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

    Whoops, meant to say Ussher invented the 4000 BC earth in the 1800s.

    August 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
    • John McGrath

      Well, some relatively early Christian (not that early) did try to date the earth, with predicable unscientific results. Most based their dating on the idea that a day in Genesis was 1000 year, based on a passage in the Bible stating that a day is like 1,000 years. So if you want to claim that a "young earth" claim came early, then you cannot take "day" literally. If each day in Genesis was 1,000 years then that interpretation would mean there were 6,000 years before recorded human history, provided you think human history started with the Hebrews, clearly not the case.

      August 14, 2013 at 2:37 am |
  2. Phil

    Honey bager – just like atheism is delusional... Thinking that everything came out of nothing sounds pretty delusional to me.

    August 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      Try looking up "Why empty space isn't really empty" and then we will continue the discussion about what "nothing" is and what that means in the context of universal origins.

      August 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      That is not what atheists necessarily believe. Also, one mans nothing is another mans interdimentional something. Try understanding what theories science is pursuing before say that trite "something from nothing argument"...no one is saying that since "nothing" really never is.
      It is very possible that matter has always existed, but even that is misleading because saying always indicate a span of time, indicating that time is linear, but it is not, only to the observer does it appear that way,.
      The next Big Bang may actually occur before the one that created our universe, from our time reference point (Theory of relativity)

      August 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • photografr7

      Before you poo-poo "something from nothing," read a book on quantum mechanics, or this article http://www.stuff.co.nz/science/9036092/How-cosmology-changed-world-view

      August 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care


      Big Bang Cosmology is a confirmed theory just as evolution is.

      Just becasue you dont understand science doesn't mean that you have to be afraid of it.

      August 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |

        Spontaneous Generation, Static Universe, Expanding Earth, Contracting Universe, Cold Fusion....what do they have in common? ALL SCIENTIFIC CONFIRMED THEORIES...that were wrong.

        August 13, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          I'll say it agian. Just because you dont understand sciend doesn't mean that you have to be afraid of it (or misrepresent it like you are doing).

          August 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm |

          What is being misrepresented?

          August 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          none of those were "confirmed" theories, they were working theories that explained some of the observable phenomenon but were refined and revised as more data was available and as new testing methods enabled us to eliminate certain possibilities.

          August 14, 2013 at 1:10 pm |

          Just the Facts...They were not refined or revised they were dead wrong!

          August 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          the observable phenomenon was not wrong, just their conclusions drawn from their limited views. As their view grew with technology they revised and refined their theories and some got thrown completely out of the window, but did they stubbornly stick to their predetermined conclusions despite the facts to the contrary like religion does? NO! They adjusted their theories and kept searching for more answers. Only the lazy or the ignorant decide to stop and give up searching for truth and just settle on "Well, I guess God did it because its just all so confusing..."

          August 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      The vast majority of humanity is NEVER going to understand quantum mechanics, but my favorite is when the layman thinks they understand such concepts as "nothing" and "infinity". In reality, neither of these concepts exists outside of the realm of pure mathematics – but you are never going to convince the "man of the street" that they don't understand the concept of nothingness or infinity. Your normal person is going to equate the concept of nothing with zero – you may have zero apples in your hand, but you don't have "nothing" in your hand.

      August 13, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  3. Phil

    In all the religions I've visited, I find Jehovah's witnesses to be more truthfull... The other ones are either money obsessed or teach false things.

    August 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      It doesnt matter what flavor of xtianity you are, you're still delusional.

      August 13, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
      • photografr7

        That is so true! Just the other day, these two nicely-dressed gentlemen explained Jehova's Witnesses to me, and it kind of made sense. But can you just imagine what would happen if two of my atheist friends began walking door-to-door explaining to each and every home-owner that there is no God and never was? They'd be arrested in five minutes.

        August 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
        • My Dog is a jealous Dog

          So you live in Saudi Arabia – because here in the US there is nothing illegal about what you describe. However, I don't doubt that there are many parts of this country where you would be taking your life in your own hands doing this.

          August 13, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
        • photografr7

          I beg to differ. If the police were called, they'd ask me nicely to stop doing what I'm doing. They may not arrest me, but if I kept doing it after they told me not to, they're haul me into the police station anyway. (to teach me a lesson)

          August 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      In all of the religions I have visited, I find the Membari from Babylon 5 to be more truthful.

      August 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • ME II

      "In all the religions I've visited, I find Jehovah's witnesses to be more truthfull..."

      ...except for all the failed prophecies ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Jehovah's_Witnesses#cite_ref-Georgie_25-0 )

      August 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
      • photografr7

        I also find "truthful" to be more truthful than "truthfull," or even "Truthfull."

        August 13, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  4. Phil Lacefield

    Rachel, The SOLUTION is to "go back to the basics" and read God's Word, the New Testament, and then, just do exactly what it says to do. Very simple really. Don't you think so too? 🙂

    August 13, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      If it were truly gods word, why is so much of it wrong?

      August 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm |

        Because we screwed it up!!! Not God! The problems people have with religion and the Bible and God are all caused by people...Free will requires a lot of us, not God. So many, Rachel included, want to make God our Igod, to make God what we think God should be. Is the OT of the Bible messed up? YES!!!! But it is the story of a group of people. So that in turn is why we have the NT. Once again, not because God changed or is changing the rules, Jesus even says "I did not come to change the Law of Moses". I disagree that following Jesus is easy, it isn't. I think that is why so many leave, it is hard to do as we should.

        August 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
        • Observer

          "Is the OT of the Bible messed up? YES!!!!"

          Kudos for your honesty.

          August 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          "I disagree that following Jesus is easy, it isn't. I think that is why so many leave, it is hard to do as we should."

          If this were true you would likely see the numbers of non-believers and believers reversed. As it is, it would seem that it is much easier to claim to be a Christian (leaving no true Scotsman aside for the moment) than to not in this country.

          The fact remains, the Christian God supposedly wrote both parts of the bible, the violent jealous God and the turn the other cheek god. If God did not change with the fullfilment of the Mosaic law then you still worship the same violent God that demanded children be brought to the temple gates to be stoned if they were disobedient. The same God who demanded his people slaughter the women and children of neighboring towns as they murdered their way accross the promised land. The same God who apparently thinks it's fun to torture his own creations for eternity in heII for their few years of bad behavior on earth or just for not believing in him hard enough.

          Following the God of the bible is easy, just claim to be friends with the creator of the universe and tell everyone else you are special and God wants them to obey you, er, i mean Him, and since you know what he wants you get to tell other people how they should live their lives, never mind that giant rafter in your eye...

          August 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
        • photografr7

          When you said man has "Free Will," I was about to agree with you until I realized you didn't mean "Free Willy." Now THAT was a great book!

          August 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          It is far more likely, given the history of the people and cultures of the time, that the people who followed the old testament, whatever it was called at the time, realized that many new philosophies were edging out their beliefs, so they came up with the NT to try to bring believers back. Why do you think that so much of what Jesus aleggedly taught is what the Bhudda had taught some 400 years prior.
          Either Jesus was a Bhuddist, or the people who created the character of Jesus used many of the Bhuddists teachings when they created the myths you now cling to today. There are of course some differences, but the core teachings of the Bhudda are strikingly similar to what Jesus taught. Just Bhudda taught to shun desire, and belief in god was desire, and believing or worshipping gods is really moot, sinice they will or will not be, regardless of what we think. The writers of the bible wanted to maintain belief in deities, so added those elements to the teachings of the Bhudda and voila...the NT.

          August 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
        • A Frayed Knot

          Richard Cranium,

          I concur. I think that the belief in magical gods in general - Greek, Roman, Hebrew - was waning. Paul of Tarsus, a PR genius, made it his life's campaign to ensure that Judaism survived in one form or another.

          August 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
      • Richard Cranium

        Wow, rampant dyslexia on my part. Buddha, not Bhudda...my apologies

        August 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
        • photografr7

          A typo??? MY GOD, what you typed can't be true!

          August 13, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          yes, some typo's some autocorrect errors. I normally let them go unless it is a clear case when someone keeps misspelling a word, then it may be time to correct them.

          August 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • Dippy

          Typos, not typo's.

          August 15, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
        • photografr7

          "Typos, not typo's" is not a sentence. Where's the noun and the verb? So please lay off typos until you have perfected your own English grammar.

          August 15, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      I'm sure that Phil is trolling.

      I wouldnt mind being able to have multiple wives and concubines like in the bible. Some of the stuff in there is pretty good.

      I wouldnt kiII my kids for being disobedient and wouldnt ever own sIaves like the bible says you can though.

      August 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  5. photografr7

    Fellow Believers: Have you heard the Good News??

    The newest version of the Bible has now been published, and is available at all churches, synagogues and mosques near you. And the best part, the Bible no longer contains stories, parables, unverifiable rumors, and lore. Now the Bible only contains two words: "God exists." That's it. Isn't that great? God still exists, of course, but from now on the word "exists" shall no longer be interpreted to mean "exists" in the literal sense.

    August 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |

      it is truly sad how much time you spend on here....so you don't believe in God. Good for you. After having read some of your post, I am amazed that you claim to be educated and intelligent and yet you waste your time here...you are not changing any minds or enlightening any one. You may think believers are dilusional, but you seem sadly desperate to connect with them...

      August 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
      • Honey Badger Don't Care

        Or, most likely, he finds your delusion entertaining as I do. I love reading the rediculous things that the religious post, it makes my work day go by much faster.

        August 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
        • photografr7

          Yes, I giggle at him and his kind.

          August 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
      • photografr7

        I caught your attention, didn't I? Even the mile-long trek to wipe religion off the face of the earth must begin with a first step. Religion world-wide is dying off. I don't know if it will happen in our lifetime or not, but it will happen. And when it does, I'll laugh in your face for being one of the last vestiges to stand up for an old myth which hasn't a shred of evidence to support its veracity.

        August 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm |

          Wow you make your own facts and everything...you really are dilusional. And you can have my attention for a few brief moments, no problem. I am glad I help make you feel important.

          August 13, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
        • photografr7

          I would only feel important if you were important, and I have the distinct impression you ain't. [poor grammar intentional]

          August 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          Seen, not seent
          Delusional, not dilusional

          August 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
        • photografr7

          CNN blogs definitely need a built-in spell checker. Besides, if spelling counted, I'm sure the Bible has loads. Is "sayeth" even a word?

          August 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
        • Honey Badger Don't Care

          Either use Firefox for your browser or type everthing in Word and then paste. LOL, I used the word Word capitalized.

          August 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
        • photografr7

          He has the age of the universe wrong and how long man has been on earth wrong, and I'm going to go through that extra effort to correct a few typos? He's not worth it. But thanks.

          August 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm |

          @Richard, Seent was intentional, (as I am sure your name is not Richard) dilusional was a mistake, but thanks for taking the time to correct me, very kind of you.

          August 13, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
        • photografr7

          Oops, I thought he was correcting MY typos. I feel so relieved now... NOT!

          August 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
      • Dippy's Aide


        The plural of "post" is "posts".

        You are a teacher? I sure hope they are Ceramics or Basket Weaving classes.

        August 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm |

          Thanks Dippy, your comment was enlightening. Yes I teach underwater basket weaving and finger painting. Very good..I always like atheist input. You guys are so positive and intelligent. God Bless!

          August 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
        • Mirror Mirror


          Ah, in contrast to all of your positive and intelligent remarks to and about atheists?!

          August 13, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  6. chrissyw100

    It just sounds like these folks are looking for the "rules" to be changes to suit their lifestyles. If they truly want to follow Jesus then they would believe that he died on the cross for their sins and seek repentance through worship, service, etc. You are not going to find a church that tells you its okay to live in sin, and to celebrate it, (and if you do I'd recommend you run from it). If that's the kind of church these "millennials" are looking for perhaps they should create a church of their own.

    August 13, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      Christians have changed the "rules" throughout history. That is why there are over 30,000 different denominations.

      Do you still obey the command to kiII ho mo se xuals? How many do you meet each day but you dont kiII? Have any unruly childeren that are still alive?

      Sounds like the rules in this moldy book dont really matter anyway do they?

      August 13, 2013 at 9:53 am |
      • photografr7

        A harsh but accurate assessment.

        August 13, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • Rundvelt

      The reason more and more people are leaving the church is as education levels rise, people are less apt to believe nonsense.

      I mean, have you read genesis? Why would an all knowing god stoop to such a stupid setup.

      August 13, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  7. fbcx

    At 67 I probably have more in common with Rachel and her millennials than evangelicals. I can assure you my millennial son, who was raised Episcopalian, and his wife, who was raised a fundamentalist Baptist, fit that mold almost precisely. I must say even I am fed up with the demons, drama and showmanship of modern fundamentalists and evangelicals and totally fed up with their politicization of religion.You gotta wonder if He isn't wondering what He did wrong...maybe He picked the wrong Head of Marketing. Maybe Thomas would have been a better choice than Paul. Think about that one.

    August 12, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • hermansohn

      Paul spent at least 10 years on the road establish Christ centered communities. He traveled extensively throughout the mid-east and during his absent, new members came into the community and started acting the same way they do today. And so, Paul wrote his epistles to the churches at Galatia, Corinth, and Rome making clear what the message was. And, we have today church boards and clergy who still don't get it.

      August 13, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      OR, maybe there is no "he". Embrace reality.

      August 13, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • Vigilante

      No matter how we feel about relegion and the direction it is going in, I think its important to remember that our faith starts within us all individually. No country on our planet, 3rd world or 1st world can say that relegion is not the backbone of their society. Our faith and worshiping practices are the substances that guide our morals. Yes, in today's world I believe religion has taken on different tacts of attracting non believers. In the world, but not of the world right. Still I see no changing in the ways of worship or teaching, simply more exposure and more understanding. We cannot say that we are religious people if we cannot accept each others flaws. That is the first step in gaining a lost soul so that they may be nurtured into the kingdom of God... Morality is not black and white, its gray. For readers there is a recently published book that I believe digs down into that gray area of belief and inspires an individual to search within themselves on issues of relegion,debt, and way of life. It's entiled Gatekeeper the Illuminatti Myths. Its a must read for those concerned with the direction of religion.

      August 13, 2013 at 9:55 am |
      • Just the Facts Ma'am...

        "I think its important to remember that our faith starts within us all individually. No country on our planet, 3rd world or 1st world can say that relegion is not the backbone of their society. Our faith and worshiping practices are the substances that guide our morals."

        Faith is extremely important for a persons morality if that person is an uneducated moron. Those persons are not able to see that morality has it's own rewards so they have to be bribed into good behavior or threatened into obedience. The bible is one of the best tools to do this and has been used to control uneducated morons for centuries. Some day maybe we will live on a planet where everyonme can have access to a quality education and everyone will see the benefits from being good to each other without the threat of heII or the promise of heaven. As statistics show the number of moral morons is shrinking and more people are getting the education they so desparately needed.

        August 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  8. Fred

    Take a look at a United Church of Christ Church that is has a Progressive Theology Pastor. You may be plesantly surprised.

    August 12, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  9. MattD

    Anybody who uses Travelocity for travel is a loser dimwit. Not too impressed with this broad.

    August 12, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
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About this blog

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.