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Why Young People Are Fleeing Conservative Evangelicalism

Some leave because they oppose the church's doctrinal stance. Others are turned off by its hostility to science. Others reject the limitations placed on sex.
 
 
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The results of a five-year study of the Millennial Generation—people born between 1982 and 1993—are in. Thanks to the Barna Group, a 28-year-old, California-based, Christian research firm, we now know that conservative evangelical churches are losing formerly–affiliated “young creatives:” Actors, artists, biologists, designers, mathematicians, medical students, musicians, and writers.

Some leave because they oppose the church’s doctrinal stance. Others are turned off by its hostility to science, and still others reject the limitations placed on permissible sexual activity. The report cites the tension felt by young adults who find it difficult—if not impossible—to remain “sexually pure,” especially since most heterosexuals don’t marry until their mid-to-late twenties. “Young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers,” Barna concludes. What’s more, the report admits that Millennials see the evangelical church as an exclusive club, open only to those who adhere to every rule. This runs counter to values that rank high on the Millennial playlist—among them, open-mindedness, tolerance, and support for diversity.

These findings, of course, don’t necessarily mean that young evangelicals are becoming progressively engaged, but they do suggest that an opening exists for prochoice, feminist, and pro-LGBTQ activists to touch the hearts and minds of Generation Y. Angela Ferrell-Zabala, director of Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, a project of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, says that former Evangelicals are hungry for information about alternative faith and lifestyle options. “Technology has given Millennials access to philosophies and people from all over, and they tend to think in ways that are bigger than where they came from or how they were raised,“ she begins.” At the same time, “young folks are not necessarily throwing in the towel on their faith. They’re working to reconcile the pieces of their lives, asking, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my place in the world?’“

The relationship between seemingly disparate issues, or intersectionality, holds great appeal to Millennials, Ferrell Zabala continues. “When we speak about reproductive justice we’re speaking about the whole person--being able to access jobs and higher education as well as contraception. When we talk about voter suppression or immigration, the conversation leads back to the choices a person is able to make.” And regardless of whether Millennials ultimately join a mainline Protestant church or live as atheists or agnostics, Ferrell-Zabala is adamant that the desire to respect others and be respected is of utmost importance to them.

That said, it is often difficult for ex-evangelicals to break away from family and childhood friends. Carol Hornbeck, an Indianapolis-based Marriage and Family therapist, stresses that when an individual’s worldview begins to unravel they typically feel unsettled. “People’s ideas usually begin to shift when a personal experience runs counter to their expectations,” she begins. “This may be because they’ve learned that a trusted friend or colleague is gay or has had an abortion. As long as the issue is at arm’s length, they can hate it, but it changes the paradigm when it’s your next-door neighbor or your friend’s sister. When the person is one step removed from your inner circle, it’s hard to be judgmental or condemning.”

But it may still be unsettling. “If the young person continues to want a connection to Christianity, he or she will need to find a church that welcomes uncertainty,” Hornbeck concludes.

Writer/activist Brittany Shoot grew up in Anderson, Indiana, the headquarters of the Church of God, in a deeply religious evangelical family. Her move away from the church was gradual. “When I was a child I was told that someone I cared about was HIV-positive. I somehow learned that he was gay and had contracted the virus through sex. There was such shame around the diagnosis. I knew that I shouldn’t tell anyone he was sick because they might shun me. Even as a kid I thought, ‘something is wrong here.’” Later, when Shoot was in high school, a friend disclosed his homosexuality. “You didn’t come out in the Christian culture we lived in,” she says. “He didn’t feel safe; we also knew that no church in the area would love and protect him.”

Now 29, Shoot no longer attends services but frequently writes about religion, feminism, and sexuality. Although she is critical of evangelism, she is also protective of people of faith. “In progressive circles it’s common to trash talk religion. This is damaging,” she says. “Most people who’ve moved away from evangelism still have family members who are religious. Those outside the community need to be sensitive and not make churchgoing people their target.”

Activists should also be open to questions about sexuality, Shoot says. “Despite Internet access, kids raised in the church were told, ‘don’t do anything until marriage,’ so when they finally get to a place where they can talk freely, they need it to be judgment free. Don’t hate on the girl who doesn’t know what a vibrator is or who knows next to nothing about reproduction.”

Writer/activist Mandy Van Deven agrees. Van Deven grew up in small-town Georgia where schools taught nothing but abstinence. “When you grow up in communities where sex outside of marriage is stigmatized, you see the effects of not having access to comprehensive sex education or reproductive health services—high rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections.”

While outsiders can certainly organize in these locales, Van Deven puts the onus for outreach on former evangelicals. “It’s helpful for the people who have already started to sway to the reproductive justice end of the continuum to preach to those who haven’t yet made the leap,” she says. “They know better than others what it takes to reconcile a more liberal ideology with the conservatism of their upbringing.”

Whether or not former evangelicals will do this remains uncertain. Nonetheless, the Barna report implies that once Millennials abandon evangelism, the barriers to progressive change can begin to crumble. Stay tuned for developments.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY. She is also the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, St. Martin's Press, 2001.
 
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