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. bostontola

    "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."

    If you present facts and logic to any religious person that conflicts with the dogma they subscribe to, the same thing happens.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  2. MadZagyg

    "We want a truce between science and faith."

    There is no way this can happen.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Jehovah

      I'd love to know what the heck the author meant by that. It borders on being a totally incoherent statement. The space occupied by religion gets smaller and smaller with each new scientific discovery.

      July 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  3. George

    Maybe it can all be summed up by saying, "Think about your own relationship with God and not about your anger about what other people are doing."

    July 27, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  4. Gee

    Seems the objections raised by the author and most of the posts are framed with a lot of misconceptions about true Christianity. Christ never told people to build churches. In fact, if you go by his direct words you will not find justification for divisions or leadership other than his directly. Leaving the church may be the first step in the right direction. Entering a personal relationship with Christ is all that is needed to find out if He has the power to connect with you without requiring interpreters. Trumped up false charges delivered by religious minded individuals were the instrument for his crucifixion. Clearly the same is continuing as delivered by individuals passing judgement on Him today based upon the actions of people claiming to be his followers or not having a clear understanding of what His words really are in context. Those who bash Christ based on ignorance of what he actually said (not is so called followers) lack credibility and are usually hypocritical of a lot more things in their lives than the topic of religion. If someone wants to know your position on things, better they get it directly from you not from those who claim to speak for you. See where I'm going with this?

    July 27, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • suffer'n succatash

      Well stated.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • E.

      I disagree. The author does not have a misconception about the teachings of Jesus, modern Christianity does.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  5. Jim

    There's no such thing as a "millenial", get a life. The only reason the baby boomers had any kind of label put on their generation was simply because it was unprecedented...a huge "boom" of babies born because WWII was over. There is no generation x or y or generation this or that and no "millenials". There were no labels before, no need for any now. You're just one of the next generations, good or bad or whatever.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  6. Chad

    Hi Rachel, man I so appreciate what you're saying. Yet, for all the sound things you've written here you seem eerily ambiguous on sin and confrontation. At the same time that Jesus loved sinners, He also distinctly told them "go and sin no more" (John 8:11, John 5:14). Jesus didn't accommodate wrong perspectives in honor of church growth/attendance (John 6:66-67). I wonder if, in light of such scriptural examples, Millenials would approve of the type of ministry Jesus would operate were He here on the earth in the flesh. Maybe Millenials might also want to ask members of elder generations why Millenials should reconsider their values.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • George

      Problem is that you want to sing, "Give Me that Old Time Religion," but you want to ignore that "Do not judge" part.

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

        George—you and many others have not read all of Jesus' words, a truth that is always revealed whenever someone makes this inaccurate argument. Jesus did not tell us not to judge. Read it for yourself: John 7:24.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  7. lol??

    The "up the creek without a paddle church" helped save the Clintons so they could save in their foundation. Hillary's words ain't cheap. They almost look like prepaid bribes.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  8. bamagrad03

    As a fellow millennial, I'd like to tell the author: you don't speak for me.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  9. jon

    My problem is that churches preach opinion as fact. Most of what Jesus wrote are not meant to be interpreted except by specific people, that is why there are parables. Plus I like weed. And for some reason that is a dreadful sin. Never hurt anyone smoking. It is not what goes in the mouth that creates sin but what comes out. If I have to sit there and listen to someone tell me something is wrong that I know isn't, especially when it helps me make it to the next day without blowing my brains out, screw them....

    July 27, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  10. Ron

    actually the reason more and more people are leaving the church is because the recent explosion of knowledge has revealed the bible as a hoax. its fake. the catholics, evangelicals and whatever are fighting over a corrupted compilation of myths, legends and hearsay.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • Larry Homes

      Yup, it's like trying to keep the whole Santa thing going with your kids. My sister's three year old told her Santa was just a story. He got that from the web.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Jehovah


      July 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  11. Wie Khiong

    What people like Rachel need is not God but a dog.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  12. drewkadel

    Once again, a very insightful post. "What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance." There are plenty of millenials (and others), of course, who want precisely nothing from the church, and if Christians want to manipulate style or substance in order to change numbers, it's a losing proposition. But the church can't afford to sacrifice substance, i.e. the Gospel, in order to focus on how great we are. As a long time Episcopalian, I hope that my friends that are heartened by the "high church turn" realize that it is this: "precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool," and not because liturgy is cool or even trendy. Unpretentious is an unaccustomed aspiration for many Episcopalians.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  13. zeke

    millennials are leaving the church because the bible is a static work that was written using the knowledge available before the age of enlightenment. science is constantly upgrading itself as experimentation shows new pathways and more information is learned. as time goes on and more facts are acquired, one has to make an ever greater leap to jump from the world of knowledge into the world of religion. It is also far easier to slip from religion into the world of knowledge. all one must do is ask questions about the bible.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  14. Jehovah

    How does one call a "truce between science and faith"? If you faith requires you to deny science and truth, that should tell you a lot about your "faith".

    July 27, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  15. Chris

    I'm a 56 y/o white male, nearly completed a Commissioned Pastor program in the RCA. I generally agree with the tone and substance of the article. I still attend and am active in structured "organized" religion.
    Here's the deal. I'm beginning to see "church" as somewhat fluid. Ok, maybe a better description is "how we DO church". The traditional gathering and the traditional WAY OF THINKING about how we gather and express our faith is NOT fixed in time and space, or it shouldn't be. A lot of what I do in Facebook private messages is prayer, worship, and partnership in faith (counsel, essentially). So...is Facebook...church? Maybe. If someone curses in anguish and asks for prayer and shares a biblical quote, and does it in their pajamas, via internet, is that...worship? Can they do all that and occasionally appear in person at a brick-and-mortar church and still be part of a faith community? Uh, sure...I think.
    The appearance of "church" will change.It has for every generation since the concept was conceived. So, do it. Even if some of us rebel and drag our heels, do it. "The church" is any and all who gather in worship of God in Jesus Christ. Will it be different and alien to some of the previous incarnation? Sure. It ain't "Fer us". Fight for it. Make it your own. Some of us will still support and encourage you.
    First century Christians met on the river bank. Having buildings and speaking prayers in Greek was a Big. Deal. They did it anyway. When the catholic church stopped holding masses in Latin, again, BIG. DEAL. RCA holding services in English instead of Dutch, praise music, foreign missions, women in office...all big deals, all happened. "The CHURCH" changes, the FAITH is the same. Go for it. I'll do my humble little part to help, not hinder.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Jehovah

      How is your religion open to the questions about the morality of the crucifixion? How is it moral to look to a child sacrifice as redemption of the sins of people not even yet born? How is it moral to cast off your sins, your responsibility on Jesus, who then becomes indistinguishable from a scapegoat? I've never heard any satisfactory answer to those questions. Now, the life of Jesus, at least as reported, has a lot to emulate. Christianity on the other hand, not so much.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:15 am |
      • lngtrmthnkr

        How is it moral for a soldier to jump on a grenade to save his buddies? Same thing-even though you will probably say it isn't.

        July 27, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  16. yogi

    If your church cannot show you how to find God, it is not the right church. Meditate, and find the kingdom of God inside you.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Ron

      there is no right church then.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:18 am |
      • yogi

        Probably not, unless the church teaches you how to meditate deeply and you have a direct personal experience of God.

        July 27, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  17. sybaris

    The difference between me and your god is if I saw a child being ra.ped I would try to stop it.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  18. Daremonai

    Maybe it is time for Quakers to rise?

    July 27, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • sybaris

      Nope, most Quaker meetings have fallen to the same gimmicks and charlatans as other denominations.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  19. Ruby

    Like so many things, it is about the product, not the packaging. No matter how it is promoted, church is still just church. The religion on the other hand, can be studied for its relivence today without regard for the opinions of churches.
    Therefore, I like the idea that a tree is known by its fruit.

    July 27, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Larry Homes

      The product was too old-fashioned to begin with. That's why they tried all the new packaging. Going back to old packaging really won't improve the product.

      July 27, 2013 at 11:24 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.