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. TG

    One day we all will know!!! God bless!!

    August 3, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • photografr7

      So sad........

      August 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  2. TG

    God is real.. the Holy Ghost is real.. when i sought the lord he heard me and filled me with the Holy Ghost just as it describes in the bible as it happened to the apostles.. if going to heaven is not real or after life or hell how can u explain my experience.. and i have proof.. but the bible is not for proof it is for truth.. one we all humble ourselves turn from our own ajenda pray and seek God .. Oh he will reveal himself to you.. read acts 2.... enjoy God bless.. time is running out for this world rather you believe it or not.. even if they have been preaching it for years.. take care all

    August 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • Lawrence

      How can you explain you being so special that you have the experienced you described but others do not?

      August 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • JR

        Oh, I'm sure the reason is something like "their hearts haven't been open enough". Honestly, do people like TG not realize the world is full of other religions, with people who have also had spiritual experiences within the framework of their own belief system?

        August 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
        • Lawrence

          Right, they want their own holy book to be read with an "open heart" by everyone else, yet they refuse to even contemplate doing the same with someone else's book.

          August 4, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
      • stevef00

        I love how they use the phrase 'I have proof' to describe their own internal delusions that in no way imaginable can be proven to anybody.

        August 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
        • photografr7

          Does everyone realize how tiny a speck the Earth is in comparison to the known universe? I don't know if it's in the order of one grain of sand in comparison to all sand on Earth, but that's good enough? So what makes man so special that the entire Universe was created by an infinite, all-knowing and all-powerful God for our pleasure? That may have been true when the universe was pretty dots in the sky.But now, the concept is so absurd, it verges on lunacy. Who agrees with me?

          August 6, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  3. eprobono

    There are so many flaws in Rachel Held Evan's essay that I can't decide where to start deconstructing them. Because I don't want to waste more than a few minutes of my time on religious matters, I'll list a couple and leave it there.

    First, she seems to assume that others buy into the fantasy of god and Christ (or any deity for that matter). Many of us who have ditched religion did so upon realizing that religious dogma, religious practice, and biblical scripture is illogical, impractical and cannot hold up under any rational analysis. It's our rejection of those outmoded, irrational beliefs, rites and behaviors that led us to break free of our religious upbringing.

    Second, most of this article focuses on the social and interpersonal aspects that religious organizations provide to/for their members. All the social and interpersonal needs she mentions can be gained through numerous secular alternatives. For example, I've made new social contacts at the gym, found personal fulfillment through my volunteer work at the homeless shelter, and intellectual challenge through adult education classes at the local university.

    None of these alternatives require that I listen to the sanctimonious, nonsensical, and hypocritical rants and ramblings of the clergy and laity. Plus, through my participation across multiple organizations I meet a more diverse and broader spectrum of society.

    The only benefits of religion in modern society are:

    Give an emotional crutch to people too psychological weak to face reality; and

    Curb the behaviors of those lacking the self-discipline to act in ways that are both moral and mutually beneficial to personkind.

    August 3, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Static

      So eprobono, which one are you Penn or Teller? Or maybe the ghost of Christopher Hitchens? I don't agree with Rachel much either but I think she was talking about people predisposed to be believers in the first place. To be honest I am surprised as heck at the number of young people who do go to Church every Sunday. This society and it's inch deep culture has no time for any reflection spiritual or otherwise. Reliance on empirical science for all the answers to life as we know it is a fools game. 20 years from now science will declare everything you believe to be the "facts" to be false. There is nothing to hang your hat on there. History is full of people like yourself – yes intelligent, rational and logical – who dove into scripture to rip it apart and wound up being theologians and biblical scholars and Jesus followers.

      August 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Your rant lacks focus. What are you wanting me to feel or decide or do?

        August 4, 2013 at 12:51 am |
  4. Joseph

    While you are hitting on some points you are missing it on many others.
    True our church has become a political playground and the true teachings of Jesus have been replaced by doctrines of men. What every church needs to do is go back to the basic understanding of what it means to be a church. A church is a place where hurting man can come into contact with the one who has the power to heal and forgive in Jesus Christ. But all must learn that you can not have Jesus in their terms. To live Christ like is to live according to his terms

    August 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Sue

      Seeing as following Christ's "terms" is dependent on interpreting a musty old mythbook with myriad different editions that even its most ardent advocates can't agree on interpretations of, myself, I'll go instead with a set of morals and laws that we as a modern society can agree on. Toss the old fables already.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  5. Jess - A Millennial

    This is awesome and spot on. Older generations are caught up in things that are older than dirt. Loosen up, let us have our own opinions. We are the future of this county, why not just try and listen to us?

    Maybe one day soon we can all stop banging our heads against the podium.

    I 100% think we can and we will.

    August 3, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  6. Ray

    Apparently your "B.S. meter" doesn't scale high enough – this is just more postmodern gobbled-blather. What you meant to say is that as a "insert current generation label" you want to determine what is morally right in your own life and how you should live. This is nothing new – Adam (yes the real one that historically existed) wanted the same thing. Your brand of 'evangelicalism' s what makes the term irrelevant and without meaning. I suggest your consider what it means to have Jesus a Lord – He loves you but you cannot know Him on your own terms.

    August 3, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Sue

      No, Ray, you can't know Jesus because he no longer exists. He may have done, once, but there is no testable evidence to show that he was a divine entity.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
      • photografr7

        I knew a guy named "Jesus" who also claimed to be a divine being, but I think it was too much cheap red wine.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
      • Hal

        I lean toward the notion that he didn't exist at all.

        August 3, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
        • photografr7

          I am on the side of "who cares." If he didn't exist. Fine. If he did exit, he was just one of 1000 Rabbi's, who happened to have a more convincing story.

          August 3, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • stevef00

      Ray....Adam, the real one that historically existed? Got any proof of that? Please don't say "because the bible says so". Proof requires more than say so from an antiquated old book.

      August 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
      • photografr7

        Speaking of Adam, was he white with blue eyes, or did he look like your typical Ugandan hog salesman? Once you narrow down a concept to a specific person, be prepared to describe him fully. And of course, if Adam was Black, Eve could not have been White because the Bible says that mixed marriages are a sin; at least that's what Protestant Ministers said the Bible said back in the 1950's. And the Bible is the word of God.............

        August 6, 2013 at 4:04 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.