August 2nd, 2013
08:00 AM ET

Why millennials need the church

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN

(CNN) - For a time, I counted myself among the spiritual but not religious, Christian but not churchgoing crowd.

Like many millennials, I left church because I didn’t always see the compassion of Jesus there, and because my questions about faith and science, the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism were met with shallow answers or hostility.

At first I reveled in my newfound Sunday routine of sleeping in, sipping my coffee and yelling at Republicans who appeared on ”Meet the Press.”

But eventually I returned, because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us. Here’s why:


As former Methodist bishop Will Willimon has often said, “you cannot very well baptize yourself.”

In a culture that stresses individualism, the church satisfies the human need for community, for shared history and experiences.

And in a world where technology enables millennials to connect only with those who are like-minded, baptism drags us - sometimes kicking and screaming as infants - into the large, dysfunctional and beautiful family of the church.


“Sin” is not a popular word these days, perhaps because it is so often invoked in the context of judgment and condemnation.

But like all people, millennials need reminding now and then that the hate and violence we observe in the world is also present within ourselves.

We can be too idealistic, too convinced we can change the world from our iPads.

The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride.


While the flawed people who make up the church can certainly inflict pain on each other and sometimes on the world, we also engage in the important work of healing.

At their best, local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless.

Millennials who have been hurt by the church may later find healing in it.


Like a lot of millennials, I am deeply skeptical of authority - probably to a fault.

But when I interact with people from my church who have a few years and a lot of maturity on me, I am reminded of how cool it is to have a free, built-in mentoring and accountability program just down the street.

We can learn a lot from the faithful who have gone before us, and the church is where we find them.


One of the few things the modern church has in common with the ancient one is its celebration of the sacred meal— the Eucharist.

There is simply not the space here, nor in many volumes of theology for that matter, to unpack the significance of remembering Jesus through eating bread and drinking wine. But when I left the church, it was Communion I craved the most.

Churches may disagree on exactly how Christ is present in these sacred meals, but we agree that Christ is present. And millennials, too, long for that presence.

There are some days when the promise of Communion is the only thing that rouses me from bed on Sunday morning. I want a taste of that mystery.


Many churches practice a rite of initiation, sometimes called confirmation.

Theologian Lauren Winner, in her book “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” quotes a friend who said:

“What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

The church, at its best, provides a safe place in which to wrestle with this story we call the Gospel.

Union with Christ

Those who follow Jesus long for the day when their communion with him becomes complete, and Jesus promises this will happen through the church.

The apostle Paul compared this union to a marriage. Jesus describes it as a banquet.

No matter what the latest stats or studies say, Christians believe the future of the church is secure and not even “the gates of hell” will prevail against it.

As much as I may struggle to fit in sometimes, as much as I doubt, question and fight for reforms, I am a part of this church, through good times and bad, for better or worse.

The astute reader will notice that each of these points corresponds loosely with a sacrament—baptism, confession, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, communion, confirmation and marriage.

Some would say there are many others. We could speak of the sacrament of the Word or the washing of feet.

But even where they are not formally observed, these sacraments are present in some form in nearly every group of people who gather together in the name of Jesus.

They connect us to our faith through things we can eat, touch, smell and feel. And they connect us with one another.

They remind us, as writer and Episcopal priest Sara Miles put it, that “You can’t be a Christian by yourself.”

This is why I haven’t given up on the church, and I suspect why it hasn't given up on me.

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 her.

Evans has written two previous posts for CNN's Belief Blog: Why millennials are leaving the church; and Not all religious convictions are written in stone.

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- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • evangelicals • Faith • Opinion • United States

soundoff (4,825 Responses)
  1. Ed

    BULL S#&T! So a god damn preacher telling you what is right and wrong when he is as F*&k up himself and give for his lifestyle without really working and not paying taxes. No thanks. I'll stay atheist.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Mopery

      I used to be all messed up on drugs, now I'm all messed up on the Lord!

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

        I really did laugh out loud at that one.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  2. Tim Jordan

    Appears that religious millennials need the church. So you believe in a deity that turns a blind eye to a professional clergy that molests children, ignores the poor, and has at its forefront flim-flam artists like Joel Olsteen and Rick Warren? Please.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Lindsey

      Tim: Read the gospel of John and then come back and say the same thing you are saying now! I dare you!

      August 3, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
      • Tim Jordan

        Why would you presume I haven't read the bible, particularly the Gospel of Saint John? Have you read it in Greek like me? This speaks to the incipient arrogance of the faithful that non-religious people like myself haven't repeatedly read this book or that it can magically sway those who have found Christianity, in particular, ridiculous.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
      • Doobs

        Why do Christians arrogantly assume that anyone who disagrees with them hasn't read the bible?

        August 3, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
        • Sue

          Yeah, and funny that studies show (even ones in prior news stories on this blog) that atheists generally know the bible better than most Christians do.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  3. Ricky

    The church is all a big lie. It might be an old lie, and some people don't realize that they live a lie because they have been brainwashed since they were little kids, but it's still a lie. Don't brainwash your kids, and then if they do want to go to the church later in life they will do it because they really believe. The church does not want kids to grow up without church indoctrination because they know that without early brainwashing they are less likely to believe the lies they are teaching. Is that simple.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • skytag

      I disagree with such a harsh judgment. I'm an atheist, but the people I've known in churches were very sincere, decent people. What they believe may not be true, but they do believe it.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
      • lol??

        Always had this relationship problem, the superficial kind is all you can handle??

        August 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  4. H Lindsay

    The church represents Hope and thats what draws people ...

    August 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • snowboarder

      but is an unfounded hope, really hope?

      August 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        The delusions of hope and faith and love sustain many.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
        • snowboarder

          not really, they just think it does.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
        • snowboarder

          imagine if those people only new that their strength really comes from themselves.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  5. tony

    you have to wonder how CNN judges journalistic competence. This fraud has no talent or credibility.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      CNN's journalistic standard:
      Does the author hate Republicans and support CNN's social agenda?

      August 3, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
      • midwest rail

        Trolling should never be this boring.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          Religious blogs are the only place CNN allows a discussion of relativity and other advanced sciences.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  6. JesusNotReligion

    Just a clarification...Being a "Christian" is about being a "Worshipper" & "Follower" of the "Jesus" of the Bible...If the Bible is not the sole sufficient authority for faith & practice then it's a free for all...You can believe whatever you want, including Santa Claus...
    Here are some "churches" and/or "religious organizations" that have na,e "Jesus" but have ADDED to the Bible concerning His "Person" and/or "Finished" Work and/or HOW He is to be personally received unto salvation
    And... MOST "MAINSTREAM" **TRADITIONAL** DENOMINATIONS and MOST PENTECOSTAL DENOMINATIONS espousing "new revelation(s)" in the "name of God", etc...

    WHAT DO ALL THE ABOVE HAVE IN COMMON?..."Traditions of men" from one degree to another...Extra-biblical "revelation" that usurps and undermines the Sole Sufficent Authority of the Bible in the name of "Religion", whether it's a "Papal decree" made "ex-cathedra" (Latin for "from the chair"–i.e. The supposed "chair" of Peter, the "supposed" first "Pope") or from "Charles Taze Russell"/ "The Watchtower", the Mormon "Prophets & Apostles", or new revelation from "Mary Eddy Baker", "Ellen G. White...or for that matter, "Edgar Cayce" or "Paramahansa Yogananda" representing an occultic & hindu "Jesus"..

    This article wreaks of what Jesus deemed as "the traditions of men", which usurp and undermine Sole Authority of the Bible and it's final "authoritative revelation"...There is hardly anything "Biblically" representative of the "Jesus" of the Bible in this article. She spent most of her time writing about "doctrines of men" that a particular "denomination" espouses (most likely "RomanCatholicism" "Episcopalian" or "Lutheran" (Traditional). What it DOES represent is the traditions of men who ADDED to the Bible, forming "RELIGION", a mere shell and facade of the Biblical "Jesus"...I'VE BEEN THERE AND EXPERIENCED IT THE "RELIGION" OF WHICH I AM REFERENCING...

    I am honestly burdened for those who are truly seeking "Jesus" (the Jesus of the Bible) and His "new birth" salvation of which He taught about in John 3 because the mainstream articles that are written about "Him" in this "information-age" (like the one above) is filled with "RELIGION"-i.e. Man's "man-made "faith & practice" that promotes a "religious", "God-experience"on their terms and ultimately for their own self-justification-Lord Jesus, have mercy! I thank you that you 'call your sheep out by name' as you taught us in John 10...and your "sheep hear your voice and follow (YOU)", NOT RELIGION!

    August 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • snowboarder


      August 3, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
      • JesusNotReligion

        True...But those who WANT to read it will...Ya can't please everybody...

        August 3, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • JesusNotReligion


      August 3, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  7. John P. Tarver

    Is she a red head?

    August 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      I only let you lick it.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  8. TexasR

    You left out the need for salvation. Feeling better on earth is fine, but what's next is what matters. Jesus was either a lunatic, or he was the Messiah. I believe he was the latter, but if you only want to follow the touchy-feely stuff he taught, get ready. He also made it clear that He was the only route to salvation, and there are several requirements, not all of them easy, and many non-PC. It's not all about love. Salvation is in there, too.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Salvation right here and right now.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Mopery

      So what you're saying is that Jesus loves us so much that he's coming to destroy us?

      August 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        Time is going to end in this vacuum fluctuation if Jesus comes or not. You don't have to like John's take on the nature of the universe, but science does validate the notion.

        August 3, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Mopery

          Are you really talking in 3rd person? Really?

          August 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          John as in the author of one of the gospels.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
        • G to the T

          John is the supposed author...

          There you go, fixed that line for you.

          August 6, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Mopery

      You give two options, but what if they're both true? Sure sounds like a lunatic messiah to me.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Lindsey

      Amen to this comment!

      August 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Lindsey

      Remember though," All these things without love are nothing".

      August 3, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • snowboarder

      of course, the most likely is that jesus was a decent philosopher who's life was grossly embellished after his death by his followers. a tall tale grown taller in the retelling.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Richard Cranium

        I believe you have hit the nail on the hand, oops, I mean head.

        Christ looks to me like he was Buddhist, since much of "his" teaching, the Buddha was teaching several hundred years before.

        August 6, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  9. meemee

    Your screed is enough proof of the evil of the Church and its murderous past lurks just beneath the surface of the phony smiles and pretense of love. I've got news for you; reality is what is left when you don't believe. Pray and you'll get the same results of those that don't. As the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote before the advent of Christianity,

    "Religion is sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher."

    People need community, yes, but not one that seeks to own them and threaten them with eternal damnation if they don't go along (and even then holds them through fear).

    Thanks for proving the point.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • 6:25PM

      I prayed once that some people could find Jesus, and they started looking for Josh, one sayin, "cops act like I ain't got chet to do", I love that part. Then it got dark and a little crazy. There's no proof though, you just have to believe it. yolo

      August 3, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  10. Ozzi

    She's only preaching to the choir. Not the rest of us. Let her exercise her right to freedom of expression and religious thought.

    You guys sound as bad as the Christians.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  11. gager

    Piety makes me cringe. Sucking up to god...what a losing pastime.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  12. Richard

    What a stupid article. No one needs any church. Religion is just a big lie used to control the less educated and desperate.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Lindsey

      Richard- Albert Einstein was a believer. He was also probably the smartest scientist who has ever lived. I challenge you to poll the congregations in this country about their education. I say you will find that it is substantially higher than the general population!

      August 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Look up "Spinoza's god" when discussing Einstein's beliefs. He did NOT believe in any sort of god interested in human affairs.

        August 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  13. Yuck_Go_away

    I need the church as much s I need a root canal

    August 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Mopery

      That's misleading, some people actually need root canals, whereas nobody needs the church.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Brush your teeth and perhaps the swelling will go down. Perhaps a salt water rinse?

      August 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  14. bostontola

    Why millennials need the church? They don't. The churches needs millennials. That's why the RCC picked a reformer Pope, and the other denominations are struggling to make themselves relevant. There is a big competi.tion between the denominations for the soul markets in Asia and Africa. Kudos to the churches for recognizing that they must go global, the old home markets are shrinking.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • OTOH

      The fantasies of Christianity (and Islam too) feed right into the emotions of desperate, gullible, superst.itious and ritual-loving people.

      For example:

      " According to a 2006 Pew Forum on Religion and Public life study, 147 million African Christians were "renewalists" (Pentecostals and Charismatics)." - distinctly emotional and superst.itious and ritualistic.

      – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Africa#Current_status

      August 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  15. Mopery

    I am the King of Mars, and I ride a rocket powered dinosaur out beyond the orbit of Pluto lassoing comets and meteors with rope made of unicorn hair. Unless you can disprove this, then it's 100% truth. Does this sound reasonable to anyone?

    August 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • guille

      Science is the seek of knowledge but not the answer to eternal salvation. Hence, why some will inherit eternal salvation and some only knowledge for a very minuscule short amount of time. We were given a choice to follow both, one or none. Good luck! – The beauty of free will is that it allows you to make your own decision. Some choose to cleanse their soul and some only understand science. I choose both. As God gave us free will, I also sympathized with the atheists since it is a right given by God. You are free to choose how to live your life as long as you don't violate other people's right and be respectful to their beliefs. God said love your neighbor as you love yourself. I will not judge. God will take care of that. I will pray for the well being of everyone.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
      • Mopery

        Englishing for the win?

        August 3, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
      • snowboarder

        @guille, eternal salvation is the invention of supersti tious men afraid of death and the unknown. nothing more.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
        • guille

          But if it gives you a purpose to live why not?

          Tell me in which my beliefs harm you? I am not imposing my beliefs on you or anyone. we can still be friends on this earth and hopefully after life 😉


          August 3, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
        • snowboarder

          @guille, if only it were really about someone's personal belief. unfortunately our secular society is constantly under assault by those who would use their supposedly personal beliefs to control the lives of all of society.

          August 3, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  16. Max783

    I have a better chance of changing the world with my ipad/computer than by praying to a hypothetical being asking him to make all the bad things in the world go away.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Correct, in order for prayer to work the recipient of the prayer must be specific and the prayer must have faith that it will happen.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • snowboarder

        and even then it almost invariably never works. god appears to be incredibly random.

        August 3, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          One Sunday morning I was worshiping with the rollers and we broke into small groups to pray for the sick. I was praying with a woman and a man about 2 3rd stage cancers The cancers were gone by the next Sunday and the woman was very pleased, but the man did not like being cured. He went back to the doctor again and again, unable to accept that his cancer was gone. Finally he was microwaved by an MRI machine. So remember, when the Holy Spirit delivers a miracle, do't tempt God over it.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
        • snowboarder

          color me skeptical. testimonials are the most common scam.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          The best way to view a miracle is to be part of the synchronicity.

          August 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
        • Doobs

          @ John P. Tarver

          So these two people got their diagnosis, went to church and prayed, and were cured? Did they have any medical treatment? Was misdiagnosis ruled out?

          Did the medical community marvel at these miracles? Did anyone call the media to announce that two people from the same prayer group had cancer cured in a week? That seems pretty remarkable, even for a fundie prayer group.

          Did the church at least make you an elder, since you seem to be the common denominator in these medical miracles? Are people coming up to you and asking you to pray for them?

          August 3, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  17. Tim Jordan

    Millennials need the church as much as diabetics need to eat a chocolate cream pie. Being a formerly religious person I'm much happier and content. Don't worry whether I'm spied on by a celestial NSA peering over my shoulder and ticking off boxes whether I was naughty-or-nice. There's more to life than God and Jesus, please grow up.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  18. R.M. Goodswell

    Rachel Evans needs not just the church, but a time machine as well – it seems she is longing for the REAL fire and brimstone , our enemy is over there! Christianity.

    1. Baptism: you read the same book as that guy in the funny robes at the pulpit did....truly, what makes that man more of an expert on this subject? He is giving you HIS take on the book – just like you do to non believers..its the same thing. Sure he went to seminary or whatever, but that means literally nothing. So needing somebody else to baptize you is like religion itself, an unnecessary limitation YOU placed on yourself.

    Healing: you can get the same 'healing' from a shrink, a friend...or if groups are really necessary to you, hire some professional mourners....you ll get more mileage on the dollar.

    Confession: If the point of confession is to address a wrong – try squaring with the person you wronged. Not some stranger that shouldn't even be a part of the equation. Ether that, or just admit you are not really remorseful...you just want the issue off your conscience and how you achieve that isn't really important.

    Leadership: Leadership? really? ......

    the other three are straight up buying into superst ition – no different than astrology or psychic readings.....

    August 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Mopery

      You know how they separate the men from the boys in seminary schools? With a crowbar.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  19. Very Restrictive Directives

    One thing as it concerns Catholics is that they are bent upon turning away those who wish to take Holy Communion if they are divorced, for one thing, thereby setting up rules that are completely arbitrary, capricious, and intolerable for their parishioners. What the pope and leaders of that church need to know and realize is that if God is calling you to come forth to take communion, then who are they to deny you from taking it? The same thing goes for confession as is mentioned in this article. Catholic priests feel they are the only ones who can forgive and absolve you of all your sins when, in effect, they are powerless to do so in reality. Only God can forgive a person and absolve them of their sins. The most a priest can do is pray for a person as the person can do themselves but don't be fooled into thinking that your sins are automatically forgiven and all is now well just because the priest says it is.

    In sum, who needs to be a member of such a constrictive, restrictive denomination that is so control-oriented? No one really does! And that is why their parishioners are now conducting a mass exodus out of that church. Good for them! God is moving them away from a place that would prohibit God from welcoming ALL who want to partake of His supper.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Christ said there is no divorce under Christianity, Any Priest that grants a divorce is damned to eternal hell.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Very Restrictive Directives

      Jesus made no such statement, John. There is no damnation for conducting a divorce. Here's what the Bible does say that mentions divorce. "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of DIVORCEMENT, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house." - DEUTERONOMY 24:1 (KJV).

      Likewise, "And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her A Bill Of Divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also." - JEREMIAH 3:8 (KJV)

      Another passage reads "And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her." - DEUTERONOMY 21:13-14 (KJV) "... thou shalt let her go ..." means Exactly That.

      Catholics love to read into many things that are simply not there as a way to control others and people have finally realized that and have gotten fed up after years of that happening and have now found the good sense to leave that church for good. No one needs to be told what they can or cannot do especially when God or Jesus say nothing about it.

      August 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  20. zaphed

    exactly man.. it is bla bla yarly ralrloo dooop.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:39 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.