus coming to the aid of women, defending the minority and outcasts and he himself being cut off by the religious establishment. AND given the fact that his defense of all of the above mentioned groups was done during the Roman Empire in and of its self was amazing.

          3. Finally, generation X is much more informed than you may think. You forget that while we started off on Comadore 64's (SP sorry), we came of age at Windows 95 and 98 and the beginnings of the internet and cell phones while your generation were either in diapers, being carted off to soccer and or catered to by Barnie.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:58 am |
      • RichardSRussell

        I'm happy not to refer to "your Jesus" as silliness, since that would accord "your Jesus" a degree of reality not in evidence.

        However, I will be perfectly happy to call YOU silly for believing in the giant, silly fairy tale ABOUT Jesus.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:29 am |
      • WeJustDontKnow

        Your Jesus isn't that silliness. But perhaps the movies made about the idea of him are... Get my point? Superman, Batman, etc.. we long for some savior but yet keep rehashing the same stories, because a savior has never come. This world is cruel, this is a fact.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:30 am |
    • Dave

      Joe, my apologies for misspelling your name.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  6. mickeyb7

    Jesus commanded that we love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are not to judge. That is God's job. I've traveled all over this country attending and performing in many churches. Sadly, I've found only a few that actually follow that command. One in particular stands out – New Hope Community Church in North Port, FL. Their emphasis is on worshiping God and helping the people in their community. Everyone is welcome to attend their services, and most of those that do, continue to attend because their needs are being met. That church is growing like crazy because they are not playing politics and condemnation games. They are serving others. They don't have a problem attracting millenials or any other age group.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • Athy

      Why do you have to worship god? Even if god existed, that seems ludicrous to me.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:57 am |
  7. Peter Q Wolfe

    What gets me is the last time that I went to a baptist church that I told the preacher"I believe in universal health-care" and he called me atheist! Then, I went to a nondenominational church in college and heard a pastor say that Obamacare was not more or less Christian. Then, a catholic priest talked about John F. Kennedy and I wonder to myself the point of tax exempt status? This is all a freakin special interest group that is subsedized by atheist and spiritual americans who happen to be democrats!

    July 27, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • DaveLake

      "subsedized by atheist and spiritual americans who happen to be democrats!" Subsidized is not spelled with an e after the second s.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Let's be honest, Peter. Churches (mosques, synagogues, ashrams, CS reading rooms, temples, tabernacles, etc.) are all subsidized by ALL of us, not by any particular subset of Americans. They are perfectly willing to take fire and police protection, water and sewerage service, snow and trash removal, contract enforcement, national security, weather reporting, and a host of other public services completely for granted without contributing a nickel toward any of them. And such is their arrogance that they think it's only their just due. Needless to say, those services cost SOMEBODY money, and that would be you and me.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  8. helo

    We preached the gospel out on the streets, and I can tell you that church is drying up, God is outside the bullding in the highways and byways, and God is moving more mighty then he ever has, but he wants his people out on the streets to bring his love to dying a world that does not know him, and no wonder so many are leaving the church, have you been there lately, people are depressed in there, but not out on the streets preaching the gospel, there u will find the happiest joyful people sharing the gospel, the kingdom of God is within us, it was never suppose to be inside a building.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • Observer

      – Matthew 6:5-6 "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” [Jesus]

      Read much of the Bible?

      July 28, 2013 at 12:01 am |
      • observer

        Actually yes. I wrote out of observation and experience. This is the reality about religion. It does not follow the Bible. As a high school teacher, i am also privy to–unfortunatelt–details about religious people and others who claim to be, but whose actions belie thr claim (2 Timothy 3:5).

        July 28, 2013 at 12:06 am |
        • Observer


          Due to the name conflict, I am wondering if you have used this name for a long time?

          July 28, 2013 at 12:10 am |
        • tom dick harry

          An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence.

          unless you have an agenda like this lying god-hating witch!


          July 28, 2013 at 1:02 am |
        • HotAirAce

          So Hairy Dick, where is the compelling evidence for any god?

          July 28, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  9. polycarp pio

    These" millennials" as you likke to call them are leaving the "church" because the church of today is a powerless,wet noodle, divided in a thousand different parts that all fight against one another and doesnt the least bit resemble the church of the book of acts. We are asking them to accept our philosophy over the many others out there and all we have shown them a powerless form of Godliness and told them we have the truth. Let us get back to true holiness and Holy Ghost power that is undeniable. PP

    July 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  10. NavinJay

    There is just as much evidence that the Easter Bunny exists as God exists. Do you pray to the Easter Bunny?

    July 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      You exaggerate. There's MORE evidence for the Easter Bunny. God doesn't leave us brightly colored eggs.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:38 am |
  11. Pest

    The author succeeded in listing off bad things about the church, but all she is really doing is suggesting lipstick for a pig. This millennial has not interest in that, even if it's really super lipstick.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • Pest

      No interest, even.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  12. Gary Lee

    Is there a bible app.?

    July 27, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  13. Jordan

    As a college age minister, I think its important to note two dangers:
    1. Becoming so relevant that God's word is watered down and compromised
    2. Not obeying Jesus continual commands for us to separate from the world to follow Him. Society has always wanted the church to conform so that people can follow culture and the world. Jesus tells us constantly that you cannot do both.
    And by the way, I am a part of a church and a campus organization that are large and growing....

    July 27, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • Dustin

      Agreed Jordan. We're in this world, but Christ wants us to realize that we're not of this world.

      Most of the time when people put up petty arguments against God they're not saying "show me proof and I'll believe," what they're truly saying is "no matter how much proof you show me I won't believe." There are hundreds of reasons on this blog that tell why people don't believe, and demand proof; but even if it was given to them, they would still reject God.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:10 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      If you're not happy with THIS world, young minister, and think the next one will be SO much better, the way to get there quickly is probably within arm's reach of you at this very moment. Go ahead. Demonstrate your sincerity. Don't let us keep you.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  14. NavinJay

    My guess is that more young people are actually READING the Bible and laughing every other paragraph. Best comedy novel I have ever read.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • Eric

      The quickest and most direct path to atheism is reading every word of the Bible.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  15. Donovan Moore

    I used to be a born again Christian. I was told Jesus was coming back in 1977, 1985, and 1999. I was also told that voting for Republicans was the right thing to do. Then I was told all Christians have the "mind of Christ". Then Born again Christian George Bush invaded Iraq, because he knew they had WMD's. I woke up. I was scammed. I guess I'm not the only one who feels this way today.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • Austin

      have you ever head of apostate?

      July 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
      • bratex1218

        Have you ever heard of "Pharisee"?

        July 28, 2013 at 1:05 am |
    • Just a guy

      Donovan – a born again Christian should know that man will never know when He will return again – and just because a president who I believe is a Christian invaded a country (that had about 70% approval from the left) does not and should not keep a believer from beliving – believe in Him, man will let you down

      July 28, 2013 at 12:00 am |
      • Observer

        Just a guy,

        Are you referring to the war that Bush and the Republicans started for false reasons?

        Left to the Democrats, it never would have happened. The majority of them voted against it in Congress and Barack Obama strongly opposed it.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:05 am |
        • Just a guy

          Yes – I believe that a majority of the Dem's approved the war – it was not a war of convenience so that Halliburton would profit as the left has folks thinking – further – I believe that Bush would not have invaded Iraq if he knew for a fact there were no WMD's

          July 28, 2013 at 12:12 am |
        • Observer

          Just a guy,

          Again, left to Democrats in Congress or Barack Obama, the $2,000,000,000,000 war would not have happened. 97% of Republicans in Congress voted for it.

          Joe Wilson contradicted the information and they took it out on his wife. Countries like France said there was insufficient proof and Bush helped trash them for it ("Freedom Fries").

          At least 10 people in the Bush administration had publicly requested Iraq be invaded when Clinton was president. How convenient they got an excuse. Meanwhile, Bush "wasn't concerned" about bin Laden and sent 10 times as many troops into the nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. Just part of his legacy of terrible failures.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Jesus was also supposed to be coming back in 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48 ... 999,1000, 1001, 1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, 1006 ... 1775, 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, 1780, 1781 ... 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

      Why are we still talking about the 2nd coming of Christ? The very people promoting this idea are apparently incapable of reading their own holy book (Matthew 24:30-34), where Jesus clearly says he’ll be returning during the lifetime of his own disciples. But guess what? He didn’t! Didn’t come back then, hasn’t come back since, isn’t back now, and won’t be coming back in the future.

      And why not? Because he’s DEAD, you fools! Dead, dead, dead! Dead and gone. Dead and buried. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a rock. Dead as a dodo. Flatlined like Kansas. Belly-up like a dynamited carp. Dead and never coming back!

      It’s been TWO THOUSAND YEARS, people. Time to get over it. I’ve heard of slow learners, but this is ridiculous. Sheesh. Grow up and face reality.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:49 am |
    • bratex1218

      No Donovan, you are not the only one who feels this way.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  16. WeJustDontKnow

    Millennials are leaving the church, because the generations get smarter every generation. Its called progression or natural selection if you like. If God had such important rules why would he tell a camel jockey thousands of years ago this super important information, but yet disappear in the current day and think that would be enough? If he created us, he would realize we have questions and aren't happy with just the 'blind faith' part of never getting answers until you die? Is he a cruel comedian? Why would he never put his foot down when his followers distort his point of view and kill? This doesn't make any sense.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • Donovan Moore

      Well said bro. I used to tell people, If God wanted us to know that he was the one true God of Abraham, he would have had a rotating orb of the 10 commandments. See. But no.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  17. helo

    I was raised atheist, but when I was 22 yrs old, I had a real born again experience, I got filled with the holy spirit, spoke in tongues, and when I went back to hang with my friend in the bars, I knew I was different, I had truly been born again, didn't know what happened to me, then I started reading the bible and learning about Jesus, it was the best years of my life, I never had to go to church to experience that, I had peace like I never had, all the years of pain and rejection of being in foster home was completely gone, 25 years later I am still serving God but it has always been about an individual relationship never a church relationship.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
    • Austin

      that is shiny!

      July 27, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        So's Vegas. And about as authentic.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:52 am |
  18. observer

    If you want to really be happy with your search for God, don't llok for a church you like, look for a church God would like.

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

      God likes the church at the bottom of the ocean.
      He told me.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  19. JT

    IF SOMEBODY TELLS YOU... TO GET OUT ... look at him and tell him to >> GO fukk HIMSELF!! thanx

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

      "Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!"
      —Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters

      July 28, 2013 at 12:58 am |
  20. WeJustDontKnow

    It only takes a question to be deemed Satanic. A demon. If you use your brain that God gave you and don't know any better than ask a question of why? well, you are seeking too deep. God was so concerned with this, that he left us zero answers in a corrupt and dog-eat-dog world that many believe we just already live in Hell. Why? Well? Great question, Why? I would love some pastor to answer this. Why do you stand up for what you don't even know? And be so confident that even what you believe wasn't confident enough to prove you right? The Truth. We Don't KNOW ANYTHING!

    July 27, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      I know that you are in desperate need of more tinfoil.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
      • Austin

        WHAT FOR?

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

      Actually, you are somehow right. If you question religious people, they get angry. That is wrong. 1 Peter 3:15 says christians should be "ready to make a defense before everyone that demands a reason for the hope in you." Not only that, the same verse dictates how the answers should be delivered: ". . . but doing so together with a mild temper and deep respect."
      If a person cannot answer for his faith under this regulation, he/she is a false christian.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:00 am |
      • Austin

        anvil or end religion is back erasing comments

        July 28, 2013 at 12:16 am |
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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.