Evangelism #1: Why are so many young people leaving the church and even their faith?

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Evangelical Christianity has dominated much of the American Church for the past 50 years. Statistics vary as to how many American Christians identify as evangelicals, but it’s a significant number.

Evangelical Christianity is neither a religion nor a denomination. Instead, it’s a religious movement that has grown in prominence in the United States over the past five decades.

What makes someone an evangelical?

Most people don’t realize that self-identified evangelicals reside on both sides of the political aisle.

Evangelicals go to different kinds of churches: there are Evangelical Lutherans and Evangelical Presbyterians; there are Southern Baptist evangelicals and non-denominational mega-church evangelicals.[1]

The most widely accepted definition of “evangelical” is that of historian David Bebbington. According to Bebbington, there are four core beliefs that unite all evangelicals.

  • First of all, biblicism: a high esteem for the Bible and the conviction that it contains all the spiritual truths necessary for Christians.
  • Secondly, cross-centered: a strong conviction of the Cross of Christ and its atoning significance for salvation.
  • Thirdly, conversions: the belief that individuals must have a personal belief in the cross of Christ for their salvation.
  • Finally, activism: the conviction that Christians are called to proclaim the gospel to all.

The belief that all people should believe in the gospel has given rise to the label “evangelical.” The term itself comes from the Greek word “euangelion(“good news” or “gospel”).

When did evangelism start?

Evangelicalism could not have arisen without the Protestant break from Catholicism during the Reformation era (1500s). The belief in the Bible as the sole basis of one’s beliefs and practices, which was a central pillar in the formation of Protestantism, together with the belief that each person must make a personal confession of Christ as Lord in order to be saved, contributed significantly to the formation of evangelism.

The rise of modern evangelicalism is largely due to the influence of Billy Graham. The publication Christianity today, which was formed by Graham in 1956, served as the media voice of the fledgling movement. Academic institutions such as Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary served as training grounds for evangelicals.

If we were to ask, “what is the defining problem of evangelism today?” I suspect most would answer “abortion.” But did you know that abortion was not the defining problem of evangelicals in the 1960s and 1970s?[2] In fact, it was not the main question among evangelicals until 1979, six years after Roe vs. Wade.[3]

Instead, the evangelical movement of the 1950s and 1970s formed around the issue of segregation. (see my previous post).

In the 1980s-90s, evangelicalism coalesced even more around politics with moral majority formation.

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Living in the wake of evangelism: where have all the young people gone?

One might wonder why I wrote this brief primer on evangelism in the middle of a series on the Church? My response is that we must recognize the serious impact evangelicalism has had on contemporary Western Christianity before we can address the state of the Church in the West today.

Many of those under 40[5] and who grew up in an evangelical church became seriously disillusioned. A good number of them leave evangelism, many others leave the Church and a good number leave the faith.

This crisis is often not obvious to older Christians who remain faithful members of their churches. They might assume that the younger ones left to find “more relevant” churches for them. Many older Christians often have no idea that “relevant” means to the younger generation of Christians a rejection of much of what they learned in their youth.

Many older Christians also have no idea that some members of younger generations no longer choose to identify as Christians!

Why have so many young people left?

As much as I wish to give an answer, I encourage you to go ask them instead. And when they start sharing with you that they believe much of what they learned in our churches when they were young is fraudulent, don’t get defensive. Just listen to them. You may want to apologize, but it will probably take time.

Elizabeth Drescher’s book, Choose our religion, asserts that the young people who leave “tended to express their anger and frustration with both the teachings and the practices of their childhood church”.

Before I list some of the reasons why young people leave, I should note that you are probably not going to like this. Also, whether you or I agree is beside the point. The fact is, these are some of the reasons young people leave evangelicalism and, in many cases, why they leave Christianity.

To name a few issues:

  • Politics– in particular being married to a party and not wanting or being able to criticize it.
  • global warming: Old people may or may not care about global warming and they may or may not believe the overwhelming scientific evidence, but young people do. After all, they are the ones who plan to live on this planet for at least half a century, and their children may well live into the next century. Older evangelicals’ lack of interest in global warming is seen as a lack of love for the next generation.
  • Immigration
  • Fight against poverty
  • Women’s rights
  • Abortion
  • LGBTQ+
  • rationale for war; militarism
  • Racism
  • Nationalism
  • white nationalism
  • Close-mindedness; judgmentalism
  • Zionism and Islamophobia
  • Gun violence
  • Anti-science: anti-evolution

There is certainly a lot more but I hope you understood.

You may or may not like some or all of these problems, but you should like the ones that do.

Far worse than our views on these issues is the lack of love that evangelism has shown to those who disagree.

“By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The next generation looks at statements like this and concludes that many evangelicals must not be followers of Jesus.

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[1] There is a chart of 40 “evangelical” churches and their interrelationships available on the National Association of Evangelicals website.

[2] See Daniel Williams, Unborn Child Advocates, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 4, 2015). https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/christian-right-discovered-abortion-rights-transformed-culture-wars/. Last access on 9-7-20.

[3] Abortion did not become the defining issue for American Evangelicals until 1980. Prior to the 1980s, abortion was considered by many Evangelicals to be a “Catholic” issue. Because evangelicals were often anti-Catholic, this meant that most evangelicals before 1980 were pro-abortion.

[4] See https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/02/05/race-not-abortion-was-founding-issue-religious-right/A5rnmClvuAU7EaThaNLAnK/story.html. Last access on 9-7-20. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133. Last access on 9-7-20.

[5] Of course, there are also a number that are over 40 years old.


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