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. realbuckyball

    I would imagine any film-flam scam would have to rejigger their business model now and then.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  2. davidsteffen

    Spiritual not religious, religion is a plague.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Ken78


      July 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  3. On and on

    To John Q – As an atheist, I believe Jesus was a real person and with good intentions for his day. His thoughts on the rich speak volumes to me. However, I agree with Rachel that the evangelical approach is a huge turn off, far greater than Catholicism ever was.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  4. ElectricLion

    What the Bible really needs is a NEW testament. Its current two (three if you count the Book of Mormon) are woefully outdated.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Faithwalk

      Sure just make one up. You can't be serious.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:03 am |
      • skytag

        Why not? It worked before.

        July 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Ray Sanders

    If any of the devote Christians here were born in Iraq they would be devote Muslims. If they were born in Israel they would be devote Jews. If they were born in India they would be devote Hindus. It is the same God you say. No, it is not the same God. Neither the Jews, Muslim, Hindus believe that Jesus is God. Christians believe Jesus is God – part of the Trinity. Now Jesus can't be God and not be God. That is impossible.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • Bippy the new lesser to medium level judging squirrel god

      If horses had gods, their gods would be horses.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • bostontola


      July 28, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • snowboarder

      any god that would set up his followers from different religions for holy wars is a devious monster.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  6. Amy

    Thank you for saying...or typing 🙂 this "outloud"....it is refreshing and hopeful to know that I can cast off the shame of leaving a hyped-up, sensory-overloaded religious service because I now know that there are others who feel the same as I do. And John Q., if you are so disappointed....why did you come to CNN for the news in the first place? Type in "conservative news source" into Google and find what you are looking for...without projecting negativity. Just sayin'.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  7. RayJacksonMS2

    You wasted your breath lady. Those old farts didn't listen to a word you said and will never change. Get out of that cult and don't join new one if you want to be happy.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:56 am |
  8. Trish

    I think this is perfect. I appreciate everyone and want everyone to feel welcome. I went to an evangilical baptist church for about 5 years but was turned away by how discriminating some people could be. I felt so unwelcome to be real and honest. Now turning 26 I have re sculptured my faith and spirituality. I was missing the guidance and time for self reflection that church provides. I have been blessed to find a church that welcomes everyone wherever they are on their spiritual journey. It is open and respectful. As a millenial it is true, we just want to have somewhere we know it is safe to be who we are with the guidance and love we are seeking as a community. Thank you for sharing this blog .

    July 28, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • JJ

      How 'bout casting off all bronze age beliefs and rituals and come into the light of reason and sanity? Sounds like you've been conditioned to fear reality as is the case when indoctrinated into the Christian cult from childhood.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Ken78

      Sounds like you found a "church" that will let you put yourself at the center of the universe, cater to your desires, and demand little sacrifice or pain from you. Sounds like a country club. Good luck with that.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  9. Becky Schmiddt

    God bless you for concisely stating what should be obvious to all. I'm about as conservative and evangelical as it's possible to be–but I yearn for depth and reality in my worships service. If there were an Episcopal Church or doctrinally conservative Presbyterian church in my community–I'd be there. Thanks for your honesty.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • just me.

      You yearn for depth and reality in your worship?Good luck with that.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  10. Evangelos

    The closed minds and hearts of many in the US "Christian" community, which the author (among many others) decries, is in great evidence here in the comments.

    I ask those attacking her as "unbliblical", to please reflect for a moment and answer the following questions:

    1. Is the Sermon on the Mount (e.g., Matthew chapters 5-7) biblical or "unbliblical"?

    2. How do you reconcile those beautiful passages, apparently Jesus' own words (unlike most of the Old and New Testaments' text), with the embrace of war, torture, empire and exclusion that characterizes right-wing so-called "Christian" Republican America in the 20th and 21st Centuries?

    July 28, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  11. nuclear mike

    What has now happened to the newest generation's view on thier religion & that of others is "information" and the sharing of all that "e-information" easily & quickly. The mysticism is being removed by science, yet the big question always remains "WHY?".
    Just like in Medival Europe when the Black Plague forever reduced the power of the "Church" when the "Church" failed to rescue the human race from the black death...now we have the "Church" unable to bring the human race t what should already have been achieved...world peace & harmony with all the religions.
    But the human experience is cyclic and so all will be repeated as before across the ages until the human race can unlock all the DNA secrets to create their own "perfect being"...

    July 28, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  12. Ray Sanders

    Every time the church has went against science (e.g., the earth revolves around the sun) science has won. Every time.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  13. SV

    "After being advertised to our entire lives our BS meter is not easily impressed". You could have stopped the article right there. Religion in and of itself is all advertising and BS therefore you cannot update the "substance". You see, religion is all about controlling the masses...the 'flock' as it is. Word of God? Hogwash. Word of misguided power hungry people, that's what it is. Churches should be taxed to help rebuild our infrastructure. Many of them a waste of real estate. Sell the gilded trinkets and do some real good for people. Want to feel a sense of community? Then get out there and help others.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  14. saturn369

    Not a bad article. But what I can't figure out is why people are still determined to think there's an imaginary dead guy watching what everybody's doing all the time, and judging you. It's all just forms of guilt to control people. As humans, I don't think we're meant to know all the answers, everybody has their own spiritual truths, it's not a 'one fits all' program. I find it ironic that Protestantism was founded as a way to bring down the catholic church, and according to this article, people are going back to it.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  15. Stanley Lucas

    The churches need to set an example. Too many churches keep themselves in debt in order to coerce members into continued giving. How can a church expect it's members to practice financial responsibility when it itself does not? The megachurches also seem to literally worship money and financial success. The traditional hymns have to a large extent been replaced with really bad, really bland praise music. When I was an active churchgoer, sure the church ( baptist in my case ) wasn't exactly pro-gay, but you simply didn't have the sheer amount of hate emanating from the pulpit for these people that you have today. I figure it's to placate the fairly significant number of divorced people in the congregations today. It's simply incoherent to accept people who have broken a vow they took willingly before God, and yet condemn in the harshest tones a group of people who don't even claim for the most part to be christians. There is nothing more uncool than someone who is trying to project coolness to everyone else. Perhaps it is that phoniness that is driving young people away.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  16. bostontola

    As science advances exponentially, the gap between the literal bible and reality grows. Evidence of this is the number of Christian sects. This women's representation of many of the next generation's issues with literal bible worship is another symptom of this problem for the churches. Literalist bible worshipers will dwindle in numbers.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  17. Garrick Greathouse

    I gave up on religion when I was told that Skateboarding would send me straight to hell.

    July 28, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  18. John Q.

    @Reality, dude it's time for another one of your spams...

    July 28, 2013 at 9:48 am |
    • JJ

      Shouldn't you be scurrying off to church by now? Your pastor is just about to pass around the collection plate and your 10% earnings for the week (about $5?) will be missed and will make baby Jesus upset.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  19. John Q.

    CNN, Liberals and Atheists so perfect together... Sad that CNN used to be a real news source...

    July 28, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      Ohhh, "liberals"! Scary! Do you even know what the word means?

      July 28, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • Esaias

        Do you? Sounds like you need a wedgie.

        July 28, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Giovanni

      Howdy John Q. I already posted this as a reply to you on a different post, but I just want to make sure that you do not miss this chance to spread the good news of the Bible. So, again:

      Do you condone the killing of babies, children and fetuses in Sodom? If so, then you are immoral stain upon the Earth. If not, then you disagree with that Yahweh guy as being a good moral deity.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:51 am |
      • JJ

        I'm afraid that when presented with parts of their bible that they have always ignored and that contradicts you can expect nothing but crickets so you're wasting your time trying to make this particular nut have to actually think.

        July 28, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • NM

      Scoot then.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • JJ

      You'd probably be more at home at FAUX where they all drink the same kool-aide as you. So scurry along now and don't let the door of reason hit you on the way out.

      July 28, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • sybaris

      and yet you are here reading it

      July 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  20. Katherine

    Hello Rachel, THANK YOU for this wonderful blog. Everyone: Have you read Jeffrey Sachs' book "The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity?" I highly recommend it! The Millennial generation features there as being the one who will affect real change for the country, for exactly the reasons cited in this blog. At this point, I'm aspiring to be an "honorary Millennial" (alas I'm quite a bit too old, counting the years).

    July 28, 2013 at 9:46 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.