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Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Arguments against the Conventional Wisdom

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By Rob Schwarzwalder

Many young people are leaving Evangelical churches. Statistics vary, but there is general consensus that large numbers of post-high school age Evangelical youth shed the faith of their fathers and mothers upon beginning their college years.

The reasons given are multiple. They include such things as over-identification of older Evangelicals as angry Right-wingers who disdain homosexuals and are skeptical of global warming; a subculture that is unwelcoming to the young and secular; Christianity’s claim of exclusivity as to truth and salvation; and the general superficiality of the preaching and teaching.

Summing up much of this line of thinking, Carol Howard Merritt writes, “There are three major reasons that a younger generation is leaving Evangelicalism: pernicious sexism, religious intolerance, and conservative politics”

But is the (supposed) ecclesiastical exodus of collegiate and post-collegiate Evangelicals really as simple as disgust with the excesses of political conservatism, discomfort with Christianity’s claim of exclusivity regarding the path to salvation, a desire to “live green,” and simply get along in an adverse society?

I propose several other reasons why some young people are leaving their Evangelical heritage. They are these:

Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.

Desperate contemporaneity has become the coin of the age as Evangelicals make gasping efforts to draw in the disaffected. We preach on methods of achieving various kinds of success (with one or two Bible verses thrown in) instead of the books and themes of Scripture. We have become what Michael Patton calls “the entertainment driven church.” After awhile, manic superficiality in the name of “relevance” induces cynicism, and rightfully so. As described by Alan Jamieson, “the institutional church” has become “irrelevant or unhelpful … for so many reflective and intelligent believers today” (quoted in Julia Duin, Quitting Church, p. 175).

“We’ve taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as ‘cool’ to our kids,” writes Marc Yoder. “It’s not cool. It’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we’re called to evangelize.”

Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.

Many people sitting in the pews of theologically orthodox Protestant churches would have difficulty offering a simple explanation of the Trinity and why understanding the Triune nature of God is important. They have neither been taught these things nor had explained to them why they are critical to Christian living.

In 2000, the British pastor Phil Newton wrote, “The issue in preaching is proclaiming faithfully, accurately, and clearly the Word of God, so that the truth of the Word penetrates the mind to affect the heart, rather than the cleverness of the preacher impressing the hearers. At the core of all a preacher does is to dig deeply into the given text of Scripture, seeking to understand it grammatically, historically, and doctrinally.” In the intervening years, too few have heeded his exhortation.

As David F. Wells has written, “the Church is going to have to become more authentic morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life. If the Gospel means so little to the Church, if it changes so little, why then should unbelievers believe it?” (Losing Our Virtue, p.180).

Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.

Too often, we have proclaimed only what we are against and failed to explain the goodness of sexual expression (and sexual chastity) as designed by God. Instead, too much of the time Evangelicals (a) seem embarrassed by the Bible’s definitive teaching about human sexuality; (b) are ignorant of why the Bible teaches what it does on sexuality and sexual intimacy (this involves serious thinking and intellectual wrestling, something younger Evangelicals often are better at than their teachers); (c) are afraid that people will be put-off by gracious but uncompromisingly truthful teaching concerning Christian faith and sex; and (d) evade what have become culturally hard truths because we are afraid of being accused of being bigots, haters, homophobes, clueless, etc.

The subjective and highly personal nature of some Evangelical churches fails to satisfy the deep longings of many young men and women.

In many youth-focused churches, Jesus is portrayed as more like a sympathetic friend than a holy and transforming Redeemer. This is understandable, given how many young people come from broken homes and need a foundation of reassurance, security, and love before their walks with God can deepen. Yet as understandable as it might be, such a presentation of Jesus, at least if sustained, is too one-dimensional to meet the needs of the spiritually emaciated and intellectually curious.

Additionally, our “fun” activities can become an idol and, to maturing younger believers a hindrance. Pizza parties for our youth are fun and healthy, but must be seen not as ends in themselves but as a means to draw students into grace-and-truth filled discussions about what they believe, what the Bible says, and why. As Marc Yoder writes, “If church is simply a place to learn life-application principles to achieve a better life in community you don’t need a crucified Jesus for that.”

Public education and popular culture encourage relativism and sentimentality as the highest goods; truth is seen as non-existent or at least unknowable.

“Our national character stinks to high heaven,” wrote Walker Percy in The Moviegoer, “but we are kinder than ever.” We have substituted emotion for truth, affirmation for integrity, niceness for virtue, and consensual opinion for rationality.

Our schools and our media discourage belief in truth as permanent and discernible, in consequence of which calling something morally “wrong” is seen as offensive, even obstreperous. We rationalize our incapacity to call certain things good and others evil, and we breed the “men without chests” warned of by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man.

Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable. As a result, many don’t want to follow biblical moral teachings on sexual and recreational activities.

When younger Evangelicals are told that such things as pre-marital sex and recreational use of mild hallucinogenic drugs are wrong, many bridle: It sound pretentious to say something is wrong and unfairly limiting to their efforts toward self-discovery (translation: I really want to sleep with my boy-/girl-friend; who are you to tell me not to?).

With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twenty-something Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.”

Similarly, personal relationships are difficult to trump: Friendships with people who live “according to the flesh” are hard to integrate with a firm stance for truth.

Co-workers, friends, and family members who cohabit, are openly homosexual, and avow atheism or agnosticism are real people with the same hopes and enjoyments and struggles as any sexually pure young Evangelical. Upon getting to know them, a lot of younger believers are a bit shaken – how can I oppose someone I have come to love? How can I say “no” to a person who earnestly believes what he does is morally right?

This is where, as noted above, the necessity of the foundation of truth becomes indispensable. Truth teaches that is ungracious to be personally insulting, but unloving to affirm a behavior or a habit that is wrong and destructive. Unemboldened by such conviction and themselves often deeply wounded, many young people find it much more appealing (and often easier) simply to affirm that which does not immediately harm them or self-apparently harm those engaged in it.

Truth divides. This is discomfiting, but unavoidable. If a friend you love rejects you because you take a moral stand contrary to her beliefs or behavior, that hurts. No one ever wants to damage or lose a cherished relationship. But Jesus, the most gracious Man and truest Friend Who ever lived, was rejected and crucified. We are called to be like Him, even at the cost of relationships.

Finally, broken marriages that fail to model Christ to their children.

While data are mixed on the percentage of divorce within professing Evangelical families are mixed, it is beyond dispute that millions of young people raised as Evangelicals have also been raised in homes without one of their biological or adoptive parents.

It is not difficult to imagine how such wounds are deepened when a child is told that there is a God Who loves him and cares tenderly for him and then witnesses his parents rejecting each other. Little wonder that jaded young people looking for love and acceptance will seek them in such troubling places as the back seat of a car or a deserted classroom.

In summary, many younger Evangelicals who leave “the faith once delivered” do so for reasons well beyond the “pernicious sexism, religious intolerance, and conservative politics” noted earlier.

As Evangelical leaders pray about and discuss ways of winning younger men and women to Christ and also ways of keeping many who have come to know Him in fellowship with Him and His church. Our ministries are diluted and rendered, ultimately, powerless, when we fail to proclaim the whole counsel of God, when we cater to listeners’ feelings more than their needs, and when self-loathing becomes more prevalent than holy confidence.

Rob Schwarzwalder has served as chief-of-staff to two members of Congress and is a long-time member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He currently serves as senior vice-president for Family Research Council.

Read more: CanonAndCulture.com

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