Amid Evangelical decline, growing split between young Christians and church elders

The number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the US population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016, and only 11 percent are under 30, according to a survey of more than 100,000 Americans.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
The congregation sings during a Sunday service at Congregacion Leon de Juda, an evangelical church in Boston.

For Andrew Walker, the current “post-Christian” state of American culture has posed a serious challenge to the faithful.

For a variety of reasons, fewer and fewer Americans now have a grasp of the fundamentals of orthodox, biblical teachings, says Mr. Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Like many who keep attuned to the country’s religious landscape, he notes, too, the dramatic rise of the so-called “nones,” especially among the young, who may believe in God, but have begun to refuse to identify with a particular religious group.

“They grew up in a nominal Christian culture, where it’s no longer of a cultural or social benefit to identify as a Christian,” he says. “To add to that is, there’s often not only no social prestige to gain, there’s also social prestige to lose, if you say you are a Christian in our society.”

It’s one piece of a cultural shift that has begun to affect even the nation’s most vibrant religious groups. The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the more conservative evangelical Protestant denominations, has lost more than a million members over the past decade. Still the largest single Protestant group in the nation with more than 15 million members, its network of churches nevertheless haven’t baptized so few a number of people in 70 years, the denomination’s research shows.

Over the past few decades, most scholars have recognized one indisputable trend within American Christianity: The country’s more liberal Protestant denominations were losing millions of members. Conservative and evangelical churches, by contrast, were holding steady if not flourishing.

For years, it was more or less conventional thinking, especially among Evangelicals, that “churches that stay with a clear-cut theological orientation will not go the way of the mainlines,” notes Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., citing the influential 1972 study, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” by the sociologist Dean Kelley. “Liberal mainline churches were then castigated for giving up the true faith and deserving what they got.”

As recently as 2007 to 2014, in fact, mainline Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists, lost nearly 5 million adult members, according to Pew Research.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Members of Christ Episcopal Church hold Sunday service in October 2016 in Bethel, Vt.

Today, however, there are signs that many of the same trends that decimated mainline Protestantism over the past few decades are now at work among evangelical denominations as well. According to a massive study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released in September, the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the US population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016.

The finding, based on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans, “provides solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade in the US,” said Robert Jones, head of the PRRI, after the study was released. “Prior to 2008, white evangelical Protestants seemed to be exempt from the waves of demographic change and disaffiliation that were eroding the membership bases of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.”

Perhaps more than anything else, conservative Christians like Walker, an ethicist whose book “God and the Transgender Debate” explores the biblical teachings relevant to gender identity, have had to confront the shock of the country’s evolving sexual mores. This includes the legalization of same-sex marriage, which dramatically upended the traditional moral teaching of monogamous, pre-sexual marriage between a man and a woman.

As many Evangelicals now say they are living in a “post-Christian” era, there has been a sense of urgency to both reassert the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy – the key to vibrancy and growth, many believe – as well as ratchet up their political efforts to bolster religious liberty in the public square.

Last Friday, the Trump administration expanded the rights of employers to claim religious exemptions to the federal mandate to include contraception coverage in employer-provided health plans. And the for the past few years, conservative Evangelicals, who support President Trump in overwhelming numbers, have been working to carve out religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors, who object to offering services for same-sex wedding ceremonies.  

Quoting the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday said that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore.”

A pastor's kid from upstate New York

Yet precisely because of such efforts, younger conservative Christians like Chelsie Maynard have been conflicted about their religious identities, and many say they no longer want to be associated with the evangelical demographic.

A pastor’s kid from upstate New York, her father is a politically-engaged conservative evangelical minister. Her older brother, now in his late 20s, is a worship pastor, too. Like both of them, Ms. Maynard, a social worker at a children’s health clinic in Boston, has decided to follow the family path and prepare for ordination in the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical denomination within the “holiness” Christian tradition that emphasizes living a morally perfected life.

“Wow, but if someone were to ask me if I’m an Evangelical, I don’t know how I would respond to that now,” says Maynard. At least part of the reason for the decline among American Evangelicals is the fact that more young people have already stopped embracing the identity. Today, only 11 percent of Evangelicals are under age 30, according to PRRI.

Don’t get Maynard wrong: “At the root of evangelicalism there’s the call to evangelism, spreading the gospel, and I firmly believe that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that he put his church on Earth as a means to bringing other people into the family,” she says.

But she’s come to reject the deep political associations Evangelicals have forged with the Republican Party, and she feels alienated from the general GOP distrust of Islam and efforts to curtail immigration.

And it’s more than politics. Unlike previous generations, Maynard has experienced her faith in an American culture that has become more and more diverse. And as she’s developed close relationships with people different from her, she’s struggled with how to respond, becoming uncomfortable, she says, with some of the rigid moral teachings that many Evangelicals, including her father, have begun to re-emphasize as the country becomes less white, and less Christian.

“For me, a lot of this has especially come into play with the treatment of the LGBTQ community – holding a hard line without listening and without taking that posture of grace and hospitality,” the aspiring minister says. “I want the church to be a place of conversation and shared journey. I’m not ready to throw it out yet. But I do want to see it grow, and change.”

The question of change, however, has long defined the anxieties of many white evangelical Protestants, scholars say. From the fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century to the politics of same-sex marriage today, evangelical identity has often been rooted in defending traditional biblical teachings from the forces of modernity and moral laxity.

After the Scopes “monkey” trial in the 1920s, Evangelicals began to withdraw from civic engagement as “modernist” ideas and Darwinian science became cultural norms – leading to the emergence of a separatist fundamentalism.

In part a reaction against the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the American subgroup reemerged as a powerful force in politics, a cultural coming out that first culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan, which made it arguably the most influential constituency in the Republican Party ever since.

Historians such as Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer, a leading scholar of American evangelicalism, also point out that the rise of the religious right, especially in the South, was also a reaction against the desegregation of the public school system.

'The Benedict Option'

Some Evangelicals have called for another retreat from society, however, as the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 has led to a “post-Christian” nation. The Christian thinker Rod Dreher has proposed a “Benedict Option,” suggesting that Christians forgo politics and adopt a kind of monastic shield from society.

The religious and spiritual lives of Millennials have been shaped more by a “moralistic therapeutic deism” that replaces biblical Christianity with “feel-good, vaguely spiritual nostrums,” he wrote recently.

Yet narratives of danger and decline also help to motivate the faithful, notes Glenn Bracey, professor of sociology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “White Evangelicals often describe themselves as culturally embattled, and that perspective often increases members’ commitment to their organizations and politics.”

Christopher Driscoll, visiting professor of religion studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., notes that it’s very important, also, “to situate the context of the study within the broader political climate ushered in by ‘Make America Great Again.’ American politics is turning again to a model of white life premised on fear of the other – border walls, Muslim bans, etc.,” he says.

“The fear of white decline is on the minds of more than the far-right who speak of outright ‘white genocide,’ ” continues Professor Driscoll, whose research focuses on race and religious identity in the American landscape. But it’s also important “to emphasize distinctions between real shifts in Christian affiliation and hyperbolic fears,” he says.

'The Nashville Statement'

Last month, a group of more than 150 evangelical leaders, the majority Southern Baptists, announced they had signed the “Nashville Statement,” a series of 14 affirmations and denials that articulate a biblical sexual ethic and view of gender. Released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the statement notes that “Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition” and that Western culture “has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.”

For many Evangelicals, the Nashville Statement was simply an affirmation of Christianity’s historic moral teachings and a pastoral document to guide the faithful. But critics noted that the statement went beyond condemning homosexuality and transgender identity: It also condemned those who affirm them.

“We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness,” pronounces Article 10. “We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”

The president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Denny Burk, described the statement as “a line in the sand,” noting that “Those who wish to follow Jesus must pursue sexually pure lives. A person may follow Jesus, or he may pursue sexual immorality. But he cannot do both. He must choose. One path leads to eternal life, and the other does not.”

Liberal Christians and others were quick to condemn the statement, but a number of Evangelicals did as well.

“Look at the timing, my goodness, what was it, a week after Charlottesville?” says the Rev. Corey MacPherson, the chaplain at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. and one of only a few evangelical members of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.

“There are all these other issues going on in our world, issues of justice and reconciliation, which are at the heart of Christianity, and here is a statement that isn’t about reconciliation at all,” Dr. MacPherson says. “Younger Evangelicals, especially, they just don’t want to be a part of that – that's not what they want to be associated with.”

This has long been a concern for Chelsen Vicari, the evangelical action director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington. As a Millennial Christian herself, she has witnessed this trend among young Evangelicals, many of whom have been moving away from evangelical denominations, or away from Christianity altogether.

“As conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention attempt to address sex and marriage and gender with public declarations like the Nashville Statement, these left-leaning young Evangelicals are pulling away more, so perhaps it's created a catch 22,” says Ms. Vicari, who signed the statement.

“But I would argue that it’s due, really, to a lack of theological training, or catechism,” Vicari says. “I mean, catechism isn’t even a word that most Evangelicals know or understand. So I’ve been encouraging faithful Evangelicals to focus on better equipping, better educating younger Evangelicals in the faith.”

'The sociology of Sundays'

As both Vicari and Professor Leonard at Wake Forest point out, traditional Sunday school education in both mainline and evangelical churches have fallen prey to what Leonard calls “the sociology of Sundays.”

“Sunday school was the place where you did small group work, where you developed community, and as I always tell students, Sunday school taught us what the Bible said, if not what they meant,” says Leonard.  

Culturally, however, Sunday has become less a day for worship than for weekend activities – sports, nature hikes, and other leisure pastimes. “We now in this culture have one and probably two generations of Christians who have limited knowledge of biblical content because they didn’t go to Sunday School.”

As Maynard continues her theological education, however, she remains cautious.  

“I had a really good friend say to me once, anytime you draw a line, Christ is on the other side of that,” she says. “So I definitely think the church often loses its ability to take a posture of grace, to be able to say we may not have all the answers, there are some hard things that we just don’t know. I think that’s probably where the church needs to be more often than it is.”

But the majority of Evangelicals, observers say, believe that fidelity to historic Biblical teachings must remain the cornerstone of the faith.

“Once Christianity is loosed from its doctrinal contours, you make it much less persuasive – there’s much less of a persuasive hold over an individual,” says Walker.

Even from a sociological perspective, he says, “I think you will always have more robust sincerity for your faith where you have churches that are more bound by biblical teachings and the confessions of the church.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the title of Rod Dreher's proposal. It is "The Benedict Option."

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