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. UPC23


    An Atheist Professor of Philosophy was speaking to his Class on the Problem Science has
    with GOD, the ALMIGHTY. He asked one of his New Christian Students to stand and . . ..
    Professor : You are Christian, aren’t you, son ?
    Student : Yes, sir.
    Professor : So, you Believe in GOD ?
    Student : Absolutely, sir.
    Professor : Is GOD Good ?
    Student : Sure.
    Professor : Is GOD ALL – POWERFUL ?
    Student : Yes.
    Professor : My Brother died of Cancer even though he Prayed to GOD to Heal him.
    Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill.
    But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?
    (Student was silent )
    Professor : You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, Young Fella.
    Is GOD Good?
    Student : Yes.
    Professor : Is Satan good ?
    Student : No.
    Professor : Where does Satan come from ?
    Student : From . .. . GOD . . .
    Professor : That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this World?
    Student : Yes.
    Professor : Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?
    Student : Yes.
    Professor : So who created evil ?
    (Student did not answer)
    Professor : Is there Sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness?
    All these terrible things exist in the World, don’t they?
    Student : Yes, sir.
    Professor : So, who Created them ?
    (Student had no answer)
    Professor : Science says you have 5 Senses you use to Identify and Observe the World around you.
    Tell me, son .. . . Have you ever Seen GOD?
    Student : No, sir.
    Professor : Tell us if you have ever Heard your GOD?
    Student : No , sir.
    Professor : Have you ever Felt your GOD, Tasted your GOD, Smelt your GOD?
    Have you ever had any Sensory Perception of GOD for that matter?
    Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.
    Professor : Yet you still Believe in HIM?
    Student : Yes.
    Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol,
    Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?
    Student : Nothing. I only have my Faith.
    Professor : Yes, Faith. And that is the Problem Science has.
    Student : Professor, is there such a thing as Heat?
    Professor : Yes.
    Student : And is there such a thing as Cold?
    Professor : Yes.
    Student : No, sir. There isn’t.
    (The Lecture Theatre became very quiet with this turn of events )
    Student : Sir, you can have Lots of Heat, even More Heat, Superheat, Mega Heat, White Heat, a Little Heat or No Heat. But we don’t have anything called Cold. We can hit 458 Degrees below Zero which is No Heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as Cold. Cold is only a Word we use to describe the Absence of Heat. We cannot Measure Cold. Heat is Energy. Cold is Not the Opposite of Heat, sir, just the Absence of it.
    (There was Pin-Drop Silence in the Lecture Theatre )
    Student : What about Darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as Darkness?
    Professor : Yes. What is Night if there isn’t Darkness?
    Student : You’re wrong again, sir.
    Darkness is the Absence of Something you can have Low Light, Normal Light, Bright Light, Flashing Light . . .But if you have No Light constantly, you have nothing and it’s called Darkness, isn’t it? In reality, Darkness isn’t. If it is, were you would be able to make Darkness Darker, wouldn’t you?

    August 6, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • Francis Farvis

      Has no-one read Jonathan Edwards' work, on the chief end for which God created the world? I do not recall this "paradox" being answered elsewhere. Isaiah said God created darkness, and created evil/calamity/disaster. Malachi shows God said, Jacob I loved, and Esau I hated – and what God did in his hatred is detailed; all this showed God loved Jacob. Does that help?

      August 6, 2013 at 7:12 am |
    • james

      not bad but one flaw, satan made himself the deciever when he slandered the creator and made himself the devil. he was given free will but decided to rebel and desire the worship for himself. Jesus said that creature "did not stand fast in the truth" John 8:44,45 and so he had options and made the wrong choice. so did the human pair when they chose to believe him over their Creator but the time is about up for that rule when the true God "brings to ruin those ruining the earth", Rev.11:18 I know it is just a story but thought you may want to know.. and Francis? the Hebrew term for hated also means "to love less" and it is man's idea to make hatred such a negative quality attributed to God. check it out and for more of what the Bible really teaches go to jw.org (the truth is free)

      August 6, 2013 at 11:51 am |
      • UPC23

        Do you even know who the devil is ?

        August 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
        • photografr7

          I don't believe that God exists, but I have read about people who might very well be Satan incarnate.

          August 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
        • james

          the ruler of this world,(1 John 5:19; Mt.ch.4; Luke ch.4) the deceiver (satan) and slanderer (devil) who misleads the entire inhabited earth,(Rev.12:9) but for just a little while longer,(Rev.12:12) in the meantime we have a battle on our hands,(1Pet.5:8,9) also (Eph.6:10-18) gives us some help as to how to do that. so yes I believe I know who and what he is and what he is trying to do, knowing he has a short time to do it in. re. Rev.12:12

          August 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  2. UPC23

    Moses led God's children forty years he led them,
    Through the cold and through the night;
    Tho they said, "Let's turn back", Moses said, "Keep goin',
    Canaanland is just in sight."

    And there will be no sorrow there in that tomorrow,
    We will be there by and by;
    Milk and honey flowing there is where I'm going,
    Canaanland is just in sight.

    Now though we walk thru valleys, 'Tho we climb high mountains,
    We can not give up the fight;
    We must be like Moses, we must keep on going;
    Canaanland is just in sight.

    And there will be no sorrow there in that tomorrow,
    We will be there by and by;
    Milk and honey flowing there is where I'm going,
    Canaanland is just in sight.

    And Canaanland is just in sight!

    August 6, 2013 at 12:56 am |
    • redzoa


      August 6, 2013 at 1:49 am |
  3. KC

    I'm not a millennial, but I left the church for similar reasons. Too many judgmental gossipers ("bearing false witness against neighbors"), not enough emphasis on helping those who need help. Ironically, I was a minister's wife.

    Just a couple weeks ago, someone told me I need to meet Jesus and proceeded to lecture me about something she'd interpreted wrongly. If she thinks being so rude is the way to convince people to come to church, no wonder people are running the other way!

    August 5, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I might be wrong but it could be the reason she thought you needed to meet Jesus is because the Christian faith is more about a relationship with Him than it is about His flawed followers. Good luck!

      August 9, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  4. 3zA2Df1Dr

    856986 3766A genuinely exciting examine, I could possibly not concur entirely, but you do make some genuinely legitimate points. 902332

    August 5, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
  5. John McGrath

    In times past it was not unusual for those who disaffiliated from a church to return to church practice when they got married and started thinking concretely ow to raise their kids.. I wonder if there is a link between higher rates of disaffiliation and marrying later.

    August 5, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Anjil

      An interesting theory, given that an age range is used. This will be interesting to watch over the next few years. With people having fewer or no children, too, that might have a similar influence.

      August 5, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  6. Tony

    The writer's opinion is affixed to the notions that:

    1. Millennials are leaving the church
    2. Church leaders must make changes to fix the problem

    First, I don't accept the premise that millennials are leaving the church. If there's a body of evidence to support that conclusion, I would be interested in studying it and learning for myself that there is such a problem.

    Second, I find a bit of irony in the praise for "old school" denominations heavy on liturgy "because it's authentic." To suggest church leaders must heed the call to change now or forever lose the millennial generation seems to fly in the face of authenticity.

    Is church a Las Vegas buffet that must feature a $3.95 t-bone steak so that it draws people in? God seems so much bigger than any of this discussion on stylistic preferences. Are we to turn a blind eye to sin so more people will feel comfortable in their sin? There are so many so-called churches that offer that t-bone already. They'll make you feel so good every week, and their numbers are multiplying. That buffet is already out there.

    Church leaders should ensure that the Gospel is preached, that people are shown love, and that the Bible is held as the final court of arbitration, and that missional work is done by the church body. And that's all. God can and will handle the rest.

    August 5, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Anjil


      August 5, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
      • LinCA


        Thanks for the link. There is an unmistakable march toward reason. Every generation is less superstitious than the previous, and increasingly so. Very good news, indeed.

        August 5, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
        • Anjil

          If you read the details, despite belonging less to churches and praying less "young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today".

          August 5, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
        • LinCA


          I'll take the bad with the good. The more they are disconnected from organized religion, the better the odds that they, or their offspring, will shed the nonsense. If the message is no longer controlled, the better the odds are that they will investigate for themselves.

          I don't expect an overnight revolution.

          August 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
        • Anjil

          The church attendance drop does appear to be genuine, but small, when you compare rates at same age, but the prayer difference seems to be just an age issue: "Although Millennials report praying less often than their elders do today, the GSS shows that Millennials are in sync with Generation X and Baby Boomers when members of those generations were younger."

          August 5, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
        • photografr7

          Church attendance would drop off severely if only parents would allow their children to think on their own instead of attending the church that they happen to attend, and believe what they happen to believe.

          August 5, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
        • Anjil


          "In Gallup surveys in the late 2000s, 40% of Millennials said religion is very important ... in a 1978 Gallup poll, 39% of Boomers said religion was very important to them."

          August 5, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
        • LinCA


          You said, ""In Gallup surveys in the late 2000s, 40% of Millennials said religion is very important ... in a 1978 Gallup poll, 39% of Boomers said religion was very important to them.""
          Crap. We have a ways to go then.

          August 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
        • Anjil

          Even more interestingly, the beliefs about whether hom_ose_xuality are wrong have only just gone back to pretty much where they were in the 1970s. And views on por_nography are not significantly changed.

          August 5, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
        • Anjil

          Even more interestingly, the beliefs about whether h_om_ose_x_uality are wrong have only just gone back to pretty much where they were in the 1970s. And views on por_no_graphy are not significantly changed.

          August 5, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
        • Anjil

          Even the beliefs on prayer in schools is almost identical to boomers and Gen X at the same age. Overall what I get from this is that at the same age millennials are in most ways almost identical to boomers and gen xers at the same age, with all three groups differing more from the generations prior. But there seems to be not so much difference over the last 40-50 years as people think.

          (sorry, trying to figure out this filter)

          August 5, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
        • LinCA


          You said, "Even more interestingly, the beliefs about whether h_om_ose_x_uality are wrong have only just gone back to pretty much where they were in the 1970s. And views on por_no_graphy are not significantly changed."

          The graph shows that the change within any generation may have returned to where they were in the 70s, the differences between generations is stark and very positive. I guess we'll just have to wait for the older people to croak:

          A similar trend is obvious for pornography. The trend within each generation appears to be on a track to more conservatism, each generation seems more liberal than the previous:

          August 5, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
        • LinCA

          You said, "(sorry, trying to figure out this filter)"
          CNN uses WordPress blogs for their opinion pieces, and they use automated censoring that looks for words, or fragments of words, that are considered offensive. If your post doesn't show up, it most likely had a forbidden word in it.

          On the Belief Blog, repeat posts, even those that were previously censored and not displayed, will show a message stating that you posted it before.

          The following words or word fragments will get your post censored (list is incomplete):
                arse             as in Arsenal
                cock           as in cockatiel
                coon           as in cocoon
                cum             as in circumstance
                homo         as in homosexual
                nigra         as in denigrate
                rape         as in grape
                sex           as in homosexual
                spic         as in despicable
                tit               as in constitution or title
                vag           as in vague
                wonderful us

          To circumvent the filters you can break up the words by putting an extra character in, like: consti.tution (breaking the oh so naughty "tit").

          August 5, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
        • LinCA


          You said, "Even the beliefs on prayer in schools is almost identical to boomers and Gen X at the same age."
          Are you looking at the same data as I am? From the graph below, it appears that there is less support for school prayer from each generation to the next:

          You said, "Overall what I get from this is that at the same age millennials are in most ways almost identical to boomers and gen xers at the same age, with all three groups differing more from the generations prior. But there seems to be not so much difference over the last 40-50 years as people think."
          From every graph, I get that each generation is less stuck in the christian dogmas than the previous.

          August 5, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
        • Anjil

          "During early adulthood, about half of Boomers (51%) and Gen Xers (54%) said they approved of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that banned the required reading of the Lord’s Prayer or Bible verses in public schools; 56% of Millennials took this view in 2008. "

          Just compare the dots on the top three lines representing the early adulthood point. It's a five percent increase, but not stunning.

          August 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
        • Anjil

          They glossed over the abortion findings, too, which will have found abortion rights support lower for millenials at the same age as the previous couple of generations. Likewise From other studies I've seen on affirmative action for under-represented groups.

          August 5, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
        • Anjil

          It's not that there are no differences, but that most of the differences are related to age rather than generation. And the surveys focus on what people think is important and politically correct at a given time...which will be reflected in the youth movement. But other balls getting dropped, like a decrease in respect for the feminist movement, abortion rights (per age) or increasing agism are either not as often measured or not fully reported.

          August 5, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
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