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. Jack

    Thanks Rachel! You have articulated so very well my own thoughts and feelings about so many of today's evangelical churches . . . and I'm a Boomer turning 60 next month. Yikes!!!

    August 1, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  2. Ian Wallin

    What are we going to do about this though? How many people read this article and go about their day? I've seen a similar article at the Washington Post and on churchleaders.com. Check out this article on my church's blog about college ministry. http://accelerationchurch.blogspot.com/2013/07/why-we-should-consider-college-ministry.html. The church needs to be real with people. That's why we're starting a round table discussion group in the fall. Let people talk and see that they can be a Christian in today's world.

    August 1, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      "Let people talk and see that they can be a Christian in today's world." I believe that is your primary problem, to much talk and not enough action. If Christians just lived as Christ instructed, treating others as they want to be treated and to love your neighbor as yourself and just shut the heII up about it veryone would win, Christian and atheist alike. Stop talking about living a Christlike life and just live it and let other people live as they choose.

      August 1, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • skytag

      "The church needs to be real with people."

      That will never happen because that would involve admitting it has no supernatural basis at all. It's just an elaborate narrative intended to keep the less fortunate from rebelling, allow people to avoid dealing with the harshest realities of life, and encourage people to work together and be better members of society.

      August 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  3. Fides et Ratio

    Come home to the Catholic Church!

    August 1, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Todd

      The Episcopal Church Welcomes You ! http://www.ecusa.anglican.org

      August 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
      • skytag

        If you're planning to run for president some day this is your best bet. We've had more Episcopalian presidents than any other religion.

        August 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  4. rwe

    as a church-going millenial myself, i find this article extremely refreshing and articulate.
    I was raised Catholic, found myself getting involved in evangelical Christianity during my "youth group" teenage/young adult years, and within the past year have found myself returning to Catholic church for this exact reason:

    "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."

    August 1, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  5. ljmortenson

    I would like to see an article on what the millenials will bring to the church, not just want they want out of it.

    August 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • ghambino

      what people in general want out of church is to be able to do whatever they want and not follow bible principles.

      August 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • Saraswati

        If that were true people wouldn't join churches at all. Instead what we see is that people either leave religion altogether or look for a church that is even stricter in telling them what do do, hence the success and growth of Islam and many evangelical churches. A lot of people are looking to be told what to do...this is the state in which humans evolved and it is what most humans find comfortable.

        August 1, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
      • skytag

        You say this as if there is some universal consensus regarding what "Bible principles" are.

        August 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
  6. Donald Borsch Jr.

    So Rachel Evans considers herself an evangelical leader? *gigglesnort* She is what you get when you mix the secular with the divine, like dog feces and vanilla ice cream. It doesn't hurt the dog feces, but it sure screws up that vanilla ice cream. Nothing to see here, folks. She's just another false believer seeking to make a name for herself using secular media.

    August 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • John D.

      Gigglesnort yourself, it's not just the Christian Church. It's everywhere.


      Have fun watching your Bronze-Age Cult of the Invisible Sky Deity die out, along with the rest of the True Believers.

      August 1, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      I agree, please get that supposedly divine dog feces out of our secular ice cream.

      August 1, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • skytag

      If you're the vanilla I don't see the dog feces hurting much.

      August 1, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  7. Antony Jones

    " 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-"

    -Lady, do you see the problem with that statement? You want to be a 'Sunday Christian' and shift the onus on being a Christian to the church?

    August 1, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • leary of politics

      To those kind, we bid adieu. Sadly, these were never Christians to begin with, all this 'finding' Jesus is just a sham! There goes her 15 seconds of 'fame'. She sounds like the female version of Harold Camping.

      If you can't find peace, don't blame others, look inside yourself. The sky might be falling on your head, it sure is not for ROW.

      Now, go find you some peace not 'politics'!

      August 1, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
      • John McGrath

        Are anger, resentment, contempt and sarcasm signs of peace? Are they special gifts of the Holy Spirit?

        August 1, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
      • Manfred

        That is an interesting point, she's snidely interjecting politics into her opinion piece. Sneaky!

        August 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
      • skytag

        Another arrogant Christian jerk. More evidence Christianity is a fraud.

        August 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  8. John McGrath

    sounds like many people I know who have left the Catholic Church, people in their 60s and 70s.

    P.S. Many Lutheran churches are high church too.

    August 1, 2013 at 11:44 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.