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. cosmostheinlost

    Reblogged this on Cosmos the in Lost and commented:
    Familiarize yourself with this, uhm, interesting opinion piece before reading the next installment of Cosmos in the Lost. I have a surprise confession for you.

    August 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  2. marat75

    I am sorry if it may sound judgmental, but you sound rather worldly, Rachel.

    August 9, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • marat75

      Ever saw Kurt Cobain dressing up as "Jesus" in his videos? Or mocking Him in his songs? Of course you didn't, or did you?!! Social Justice Jesus and Catholic Jesus share something in common: they are figments of human imagination.

      August 9, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  3. gradywalton

    Well said. By the way, they didn’t have a fancy term for my generation when we were in our twenties (other than “hippies”). Sure, we boomers impacted the culture, but we also left the church and made myriad bad decisions in our personal lives. I am not saying the church can stop a person from making bad decisions, but the church, despite its flaws, can help us grow and find wisdom without so much reliance on the school of hard knocks (an archaic term used often by my father). faithaficionado

    August 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm |

    Leaving the Church, finding the Christ

    is absolutely possible and urgently necessary now!


    August 8, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • photografr7

      This guy is a SPAMMER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 8, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Does your god approve of you stealing advertisement space thief?

      August 9, 2013 at 12:09 am |
  5. kujirakira

    The problem with Christianity is that you've taken fictional stories meant to stand as allegories and moral lessons... and attempted to force them into being literal and factual. This is why you can contradict almost anything stated in the Bible with another statement from the Bible. "Scripture" was never meant to be taken as literal fact - it has to be taken in context as a story which has a moral.
    Go back to the basics, and accept that these aren't literal historical events – at best there's some historical fiction.
    By making this stuff into literal facts, you've perverted the religion itself into nothing more than a reactionary edifice. The same kind that Jesus rebelled against in the Pharisees calling them self righteous rule followers.

    August 8, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  6. EscondidoSurfer

    "We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities." You slip that in but don't elaborate. Are you saying that the sinful lifestyles of the LGBT should be condoned or ignored and not confronted? All those with sinful lifestyles should be welcomed, but the Church is no place to feel comfortable for those living as sinners.

    August 8, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • Chris L.

      How much do you want to bet that you don't go around to all the divorced couples in your church and inform them that they're sinning. It seems that this is a privilege that's reserved for LGBT folks. You folks will never get it. Christian? Please!

      August 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
      • Saraswati

        Every time I pose the question "Would you like to ban civil divorce?" to one of the folks arguing against gay marriage they get suddenly very quiet.

        August 8, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
      • photografr7

        How many wives can a Mormon have? More than one? That doesn't sound very Christian to me. Even atheists like myself think that one wife is more than enough.

        August 8, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          I don't.

          August 8, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
        • photografr7

          Do you mean one wife and a slew of girlfriends? That's different.

          August 8, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          No, I mean multiple wives.

          August 8, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
        • photografr7

          Good luck with that. Isn't that called adultery?

          August 8, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          Not if there's consent from all parties. The fact that consenting adults can't enter into a civil marriage contract is baffling.

          August 8, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
        • photografr7

          It's called a commune.

          August 8, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          No, that's a hippy love-in. Why can't a group of normal, tax-paying, consenting citizens get married legally? I don't think I've ever heard a reasonable argument against it.

          August 8, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
        • Saraswati

          Dave, It becomes very complex very quickly. First, in almost all cultures that have allowed polygamy they have allowed only polygyny or polyandy, and not both. We would in our society be looking at doing both at the same time, which could lead to situations in which enormous networks are connected. Second, this is more likely to occur than you think, because what we do, in fact, see in countries with polygamy is that parities in these marriages are manipulated into accepting additional partners when they don't want them on threat of abandonment. Third, there are very real legal issues with marriage, including immigration (marrying hundreds of people at a time would now be legal), custody, property law...all of which would suddenly be plunged into previously unexplored territory. Fourth, when the data was examined comparing the spread of HIV in southeast asia, scandinavia and subsaharan africa, it was found that the significant factor was not number of partners, but number of partners that overlapped in time. Multiple partners spreads disease far, far faster than serial monogamy.

          I'm not saying that experiments cannot be conducted, but this issue is extremely complex and it shouldn't "baffle" anyone that this is not a standard practice in the world (and no, Islamic countries do not practice what you're talking about).

          August 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          There'd be wrinkles to iron out certainly, but I'm the kind of guy who doesn't think any act should be forbidden with the consent of all parties.

          August 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
        • Bill Deacon

          Doesn't sound Odinistic to me Dave

          August 9, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          I've posed the same scenario as Dave, and I too, have never heard a reasonable argument against such situations. If there's one out there, I would be interested in examining it.

          August 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
        • photografr7

          By that logic, anything can be done if agreed to by consenting adults. That's debatable, and I have no opinion.

          August 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
        • Saraswati


          "There'd be wrinkles to iron out certainly, but I'm the kind of guy who doesn't think any act should be forbidden with the consent of all parties."

          Unless you worked out a heck of a lot of wrinkles, the problem here is that you get into a state where very quickly people are forced into situations that require either consent for things they don't want of very unpleasant conditions. We don't allow people to do anything to which they consent...for instance, people cannot sell themselves into slavery.

          August 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
        • photografr7

          @Dave ... or even worse, when the next Hitler or Stalin rises to power, "Singles" (those with, God forbid, only one wife) might be thrown in jail or tortured until they see the light.

          August 11, 2013 at 5:36 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.