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. widsgal

    The thing that interests me about this article as that the author is expecting someone to fix the church for Millenials so they will return. Who should do that? People in their 40's and 50's? Or should Millenials step up to the plate and LEAD the change the long to see? The church isn't out there–WE ARE THE CHURCH if we are in Christ.

    August 1, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      Ignorance can be cured – stupid can't be fixed.

      August 1, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  2. thisiswhatibelieve

    i believe in goodness, hope, charity and acceptance of all. i don't believe in any church or any one religion. of course, i'm older than dirt.

    August 1, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • oliveoyl123

      Try out the Unitarian Universalist church. 🙂

      August 1, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        I am an atheist and I wholeheartedly agree with you. If you feel the need for "church" go to a UU church! These are some of the nicest people I have ever met.

        August 1, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  3. Jay C

    Ah, the irony, this woman writes an article about people leaving the church and it appeases the elders!!

    August 1, 2013 at 9:48 am |
    • Happy happy joy joy


      August 1, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  4. Carol Page

    What a lot of skirting around the real reason that young people do not go to church. They have seen through the lies and the fairy stories in the same way as they grow out of believing in Santa Claus.

    August 1, 2013 at 8:33 am |
    • skytag

      I think it's naive to believe there is only one reason, but I believe what you say is one of multiple reasons.

      August 1, 2013 at 8:56 am |
      • saggyroy

        I think you are right, some of the other reasons may be Phelps, Falwell, Swaggert, Benny Hinn, Olsteen...

        August 1, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      Believe me, the societal pressure to attend church is not the same as it was 40 years ago. That and the shrinking rural population (where the peer pressure is much greater) has a lot to do with it. When I was growing up, there was no "refusing" to go to church, and now days parents are much less likely to force their children to do anything.

      August 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  5. Sweezy

    The reason Millennials are leaving the church is because of the Internet. There's an unprecedented access to information and Truth. Information begets Truth.
    We Millennials don't have to walk in the path of our ancestors where the only information available came from the mouths of the people directly in front of us. We have access to different thoughts, ideas, ideals, and beliefs.
    Our souls finally have the true opportunity to seek our own Truth.

    August 1, 2013 at 8:32 am |
    • skytag

      "The reason Millennials are leaving the church is because of the Internet. There's an unprecedented access to information and Truth."

      First, "truth" is not a proper noun, so it shouldn't be capitalized. Second, when you talk as if there is "the reason' for something this complex instead of "one of the reasons" it's clear you don't fully understand the phenomena.

      Third, the Internet provides unprecedented access to at least as much false information as it does accurate information, and none of it is subjected to any kind of objective validation. The Internet offers a wealth of information sources willing to tell you whatever you want to believe, so you are not very careful to be objective in your search for truth it's unlikely you'll fine it.

      "We Millennials don't have to walk in the path of our ancestors where the only information available came from the mouths of the people directly in front of us. We have access to different thoughts, ideas, ideals, and beliefs."

      And yet it hasn't been my experience that you're any better informed than your parents. Access to information is not the same as being informed. You won't learn a darned thing twittering, taking thousands of dumb pictures of your friends with your phone, or endlessly updating your Facebook pages just because you have "access to information."

      "Our souls finally have the true opportunity to seek our own Truth."

      Rubbish. There is no "your" truth or "my" truth. Something is true or it isn't. You learn it and accept or you don't. Anyone who thinks he has "his own truth" has fooled himself into thinking something he wants to believe is true.

      August 1, 2013 at 9:16 am |
      • Ryan

        The wonderful world of post-modernism...it's so incredibly silly. It's like watching an animal chase it's tail. There's a lot of energy exerted, but no real progress and ultimately no attainable goal. People voluntarily wander and call it progress. It's extremely frustrating in the world of religion, it almost makes some hyper fundamentalists look sane.

        August 1, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • Terri Brown

        Well said!

        August 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  6. James G Goble

    In case this didn't get posted before: I'm a Presbyterian minister, ordained in 1973, retired in April 2013. In just about all my career, the historic churches have been in decline, their place being taken by "evangelical" churches which seem like nothing more than Tea Partiers at prayer. I rejoice that I have lived to see the day when what we used to call mainstream churches are coming back on the scene. Let's be ready, folks!

    August 1, 2013 at 7:35 am |
    • Lawrence

      The evangelical approach appeals to people because it's intellectually lazy–all you need to know is that if you accept Jesus you will be saved... period. The rest of the Bible might as well not exist.

      August 1, 2013 at 9:56 am |
      • craig

        Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. His message never changes, we must be born again. Alot of what is going on today in many churches is smoke and mirrors. We need to follow Jesus, really know his word. Love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.

        August 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
        • skytag

          It's all smoke and mirrors, carefully crafted to make people feel they have answers, don't have to deal with life's harshest realities, and encourage them to be better members of society.

          August 1, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  7. James G Goble

    I'm a retired Presbyterian minister and I've been saying the same things since fundamentalists rose to ascendancy, I hope I've lived to see the day when the new–actually the old–approach to the good old faith will find adherents again!

    August 1, 2013 at 7:28 am |
  8. Gregg

    I get concerned when someone starts lumping all evangelical churches into one category. You can't avoid political issues, or other social issues in church just like you can't in your job or anywhere else. When you get to the church that God leads you to then you know where "home" is. It's not the kind of worship, it's the Spirit of the Lord and His presence.

    August 1, 2013 at 6:35 am |
    • skytag

      Remarkably, God almost always seems to "lead" people to churches full of people just like them. Overwhelmingly people are "led" to what the people around believe.

      August 1, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  9. Robert Brown

    There is just one church. If you have been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus then you are a permanent member of his church. You might quit attending services at a local church, but if you were ever his, there is no leaving.

    August 1, 2013 at 6:34 am |
    • skytag

      Then I'm covered. I'm an atheist now, but I was saved as a child.

      August 1, 2013 at 8:55 am |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        I pretended to be "saved" – does that count, too?

        August 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • Angry Marine

        SkyTag- No you are not. Sounds to me like you have turned your back on God and mocked him in every way possible. I think I would much rather say I really don't know, than to spew all the things that you have. Ever hear these words? " Even he who has the faith of a mustard seed will be saved". Maybe you should re-think your position.

        August 2, 2013 at 11:29 am |
        • stevef00

          Actually, I believe that skytag is one of the few responders on these posts that have any clue as to what they are saying. He/she has posted intelligently framed questions and lucid responses to such drivel as "believe what I say because I say it". When will you people ever admit that you may indeed be wrong about the possibility of a universal god? I may be wrong in my thinking that there is none, but logic and reason dictate to me that the possibility is quite remote.

          August 6, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
        • photografr7

          The devil made you say that!

          August 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
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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.