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. Diane

    Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He doesn't have to change His ways to please a certain generation. His word stands true. It is the standard for living and always as been and always will be. If your church is not Bible based and teaching the Word then find a new one, coffee or not.

    July 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • ay yi yi

      Your jesus may be the same today tomorrow and whatever else... but those that follow have consistently changed over time. Changed and also completely cherry picked the good parts from the "bible" to fit their own personal believes. It is the same idea.

      July 30, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • kindenver

      Amen. Just another Gay loving, liberal plant writing that article. Kind of like, I want to drive a car, but not on the side of the road I am supposed to. Well, that could end badly for her.

      July 30, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • Pat Robertson

        And you'll praise God no doubt when one of his straight children totals your car, and the gay paramedic saves your Earthly life.

        July 30, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
        • CatLover

          OMG!!!! You mean there are GAY paramedics? It's another sign of the END TIMES!!!!!!

          July 30, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  2. AE

    Are you an elite scientist?

    July 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Are you implying that only elite scientists are qualified to post? I doubt that you are an elite scientist – you just cherry-pick quotes from them. You post as though your knowledge is superior yet you have yet to show any evidence for your god. In anticipation of your reply that you don't need to – why keep posting if you can't back it up; you're the one claiming knowledge of a higher power so you're the one that needs to provide the evidence.

      July 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
      • Harry Cline

        @In Santa we trust,

        No he's not but go back a page and you will see poster Colin above imply that his brand of scientist are smarter.

        July 30, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
      • AE

        No, that was not what I was implying.

        Somebody said, in effect, all of science proves God wrong. I pointed out a lot of scientists believe in God.

        And then it was pointed out most elite scientists don't believe in God.

        I just wanted to know if the poster was a scientist.

        You don't need to be an elite scientist to know God.

        You can be an elite scientist and know God. But it is not required.

        July 30, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
        • George Busch

          90% of life scientists don't believe in religion. That takes in doctors of medicine, physics, chemists, geology, math, the real sciences. When christians quote numbers that state scientists believe in god the are referring to christian scientists, doctors of faith, religious scholars. They don't mind scewing the facts and numbers in their favor, but are quick to dispute facts that defy what they believe. Christian science – it really is an oxymoron...

          July 30, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
  3. A Millenial

    For my generation, it's always about having Christianity conform to them, never about conforming themselves to Christianity.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  4. Just the Facts Ma'am...

    "Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus."

    Um, no we don't.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  5. A Millenial

    My generation is always trying to get Christianity to conform to us, rather than conforming ourselves to Christianity.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Colin

      And why is conforming to Christianity a good thing? While I accept that much of the morality preached by mainstream Christianity is admirable, it differs not from that taught by mainstream Mulsims, Hindus and Buddhists. It is the supernatural garbage that we need to get rid of. I see nothing admirable in that.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • A Millennial

        The article is directed towards Christians who are leaving the church, as is my comment. If you actually believe Christ to be God, then you shouldn't be trying to conform his teachings to your own standards.

        If you believe that the bible is merely a moral book, or one that skirts around a "greater God," I'm sorry, but you aren't really a Christian. Christianity's only responsibility to you is to show you that you're in error, not to conform itself so as to make you comfortable.

        July 30, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
        • skytag

          "If you actually believe Christ to be God, then you shouldn't be trying to conform his teachings to your own standards."

          True, but the problem is that there is wide disagreement about what his teachings actually are in relationship to modern American society. Christ never talked about abortion or political activism, for example.

          Much of what is held by various Christian denominations is only their best guess at what his positions would be on many of the issues we face today. In fact, there are teachings I suspect all variants of Christianity embrace about which Christ never spoke, such as Christian churches' opposition to pornography.

          You talk about "Christ's teachings" as if there some kind of universal agreement on what they are but that couldn't be further from the truth.

          July 30, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • *

      Also, many of you don't spell very well.

      Sheesh, the word is right there all over the article for you too - millennial.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
      • A Millennial

        Since the word is everywhere, maybe that's just evidence that it was a typo...

        July 30, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Ana

          It's just evidence of your stupidity; it's not a typo.

          July 30, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  6. Wisdomforlife

    Over the last decade, I’ve observed some significant changes in this age group that align with many of the conclusions reached by sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls In Transition, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press).

    Smith’s work focused on Americans ages 18-29 and his observations on the way young people think about moral, political and religious opinion generally align with my experience. see: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/18-29-year-olds/

    July 30, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • lol??

      What's up with Lady Ga Ga and her $80 mil/year?? She came in an egg.

      July 30, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Ana

        Are you brain-damaged?

        July 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
        • Colin

          Yes. Oh dear God, yes. Badly. He is barking fvcking mad.

          July 30, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  7. Joseph

    Another angle on why 20 something are leaving the church is the way popular culture portrays Christians. Christians are portrayed as basically foolish dolts who believe in imaginary friends. When combined with the removal of all things Christian in schools and in the public square, parents that were too concerned with acquiring material success to impart the Word of God it is no wonder they have no interest in being affiliated with anything affiliated with a church.

    For those that believe that science provides all the solutions. When one stops and looks at the evolutionary theory, it takes more faith to believe that all the grandeur of God's creation just happened than to believe that a Supreme Being is at the root of it. How did all this fantastic variety of life just come out of two cells that existed in some primordial soup that got hit by a chance lightning bolt. Really?

    July 30, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Joseph wrote, "When one stops and looks at the evolutionary theory, it takes more faith to believe that all the grandeur of God's creation just happened"

      Whenever I see a fundiot nutter post this, I know they don't have a freaking clue about science in general and biology in particular.

      July 30, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
      • Johnny

        The best part is that right above that he was complaining about Christians being viewed as foolish dolts.

        July 30, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Randy

      Your argument is called the argument from ignorance. it does not mean you are ignorant, but that you're basically saying "I can't think of a better answer so it must be magic!"

      July 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  8. Ron Heasley

    Thanks for the insightful article. One thing that I am curious about. Is God's truth important to millennialists & many of the others referred to in the article? Is it possible to stand for a truth as God, not us, defines it, & still love our neighbor without accepting or calling acceptable everything they do? Do parents not do this with their children? We'll always love our kids, yet not always like what they do. They same is true in the church. The church isn't perfect, & neither is anyone who is a part of it. That's why we need God & faith. He helps us know how HE wants us to live. If we are left to decide that, division will always exist. I always want to love my neighbor, but don't ask me to do that at the expense of what I believe GOD says about how my life should be lived.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Only the weak minded need the crutch of religion in their lives. The rest of us will rely on logic and reason.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
      • Tanya

        Try to rely on that, when the rest of us are taken in the rapture, and you are stuck here to take the mark of the beast to eat, then end up in Hell, All knees shall bow all tongues will confess he is Lord! Whether you do it here on earth or the pits of Hell its up to you.

        July 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
        • Primewonk

          Why is it that fundiot nutters, like Tanya, are unable to recognize the logical fallacy inherent in Pascal's Gambit?

          July 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
        • skytag

          If you're the kind of person taken up in the Rapture I'd rather be left behind.

          July 30, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
        • CatLover

          I shouldn't worry about it. The Rapture is not scripturally supportable, and even if it were, it's about the most un-Christian concept you can find in all of Christiandom. It's a classic example of "Screw you, buddy, I got mine!"

          July 30, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • chewmanfoo

      Truth of God?

      Read Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Are you conforming to God's truth? If not, why are you insisting that others do the same? Essentially, you need to recognize that that big black big is a Big Book of Multiple Choice. That should leave you with a feeling of humility.

      July 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  9. G-Man

    Sadly, Orthodox churches are just as guilty of separating compassion from holiness. I grew up Orthodox and maintained the Faith into my 30s. Then my life took one turn for the worse after another (none of it my fault, e.g. layoffs), and the Church could do no more than tell me that "my faith was being tested" and "pray harder."

    While the above is a good article it doesn't go far enough. Religion has no place in our modern world where archaic beliefs continue to be disproven by science, where holy texts literally contradict equality, where faiths that speak of peace are based on religious war. The Millenials' "BS meter" has measured this and more.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  10. skytag

    @Vic: "And as far as being settled, I am a firm believer that God and Science are Compatible."

    Since something that doesn't exist can't be incompatible with anything, that makes sense. That said, what we can move past this platitude and talk about the real issue to which it alludes?

    That issue is the long history of people who believe in the supernatural to attribute phenomenon in the physical world to supernatural forces, and many of those claims have been shown by science to be false.

    Claiming disease is caused by evil spirits is incompatible with science.

    Claiming seizures are caused by demonic possessions is incompatible with science.

    Claiming lightning is caused by Thor throwing his hammer is incompatible with science.

    And on it goes. So strictly speaking it isn't God that is incompatible with science, it's the stuff the people who believe in him make up to explain things that's incompatible with science. The number of their failures in this arena makes it clear they aren't basing these claims on any insight provided by any supernatural power, they're just making this stuff up to fool people in to believing they have insight beyond that which science offers.

    In other words, science as steadily shown believers to be frauds who make stuff up and then tell their followers it's from God.

    Obviously there still remain many, many such claims science hasn't debunked, but that means so far all of these kinds of claims have either been wrong or as yet their validity hasn't been determined. That's not a very impressive track record for a bunch of people who claim to have knowledge the rest of us don't have.

    In other words, this is your position: "Yes, we've been wrong a lot, but we could still be right about some of it!"

    Sorry, not convincing.

    I'm sure you have some excuse for why a history of steady failures with respect to some claims shouldn't cause me to doubt other claims just because they haven't been disproved...yet, but save it. You'll just be rationalizing and it will sound lame. If you expect rational, open-minded people to consider your belief system credible it needed to do better than a record of failures and don't-know-yets.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • AE

      “I believe that the more thoroughly science is studied, the further does it take us from anything comparable to atheism.”

      “If you study science deep enough and long enough, it will force you to believe in God.”

      –Lord William Kelvin, who was noted for his theoretical work on thermodynamics, the concept of absolute zero and the Kelvin temperature scale based upon it.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
      • Honey Badger Don't Care

        A 19th century physicist would not have access to half the things that we know now days. Your quotes are a moot point and an argument from authority.

        July 30, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
        • AE

          Here is a modern quote. I think this guy is more qualified to speak about science. Don't you?

          “Let me say that I don’t see any conflict between science and religion. I go to church as many other scientists do. I share with most religious people a sense of mystery and wonder at the universe and I want to participate in religious ritual and practices because they’re something that all humans can share.”

          –Sir Martin Rees

          July 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
        • lol??

          Scientists want a pleasurable life in the here and now. Science is like a loaded gun.

          July 30, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
        • Ana

          Lol??, our purpose on Earth is not to suffer; take off your hairshirt and LIVE, would you?
          You have to be the most bitter person I've come across in a while...

          July 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          AE, Does Rees believe in evolution, Big Bang, etc.? Many believers deny any science that contradicts their ancient superstitions even though a literal interpretation of the bible is just not supported by current knowledge. A personal god is no longer a satifactory position.

          July 30, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care


          Still an argument from authority. When the national academy of sciences put out a quote like that then I might listen.

          July 30, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
        • skytag

          @AE: The age of your quotes is irrelevant. Quoting scientists to support a position in an area outside their areas of expertise is a classic example of an "appeal to authority" or "argument from authority":

          Fallacious examples of using the appeal [to authority] include:
          • cases where the authority is not a subject-matter expert
          • cases where there is no consensus among experts in the subject matter — Wikipedia

          Your quotes fail on both counts:

          – When scientists offer opinions about the supernatural they are outside their areas of expertise and have no more authority or credibility than anyone else.

          – There is no consensus in the scientific community about any of this.

          My neighbor's opinions about atheism carry as much weight as Lord Kelvin's.

          Believers get offended when atheists say they don't use logic, but if you're going to pull stuff like this you have no room to complain when we call you on it.

          July 30, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
      • skytag

        Responding to a rational, well reasoned argument with a quote makes you look like you're desperately trying to keep reality at bay. Address my argument, if you can. That quote does nothing to refute my reasoning.

        July 30, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
      • skytag

        Google for "appeal to authority." That's the logical fallacy you're attempting to use with these quotes.

        July 30, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Vic

      God created everything supernaturally and set it in motion. All the natural processes are automatic thereafter.

      Just like God created everything supernaturally and gave it its nature and laws of physics, He can command and cause anything supernaturally that manifests in the physical form we sense and understand. A prime example, one of the shocking scientific discoveries was that electrons, which we take for granted anymore, have a dual-nature. They behave like waves but when examined, they behave like particles. Someone described it literally as that when you don't look at electrons, they act like waves, but when you look at them, they act like particles. Scientists have not been able to explain why!

      Now, as for diseases and weather phenomena, they are part of the natural process, that is cause and effect. In the meantime, if God wants to inflect a disease or a weather phenomenon, He can initiate it supernaturally (first cause,) which we can never know how, then it takes its natural course, by which then we can scientifically explain its physics.

      It is not that science actually debunks religious beliefs, it is that science can explain the physical manifestation of events taking place. If the cause is due to the automatic natural process, science can trace it back; however, if the first cause is supernatural, science can never trace it back!

      July 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
      • skytag

        Typical response. A lot of theorizing, nothing supported by any evidence, and at no point did you even attempt to address my point. Are you too stupid to understand it or do you not know a canned response to give?

        How does anything you said address the belief people once held that lightning was caused by the god Thor throwing his hammer? How does anything you said address the fact that people used to believe disease was caused by evil spirits and epileptic seizures by demonic possession? Nothing you said would explain those false myths.

        You got nothin' but you're too brainwashed to deal with that reality so you just responded with a bunch of rationalizing that didn't even address my point. Trying to reason with you people is an exercise in futility.

        July 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  11. Felix Paul Jordan

    Every generation needs the message of the Gospel translated to the language of the day not to change the message but to make it understood. Using language such as "Intention" "Law of attraction" "manifest" "awareness" all speak spiritual truth to this generation with the supreme truth being that God is Love.

    July 30, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      The next generation would be better served if religion would be done away with completely. That way their thinking wont be tainted by these iron age mythologies and guilts.

      July 30, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  12. Vic

    The author is talking about millennial believers in God leaving a particular church setup while not leaving belief in God altogether. The author is basically positing that a lot of millennial believers are leaving the a church that is not focused on Jesus Christ Himself, and is exclusive.

    July 30, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Benny

      Yes, and she judges why people are leaving these churches is because they are tired of the bigotry, the political agendas, and the culture war that certain churches are waging. What millennials are looking for then is a more Liberal church experience. What do you think about that?

      July 30, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
      • Vic

        I think it would be safer to say "accommodating/tolerant and inclusive" rather than "liberal," given the political implications of the word.

        July 30, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
        • Benny

          It's the same thing though, right? "Liberal" is just the negative name given by those who oppose the same force that gave us the Civil Rights Movement and Abolitionist Movement.

          July 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      It sounds like the trend may be towards more Unitarian Churches.

      July 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • Vic

        Actually, I believe it's more like non-denominational kind of church.

        July 30, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • midwest rail

      What I believe she didn't say straight out, but inferred, is that many are leaving directly because of the behavior of contemporary evangelicals. When you drive people away with your behavior, it doesn't say much for the supposedly transformative process of being "born again".

      July 30, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
      • Vic

        I believe she is inferring that a lot of Christian believers, in general, are leaving the church due to legalism (Law) while still believing in God, and that the church should focus on Jesus Christ Himself through Faith in Whom we are saved by Grace instead.

        July 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
        • midwest rail

          I respectfully disagree, Vic.

          July 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
      • Vic

        I could be wrong midwest rail. What I understand from the article she is saying is that the "contemporary/hip style" is not the remedy; that's why she banged her head against the podium. She is suggesting that the remedy is leaving behind the cultural wars, exclusiveness, hostility against LGBT, etc., which all stem from the strictness of the Mosaic Law, BTW, and bringing Jesus Christ, who is missing, she posits, back to the church, through Whom forgiveness and tolerance are abound.

        July 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          Doing away with the law is not very christ like.

          July 30, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • Sgtrena

          Vic, totally agreed, I think that you may have confused a few when suggesting "Law" was the issue. I think you meant the rule of law within a given church or religious group, as opposed to our legal system.

          July 30, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Vic

          OMG, folks, whenever I mention the "Law" regarding Faith, I mean the "Mosaic Law" aka "Old Testament Law."

          Thank you sgtrena.

          July 30, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
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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.