Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

Editor’s Note: Why are millennials leaving the church? That question created a viral discussion this week revolving around the recent column from Rachel Held Evans on the CNN belief blog. It’s an important conversation because there’s a lot at stake for the future of the church. We encourage you to read this insightful response by Trevin Wax and engage in the discussion. 

In a recent column for CNN, Rachel Held Evans offers some thoughts on “why millennials are leaving the church.” Her post struck a chord with readers. She is addressing a perennial topic of conversation among church leaders and church goers: what will happen to the next generation.

Like Rachel, I’m 32 – right on the border of the millennials, and many of the questions and doubts I hear from the millennial generation resonate with me too. But my analysis differs somewhat from Rachel’s.

Rachel’s Analysis

Rachel thinks millennials are leaving the church due to the perception that evangelicals are

“… too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

She’s right to decry a vision of Christianity that reduces repentance to a list of do’s and don’ts. I too have noticed that many millennials desire to be involved in mercy ministry and support justice causes. And I couldn’t agree more when she says “we want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.”

The Church’s Response

How has the church responded? Rachel sees church leaders trying to update their music or preaching style, and thereby running up against the “highly sensitive BS meters” we millennials have. We’re not fooled by consumerism or performances when churches cater to what they think we want.

Rachel writes:

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

I agree with that sentence for the most part, although I would tweak the last line to say “What millennials really want from the church is substance.” Not a change in substance, necessarily, just substance will do.

Too often, our churches have offered a sanitized, spiritualized version of self-help therapy, and Jesus has been missing. And that’s the problem. Like every generation, she says, “deep down we long for Jesus.”

Here’s where Rachel and I part ways – on what communities following Jesus look like in our culture.

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Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. Trevin currently serves the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been a regular blogger since 2006 and regularly contributes articles to publications such as Christianity Today. He authored two books, "Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals" (2010) and "Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope" (2011).