Evolving Evangelicalism (part 2): Young Adults Leave the Church and Pastors SHOULD Care!

The following series is based on my senior paper for Seminary. You may remember a video where I invited people to contribute their stories to help make my case. For the next couple weeks, I’ve decided to share my findings with you all. There will be a “thesis/problem” section, a “biblical theology” section, and an “application” section. I hope you will read along and share this with others! You can read the rest of the series here.

Evolving Evangelicalism: Inviting Church Leaders to Refine their Approach to Scripture and Origins (part 2)

The Problem of Young Adults Avoiding or Leaving the Church

In a recent study conducted by the Barna Group called, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” the third reason claims, “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.”[1] Other reasons include: “Churches seem overprotective;” “The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt;” and “Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.”

All of these reasons are pertinent to this discussion, but antagonism toward science specifically highlights our concern. The study continues: 29% (three in ten young adults) feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in;” 25% dislike that “Christianity is anti-science;” and 23% are “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” The dispute between evangelicalism and evolution is pushing young adults out of the church.

The same perceptions prevail in my interactions with non-Christians. A close friend, a spiritual agnostic, has a brother intensely committed to convincing him of the error of his ways. Creationism consumes much of their dialogues. This brother embraces a seven-day creation, and has traveled to the Mecca of creation science: The Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. This museum displays Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and children co-existing with dinosaurs by Eden’s Rivers.[2] After viewing the exhibits of the Earth’s supposed 6,000-year history, the brother confronted my friend with arguments for this literal approach to Genesis. My friend told me that a major turnoff to Christianity is this militant anti-science agenda. This instinct resonates with the majority (72%) of religiously-unaffiliated Americans, who believe that evolution provides the best explanation for human origins.[3]

Another friend married a woman from a traditional evangelical family. This friend is thoughtful and well-read. He worries that accepting evangelical faith would mean dismissing his intellectual integrity. Until he heard about the perspective explored in this paper, “traditional” creationism remained his one major stumbling block to Christ.

A similar scenario came up in a conversation with a single mom at my former church. She loves the church, and embraces the idea of being missional in the city and world; yet, she remains a “skeptic” regarding the full acceptance of Christ because of her beliefs about the Earth’s origins. The posture of evangelicalism toward the scientific community continues to be a stumbling block between people and a life of committed Christianity.

The Problem Pastors Perpetuate

In my experience, some evangelical pastors are open to the idea of “theistic evolution.” While holding this perspective as a viable option alongside young and old-earth creationism, they often choose to preach and teach as though Genesis 1 is to be read as a description of how creation took place. Such pastors may never mention other faithful methods for interpreting this passage in order to avoid congregational conflict; therefore, many people in the pews assume that the traditional reading is the only correct one.

Unfortunately, most mainstream evangelical materials defend young or old-earth creationism over and against atheism. By equating evolution with atheism, members are presented with a false polarity. This environment fosters situations like the one above, where the single mom holds out as a “skeptic” because she cannot reconcile science with the Bible.

Other evangelical churches and pastors approach this issue in a more focused way. These churches are convinced that the Bible teaches a literal 7-day creation and that the world is only 6,000 years old. These same congregations may implement curriculum from organizations such as Answers in Genesis and The Institute for Creation Research. With an elevated view of modern apologetics, these churches perpetuate a false polarity as well.[4]

A recent survey is quite telling regarding general pastoral perspectives. According to a Lifeway poll, 64% of protestant pastors “strongly disagree” that “God used evolution to create people” [emphasis mine] compared to only 12% who “strongly agree.” Also telling, at least 30% “strongly agree” that the earth is 6,000 years old (16% “somewhat agree”).[5] A large number of pastors in the United States disagree with modern scientific understandings about human origins.

[1]. “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave the Church,” Barna Group, http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church (accessed February 9, 2012).

[2]. “About,” Creation Museum, http://creationmuseum.org/about/ (accessed February 9, 2012).

[3]. Allison Pond, Gregory Smith, and Scott Clement, “Religion Among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, but Fairly Traditional in Other Ways,” Pew Research Center: A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Report (2010): 21, http://www.pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx (accessed February 9, 2012).

[4]. Two mega-churches in Fresno exemplify this approach. The first, The Well Community Church, is a church with many young adults. Their discipleship program called, The Academy, teaches young earth creationism (http://thewellcommunity.org/equipping/academy/ot-historical-books). The second, Northside Christian Church, hosted an Answers in Genesis seminar called: Not Ashamed – Creation, Evolution, and the Biblical Worldview (Northside Christian University: Fall Course Catalogue, 2010).

[5]. “Poll – Pastors oppose evolution, split on earth’s age,” LifeWay Research (2012), http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Research-Poll-Pastors-oppose-evolution-split-on-earths-age (accessed February 11, 2012). Detailed research findings and images available at website.

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  • Mteston1

    Some of the same reasons this pastor recently left “church” after 25 plus years. 

  • This is a discussion that needs to be had in the Christian community. Rigid dogmatism needs to give way to thoughtful dialogue while retaining to the core principles of Christianity – namely the “greatest commandment” and the one which is Jesus notes comes second – “love your neighbor as yourself”. 

    And simply coming to the conclusion of “I don’t know” is cool too. 

  • Bob Freeman

    A debate that needs to emerge in the church, anew. Evolution need not be the atheism vs faith debate. The real problem comes to the forefront of the debate when evolutionists argue the “origin” of all life.

  • Karen

    They should go to the nearest Episcopal church.  You’re allowed to believe in evolution there. 

  • I resent the idea (voiced on facebook) that believing in Evolution is convenient and easy. I could say that believing in 6-day creationism is easy, but I won’t. The tension comes when some Christians trying very hard to hold fast to their belief in creationism are forced to choose between the inquiry of science and belief in God. Christians who are comfortable asking questions, however, are forced to choose between being open to the text and the simple, unsatisfying answers they get from their pastors.

    Kurt, Christian’s often claim we just need to have faith that the Bible is true (though some supposedly claim creationism science as evidence!), and atheists laugh at the notion of belief without evidence. I wonder if you might share your thoughts on “faith” on the topic creationism versus science. It seems to me that blind devotion without a need for evidence might actually be counter to the concept of faith in the Bible, especially considering most of records the activities of God in human history.

  • I work with a student who is not a Christian but hangs out with us. He seems to think it is an either/or dichotomy. Evolution or God. “Believing” Genesis means accepting 6 Day creation. Haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. He is reading “The Case for the Creator” and thinks it is awful. 

    But I get frustrated with the conversation as it is. We need a better way.

    • I would have to agree with your student regarding “The Case for a Creator.”  One problem with it is that it is heavily oriented toward the Intelligent Design Movement.

      If your student is interested, suggest that he read Alister McGrath’s “Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things,”

      or John Lennox’s “Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science,”

      or Daniel Harrell’s “Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith,”

      or Denis Lamoureux’s “I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution,”

      or if he is particularly scientifically oriented, anything by John Polkinghorne.

  • Pastor Scott

    Has anyone watched the movie “Genesis Code”? A genuine effort to take both the message of science and scripture seriously.

  • alocasio

    I read an article where an evangelical pastor said that he didn’t see why youth would leave the church over being told that the earth was 6,000 years old. That, he said, was just a “minor doctrine” of the church. My response was that when youth are taught this, and then they later find out that mainstream science accepts evolution as one of its bedrock principles, the young people think they’ve been lied to. And they have! As long as conservative evangelicals say it’s either God or evolution, many youth will say, “That’s it. I don’t believe in God anymore.”