Reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ Why Millennials are Leaving the Church Post 1- Style Vs. Substance

I have huge respect for Rachel Held Evans. I like her blog, I’ve enjoyed her books and I follow her on Twitter. Further I appreciate her mind, her love for Christ, her heart for others and from where I sit, I find her to be a wise and faithful steward of her platform.

The other day she wrote an excellent piece on CNN Belief Blog and her basic thesis was that Millennials are leaving churches because they are looking for “more substance than style.” In short, she concluded “we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.” Ouch.

Her critique is too many churches are making the mistake of seeking to be “more relevant” as opposed to being more substantial.  That may not sound original to some but the real problem is it’s a consistent and oft-heard criticism.  Seeking to be a “little more relevant” is a very tired practice in many congregations throughout our country (and beyond).  More on why in a bit.

Rachel writes, “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.”

She insists that it’s not about style but substance.  I insist that she’s right in the big picture and she is doing at least three things.

First, she is introducing people to a conversation that many of us are having evidenced in countless places, from CNN to all over the blogsphere to my own Facebook wall – this is a good thing.

Second, she is affirming the voice of the church’s disenchanted and disengaged.  This is a needed thing.

And third, she’s reminding church leaders (paid and lay) that slick is never enough.  Hopefully, this is a temporary thing.

Given the CNN Belief Blog word count we don’t get the opportunity for Rachel to unpack more of her thoughts. Further, debating Christian methodology on CNN is not helpful as it soon becomes an insider conversation.  If anything, there is so much goodness in her writing in these broad strokes as again, it brings conversation.

The part that may grieve me the most to these moments is that many will resonate with the initial post and not pursue further dialogue.  Hopefully, that’s where you and I come in.  Not as bloggers mind you (though there is goodness in that too) but even more so as Christian witnesses serving in the church, serving beyond it and reflecting the light of Jesus wherever we find ourselves.

I think Rachel’s big picture analysis of why Millennials are leaving is fairly accurate. I’ll nitpick in a later post on whether or not Millennials have a better BS meter and why some relevancy is actually a good thing but in this post I do want to talk about why so many churches prefer to make style changes over substance.

If I also can paint in broad strokes, those churches tend to be established, traditional, filled with boomers and builders, and generally speaking, enjoyed a better season of ministry and now find themselves in decline.

Now many Millennials, Xer’s, Boomers and yes, even Builders are leaving because of substance.  And that substance can be what they describe to be a lack of intellectual integrity and a familiar rehashing of antiquated dogma.  Some of this is the relationship between science and faith, some of it is the inability to appreciate the many nuances throughout our culture, some of it is because some Christian teaching comes across more as religious superstition. This comes through congregants in small groups, Sunday School classes, hallways, grocery store aisles and unfortunately also from the pulpit.

In fact, you could make the case in some churches the lack of substance has become their style.  Meaning this methodology has become a low, simple-minded, one dimensional, shallow expression of their Christianity.

But it may be more helpful to ask why do churches tend to focus more on style changes than substance changes in trying to draw in Millennials or anyone for that matter into their congregations?

To be clear, the problem isn’t that churches have cafes in their lobbies nor is the problem that some churches don’t. The problem would be if a church truly believes it’s a true solution to attract Millennials (or Xers, or Boomers, or Builders, or Martians) to have a cafe or not have a cafe. In many places, having a cafe (or simply serving coffee) is merely a means to create space for conversation. From what I can see, they don’t really make that much money on a Sunday morning, they require a lot of volunteers and some places don’t know how to make good coffee! (said as a proud coffee snob ;).

As much as we may be as uncomfortable to admit, for some Millennials (or anyone), the problem is substance, for some the problem is style for others the problems are both and then some and of course for others it’s neither yet something completely different.

So let’s return to the question on why do so many churches focus more on style than substance?  Well, here’s my two cents.  Most mid-size congregations only have a small number of people who have a grasp on the complicated tension between church as an organization and church as a community called to care for each other and spread hope beyond its congregation.

Further, many church leaderships, pastors, congregants, etc. have become stagnate and/or inefficient.  Pastors come and go, elders’ terms expire, many volunteers and leaders burn out, which leads to some ministries and committees run by sincere but inexperienced people on a learning curve. Factor in budget constraints, lack of vision, competing agendas and the eventual scandal, churches can be slow-moving, unproductive places.

Second, even if with a stable organizational environment, changing the style is easier than changing the substance.  Adding a more contemporary worship service is easier than changing or amending a doctrinal statement.  Installing a cafe in the lobby is easier than sacrificially serving in the community. Hiring a pastor who wears skinny jeans is easier than discipleship (I pity the church who takes the even easier route in buying skinny jeans for their elder pastor).  

In evangelical churches, the great challenge of most style changes are financial and they are solved not by redistribution but my further spending as opposed to substance changes.  Substance changes may require a vote but what they really require is a change of perspective and every change of perspective comes with a backlash.  Again, style is easier.

So much more to say but style changes are simply easier than substance changes because substance changes requires a dramatic cultural change.  And this is where the need for relevancy comes back in but it must be self-aware which leads to the importance of authenticity, which leads to the importance of integrity, which leads to the need for humility which leads to more and more but I remind you, Rachel is right, all these things are about substance, not style.

Next post I want to discuss consumerism and whether or not the Millennials actually have a higher BS Meter.

For More Read:

“A Conversational Way Forward: Responding to the Exodus of Millennials from our Churches” on the Slow Church blog – this is a must read.

Why Are Millennials Leaving the Church? by Scott Kent Jones – good friend with a good mind.

The Problem With Church” – Redemption Pictures  – First time reading this blog but really liked it.

“Why millennials are leaving the church really”



  1. Jesus was an Existential Thinker. Churches could begin playing a leadership role in teaching the art of existential thinking.

  2. Dianna Sawyer says:

    This is a really interesting post. I haven’t read Rachel’s piece, but based on your summary of her text, I think she may be unnecessarily setting up substance and relevance as polar opposites. Obviously, skinny jeans won’t make a person in their 20s or 30s want to go to church (the thought is actually pretty insulting). And obviously, a church with a 200-year-old liturgical tradition may not be the most alluring to someone who just graduated from college. But what about the middle – substance that is relevant?

    We want to see Jesus at church, and we want to see how He STILL persists in our world. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well, for example, is a remarkable story. How does it translate? How would Jesus treat a woman who’s coming out of the sex trade? How would Jesus respond to homosexuals joining the church? How would Jesus teach us to love someone like George Zimmerman, and how would he tell us to combat modern-day slavery?

    I don’t think at all that churches should get too political, for obvious reasons – but staying relevant is more than a coffee shop – it’s having relevant substance, substance that reflects the world we confront every day, and a huge emphasis on social justice (which was a huge part of Jesus’ ministry and instruction). Our world is filled with challenges and beliefs that our parents and grandparents never confronted, so it makes sense that the substance needs to adjust a bit (and as you said, changing the substance is really challenging). Jesus stays the same – but we need to learn how to live and love in THIS world. I wonder if we’ll see the cultural shift you’re talking about as Millenials get a little older and start taking leadership roles in the church.

    The reality is that we don’t really care about skinny jeans. We just want the substance to be relevant.

  3. Frederick says:

    When you write about “church” which one are you referring to? Because there are now well over 35,000 different and differing Christian denominations, sects and sub-sects all competing for market share in the market place of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religiosity, which is the only kind of religion that now exists, especially in the USA. Even, and especially members and propaganda hacks (apologists) for the main-stream denominations both Protestant & “Catholic” are in the whats-in-it-for-me business of consumerist religiosity (even while self-righteously pretending otherwise).

    Meanwhile if anyone seriously investigates the modern philosophical, intellectual, and especially Spiritually informed critiques of old-time religion they will inevitably find, if they are at all honest, that there is no basis in Truth & Reality for any of the conventional religious propositions.
    Furthermore the current seeming resurgence in old-time self-righteous religiosity has more to do with the simple philosophical and common-sense proposition made by P T Barnum – except that P T Barnum was wrong – there are thousands of suckers born every minute.

  4. Hey Frederick, thanks for commenting.
    I use “Church” in the larger collective sense describing the community or gathering of people who identify themselves as followers of Jesus and committed to the building of His Kingdom. It’s more of a opt-in, no walls community.

    In regards to the second half of your comment, I would politely differ from your presupposition in stating there is no basis of truth and reality in religion. Further I would point out that no one, the materialist, the super-naturalist, etc., has cornered the market on truth and reality. There is a great deal that we simply do not know, our knowledge is incomplete, and our “truth” is limited. Frankly we are all excercising our “faith” in one form or another.

  5. I’m not opposed to lobby coffee shops and entertaining worship music and I don’t really care if the pastor wears skinny jeans or slacks. I don’t think those things are the issue. In fact, I think lobby coffee shops can be a good thing, because that’s where we interact with each other and that’s a good thing. Great worship music really is needed, but so are the classic hymns. Music can be a great way to open our souls for the building of community. I think the real problem is the lack of freedom to truly grow. From control, we see insecurity and fear in the leadership and that trickles down into the congregation. In the long run, leadership and their congregations are causing their communities to remain stagnant and we know stagnant water breeds infection. People are leaving to save their ‘lives’.

  6. Well said Sisterlisa. I agree and am not opposed to all that and much more. From what I got from Rachel’s piece is all that is style and style isn’t the issue, substance is or as you put it the lack of freedom to truly grow. Most leaders, congregants, participants and everybody in general want to grow – I think the issue for most is the willingness to sacrifice the time, energy, presence, resources, commitment to create that type of church culture that allows us to be led by the Spirt and grow in Christ. We seem to be stop-short on much of this.

    Hey thanks for commenting, stop by any time.

  7. This piece by Rachel Evans seems to have been the topic of conversation on all my feeds this summer. I tend to agree with you and Sisterlisa, there is the desire to grow, but often the congregation is stymied by leadership, then when there is no one stepping up to help out in ministry, the leadership cries out that no one is interested in the church.

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