Generational Divide in American Evangelicalism

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism. Read other perspectives here.

Nineteenth-century critic, satirist, and novelist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, may have captured the essence of contemporary American Evangelicalism in his famous epigram: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

American evangelicals are encountering change at an ever-accelerating pace. What was unimaginable a mere decade ago is happening now. The SCOTUS ruling to legalize same-sex marriage illustrates how dramatically the American cultural landscape is changing. Advances for women and girls inspired Tom Brokaw to predict that the 21st century will become known as the "Century of Women." Postmodernism has created significant distrust of traditional evangelical values. Globalization reminds us we are not the center of the universe and have much to learn from others. Christianity is now sharing space on American soil with Islam and Buddhism.

Complicating everything is a generational divide between evangelical stalwarts resisting change and Millennials who live out their faith by engaging change and finding their voices on the internet.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

American Evangelicalism is no monolith (and never has been). Evangelicals do not share the same values, politics, or even the same understanding of Jesus' Gospel. Whatever one may say about American Evangelicalism must be severely nuanced. The old Bebbington Quadrilateral that has historically defined evangelicalism (authority of scripture, salvation through the cross of Jesus, conversion, evangelism) probably needs renovation.

With these caveats, here are some of my expectations for the immediate future of American Evangelicalism.

The traditional American evangelical church may continue to decline, but will find fresh expressions. In May 2015, a Pew Research Center survey reported the decline of Christians in America, and the increase of adults who do not identify with any organized religion ("Nones"). A major exodus is taking place in the church as Millennials — born and raised in the evangelical church — are heading for the exit.

Many departing Millennials will tell you they still love Jesus, but not the church. They can't reconcile Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount — his care for the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the poor, and the sick — with the infighting, abuse, and hypocrisy they've witnessed in the church. They don't connect Christianity with right-wing politics. They're passionate about social justice — poverty, women's rights, human trafficking, immigration, HIV/AIDS, and ending the death penalty. They are committed to an embodied faith. So they are leaving a moribund church, but they live out their faith in demonstrable ways. Although the majority of disenchanted evangelicals are Millennials, they increasingly will be joined by some of their elders.

The generational breach over LGBT acceptance will press evangelicals to find ways to disagree gracefully. Demographic studies show that younger Christians are accepting of their homosexual friends. For Millennials, the issue is about loyalty and friendship. Theological hair-splitting and proof-texting hold little value for evangelicals under the age of thirty-five. They won't abandon their gay friends. When Bible-thumping pastors rage against homosexuality, Millennials will simply let their feet do the talking.

Ultimately, American evangelicals will face a more rigorous challenge when same-sex marriage involves someone they love — a son or daughter, brother or sister. How will Christians respond when a same-sex married couple with children moves in next door or arrives as a family at church? I suspect relationships will ultimately prevail.

Debate over the role of women will continue in the church, but become increasingly irrelevant. For women, moving between the public sector and the church is an exercise in cultural schizophrenia. While traditional and progressive evangelicals continue lobbing proof texts at one another, many women have stopped listening and will be charting their own course. Practical realities will lead growing numbers of Christian couples to decide the stay-at-home dad and breadwinning mom works best for their family. Women desiring ordination for ministry know which denominations or churches to join.