Smells like teen spirit

teens for jesusThe New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein continues her in-depth coverage of evangelicals. She picks up on an evangelical campaign warning that teenagers are abandoning Christianity.

The campaign is based, as Goodstein notes, on a fairly laughable statistic that only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” by the time they reach adulthood. I’m not sure how the statistic-inventer defines Bible-believing Christians, but that compares to 35 percent of Baby Boomers and 65 percent of the World War II generation. Some 6,000 pastors are attending meetings across the country to address the problem:

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”

The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, passed a resolution this year deploring “the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.”

Among the leaders speaking at the meetings are Ted Haggard, president of the evangelical association; the Rev. Jerry Falwell; and nationally known preachers like Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett.

Ted Haggard, eh? Would that be the same Ted Haggard who told Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader — also known as the Bible Belt Blogger — that the 4 percent claim was a scam? Here’s what Lockwood reported on Sept. 11:

A full-page advertisement in this month’s Christianity Today warns that America’s evangelicals may soon be on the endangered species list — as rare as snail darters, spotted owls and Chinook salmon.

But the ad, which is endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals, is a false alarm — or at least an exaggeration — according to the group’s president — Pastor Ted Haggard.

“We’re church people. We always use fear and guilt to motivate people,” Haggard told Bible Belt Blogger, punctuating the quip with hearty laughter.

Ha ha ha! Anyway, it’s not that Goodstein fell for the ruse. She goes to great lengths to document just how ridiculous the 4 percent claim is. But she tries to get at the heart of the story by interviewing teens and others who seem to earnestly believe that Bible-believing Christians are threatened. She gets specifics from Christian teens trying to avoid immoral behavior in a world that countenances much of it. She interviews Notre Dame’s Christian Smith for perspective. She also interviews an author who tells of kids who felt peer pressure to become Christian:

The phenomenon may not be that young evangelicals are abandoning their faith, but that they are abandoning the institutional church, said Lauren Sandler, author of “Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement” (Viking, 2006). Ms. Sandler, who calls herself a secular liberal, said she found the movement frighteningly robust.

“This generation is not about church,” said Ms. Sandler, an editor at “They always say, ‘We take our faith outside the four walls.’ For a lot of young evangelicals, church is a rock festival, or a skate park or hanging out in someone’s basement.”

Wouldn’t that be interesting if that were the case? After years of reinforcing the idea that church is a rock festival, skate park or small group — growing teenagers had no institutional church to go back to? It’s definitely something worth looking into. Better data on what, if anything, is happening with evangelical teenagers would help stories tracking the group. The Barna Research Group, which specializes in surveying Christians, has put out books on teenagers in recent years. What other hard data are out there? What do recent surveys, such as the ones showing teens are less likely to have sex, have to do with this?

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  • holmegm

    “…and few will find it …”

    Why is the 4% claim *intrinsicly* laughable?

    And did you even bother looking for the survey criteria? No doubt you’d disagree with them, but it would nice to know what they are.

  • Don Neuendorf

    I heard the 4% argument for the first time at a conference just last weekend. Shows how late I am to the party. But I’ve heard similar alarming numbers before that I have a hard time defining. Ex: of the kids who are brought to baptism in the LCMS today, 75% will be unchurched by the time they’re 25 years old. The number is a good motivator… but I’d like to have more confidence in it. Why is it so hard to pin these things down?

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  • Kendall Harmon

    Why won’t more people pay attention to the ground breaking work of Christian Smith?

  • tmatt

    Amen, Kendall.

    Great point.

    And is it 4 percent of AMERICAN teens or 4 percent of evangelical American teens? Some of the wordings out there are confusing.

    tmatt, on the road in Nashville

  • C. Wingate

    A few years back the Episcopal Church version of this was that the average age of Episcopalians was 57 and going up a year every year. I also found the number quoted for Presbyterians and Methodists. Now, if you are counting confirmed members, there’s a bias in this that anyone younger than about 14isn’t counted, and if you take the census age counts you get a meanage that way of about 45, which is still somewhat lower. And the “going up one year every year” thing is clearly bogonic, for even if there were no other turnover, old members do die off.

    Media people are suckers for these kinds of numbers because they are used by their purveyors to create a sense of crisis– and the media need crises to get airtime/pagespace.

  • al

    I have a comment and a question. First, I think some people are in denial about the severity of the Episcopalian crisis. In _The Future of Religion_ (1985), sociologists Rodney Stark and Wm. Bainbridge wrote that, according to the General Social Survey, only 5% of Americans who were Roman Catholics or members of “typical Protestant denominations” at age 16 claimed no religious affiliation as adults. The figure for Jews was over twice as high–11%. And for Episcopalians, it was higher still at 17%. Unless Anglicans have done something to stymie the outflow since then, they can expect about 1 in 6 Episcopalians to leave Christianity altogether later on. And that doesn’t count those who convert to other denominations.

    I would also point out that Episcopalians seem to make very few converts or proselytes. That means they depend on natural fertility to sustain their numbers. Does anyone have any hard data on the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of Episcopalian women? (That was my question.) Replacement is about 2.1. 2.0 children per woman per lifetime is only 95% of replacement. 1.9 would be 90% of replacement. If the TFR were 1.6 (which would not surprise me for Episcopalians) that would be only 76% of replacement. Combined with outflow from apostasy and denomination switching, my guess is that Episcopalians in America are on the fast track to extinction as a religious body. Of course, they are not alone, if that is any consolation.