April 3rd, 2014
10:29 PM ET
Opinion by Daniel Darling, special to CNN
(CNN) - Perhaps you’ve heard that there is trouble brewing among evangelicals.
Younger Christians are weary of pitched cultural battles and are longing for the “real Jesus” – a Jesus who talks more about washing feet and feeding the poor than flashpoint issues like same-sex marriage and the sanctity of life.
If key evangelical influencers don’t listen, we are told, they are about to lose the entire millennial generation. Or, maybe that generation is already gone.
This story has been told with testimonials, chronicled in best-selling books and posted on popular blogs.
Here’s the short version: If only orthodox evangelical leaders would give up their antiquated beliefs, get more in step with the real Jesus, the church and the world would be better off.
Embedded in this narrative are two presuppositions:
• Young evangelicals are fleeing the church at a rapid pace.
There’s only one thing wrong with these two ideas: They aren’t true.
Let me explain.
First of all, evangelicals don’t have a youth problem. I’ve heard the apocalyptic “leaving in droves” narrative since I was, wait for it, an evangelical young person myself.
But experts who have weighed this data point beg to differ.
Bradley Wright, a sociologist from the University of Connecticut, has thoroughly examined the data that purportedly shows an exodus of young evangelicals and says it doesn’t support the “disaster narrative.”
Wright says the biggest drop of faith in young people happened in the 1990s, and that current levels are about the same as the early 1970s.
Ed Stetzer, the president of Lifeway Research, has also looked at the statistics and has concluded that while religious identity has declined in America, it’s mainly the nominal Christians and mainline Protestants who’ve suffered - not evangelicals.
“The reality is that evangelicals have been relatively steady as a percent of the population over the last few years,” Stetzer writes, and “no serious researcher believes Christianity in America is dying. Not one.”
Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the evangelical church in the United States.
For the last several years, some Southern Baptist leaders have voiced concern about the decline in baptisms and membership.
But nobody is suggesting that orthodoxy is the reason for decline.
If anything, leaders are pointing to a lack of faithful evangelical preaching and intentional gospel witness as the culprit. Church history doesn’t bear out evidence that a mushy, heterodox movement is the cure for stagnation.
What’s more, there is anecdotal evidence that seems to indicate a robustly orthodox evangelicalism is growing among the young.
Networks such as The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel and others are growing. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an unflinching bastion of orthodoxy, enrolls more Masters of Divinity students than any other institution accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.
One might argue that young evangelicals aren’t fleeing core conservative institutions, but flooding them.
Perhaps the doom and gloom story seems familiar - if also wrong - because we’ve heard it so many times before. As young scholar Matthew Lee Anderson puts it, the “change or die narrative is presented as a perennial problem.”
Progressive hand-wringers are missing the point, in my view. If history teaches us anything, it is that what dies is malleable, un-rooted faith and not 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy.
But even if the change-or-die narrative is true, even if faithfulness becomes less attractive in this new age, this shouldn’t be cause for worry.
Jesus prepared us for seasons like this, urging his followers to a counter-cultural faith, one that gains the favor of heaven, but earns the antagonism of the world.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me,” Jesus says in the Gospels.
The pop Jesus of progressives sounds less like the Jesus of the Bible and more like a malleable deity who easily aligns with our cultural sensibilities. A mascot for every chic cause, except for that difficult mission to which he called his followers: cross-bearing.
Consider some of Jesus’ statements:
“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
“If anyone does not hate his father or mother, he cannot be my disciple.”
“If any man will be my disciple, let me him take up his cross and follow me.”
“For this cause, shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife.”
What’s more, Jesus praised John the Baptist, that culture warrior, for his prophetic word against Herod, the monarch who committed adultery.
Yes, it is true that Christians should be known more for what they are for than what they are against.
But if you move past the rhetoric, you’ll find that it is often not aggrieved ex-evangelicals who are founding and leading charitable organizations, but the stubbornly orthodox. Faithful Christians are not the only ones in the trenches, relieving human need - but they make up a large percentage.
All over the world, you will find faithful followers of Christ adopting orphaned children, rescuing girls from trafficking, feeding the poor, digging wells and volunteering in disaster relief.
My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, operates one of the world’s largest relief operations while holding fast to its theological commitments.
And some of the world’s most effective ministries to the poor and marginalized were started by and continue to operate according to evangelical Christian beliefs. They live in the tension of the New Testament, which calls believers to both faithfulness and charity.
In fact, the most effective agents of hope in this world likely don’t have Twitter accounts, have never blogged and might never have even uttered the words, “social justice.”
And yet silently, quietly, patiently they serve the least of these, not because they first jettisoned their quaint notions of orthodoxy, but because they held them tighter.
Daniel Darling is the vice-president of Communications for the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the author of several books, including "Activist Faith." The views expressed in this column belong to Darling.
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