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The accusation goes something like this: "All you evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump have destroyed the reputation of the gospel in America. That's why young people are leaving your churches in droves." The only problem is that it's not true.
In reality, more and more young people have been leaving many of our churches for the last few decades, long before evangelicals ever dreamed of voting for Trump. Plus, for the most part, much of that exodus has been from liberal churches, the very churches that most strongly rejected (and continue to reject) Trump.
At the same time, young people in other countries (especially in Europe) have also been leaving the church for years. Evangelical support for Trump is obviously not the problem there.
Not only so, but many of the most robust churches in America, bursting with young people, are conservative evangelical churches, where support for Trump is high. How do you explain that?
To be sure, someyoung people have left the church because of evangelical support for Trump. Common sense would tell you this is the case.
But this is hardly the main cause. In fact, it could be argued that Trump's robust pro-life advocacy has mobilized many young people for the cause, and in a distinctly Christian way.
Last year, Religion News Services ran an article by Jana Riess with this headline: "Why millennials are really leaving religion (it's not just politics, folks)." A large chart gave the disturbing statistics: "The number of Americans aged 18-29 who have no religious affiliation has nearly quadrupled in the last 30 years."
Riess then tackled some of the prevailing theories for this defection.
First, because it was mainly liberal churches that were losing members, the assumption was that young people wanted more conservative settings. There, they would be called to deeper commitment. There, they would find boundaries.
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In my mind, that remains true, and the article doesn't debunk this entirely. But it does point to losses in Southern Baptist circles as well among Mormons.
Why, then, would these groups be losing members? (To be clear, I do not consider Mormons to be true Christians, but they do represent conservative religionists.)
In response, Riess notes,
Now it's liberal pundits who are quick to point the finger. A HuffPost headline last year screeched that 'Evangelical Christianity's Big Turn-Off' was its relentless pursuit of a conservative political agenda. Let's call this the 'political alienation' theory, which says that churches that have waged war against LGBT rights or supported Donald Trump are reaping the fallout: Millennials want nothing to do with them.
Is there truth to this?
"There's evidence," Riess explains, "to support the political alienation theory, to a point. Millennials are leaving religion in droves, and some of it is related to politics. People who vote or lean Democratic are more likely to be 'nones,' defined as people who have no religious affiliation."
And therein lies the key: "no religious affiliation." If the political alienation theory fully explained what's going on in American religion, millennials would be leaving conservative religions in favor of ones that are liberal and LGBT-affirming. Plenty of churches like that exist, where those on the political left would feel welcome and comfortable. But they are not growing.
"Instead, folks are just leaving religion, full stop. Especially if they're young."
Why Are They Leaving?
Why, then, are young people leaving churches in favor of no religious affiliation?
Riess suggests three major factors.
First, delayed marriage and more single adults. The idea is that people get more involved with religion when married, so less married people means less people in church.
Second, fertility. Families with more children tend to be more religious (or, conversely, they have more children because of their religious beliefs). Less children means less people in church.
Third, the rise of the "nones." Although this sounds circular, the theory is that it is now more socially acceptable to have no religious affiliation, which makes it easier for people to drop out. And more nones mean less people in church.
I'm not a sociologist nor have I studied the relevant data in depth. Still, I imagine these are all real factors.
The Spirit of the Lord
But I have been involved in ministry for the last 45 years. And I've had the privilege of speaking around the globe, as well as across America.
When the Spirit of God is moving, people will come. Young people and old people. Rich people and poor people. People from near and from far. People of every color and from every ethnic group.
And one thing I've seen that stays the same. When the Spirit of God is moving, people will come. Young people and old people. Rich people and poor people. People from near and from far. People of every color and from every ethnic group.
In fact, they will come flocking.
When the living Lord is being encountered. When broken lives are made whole. When the sick are healed. When captives are set free. When the hopeless find purpose and destiny. When the burden of sin is removed. When guilt is washed away by the love of God. When Jesus is exalted in all His beauty and power and majesty. When this is happening, your big problem will be how to deal with the crowds.
To repeat: I'm an eyewitness to this, both in America and abroad.
Reality and Community
What is also clear to me (and many others) is that young people want authenticity. They want reality. They want community.
To the extent they have not found these things in the church, many have dropped out, understandably so.
But this also means that, to the extent the local church is a real family, a true community, living life together in authenticity, where people can be real, young people will be drawn.
I have been in gatherings here in America with as many as 300,000 young people, spending 12 hours together in prayer, fasting, worship, and teaching. They would gladly stay even longer.
I have attended meetings where 20,000 young people traveled from across America to spend days together before the Lord. And in these same meetings, where 3,000 can crowd into a breakout session on something as controversial as LGBT issues, many hundreds have to be turned away.
And I know countless homeschooling families across America producing outstanding young people, solid in character and devoted in spirit. Many of them have been students in my ministry school, and they are mature beyond their years and an absolute delight to teach.
That's why I refuse to buy today's PC narrative that young people are leaving our churches because of : 1) evangelical involvement in politics in general and, more particularly, 2) evangelical support for Trump.
The issues are wider and deeper and more complex. But the solution remains the same: The real gospel of the real Savior lived out in a real community empowered by the real Spirit.
Works every time.