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. Darwin was right

    Why is this being censored:

    When I want magic shows, I go to Las Vegas. Bottom line is, fewer and fewer young people believe in magic invisible White guys with beards who live in the sky. 50 years ago almost all children with leukemia died, even after their parents prayed fervently to Jesus for a cure. Today, medical science cures 90% of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, so we don't need that useless Jesus who couldn't cure anybody. And the Fundamentalists continue to insist that the STORY OF CREATION in Genesis is literally true in every detail, in spite of the fact that 99.9% of all scientists reject it as a myth. In my town a Christian foundation is even giving a 'CREATION TOUR", in which they show people around the grounds and explain how the rock formations were formed in NOAH'S FLOOD.

    SO-OOOOOOO FUNNY!!! Christians just can't seem to stop making fools of themselves!

    July 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Purple Sky Fairy

      Exactly! Preach it my brother! I go to the Zoo and teach my children the truth, that we evolved from animals, and as the higher evolved being imprison the lesser life forms that we came from as a sign of control and mastery.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
      • snowboarder

        essentially true.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Ken78

      Why are you wasting time posting on a Belief Blog? Go grab as much pleasure as you can, while you can. Tomorrow – you die.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • skytag

        Why are you being a jerk?

        July 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  2. the AnViL™

    those of you who believe in the literal existence of gods are delusional.

    you should be prohibited from voting, serving on juries, running for or holding any public office, purchasing or owning firearms, teaching public school or having any contact with children under the age of 18.

    it's time to stop respecting delusional thinking and mental illness.
    it's time to stop tolerating religious idiocy.

    for the good of humanity – it's time to reject these idiotic, retarded, iron age myths.

    enough is enough.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • jed

      You are a control freak.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • aldewacs2

        .. not really.
        Remember (or can you?) how the Christians actually TERMINATED untold numbers of 'heretics', burned 'witches', and generally tormented people ... just because they could.
        If not for the actions of resourceful and courageous non-believing people, we'd still be in those dark ages.

        September 15, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  3. HauteWheels

    It's an inconvenient truth that Jesus died for our sins and that God wants us to turn away from our sinful lives. If the millennials want a Church-of-Anything-Goes, they are missing the point. The church should love the sinner, but not be made to embrace the sin.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • On and on

      Oh, I've heard that old line before – hate the sin and not the sinner.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Wake up

      Like ignoring the part where Jesus in the Bible in his own words said nothing about gays or even abortion...

      July 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • the AnViL™

      it's an inconvenient truth that there were no eyewitness accounts of jebus.
      it's an inconvenient truth that there's absolutely no substantiated evidence that jebus actually existed.

      it's an inconvenient truth that religion always bends to science – never ever the other way around.

      those of you who profess these hysterial beliefs in your imaginary gods are the true force of darkness in this world.

      your ignorance has stunted humanity for far too long, and people are waking up to the fact that it's all a fantastic load of utter BS.

      tolerance of religious idiocy is coming to an end.... deal with it.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  4. Patrick Watters

    Yep, heard much if the same from my own "kids" and their friends, have read and been reading the same sentiments for some time now too. It's not really a new phenomenon, it's just that "millennials" are acting and speaking up about something that has been missing in (at?) "church" for a long time, longer than some might think. I wrote recently about Henry Drummond, 19th century Scottish scientist and theologian who said things like "Christianity has stolen the church and enclosed it behind altar rails." The truth is, the real Church, Jesus' Church, is alive and well! It's just not those Sunday morning services or the buildings they happen in. It's people following Jesus 24/7 in their daily lives wherever they're at; home, work, school, coffee shops & pubs, in foreign countries and local neighborhoods. It's out there, He's out there. We're out there, come and join us! };-). da Moose

    July 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  5. Douglas

    I hate to sound like an internet troll, but I really am sick to death of all the religious BS. I don't care which particular brand you subscribe to, it makes no difference. It's all the same. To paraphrase Asimov, you ignorance does not trump our knowledge. Science has put paid to 99% of your myths, but you idiots refuse to let go. Your insanity is tearing this planet apart. Just give it up.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  6. fred

    Why do atheists post in these religion articles? These articles have nothing to do with them ; and they are not going to change a believer's.opinion. When they start posting things relating Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, sky fairies etc.,, to someone's faith they come across as close-minded, ill educated, immature, self-centered and arrogant.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • snowboarder

      ironically, i noticed all the same religious folks on the atheist article last week. pot, meet kettle.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Douglas

      Pot, meet kettle.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Sue

      fred, it's because morons like you vote, stupid.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  7. Jonah

    If you are tired of all the phoniness and nonsense in religion today and long for the real thing but don't know where to find it, go to mormon.org. The people there are non paid volunteers who only seek to serve and will point out the way to a spiritual awakening that you had no idea existed. Try it! You have absolutely nothing to lose.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • On and on

      Oh, my. Come back!

      July 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Jonah

      Ask the tough questions! There really are answers, you know.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  8. Shane

    Gregory Boyd...is that you?

    Great article.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  9. Ed

    I can identify with the tough question part. I once asked a tough question, and my 'faith mentor' quit talking to me.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • Mark

      What was your tough question? Perhaps you can get a possible answer on this post.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  10. Michael

    The one main theme shared by all religions is "Do unto others as you would have them to do to."

    How many of these Bible thumpers would like to be told you're only allowed to get married once and if you remarry you're condemned?

    July 28, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Ralph_in_FL

      I knew a woman who had three church weddings and three divorces. The third marriage did not last long enough for the left-over wedding cake to go stale.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  11. WOW

    WOW – this article is alarming. The truth in the scriotures cannot be watered down to please people. Churches need to be Christ like in the sense that they welcome everyone as Jesus did without judging them but... some things are clearly written in the Bible as being sins. You can't change that to fit today's society.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • snowboarder

      of course you can. it has happened constantly throughout history.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • On and on

      No, evangelicals have ignored some sins in the Bible to choose those that suit them.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • MagicPanties

      Yes, bring back slavery, stoning, chopping off hands, women as property, etc.
      Stop watering down "god's word".

      July 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Gadflie

      If we want to be more Christ like, then we MUST change to fit the times. After all, that's pretty much all Jesus did.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • ACF

      Actually, doctrinal development has been a constant in the history of the Church. The church very much does re-interpret and revaluate the scriptures with every generation.

      And I've found that Christians who claim to adhere to biblical literalism are some of the least biblical Christians around, since they often do so as mere proof texters with little critical understanding of the Bible's context, culture, or complex textual history. Conservative evangelicals are also selective, paying little attention to the scriptural imperatives about things like debt forgiveness, social justice, care for the poor, and economic injustice.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  12. Pastor Decker

    Sodom and Gomorrah didn't fair so well when they lived how they wanted ... now did they?

    July 28, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • snowboarder

      considering their demise was fictional, how does it matter?

      July 28, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Wake up

      Those places were wiped out through nuclear bombs. Now which god do you suppose uses nuclear bombs to get rid of cities?

      July 28, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Zooterist

      The story is fiction. They were parables and analogies made up to tell an ignorant and illiterate people to bolster a religion that at the time was competing with many others for dominance and adherents. If such stories were written today, they would be called fairytales or fiction. For adults to believe such stories are factually true is unfathomable. Grow up.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  13. Will Hampton

    You want to end the culture wars, but you use the phrase "unconcerned with social justice" It sounds like you're not willing to end the culture war.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  14. Al

    Basically, what is REALLY going on here, is that the world so many millenials inhabit is one that is full of knowledge and choices, one that is understandable without dogma or mythology. We have options, and we are choosing reality vs. fantasy. Fact vs. fiction. Knowledge vs. faith. Whether Ms. Evans recognizes it or not, she is really just being drawn more and more towards the truth, one that does not include heaven or hell, but one that DOES include morality, goodness and progress. Millenials are seeing more than any other generation that you can be GOOD WITHOUT GOD. I hope one day you'll join us, and the world will live as one.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • victor

      Haha, I believed that same thing for two years al. But the truth is that mentality is the prelude to the great deception that is coming, believe that there is good without God if u want, but never forget if He is true He doesn't seem to merciful on those that would corrupt His living word for tolerance. Do I think we should welcome all walks of life into church? Absolutely, but there was only one walk of life that raised Himself and His children from the dead. The world and especially the western church has forgotten what happens when God gives authority to man on behalf of His gospel, the world will soon see prophets, authentic teachers and servants that will do what Jesus did and greater. And when you see them and the two witnesses in Jerusalem you will know time is short. Be careful what you say al, our creator doesn't judge material things, but He judges our heart and its intentions and what excuse will you give the Almighty when you face Him alone and Christ doesn't intercede on your behalf? If this is false then you will live and die on this earth, but if you believe that there was One who lived again, there is much more at stake than going 6 feet under. He who has ears let them hear.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  15. JRM

    Nina, I agreed with right up to the point where you pushed forward your church. That turned me right off(been there, done that that, seen that).

    July 28, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  16. Pastor Decker

    Would you like some coffee with that? ~ Christianity is not Mcdonalds. Even if you make a church like Mcdonalds – wrong will still be wrong and right will still be right. Grow up and stop worshiping yourself. If you reject Jesus you will be in hell forever.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • On and on

      You're right – kindness to others through predetermined religion is not McDonalds...it's more like cooking for yourself. We know our own truths and we can change the recipe if we don't like it.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • Michael

      NO ONE is buying the bigotry of religion today. You're a far, far cry from what Christ preached.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
      • GBinSC

        Scriptures are specific. As much as America (and the world) today would like to embrace Gay Lesbian rights, it is plain as the nose on your face – a man shall not lay with a man...

        July 28, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • snowboarder

      religious doctrine should always be tempered by individual thought. it is plainly obvious to those of us with hom ose xual family members that they are not sinful or evil.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Wake up

      So says the blind leading the blind. Jesus is not who you think he is. He is way more than stupid christianity as practiced in evangelical churches.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • the AnViL™

      "Pastor" Decker stupidly opines: "Grow up and stop worshiping yourself."

      actually – it is you who should grow up and stop worshipping imaginary gods. you and those like you are impoverishing all of humanity with your ignorance.

      tolerance of religious idiocy has to end... the sooner the better.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • Wake up

      Evangelical christians are religious Bigots who hate rather than Love like Jesus taught. They claim to have truth but meanness and hatred comes through. Hell will be filled with many Pastors and even whole churches. They claim to tell you that God is in their churches if you do what ever they say. But in reality you do not need a single one of them. All you need to do to find God is look inside of you. He's there and not in any christian church.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • just me.

      If you ignore the teachings of Mohammad you will spend eternity in he ll.Do you have any convincing reason to disbelieve this?Anything?

      July 28, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  17. KimCarsonNOW

    Thanks for writing this, it echoes much of what I hear too from young people. I hear, "It's just not relevant to me". Jesus, His love, was all encompassing. His vision for the church was all inclusive, not exclusive. I enjoyed reading this very much....thanks for posting.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  18. Nancy Ruffin

    Just because a person announces that he does not believe, does not make it any less true. The day is coming, sooner for some than others that they will meet their Creator. Eternity is too long to be wrong. Now is the time to get it right. Jesus says in His Word that if you deny Me before men, I will deny you before my Father in Heaven. Everyone has a choice, of course, but as the Bible says, after death, Every Knee shall bow and every tongue shall proclaim that Jesus is Lord to the Glory of God the Father. Every means Every and it will be too late for some at that time. It is real. Find out now.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Rocket surgeon

      Sorry Nancy. You need to take a Theology class. Eternity is not "endless time". It's "time-less-ness" No time. To say it's "too long" is meaningless. If the gods live a dimension of "time", they REQUIRE it, and thus are NOT the creator of anything. Maybe try an education, before you start your preaching career.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:49 am |
      • Nancy Ruffin

        I'm sorry if I offended you. It was not my intention.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
      • LoveIsMyHigherPower

        You know what is a waste of time: semantics.

        July 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • JWT

      I'm going to meet my creator next weekend. My parents are coming to visit.

      You version of a god is not and cannot be my creator – it may be yours though. Your religious views apply only to you and not to other people.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • On and on

      My, there is much pain in your words. I think Rachel is on the right track.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Wake up

      That Bible was totally made up by the Romans. Religion does not play any role in who is good or bad and makes it. Present day christianity is way wrong on lots of things.

      July 28, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Al

      It must be really terrible to live your life under a constant threat. I imagine this places a lot of stress on your conscience, but don't you dare go threatening others.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Bill S.

      Just because you believe in god does not make him real. God was invented by man so that he could feel he has a force of infinite power on his side; to allow him to feel righteous in judging others who's patterns of living don't match their own; and to give us reassurance that there should be life after death. Just because you desperately want something to be true doesn't mean it is. Just because you FEEL something must be true also does not make it so. Go ahead and choose to believe in your god, your ghosts, you angles, and whatever other supernatural nonsense that gives you comfort. The reason millennials are turning away from the church is not because of the way they preach, but because of what they preach. Millennials are turning away because they have grown up in a world where they are surrounded by the products of science. My daughter has never known a world without an iPhone, Google, or DNA sequencing. She's also Living in a post-9/11 world where reports of funamental religious groups threats are common. It's becoming abundantly clear to those growing up in the 21st century that religion is a sham, and the idea of god doesn't square with the world around them.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  19. richardchrz

    I am 40 and have left the church in my 20's left being a christian about 2 years ago. I have a ton of respect for the told story of how Jesus of Nazareth lived his life. Just not what the Christians have made him into. Best said "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." – Mahatma Gandhi Find a way to turn that around and you would find a strong gathering again. Until then, the rest of us will just continue to give back to our communities, help the poor and make a social difference with on the account of we believe it is best to do this, not to gain some sort of you do this, we will offer you a place in heaven... propaganda.

    July 28, 2013 at 10:45 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.