Ricky, a 21-year-old evangelical Christian college student, isn’t necessarily committed to abstinence before marriage: “If two people are in love and are willing to take the next step, I believe God would approve.” He respects both sides of the abortion debate, but thinks churches shouldn’t have a say in the matter. And he’s an enthusiastic supporter of gay marriage; he thinks Christian opposition to it will be “a black eye on our religion for decades.”
He may be progressive, but Ricky isn’t alone. A variety of experts say young evangelicals care less and less about the issues of sexual politics — abstinence, abortion, and same-sex marriage — that their forebears brought to the center of the political conversation. And churches that keep focusing on these issues may risk becoming obsolete.
A study released in December by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 44% of unmarried 18-29-year-old evangelicals had been sexually active — but the study defined “evangelical” as someone who attends church at least monthly, believes Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, and believes the Bible “is accurate in all that it teaches,” requirements that may leave out some who still consider themselves part of the group. Another study puts the figure at 80 percent. And a recent poll found that 44% of 18-29-year-old evangelicals favor same-sex marriage, lower than the national figure but much higher than their elders.
Jonathan Merritt, author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, sees a shift from an older ideal of virginity — where “you either had it or you didn’t” — to a new ethic of purity which acknowledges that lapses may happen. And he sees a bigger change afoot: “The last generation was very focused on personal holiness. This generation also focuses on the outward expressions of the faith.”
That means when young evangelicals talk about “life issues,” they don’t just mean abortion, says Merritt — “They’re talking about an ethic of life from the womb to the tomb. They care about issues like war, poverty, the global water crisis, environmental degradation.”
Ken Wilson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, argues, “The culture war stuff just does not appeal to younger generations.” Many are children of divorce, he says, and they’ve tired of conflict: “They’re not interested in a spirituality that helps them become culture warriors. They want to repair the culture.”
Jay Bakker, pastor of the Revolution Church in New York City (which meets in a Williamsburg bar) and son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, says he now hears less talk abortion than he used to among young Christians: “People feel like no one wants to see more abortions but to make it illegal would make it dangerous.” He agrees with Wilson that the divorce rate among older generations has had an effect, making young evangelicals less likely to jump into marriage early in life. “Christian couples used to get married because they wanted to have sex, and I think now they realize that’s not a reason to get married,” Bakker says. “I don’t know if they’re staying celibate, but it’s not the biggest issue.”
Gay rights, he says, remain divisive, with some young Christians arguing for legal equality for gay people while still regarding homosexuality as a sin. But Bakker maintains that young evangelicals’ top concerns are poverty, social justice, and the environment — not sexual politics.
This doesn’t necessarily mean young evangelicals are all becoming liberal, or that they’re becoming indistinguishable from other young Americans. Joe Carter, a senior editor for the Acton Institute who has written an argument against “the myth of the liberal young evangelical,” thinks the narrative of liberalization comes from students at already-liberal colleges like Wheaton: “If go out to the University of Texas, or North Dakota, and talk to evangelicals, they’re just as conservative as their parents.”
But he does see some changes. Young evangelicals are still anti-abortion, but they want to talk about other issues too, like sex trafficking. He also says that on gay marriage, they’re becoming more libertarian and less interested in state regulation. Keeping younger people in the fold, says Carter, will be a matter of messaging: Churches just need to show young congregants “that their concerns are aligned.”
Others are less optimistic. Wilson says evangelicalism is on the decline, and according to a 2011 poll, 82% of ministers say the same. In order to turn that around, he says, “We need a major rethink of who we are and what we stand for.”
For Wilson, that would mean a shift from approaching sex in terms of abstinence or purity and toward viewing it “through the lens of wisdom. What’s good for a happy, healthy, blessed life? What’s good for me and my community?” And it would mean a turn from an evangelical movement he thinks has defined itself as “a movement that’s against things” to one that’s more focused on bringing people together.
Young Christians, he says, have “a longing for community and connectedness,” which churches can feed by organizing more small groups and volunteer drives, especially those that speak to young people’s concerns about worldwide poverty and environmental degradation. Wilson also says churches need to get better at addressing the concerns of young people who may be single, cohabiting, or dating outside their faith. That would include not just a different approach to sexuality but different terms — Wilson notes that calling a church a “family worship center,” as many evangelical establishments do, can be alienating to singles.
Merritt uses a similar metaphor: “We are going to have to begin seeing the world through the lens of biblical theology rather than through the lens of conservative politics.” He says pastors need to stop endorsing political candidates, make room for more disagreement on certain issues, and “stop speaking about complicated public policy proposals as if they’re qualified to do so.”
Amy, a 33-year-old lifelong evangelical Christian, goes further: “The church at a minimum has to make space to say its okay to be gay and you can have sex with a committed partner before marriage.” If evangelicalism means having a personal relationship with God, “couldn’t that personal relationship include God talking to you about things like when you should have sex or who you should have sex with? If we don’t trust that God can talk and people can listen, there’s no basis for evangelicalism.”
This may be a tough sell in a politically divided climate where many evangelical leaders are still so deeply aligned with conservative politics. But calls for change from within the fold are getting louder, especially since the 2012 election delivered a blow to many socially conservative candidates and causes. In a December New York Times op-ed, 30-year-old evangelical pastor John S. Dickerson pained a picture of a movement in steep decline, one whose political clout is behind it and whose members “are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots.” His solution: Evangelicals should “refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement” and lead by example, not judgment.
Whether such change is possible on a large scale is an open question. Bakker says that while he does see some churches adapting, “What worries me is I see a lot of churches just being less open about things they believe. You can attend a church for a year and not realize they’re anti-gay or don’t allow women in leadership. I see more people leaving the church, saying they’re ex-Christian. I see churches shrinking.”
For his part, Ricky doesn’t even tell people about his faith. “They’ll think I’m too heavy into the Hell thing and trying to find their faults when I’m not about that at all,” he says. “An evangelical movement should just be people loving God and not having to look down on other people. If the churches could grow and evolve and change in this way, I would be proud to call myself evangelical. But until then I’m going to be a closeted evangelical, I suppose.”