If young people are not leaving evangelicalism, then no one is joining it

I was initially so taken aback by the weirdness of Daniel Darling’s straw-man attack on Rachel Held Evans that I didn’t say much about Darling’s odd misuse of statistics.

And it is weird to see Darling presenting the old bogus opposition of charity and justice, reframing the rejection of justice as “too nice.” I mean, when we look at the many, many passages of the Bible Darling wants us to ignore — everything demanding justice — it seems odd to regard those passages as flawed due to an inappropriate concern for niceness.

I’m accustomed to seeing people like Darling ignoring passages like this, from James 5:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

But it’s rather innovative of Darling to reject those verses because James is being too “nice,” or that he’s being overly sentimental and just wants to be liked.

Or how about Amos?

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.

Who would have ever imagined to criticize Amos there for a “false gospel of nice“? It shows some real creativity on Darling’s part to imagine that the prophet is straying from anti-justice “orthodoxy” there because he’s desperate to ingratiate himself to the high society in Bashan.

(I suppose, in a sense, this is a refreshing change from the usual tone-policing approach of complaining that talk of injustice and discrimination is “uncivil” and that it’s not sufficiently nice to refer to bigotry as bigotry.)

But we shouldn’t let Darling’s novel approach to the defense of injustice completely overshadow the other strange assertions in his column. Like the fact that his numbers don’t add up.

Eric Miller responds to that aspect of Darling’s column at Religion Dispatches:

Early in the post, Darling cites Christian researchers Bradley Wright and Ed Stetzer to counter the popular narrative about millennials leaving Christian faith en masse. But those who click on his links and read their contents will notice that Wright and Stetzer only support his claim in very particular ways.

Though he rejects the idea that Christianity is in crisis, for instance, Wright confirms that evangelical identification in the 18-29 age bracket is in descent, currently at a 40-year low and dropping. And though Stetzer downplays the findings of that 2012 Pew Research report, he also acknowledges that there is “great cause for concern.”

These judgments do not square with Darling’s smugness. “One might argue that young evangelicals aren’t fleeing core conservative institutions, but flooding them,” he writes.

Indeed, one might argue that. But then, one might argue a lot of things.

Stetzer is a follow-the-numbers guy. As the Southern Baptist Convention’s top data dude, it’s his job to say what the numbers are, not what people might like them to be. So when his LifeWay research finds that “baptisms have declined six of the last eight years, with 2012 the lowest since 1948,” Stetzer doesn’t try to spin that news to support Darling’s claim that young people are “flooding” conservative institutions.

What Stetzer actually says in the link Darling provides is that “evangelicals have been relatively steady as a percent of the population over the last few years.”

That’s very interesting. “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” the book of Acts says of the early Christian community. But Ed Stetzer’s data tells us that nothing has been added to the number of American evangelicals over the past few years.

That may, in fact, be evidence that young people and “Millennials” are not fleeing evangelical churches to a worrisome extent.

I all these people are “coming forward,” and no one is leaving, then shouldn’t evangelicalism be growing?

But if that’s true — if the “relatively steady” evangelical population means that no one is leaving evangelicalism — then it must also mean that no one is entering evangelicalism. If the size of evangelicalism has not changed and no one is leaving, then evangelicals must be terrible at evangelism.

In other words, this steady state theory of evangelicalism suggests that all the work of all the evangelists out there preaching the gospel, distributing literature, broadcasting televangelism, conducting revivals and “crusades” and altar calls all over the nation produces very little in the way of actual converts. The “relatively steady” size of evangelicalism means that we could calculate a Soul-Winning Rate for all of those evangelists and all of their efforts put together. Every year, a certain number of evangelicals die. The population remains steady because they are replaced by new members born into the community and by new members born-again into the community. So the formula seems simple: Death rate minus birth rate equals soul-winning rate.

Evangelists claim to be “bringing people to the Lord” in droves. But if young people are not really leaving evangelicalism “in droves,” and the overall size of the herd remains unchanged, then something doesn’t add up.

I’ve long believed that the claims of evangelists are overstated — that their “soul-winning” statistics are all greatly exaggerated. But I’ve never doubted that they did, indeed, produce some number of new converts that was greater than zero. And if that’s true, yet the overall population remains “relatively steady,” then somebody must be leaving to make room for those new converts.

Darling’s claim, in other words, is that white evangelicalism doesn’t have a problem with young people leaving, it has a problem with no one joining.

Ah, but what if we say lots of people are joining and no one is walking away? That could be true with a “relatively steady” population if we just plug different values into the soul-winning rate formula. The lack of growth in the population could be accounted for if we assume a higher rate of natural mortality — a death rate that is much higher than the birth rate. But if that’s the case, then what we’re dealing with must be an aging, graying population. That puts us right back where we started — with an apparent problem involving the lack of appeal to younger people.

Darling’s torturing of statistics to reframe stasis as growth ultimately just leads us back to the essential weirdness of his overall thesis that “orthodoxy” requires the rejection of both social justice and niceness.

Darling is very cross with Rachel Held Evans and the many other young people who say they feel alienated by evangelicalism. (Their testimony is merely anecdotal, and if it’s fair to dismiss a single anecdote, then it must be fair to dismiss millions of them one at a time.)

But Darling’s main complaint isn’t with those who testify that evangelicalism is becoming repellent to them as young people. His main complaint is that evangelicalism isn’t repellent enough to everyone.

Like his Southern Baptist mentors, Daniel Darling is working hard to ensure that no one associates evangelicalism with social justice or with being nice. And he’s certain that will ensure its population doesn’t remain “relatively steady” for long.

I suspect that much is true, just not in the way Darling imagines.


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