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. sarah mckibben

    Well written article! Spot on conclusion that all ages long for an authentic church, not a "cooler, hipper style"! I am seventy-seven years of age. Jesus has an appeal to the young if He is understood to be demanding love, justice and mercy from all who try to follow Him.

    August 2, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      I demand love, justice and mercy from all who try to follow me. If I tell my followers to be loving, just and merciful wouldn't that be just as powerful a message as Christs? Or is it not so much the message but the fact you believe Christ to be a superhero with superhuman strength so I just don't measure up? So isn't this more about hero worship than it is about any positive message?

      August 2, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
      • Maani


        You make a common error. Because there are two separate aspects to Jesus' message.

        The first is temporal (i.e., with regard to our lives lived on Earth), and encompasses the message you speak of, which are really the 11 precepts of His ministry: love, peace, forgiveness, compassion, humility, patience, selflessness, charity, service, justice and truth. As you note, one does not need to believe in Jesus as "divine" to live by these precepts, nor, indeed, does one have to be a believer.

        However, the second part of the equation is that, since Christians believe that while our bodies are mortal, our souls are immortal, Jesus also represents the person through whom one attains the salvation and redemption that occurs in the afterlife. It is in THIS regard that belief in His divinity is required. As Paul notes: "If thou shalt profess the Lord Jesus with thy lips, and believe in thy heart that God has raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." This is a reference to Jesus' statements about Himself, particularly including, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me."

        So, yes, one can live a completely moral life – even a "Christ-like life" – without necessarily believing in Jesus, much less believing in His divinity. But one cannot attain (eternal) salvation without doing so.

        August 2, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
        • OTOH


          Looks like you are working on at least 2 of your "Deadly Sins" there:

          1. Greed: This life is not enough for you. You crave MORE, and not only more, but a perfect, eternal MORE.

          2. Pride: The idea that you have the only "true" way to MORE.

          August 2, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
        • skytag

          The only problem is that there is no objective reason whatsoever to believe any of the stuff about salvation or an afterlife.

          August 2, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
        • Francis Farvis

          Yes, in one sense, we can all keep God's law and commands. In another sense, although all the ways of a man, every way of a man, is/are clean/right in his own eyes, (like in Proverbs; can you also see that?) God shows things how they really are. Has no-one read Jonathan Edwards' writing on the doctrine of Original Sin? or the Scriptures he referred to, in that work? Time to see the power of God, in Jesus Christ, who was crucified!

          August 3, 2013 at 5:33 am |
  2. Hal

    "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."

    That's very interesting. Can you point to this reasearch, it would be very appreciated!

    August 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • BKJ

      Rachel posted a bunch of links in the follow up on her own blog, which is here: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/millennials-christianity-resources

      August 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  3. mom67

    I think most are actually missing the REAL content of this article....to argue over GENX and GENY.....etc....is obviuosly not what the article is even about! This country is losing touch with what REALLY matters in life and these silly comments show this exactly! We all need to open our eyes people and think more about what we say and do and what really matters in life.

    August 2, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      "This country is losing touch with what REALLY matters in life "

      When was this country REALLY in touch with what matters in life? Was it the hundred years we condoned slavery and used other humans like cattle? Was it the next 80 years of discrimination against women and minorities or banning people of different skin colors from marrying? When exactly was this time in American history where we had it just right, where things were just super peachy for all? We cannot "lose" something we have never attained, and this country has a long way to go for equailty and opportunity for all which to me is the most important thing in life, because if you are enjoying freedom while others are imprisoned by racism and discrimination then it isn't really freedom you are enjoying but the comfortable status quo of the oppressors.

      August 2, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
      • austinTXguy

        That comment from mom67 is why every anglo, white American just doesn't "get it". Right on. This country is not morally superior, nor the people in any part of this world "morally" superior or just. Each society deals with issues of religion. Young people are leaving churches all around the world because THEY MAKE NO SENSE! Fairytales are fun as kids and to keep kids obedient. The effect is not long lasting. Sure hippie Jesus has great moral lessons. So does every other so-called prophet. If we truly followed the teachings of religion... we wouldn't have these conversations and there would be peace and no one would be without food or water or shelter. That's why religion doesn't work and that's why young people are leaving it. I can morally better helping out at a women's shelter for 1 hour a week than talking to the ceiling.

        August 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
        • SmartPotato

          Never mind that people came here in the first place to avoid religious oppression... sounds to me like "religious" people just need a place to meet. Not a church.

          August 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  4. Jim John Marks

    At 32, you do not have "one foot in Gen X". Why did we get rid of the notion of "Gen Y"? It made so much more sense for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Gen X built the Internet, you grew up on it, Millennials take it as assumed. Three groups. People born in the early to mid-1980's are not Millennials. And they aren't Gen X.

    August 2, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • Saraswati

      The misuse of the term Generation X started almost immediately after Coupland's novel was published. The media led the way with the error, which was really ironic considering we were talking about a generation that was now even deprived of the label created to describe it.

      August 2, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • photografr7

      No wonder they think there are six types of atheists. The people who think that even divide themselves into categories like Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millennials. All of this sub-dividing can only do bad, not good. Unless of course, you are Gen-Z, then it might be good or bad depending on the situation. See? It's stupid.

      August 2, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  5. Luke Gannon

    I think it has more to do with trust and reason. Kids and teens today grow up watching people get screwed over and mistreated with no rational explanation at all. They clearly see through the news, tv, and internet just how oppressed people are for being who they want to be. I feel most of them see the flaws in religion where it does NOT increase a value of life, but just helps to oppress people with different views. Our youth are more interested in equality than trying to follow some made up fairytales that when researched only provide bizarre and meaningless answers. Or just complete lies.

    August 2, 2013 at 11:11 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.