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. John McGrath

    I cant figure out how you find comments to reply to them, so I'm just posting this:

    Doc Vestibule ... what you say of missionaries is sadly true, but there were interesting exceptions. The Jesuits in China adapted to that culture, creating a form of thinking and ceremony that became known in the Catholic church as the Chinese Rites. They rejected the use of western philosophy among the Chinese and preferred to teach Christianity as it related to Chinese philosophies. They were eventually condemned, of course. But they were very successful too. At the same time in India some Jesuits became widely renowned yogis and preached Christianity form that Indian culture. Of course they too were condemned.

    August 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  2. silasdogood1

    "Millennials" as a group appear to me to be very self centered and self absorbed seem to expect everything to be about them. Waiting to be properly wooed by the church is just another example...doesn't work that way. Don't make excuses...get involved In something beyond yourself or don't, but don't stop expecting the world to revolve around you.

    August 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • skytag

      I didn't get that from her comments. She offered specific aspects of certain churches she feels cause people such as herself concern.

      August 2, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • John McGrath

      Obviously you nad your friends must have misr-aised the kids in your charge. Your outrageous generality does not apply to the people I know.

      August 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Timothy Fowler

      I find the opposite to be true. I have a son who is a Millenial and he is the opposite of "self absorbed". If anyone is self absorbed, it is Baby Boomers like me.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
      • Meredith

        Thank you for saying that, Timothy. I often feel like the bickering is constant. An older group wants church "their way" and calls the unsettled group selfish. And the usually younger group sees the older group as unbudging and selfish. I find that we all have a problem being open-minded and open-hearted with one another. It is not much of a proof of Christ and has certainly been a stumbling point for me. People who claim to have a holy spirit that enables them to live more loving lives should be able to show love to one another.

        August 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • Tim Melton

      I agree. Christianity is Christocentric, not hipster-ocentric.

      August 3, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  3. skytag

    You and your brother are prisoners of war and share a cell. You've been taking extra food, which is against the rule. The guards are pretty sure it was you, though it could have been your brother. To punish you they are going to beat you and stick you in a hole for five days without food.

    Your brother, because he loves you, offers to confess for an offense he didn't commit and take the punishment in your place. Would you agree to that?

    August 2, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • photografr7

      Wow... did you make that one up? I might curl into bed tonight with that one. I can't wait to see how it turns out. Sound like the first sentence of a great short story.

      August 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Situational ethics is fun. The answer is that if your brother were strong enough to take the beating and you were not, indeed if you were so weak and marginalized that you couldn't even stop what was happening, you might. In fact, it's not your choice. It's his.

      August 2, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
      • Aldous Shucksley

        And meanwhile, Christian god will sit back and let it all happen, either way. Because that is all you can do, when you don't exist. And don't try those hackneyed free will args, or you'll be an even bigger FAIL.

        August 2, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
      • skytag

        Leave it to a Christian to make make excuses to avoid answering a question.

        "The answer is that if your brother were strong enough to take the beating and you were not"

        You don't get to inject new conditions into the scenario.

        I know what you're trying to do, but it doesn't really help your case. The implication is that if Christ doesn't suffer for your sins and you have to suffer it yourself you won't be able to survive the punishment. What kind of god would make himself impossible to detect and then when you don't follow his rules he inflicts a punishment you can't endure?

        You can convince yourself of anything to preserve your delusions, can't you?

        "indeed if you were so weak and marginalized that you couldn't even stop what was happening, you might. In fact, it's not your choice. It's his"

        Now you're just desperate. There isn't even an analog for this in the atonement scenario. Pathetic.

        August 2, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
        • Maani

          "The implication is that if Christ doesn't suffer for your sins and you have to suffer it yourself you won't be able to survive the punishment. What kind of god would make himself impossible to detect and then when you don't follow his rules he inflicts a punishment you can't endure?"

          Your implication is an assumption, not a fact. Indeed, it is wrong within Christian theology. The reason Christ suffered for our sins was to bring us back into a "right" (i.e., direct) relationship with God. Prior to His death and resurrection, the Jews sacrificed animals in the Temple. Jesus was replacing this by becoming a (sinless) "human sacrifice," once and for all time, thus eliminating the need for further animal sacrifice.

          As for not being able to survive the punishment, this connects to your last comment. But, again, your theology is amiss. We (humans) are "worthy of death" (not just punishment) from the moment we are born, since we are "flesh," and therefore "sin." We cannot earn, deserve or merit God's love or forgiveness; it is only through His gifts of grace and mercy that we have that love for forgiveness.

          Note that I am merely discussing theology here, not the merits or morality of any particular detail.

          August 2, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
        • skytag

          @Maani: "Your implication is an assumption, not a fact."

          Deacon Bill said, "The answer is that if your brother were strong enough to take the beating and you were not." The obvious implication is that you could not survive the punishment.

          Just so you know, having been a Christian for four decades I am well versed on the Christian perspective on all this. At this point I think it's just part of a well designed narrative whose purposes are to allow people to avoid dealing with the harsher realities of life and encourage them to be better members of the societies in which they live.

          August 2, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        @Bill Deacon

        If the choice is his then it matters not whether I believe in him or his daddy. You can't have it both ways.

        August 4, 2013 at 12:56 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.