Evangelicalism #1: why are so many young people leaving the church and even their faith?

Evangelicalism #1: why are so many young people leaving the church and even their faith? January 18, 2022

Evangelical Christianity dominated much of the American Church over the last 50+ years. Statistics vary as to how many American Christians identify as evangelicals but it is a significant number.

Evangelical Christianity is neither a religion nor a denomination. Instead, it is a faith movement that has grown in importance in the United States over the last five decades.

What makes someone an evangelical?

Most people fail to realize that self-identified evangelicals reside on both sides of the political aisle.

Evangelicals attend are sorts of churches: there are evangelical Lutherans and evangelical Presbyterians; there are Southern Baptist evangelicals and non-denominational, mega-church evangelicals.[1]

The most widely recognized definition of “evangelical” is that of historian David Bebbington. According to Bebbington, there are four fundamental beliefs that unite all evangelicals.

  • First, biblicism: a high regard for the Bible and a conviction that it contains all the spiritual truths needed for Christians.
  • Secondly, cross-centered: a strong conviction of the Cross of Christ and its atoning significance for salvation.
  • Thirdly, conversions: the belief that individuals need to have a personal belief in the cross of Christ for their salvation.
  • Finally, activism: the belief that Christians are called to proclaim the gospel to all people.

The conviction that all persons must believe in the Gospel gave rise to the label “evangelical.” The term itself comes from the Greek word “euangelion” (“good news” or “gospel”).

When did evangelicalism begin?

Evangelicalism could not have arisen without the Protestant break from Catholicism during the time of the Reformation (1500’s). The belief in the Bible as the sole basis for one’s beliefs and practices, which was a central pillar in the formation of Protestantism, along with the conviction that every person needs to make a personal confession of Christ as Lord in order to be saved, contributed significantly to the formation of evangelicalism.

The rise of modern evangelicalism is largely due to the influence of Billy Graham. The publication Christianity Today, which was formed by Graham in 1956, served as a media voice for the burgeoning movement. Academic institutions such as Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary served as training grounds for evangelicals.

If we were to ask, “what is the defining issue of evangelicalism today?” I suspect that most would respond, “abortion.” But, were you aware that abortion was not the defining issue of evangelicals in the 1960s and ’70s?[2] In fact, it was not the leading issue among evangelicals until 1979, six years after Roe v Wade.[3]

Instead, the evangelical movement of the 1950s-70s formed around the issue of segregation. (see my previous post).

In the 1980-90s, evangelicalism coalesced even further around politics with the formation of the Moral Majority.

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Living in the wake of evangelicalism: where have all the young people gone?

One might ask why I have written this brief introduction on evangelicalism in the midst of a series on the Church? My answer is that we must recognize the serious impact evangelicalism has had on contemporary western Christianity before we can address the state of the Church in the west today.

Many of those who are under 40[5] and have grown up in an evangelical church have become severely disillusioned. A good number of them are leaving evangelicalism, many others are leaving the Church, and a fair number are leaving the faith.

This crisis is often not evident to older Christians who remain faithful members of their churches. They might assume that the younger folks have left to find churches that are “more relevant” for them. Many older Christians often have no idea that “relevant” means to the younger generation of Christians a rejection of much of what they were taught in their youth.

Many older Christians also have no idea that some within the younger generations no longer choose to identify as Christians!

Why have so many young people left?

As much as I wish to give an answer, I would rather encourage you to go ask them. And when they begin to share with you that they believe that much of what they were taught in our churches as youth is fraudulent, don’t be defensive. Just listen to them. You may want to apologize: but that will probably take some time.

Elizabeth Drescher’s book, Choosing Our Religion, claims that the young people who are leaving “tended to express anger and frustration with both the teachings and practices of their childhood church.”

Before I list some of the reasons why young people are leaving I should note that you’re probably not going to like it. Also, whether you or I agree is not the point. The point is that these are some of the reasons why young people are leaving evangelicalism and in many cases why they are leaving Christianity.

To name a few issues:

  • politics—specifically being wed to one party and not being willing or able to critique it.
  • global warming: older people may or may not care about global warming and they may or may not believe in the overwhelming scientific evidence, but young people do. They, after all, are the ones who are planning to live on this planet for the next half-century or more and their kids may well live into the next century. Older evangelicals’ lack of concern for global warming is thought of as a lack of love for the next generation.
  • Immigration
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Women’s rights
  • Abortion
  • LBGTQ+
  • Justification of war; militarism
  • Racism
  • Nationalism
  • White nationalism
  • Narrow-mindedness; judgmentalism
  • Zionism and Islamaphobia
  • Gun violence
  • Anti-science: anti-evolution

There is certainly much more but I hope you get the point.

You may or may not like some or all of these issues, but you should love those who do so.

What is far worse than our views on these issues is the lack of love evangelicalism has shown to those who disagree.

“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The next generation looks at statements like this and concludes that many evangelicals must not be disciples of Jesus.


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[1] There is a chart of 40 “evangelical” churches and their interrelationships available on the National Association of Evangelicals website 

[2] See Daniel Williams, Defenders of the Unborn, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 4, 2015). https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/christian-right-discovered-abortion-rights-transformed-culture-wars/.  Last accessed 9-7-20.

[3] Abortion did not become the defining issue for American evangelicals until 1980. Prior to the 1980s abortion was viewed by many evangelicals as a “Catholic” issue. Because evangelicals were often anti-Catholic, this meant that most evangelicals prior to 1980 were pro-abortion.

[4] See https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/02/05/race-not-abortion-was-founding-issue-religious-right/A5rnmClvuAU7EaThaNLAnK/story.html. Last accessed 9-7-20. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133. Last accessed 9-7-20.

[5] Certainly, there are a number who are over 40 as well.

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