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. Milton

    Stay tuned, the next article by this woman–"why I left the Church and followed Hemant Mehta."

    August 5, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  2. Shelby Arrington

    As a Christian and a Mormon in my mid thirties, I give a hearty "Amen!" to Rachel and her article. My faith is pretty misunderstood and people freak out about it before really understanding it. Every religion comes with historical ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses. But just as Rachel said, what we are all really seeking is Jesus. I think he can be found in many religions and in the hearts of many people. It is merely our job to follow Him where we find Him and do our best to come as close to His truth as possible in our lives. And then live those truths to the best of our ability so that we may spread His message of atoning love.

    August 5, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • james

      One of those is found in John 17,(his prayer to his father) where he said he had made his name known and would do it again and that is just one of the many reasons why I became one of Jehovah's Witnesses. For other examples of what the Bible really teaches go to jw.org or have a serious discussion with us when we come to your door.

      August 5, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Sony Samuel Somar

      How are you supposed to find Jesus in other religions?

      August 5, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
      • james

        If you go to jw.org or talk to any one of us, you will find out more about Jesus than anywhere else. Just try it, thanks, j

        August 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  3. John

    This is a great article. A companion story to this same type of discontent by this age group is presented in the book UnChristian by David Kinnman. There are many inside church leadership that are seeking to create the right conversation on what must happen within "organized religion" to create a compelling attraction for this group of adults. I do not pretend to have the answers but I do know that an overwhelming group of a widening age area self-identify as "no religious affiliation" or "nones". The exodus from post-modernity into a newer form of social ethos that is able to freely move into and out of truth normative's is a challenge. At the same time there is a new age wave that is beginning to gain momentum at a rate of 10,000 per week that are also walking away from or have never connected to organized religion. This new age wave are the combined group of Builders (1929-1944_ and Boomers (1944-1964) that are moving into retirement or have been in retirement and are living longer.
    People of every age want to know that there life, however long it was, on earth had a purpose that outlives and outlasts them. I believe that we are living at the greatest time in all of time to make a lasting difference that will outlast us, if we are willing to take a risk of seeking to understand before being understood of seeking to allow those who may not believe in the same way you may to witness your core beliefs lived out in the day-to-day. Every person matters.

    August 5, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • photografr7

      As long as we're doing polls, I suggest another one. Break the test subjects into two groups: 1) those that refer to themselves atheists and 2) those that believe in the existence of a deity. Then have them answer the following question. You might be surprised how the answer by the two groups differ: "On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate the study that the CNN story referred to?"

      August 5, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  4. Bron

    This article is spot on, however there are a number of churches who are meeting us where we are and on track with what we're looking for. Take a look at Bethel church in Redding, California, as one example. My church is also fantastic, in Australia. We want authenticity, we want to encounter the love and power of God, and we can – just have to find the right church. God is very real, but until you encounter Him in a way that changes your life and the lives of the people you come into contact with, it's hard to see that. Once you do though, there's no going back!

    August 5, 2013 at 12:16 am |
  5. Everyday Joe

    Atheism. Get real. If you are truly compassionate about others why would you cling to an invented scripture that is so at odds with your good and humane beliefs? Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know. Isn't belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don't see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don't believe my four-year-old daughter when she tells me that she didn't make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don't know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it's the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.

    I don't accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me, "Well, you haven't been there, have you? You haven't seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian beaver cheese is equally valid"-then I can't even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we'd got, and we've now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don't think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don't think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

    August 4, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Anjil

      What "invented scripture" do atheists have?

      August 5, 2013 at 9:57 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.