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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    July 28, 2013 at 6:25 am |
  2. Jeff

    Liturgical worship is based in practice that goes back thoursands of years and has always sought to both impart the message of god, make the connection between god and the people, and give the people the opportunity to worship. When I moved to Georgia I visited several Baptist and Evangelical "churches" and noticed first that they seemed to have the exact same format, and second that it was basicly a motivational seminar. And while worship was going on, it certainly wasn't the worship of God. What was being adored and praised was the dynamic speaker at on the stage.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:22 am |
    • Daniel Carlson

      AMEN! so the answer is...stop with the baptist and "evangelical" churches

      July 28, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  3. Robert

    Making LGBTs welcome in church is fine and dandy as long as you preach that ga_y se_x is sin. Both the Old and New Testaments say ga_y se_x is sin and Jesus said marriage is between a man and a woman.

    The gospel can't be compromised to tickle people's ears.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:19 am |
    • Robert

      Oh, and Pentecostal churches are growing in the US and worldwide. 🙂

      July 28, 2013 at 6:20 am |
      • JJ


        July 28, 2013 at 6:44 am |
      • jungleboo

        So is cancer.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:04 am |
    • Daniel Carlson

      It's not a matter of welcoming someone (or shouldn't be) in the way you describe. But no church theologian or spiritual leader who calls himself a believer in Christ and in Christ's words can EVER accept those behaviors and godly. It goes against the very name and purpose of Christ. It's one thing to welcome someone into worship, but it's quite another to call something that is a sin (as taught in Scripture) not a sin (as society wants). We don't preach what society wants, we preach Christ's word. Those two things (society and Christ) do NOT go hand-in-hand. To ask a church to accept LGBT is to ask a church to deny Christ and its faith.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:46 am |
      • carol woodruff

        I left the church (I'm 60+) because for all the talk of Christ, there really didn't seem to be much concern for people in dire straits...no protests of all the cuts of programs for the poor; no protests of cuts to food stamps that feed children...churches call themselves pro-life (which I consider myself to be) but are just anti-abortion because they don't fight at all for the physical and mental well-being of children...the phrase "save the fetus, starve the child" was the best description I ever heard. It has made me very angry that the church also doesn't seem particularly concerned about true justice and fairness like it used to be, just the anti-abortion 'stuff'. When Christ is allowed back in the church I will return.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:03 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        LGBT is not a sin. Sin is biblical and does not pertain to everyone. LGBT is as natural as left-handed is; as natural as being hetero is. It is hetero couples that bring LGBT people in to this world. Christians need to put the out-dated 2000 year old book down and join this century, the bigotry is very damaging and only shows how hateful the christian belief can be.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:36 am |
      • Colin

        lgbt is not a sin, it is four separate sins, each as deadly and demeaning as the previous.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:38 am |
    • LivinginVA

      Do you want these churches to also preach that remarriage after a divorce for anything but adultery is a sin? Do you want them to tell the remarried divorced people that they are committing adultery and need to repent of the second marriage and stay celibate the rest of their lives? Just making sure you aren't compromising the Gospel.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:59 am |
      • LivinginVA

        That was supposed to be a reply to Robert, but it didn't show up as a reply.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:00 am |
  4. A Promise Keeper in Canada

    Who is the Church that all these folks are leaving? Is it your church? is it my church? is it the servant ministry that I am part of? or you support? where is the finger pointing here?
    Nail down that answer and let's all look to see what we represent to those around us. in whatever group we are part of, church or other wise, do we reflect Jesus? do we draw people unto us or scare them away. WWJD.
    All those answers are found in His word and can be tested by His Spirit if we spend enough time reading and listening to both. God is Love, enjoy Him today and share that enjoyment with as many people as you can.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:13 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      No evidence that that book is the word of your imaginary friend.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • Colin

      We have all the evidence we need. What is unneeded and unwanted is you.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:54 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        I get how reality and truth would scare you. It tears down your bible and shows how immoral your version of god is. How pathetic that you worship a god who promotes murder, rape, oppression of women, child abuse, bigotry. Do you beat your children and wife in accordance to the bible? Do you stop your wife from speaking in accordance with the bible? Would you force your daughter to marry her rapist in accordance with the bible? How many slaves do you own?

        The quickest way to disbelief is to read that giant book of fairy tales. If more christians actually read it the churches would crumble faster than they are.

        July 28, 2013 at 7:03 am |
        • a reasonable atheist

          @TP The likely answer to most of your queries is "yes" as Promise Keepers basically exult in biblical misogyny.

          August 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
        • a reasonable atheist

          @TP The likely answer to most of your questions is "yes" as Promise Keepers exult in biblical misogyny.

          August 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Colin

      "god" describes an idol, there is no "god". God iS !

      July 28, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  5. Man who believes

    Millennials aren't "leaving" the church, they are being squeezed out. One, by inept church leadership. Two, by societal pressure. Three, by lack of critical thinking and thoughtfulness. Indeed it takes MORE thought and genius to conceive of God than Science; and it's no coincidence that humanity's more scholarly past was also more religious.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:08 am |
    • jungleboo

      "... and it's no coincidence that humanity's more scholarly past was also more religious". You are of course referring to The Dark Ages and the many hundred years it took for The Enlightenment to spread its wings?

      July 28, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  6. Pete

    The Evangelical church unfortunately is locked into a hidebound theology that resists change. All the needed changes younger generations want from the Evangelical church can be found in churches with a progressive theological outlook.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:01 am |
  7. Atom

    When god is absent... why should his followers be present? I believe people are beginning to accept the reality that god isn't there. You can have 'hip' bands or old hymnals... it doesn't matter what summoning mechanism is used... god is not there.

    July 28, 2013 at 6:01 am |
    • Follow God of Abraham


      July 28, 2013 at 6:17 am |
    • Colin

      "god" describes an idol, of course "god" is not there, an idol is not God. God IS.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:56 am |
  8. NavinJay

    You can't get 3 people all witnessing the same traffic accident at the same time to give the same story about the events. Why do you think stories passed down from generation to generation to generation and then copied over and over by hand and then translated and then translated again over nearly 2000 years are going to be accurate? (I'm referring to the Bible)

    July 28, 2013 at 5:59 am |
  9. akmac61

    Without a doubt, Jesus son of Joseph (assuming he existed as such), would be castigating many of the present churches and pastors for their materialistic and political agendas if he was alive today. There may be many Christ-like Christians out there, but the ones who use their supposed faith to publicly validate their politics and prejudices fall far short of being Christ-like.

    July 28, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • Follow God of Abraham

      Jesus was sired by the Holy Spirit

      July 28, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  10. Joel

    "We want a truce between science and faith."

    Such a thing has never been possible, because science and religion are and always will be opposites by definition.

    July 28, 2013 at 5:53 am |
    • akmac61

      There is a difference between being opposites and being in conflict. It is like comparing steakhouse and vegan cooking, opposite and completely different but without any rational reason to be in conflict. Religion is about faith and spirituality while science deals with provable/measurable physical concepts. Each has its own separate place in the world and typically should not even be considered to be in conflict, as they are too unrelated in the first place.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:04 am |
    • Jeff

      That opposition is only true if you are a fundamentalist on the religious side, or take an atheist on the science side. I've known quite a number of people who have managed to reconcile both by accepting that the foundational question of science is "how are we here" while that of relgion is "why are we here." It's people who try to turn the Bible into a history of science that cannot reconcile themselves to scientific inquiry; or atheists who reject the organic nature of religion.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:16 am |
    • Colin

      Without God there would be no science. Science is best served when God reveals Truth to men.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:31 am |
  11. observer

    there is no proof that the new testament has an author(s)

    July 28, 2013 at 5:38 am |
    • Tertia

      What do you mean?

      I was written, so it must have an author/s

      July 28, 2013 at 5:58 am |
      • birdie

        Tertia, you were?

        July 28, 2013 at 5:59 am |
      • HotAirAce

        There is no proof that the author was some god, or that the author was truly guided by some god.

        July 28, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  12. yeppie

    Or is it that folks are getting to see that God hasn't made a persona; appearance in like never.

    July 28, 2013 at 5:38 am |
    • birdie

      didn't like that bit of truth? lol

      talk to the drug addicts, prisoners, the defeated.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:02 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        Those people witness god because it looks good for them to make the claim.

        July 28, 2013 at 6:07 am |
        • sueu

          u should no, mrs god

          July 28, 2013 at 6:25 am |
        • Truth Prevails :-)

          you not u
          know not no

          Now if you wish to look semi-intelligent (apparently a hard step for you) learn to spell.

          July 28, 2013 at 6:39 am |
    • Colin

      In these last days God has revealed Himself in His Son. Jesus of Nazareth is the personal appearance of God.

      July 28, 2013 at 6:35 am |
  13. Keith

    I have recently left a church for the same reasons. They are too political, exclusive, out-of-date, not in touch with what is really happening in the world, blind to social injustice, hostile towards not just the gay community but to anyone who would challenge their doctrine or social standings. Also, the writer forgot to mention, they are getting too materialistic. Look at the Mega Churches for example. The amount of money they spend just on audio-visual alone is alarming. God is no longer there in the churches. They have become nothing more than a club of right-winged bigots who are so dumb that they mistake emotions for a spiritual awakening. Their doctrine is mixed with politics and guns. Sadly, the only thing that makes a lot of them different from groups like the KKK is they replaced the bed sheets with polyester suits and ties. As for me, I'll keep looking for a church where God is at and leave the ignorant ones to their ignorant bliss.

    July 28, 2013 at 5:27 am |
    • birdie

      come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and i will give you rest

      July 28, 2013 at 5:45 am |
  14. NavinJay

    Thieves broke into a church and took everything that wasn't nailed down. At least Jesus was safe.

    July 28, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  15. NavinJay

    Christian: "Why don't you just believe in God in case you're wrong. What have you got to lose?"
    Me: "The same reason you don't show conformance to the Goddess Maat increase you're wrong about her.

    July 28, 2013 at 4:53 am |
  16. David Edwards

    "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."

    Hardly. We all like to perceive that we have some innate ability to detect crap when we are in our 20's and into our 30's. We like to think we are somehow more clear thinking and less jaded, per se, by the world at large and can therefore "smell" the BS. The truth is we are constantly learning, and remain gullible, to an extent, our entire lives. If we, as people, decide to stop learning, then the BS we detect it our own. I will be 41 this November and it becomes clearer to me every day that I don't know a damn thing. So my life is a constant state of research. I want to learn as much as I can about as much as I can while I still can. Sure, at 40 I do have many prejudices and those prejudices are hard to change. But I constantly strive to learn, and as long as I don't stop trying to learn, perhaps one day I will have a truly built-in BS meter. Until that day comes, I'll stick with busting my ass trying to be a decent member of our species, learning and evolving in my habits, my prejudices and my metering of other people's crap.

    July 28, 2013 at 4:51 am |
    • A1f2f

      This is about the Millennial Generation which if you're in your 40's you are not a part of. Take a marketing class and you will realize how strong generational differences are.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  17. John

    The Church has just become another for of cable television. Pushing an agenda, telling people how to vote, telling people whats right and wrong, and how to think, live and act. And the Catholic church will continue to die until they let women be priests and let then marry. We don't have time for this sick unnatural nonsense. You can say it's a holy tradition all you want, but the child abuse is sending another message...ITS WRONG!

    July 28, 2013 at 4:50 am |

    If you are really looking for Jesus,

    here he is,

    he has already come back upon/with the Clouds of Heaven.


    July 28, 2013 at 4:50 am |
  19. Kevin

    You don't have to believe any of it. Please stop pretending like it's part of some balanced diet of life.

    July 28, 2013 at 4:44 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.