We have entered the Advent season, so this post comes with the prayer that your Advent preparations bring blessing to yourself and others.

I continue to mull over the findings of Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley in The Twentysomething Soul.  Let’s look at what they say about Evangelical Protestants, described as “church-committed [and] theologically conservative,” and who “share an unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and to the Bible as God’s revelation” (p. 114).  The authors are sociologists and don’t explore or evaluate these theological characteristics, but we see that doctrines serve as distinguishing factors for Evangelicals.  No surprise here, but still very instructive.

Evangelicals in American Protestantism comprise 30%  of young people. The authors use the same three sub-divisions as they had done for Mainline Protestants: Active, Nominal, and Estranged.  47% of Evangelicals are Actives, while 50% are Nominals and only 3% Estranged.  For comparison purposes, 19% of Mainliners are Actives, 64% are Nominal and 17% are Estranged.  These percentages identify stark differences:

“The proportion of Active Evangelicals is more than twice the proportion of Active Mainliners or Active Catholics, while the proportion of Estranged Evangelicals is at least six times smaller than the proportion of Estranged Mainliners or Estranged Catholics” (p. 127, italics in the original).

The authors make a couple of other important generalizations.  First, “the Evangelicals we interviewed were born and raised in Evangelical churches.  [T]hey have not been away from churches for any extended period of time…when many Catholic and Mainliner young adults…’took a break’ from churches” (125).  Second, Active Evangelicals “have little difficulty finding a young-adult-friendly church, especially if they live in or near a city…” (126).

Let’s put some rough numbers to these percentages and proportions.  About 6 million twenty somethings identify as Mainline Protestant.  About 12.6 million identity as Evangelical Protestant.  Of these divisions, 1.1 million or so Mainliners are Actives.  Of the Evangelicals, roughly 5.9 million are Actives.  For those of us in Mainline churches, these numbers should sober us.  They remain consistent throughout the literature.  Simply put, Evangelical churches hold their young at a much higher rate than Mainline churches.  When a young Evangelical moves away from home to take a job or attend school, they most often find an Evangelical church to attend.  We Mainliners are tempted to grasp at every instance of a young Evangelical ditching their faith and joining the Mainline, but this is small consolation.  The larger reality tell us something much different.

Another major difference between Evangelical and Mainline young adults relates to preaching and teaching versus the aesthetics of worship or shared values/mission (see #2 Mainline Protestants).  Evangelical Protestants speak consistently about their conviction that God is personal.  They testify, for example, that God actively led them to the church in which they participate.  (Remember that 40% of Mainline Protestants think of God as an impersonal force.)  Secondly, when asked what they liked most about their churches, they spoke about preaching and teaching (pp. 118-119).  Teaching topics often are very practical (e.g. emotionally healthy Christianity), but Evangelicals share a strong commitment to core Christian doctrines.

The chapter offers a number of other interesting nuances showing diversity among Evangelical Protestants, for example, racical/ethnic makeup, married or single, education level, and income-bracket.  These characteristics offer fine-grained analysis on topics more narrowly-scoped than the focus of my posts, but deserve strategic reflection.  Unfortunately, Evangelicals generally are still racially segregated, even though the authors interviewed young people active in large, high-profile multi-racial churches, found most often in large urban areas across the country.  But in one important way, Evangelical young adults agree: they do not like the judgmentalism associated with Evangelicalism, especially from high-profile (dare I say, celebrity?) Evangelical leaders.

This study has made one point especially clear, one that many Mainline Protestant leaders seem to want to avoid.  Doctrine matters.  Evangelical young adults remain committed to what Jude calls the faith once delivered to the saints, albeit with many American cultural colorings.  Again, don’t let the exceptions you know hide the general truth.  Evangelicals believe in Christ as Savior, in the scriptures as authoritative divine revelation, in the atoning work of Christ and his bodily resurrection.  For Active Evangelicals, these doctrines matter in the way they live.

To be sure, that Evangelicals express adherence to orthodox doctrines does not mean that all is rosy.  There are many Evangelical Nominals.  There is plenty of heterodoxy to concern us.  Nevertheless, by comparison to Mainline Protestant young adults, we see clear and consistent patterns of belief and activity much more in line with what anyone in a pastoral and teaching role should consider the norm for Christian discipleship.  Whatever our differences may be on specific matters like sexuality, if you claim to hold to the faith once delivered and you have teaching responsibility in the church, the contents of these chapters in The Twentysomething Soul should concern you.

Because doctrine also matters to Mainline Protestant young adults.  Yes, it does.  They have a view of God, of the church, and of what matters in life.  Their understanding of human nature is much more individualistic than Evangelical Protestants.  When they talk of God as love, they have some view of God and of love.  We should hope that these views are based on thought-through theological convictions learned through our discipleship efforts.  If they are not – if our young people have picked up their theological beliefs willy-nilly – then we who are called to the teaching office should be embarrassed.  My guess, though (and notice the irony), is that Mainline young adults have been taught to downplay doctrine for the sake of other values.  We teach what we take to be important doctrines in all sorts of ways.

Methodist pragmatism has taught young United Methodists that the specifically Methodist parts of being Methodist aren’t all that important, as long as you love God, love your neighbor, and work for justice in the world.  Methodists can lay no special claim to these commitments as somehow characteristically Methodist.  As the chapter on the nones will show (my final post of this little series), most of them come from the nominally-affiliated Mainline and Catholic portions of the twenty somethings.  Let’s face facts.

The Twentysomething Soul #3 – Evangelical Protestants

One thought on “The Twentysomething Soul #3 – Evangelical Protestants

  • December 11, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    With the exception of one of my grandchildren, all are in their 20s. One is in her early 30s, and none of them attend or go anywhere near a church. Three of my 7 grand children, live in the Bible Belt, but, they, too eschew church.


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