With US youth losing religion, evangelicals struggle to spread ‘good news’

More young Americans are turning away from organized faith as millennials question the mix with politics

Brandon McCauley and two friends pray before he speaks about his commitment to God.
Steven Turville for Al Jazeera America

“I have been given the task of sharing the gospel,” said Brandon McCauley, an 18-year-old who just finished his senior year at Lebanon High School in Ohio, where he ran a lunchtime Bible study program. “I am offering you the opportunity to experience Jesus Christ,” McCauley exhorted fellow students, as he debated whether to pursue the ministry instead of higher education.

“I like being different,” said McCauley, explaining his motivation to tell classmates that they will end up in hell if they aren’t saved. “If you sin, you deserve death,” McCauley yelled, before getting choked up and concluding, “I’m the reason that He had to die … I am accepting that You died on the cross for me.”

American adults under 30 increasingly identify with no religion whatsoever, but some teenagers on the edge of this demographic are enthusiastically embracing faith. As the fraction of unaffiliated, agnostic, and atheist surpasses one-third of young people, proselytizing denominations are trying to win over the so-called “nones.”

A landmark Pew Research from 2012 shows that attachment by young people to organized religious bodies is on the decline. Many of those who don’t belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque still practice religion informally to a certain extent. However, they have grown wary of the way that traditional institutions mix political power with the pursuit of otherworldly aims.

Nine out of ten older Americans are directly affiliated with a religion, a statistic that goes down to two-thirds with the youngest adults. Softened commitment generally means less strong attachment to God and less frequent attendance at services. It also entails more liberal political views, a higher likelihood of voting Democratic, and support for abortion rights.

If economic development leads to secularization, then stagnant growth and chronic unemployment in certain parts of the country would seem to drive religious resurgence. But at the same time, the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown even among the non-college-educated. This suggests the trend is not just spurred on by the skeptical collegiate atmosphere. Many Americans born after 1980 appear not to be seeking new answers, leading to decreased or flatlining interest in evangelical branches such as the Southern Baptist Convention.

“With respect to evangelical Protestants in particular, their share of the population is holding steady,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. He said the conservative group’s numbers are “pretty stable … 28 percent of adults describe themselves as ‘evangelical’.”

Smith attributed the declining white evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population to a larger racial and ethnic shift. While just one-fifth of millennial adults identify as evangelical, the Hispanic population is increasingly moving from Catholicism towards evangelical churches.

'Great evangelical recession'

Some evangelical leaders suggest the movement is in decline, after it delivered a major political victory with the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004, and then saw two subsequent national defeats at the ballot box.

In a New York Times op-ed, John S. Dickerson, senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Arizona, summarized the state of evangelism just after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election: “This former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.”

He describes a “collapse” in which evangelical cultural strength is disintegrating in the face of mainstream American values, and the impossibility of “retooling” their electoral strategy due to anachronistic ideas that continue “losing ground.” An apparent point of weakness is the inability to prevent widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage across the country even though the American heartland hasn’t abruptly adopted urban “coastal” attitudes.

Irrespective of religious background, approximately three-quarters of Americans favor a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in public schools. Well over half the American population believes creationism should be taught alongside evolution. And more than four-fifths of Americans say they turn to God in making decisions.

Dickerson suggests refashioning the evangelical movement as “more sensitive, spiritual and humble” to boost church membership and political clout during “the great evangelical recession.” One area of internal reform is in gender relations, where younger evangelicals tend to support more prominent roles for women. But changes have been slow to come.

“The population of evangelicals rose in previous decades but appears to have plateaued,” said Christian Smith, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

“Some people argue that is more a function of evangelicals' late adoption of birth control, and so higher fertility over the 20th century,” Smith told Al Jazeera about the group’s relatively slow adoption of family planning techniques.

He also contextualized the ability to ensure families raise faithful born-again kids: “Evangelicals do relatively better than Catholics and mainline Protestants at retention of their children.”

This former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.

John S. Dickerson

Cornerstone Church

Brandon McCauley, 18.

Meanwhile, evangelical Protestant Christian leaders in the Global South are much more optimistic about the prospects of their movement, even as those in the Global North report a less rosy outlook on expansion. Of those in Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, two-thirds say that evangelicals are losing influence, according to a 2011 survey. In the U.S., that number rises to 82 percent, as the appeal of fire and brimstone appears to weaken.

Virtually all of those leaders, irrespective of home country, express belief that Christianity is the one true faith, and that the Bible is the word of God. However, there is widespread disagreement on whether scriptures are meant to be taken literally, and whether one can be a moral person without believing in God.

The global network of evangelical congregations, radio stations, universities and international charities is dedicated to promoting salvation through Jesus Christ. Although Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority dissolved well before today’s college-aged missionaries were born, the 21st-century strategy for evangelizing goes well south of the border.

In Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and much of Asia, evangelicals find fertile ground for spreading the gospel. Brandon McCauley in Lebanon, Ohio, is just one of many young Americans who has weighed the possibility of deferring his education to spend a year on a mission in Mexico or elsewhere.

“There are so many people in this world who need Christ,” McCauley said. “I don’t know if I could turn my back on that. I hope God shows me the path.”

Al Jazeera America presents an intimate look at the lives of teenagers at the crossroads of now and the future on “Edge of Eighteen.” Fifteen stories. One incredible journey. Tune in Sunday at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.

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