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. Bootyfunk

    education and the internet are killing religion.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • dzerres

      When you can Google you own questions and get answers without the prejudicial filters and the bs that the church supplies, who go to church? Maybe, finally, we are going to be liberated from all that religious mumbo jumbo by the internet! Thank you, Al Gore (I wrote that just to get the goat of the baggers).

      July 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  2. VMS

    Keep the faith, Rachel.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  3. A True Conservative

    So, she and others want to be Christians without following the Bible. Sorry folks, that isn't the way it works. It's like some of my "Catholic" friends who say I'm a Catholic.....but I don't believe what the church teaches. In that case you aren't a Catholic.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i doubt you follow the bible very closely.

      the bible specifically tells it's followers to kill non-virgin brides, g.ays, disobedient children, all non-believers and anyone working the weekend. anyone who actually followed that horrible book would be amongst the world's worst serial killer/mass murderers. so get off your high horse. like all christians, you don't follow the bible very closely either.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
      • Dana

        Bootyfunky, I would encourage you to read A Case for Christ written by a athiest journalist who set out to prove Christ and Christianity a falsehood. Then I would encourage you to take some courses on understanding the Bible, what the times were like both BC and AD so as to have a clearer and educated understanding of the meaning of what is written, and an understanding of God's law before and after Christ. I don't know what you have read that would lead you to the conclusions you have proclaimed, but I can assure you Jesus never told anyone to be put to death. He did however say if people were not open to hearing the Word his disciples should turn and walk away, shake the dust from their sandals (another meaningful tradition of the times.). You really should educate yourself more fully before spouting out and acting so houghty toughty ( as you munch on your popcorn). You only make yourself to sound quite the arrogant fool.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      It's impossible to follow the bible because the bible many times contradicts itself, so you have to choose which of the bible's parts to believe and which to disbelieve.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • omeany

      I repectfuly disagree. I believe you can follow the teachings of historical Jesus but not believe in Jesus the diety. Since fossils exist it is clear that man was not created perfect but evolved into our present form. Since this is the case there is no need for the saviour Jesus because there was no "fall from grace". This still leaves us with a wealth of inspiration.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Shee

    Wonderful article. I'm 65 and agree completely with the sentiments expressed. Give me God, not church.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • On and on

      Which is why the "nones" have grown so much.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      don't need god or church, just the love of my brothers and sisters.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  5. D

    the reason I left church is because when you go to church you are a $$ sign for many of them, they want to see how much money they can make from you, thats all

    July 28, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • larrylivingston

      Well that, and the fact that their product does not exist.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • D

      I did left "church", but not Jesus (God), I believe in his word and I am follow him. But, I don't need to go to church to believe on him.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  6. bostontola

    As an atheist, we don't need to twist history. Hitler started as a Christian, but he morphed into his own delusional paganism. He hated Jews so much, he saw Christianity as an off shoot of that hated religion. Like Stalin, he didn't want to compete with any other religion for power, he wanted to be the only game in town. Read the Hitler Youth song:

    “We are the joyous Hitler youth.

    We do not need any Christian virtue

    Our leader is our savior

    The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone

    We want to be pagans once again…”

    July 28, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • kmdab

      Wow. No mention of these lyrics on wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_songs

      July 28, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
      • bostontola

        Copy and paste the words into your search engine and you will find many sources.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
        • What is going on? FREEDOM

          Bostontola you just put a few words into the song to make it seem Hitler was anti-Christian. As someone that has studied the period I can tell you that those are not the exact words written for that song.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
        • bostontola

          What is going...,
          Are you saying that you don't think Hitler had a plan to wean Germans off Christianity and into his religion?

          July 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
        • What is going on? FREEDOM

          Bostontola that is impossible due to the fact that most Christians of that era after World War I hated the Jews already. The majority of Christians in that time period already blamed the Jews for their loss in the first World War. Hitler didn't need to reel them in or whatever you are spouting on about.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
        • bostontola

          Look up those words, they will show up on Christian history sites, Jewish history sites and secular history sites. You need to study that period more.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
        • What is going on? FREEDOM

          Bostontola I have. You can tell me I am wrong all you want but those are not words spoken by the Hitler Youth. I suggest you go about your regular job instead of trying to be a historian.

          July 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • JJ

      "As an atheist"....lol...you Christians never cease to amaze me as to how far you will go and flat out lie and con to push your cult.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • bostontola

        I've been on this blog for a long time. Your defensive reaction does not reflect well on an objective mind.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  7. highlander280

    Our generation is realizing that religion simply isn't true. It's a bit silly to believe in something based on no evidence whatsoever. We're abandoning religion because of logic.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Joseph

      Do you think that logic is new? Or that atheism is new? This generation has been brought up on selfishness, not logic.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
      • One one

        Atheism existed long before Christianity and will still exist long after Christianity has become extinct like so many other religions have.

        July 28, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  8. Joey Buttaface

    You're describing a conundrum created by man. As religion and the Bible are constructs of man, so is this "dilemma". This has nothing to do with millenials but has everything to do with fear and greed. When we shed ignorance and stupidity, then and only then will we all flourish.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  9. Rachael

    Thanks for this, you hit the nail on the head for me. I started to read some of the comments, and as usual it's all about whose right or wrong when it comes to religion and not about the article read. So, I wanted to give you props for writing something that I related to. Frankly, I left the church for this very reason and then in the end, I came to believe that this "God" doesn't exist. The church helped push me in that direction by their very anti-Jesus teachings. Jesus would be ashamed of some of the Christians I know.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  10. Erasmus

    As well written as this article is (and i say that as a compliment, it is worded nicely, and it seems sincere), the writer is talking out of both sides of her mouth.

    I.E. "We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers." – Well, bye bye Bible

    "Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus." -Well, welcome back Bible

    So in summary, shes saying don't change the church to bring back the youth, but change the Bible, and they will return in droves. Obviously banging her head against the podium did not help her reasoning. Heres a suggestion, if she doesn't agree with the churches, thats fine, we all have disagreements, but please approach the pastors with a "it is written" and not
    "i believe" because your opinion is just that, your opinion!

    July 28, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • On and on

      I think she is saying quit using the Bible to support your hate and politic.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:53 am |
      • JT

        Yes, I believe that is exactly what she is saying. Note to Ms. Evans: ME TOO! (I am 51) Nice to know I am not as alone as I feel sometimes.

        July 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • CuriousSkeptic

      Erasmus, I don't think a lot of Christians would agree that the Bible has all of the answers. The fallacy of Biblical literalism has been disproven by scientists time and again. The world is not 6,000 years old. Secondly, the author is not suggesting we change the Bible. The Bible does not explicitly endorse conservativism. In fact, it can easily be argued that Jesus was a radical liberal. What the author is arguing for is a de-politicization of the church.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
      • Erasmus

        She mentioned politics once! ............Once!
        THe inuendo throughout the whole article was – MY OPINION IS!
        The statement "We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers." obviously infers multiple topics (not solely politics) and negates the Bible.

        July 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  11. LouAZ

    The 3,000 year old god of the jews, christians, and muslims has never delivered on his promises. There is no peace on earth. Those religions have nothing to offer except the same stories (myths?) told over and over and over . . . that have nothing to do with life in the 21st Century. One would think that after 3,000 years the "message" would be so clear and obvious that followers would not have to go to some big auditorium EVERY week to get instruction from some "leader" that tells you what your ONLY "book" says about how they should live their life for the next week. Shouldn't a gods message last longer than a week ? (please don't suppose you can answer for your god with a reply) Seems more and more educated (can read and write) people have begun to understand that they may not know what "is", but they damn well know what "isn't". The god(s?) of old are just not applicable or relevant anymore.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Erasmus

      Your in the wrong forum, please copy and paste your message in the correct forum. And by the way, if you want to define your life by Websters dictionary and not the Bible, you have the freedom of choice, have at it! And if you don't live by Websters definitions, can i ask you this...........do you harp on the publishers of Websters equally as you do the Bible, surely you don't agree with all its definitions, which, by the way, do affect your life.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  12. OrionStyles

    ....people are leaving the church because the church doesn't allow things that will cause people to leave the church.


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

    Many young realize religion is BS. It's all myth. No dragons, leprechauns, fairies, deities or demons. And Xtianity has been hijacked into hateful politics. Teach kindness, love, respect ... not ancient myth.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  14. vincent

    Hi Rachel
    I appreciate your article and the spirit behind it. And I agree...the millenials are leaving the church. In droves. And I agree, they sense the falsehood, that Jesus is not there and they are having none of it.
    I'm sorry to say, I don't agree with your solution though... of being "drawn to high church traditions". I might suggest that if you look closely; stripping away the traditions, the falsehood and you eventually tire of the contemplative prayer, the candles, the liturgy and the papal "bull", that you won't find Jesus there either. This is because you are replacing one man-made system with another. And it's an old system...just not old to the millenials. It's like rehashing old clothing styles...or going "retro" with your furniture.
    I might suggest one gets back to the Bible...the whole Bible. It's all there...it just needs to be read...really read.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • On and on

      I think if you strip all of that away you'll find there is nothing left...

      July 28, 2013 at 11:48 am |
      • On and on

        Which is why I am an atheist.

        July 28, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • ray

      Why don't you go ahead and rewrite the Bible to your own satisfaction? That's what you're really asking for.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  15. Apostacy

    sitting here and referring to the old testament (cannanite slaughter) and then applying that to Christ, is negligent apostacy.

    refering to apostate antichrist murders who defamed and blasphemed the new testament and took the Lords name in vain, and negligently applying this to Christ, or the religion, refusing to honor the truth that apostacy is a firm doctrine and prophesy,

    is all out negligent deceit.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • snowboarder

      the only difference between a prophet and a mental patient is the gullibility of those who surround him.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • One one

      Are the gods of the OT and the NT the same god, or are they different gods ?

      July 28, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  16. Darwin was right

    BIBLE teaches that DISEASE is caused by DEMONS.
    SCIENCE explains that disease is caused by germs and gene mutations.
    BIBLE tries to create fear and is wrong.

    BIBLE says that earthquakes, hurricances, floods, plagues, locusts, etc. are caused by God as punishment for sins
    SCIENCE explains that earthquakes are due to tectonic plate movements, hurricanes caused by ocean heat and coriolis effect, floods normal effect of weather fluctations, etc.
    BIBLE SOWS FEAR – SCIENCE gives rational explanations of natural forces

    If you want FEAR AND IGNORANCE, choose the BIBLE!

    July 28, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  17. Kelly

    As a 20-something year old who used to attend church, you hit this right on the nail.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Sokesky

      I'm a 50-something and this is something we both agree on.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  18. Jessica

    From what I have seen, there are just as many genuine followers of Christ in the millennial generation as there are in their parents' generation. The change is not in the number of true believers, but in the number of people who attend church just out of habit or a sense of social obligation.

    I don't think the church needs to focus on what millenials have to say, or Baby Boomers or Gen X or any other age group. What we need to do is look to what God has to say about His church - His opinion is the one that matters. Rather than fretting over traditions or relevance, we need to focus on what mattered to Jesus: loving God, and loving other people. That means being charitable, compassionate, and accepting of other people. What it does NOT mean, however, is offering approval to life choices that God's word identifies as sin. Lying to people to make them feel better, or so they will like us better, is not love; it is cowardice.

    When Jesus was her on Earth, He was quick to show forgiveness and compassion to sinners. At the same time, He insisted that people turn away from their sins. The best thing the church can do is follow His example of unfailing grace AND uncompromising truth.

    July 28, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • pam

      Excellent post. Exactly what I was thinking. Very well said.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Kris

      Very well said Jessica. We are supposed to love the sinner but hate the sin.

      July 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  19. LouAZ

    Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will call in sick and sit in a boat drinking beer all day.
    Halejulia !

    July 28, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Doobs

      Worse yet, he'll skip Sunday morning services.

      July 28, 2013 at 11:41 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.