Another young, prominent Evangelical Christian has left the fold. Joshua Harris was 21 years old when he wrote, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Since being published in 1997, his book has sold over a million copies and has been hailed by conservatives for its guidance in navigating relationships with the opposite sex. Last year, Harris renounced the book. This year, he renounced the faith.
Harris joins other high-profile Evangelical millennials in the flight from faith. Non-Evangelical millennials are also leaving – a recent study suggests more than half are already gone – but they are more likely to drift from the faith quietly, not buzz the deck as they fly away. When people like Harris – people who have made a name for themselves precisely because they were Evangelicals – leave the faith, they make headlines. Depressing headlines.
Why are we seeing this exodus of young Christians, Evangelical and otherwise? Why is it happening now, at this point in history? Can anything be done to turn it around?
The reasons for the flight from faith are manifold and to catalogue them would require a book-length treatment. It is possible, however, to highlight a few key (and sometimes overlooked) issues. For one, segments of the media display an antipathy for the faith and this generation, more than those that came before it, is constantly awash in media.
In the West, the Church was once the principal medium through which information about society and life was transmitted. The daily newspaper challenged the church for this coveted position in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before its influence was contested by the advent of radio.
Movies and newsreels came crashing in next. By the time I came on the scene, television was king of the hill. All of these media sought not only to inform their audience but to transform them. Whether it was to unite the citizenry against the Axis powers, or reorient people to a new view of sexuality, or to direct consumers to an advertiser’s product, media intends to shape its users.
If one thinks of each medium as a stream that supplied the surrounding countryside with ideas, by the time television came along the various media had converged into a mighty Mississippi, transporting America on its current. But in the social media age, millennials have been swept out to sea. One study finds millennials spending 5 to 7 hours a day on their phones. Subtract time spent working, sleeping, and viewing other screens and there is virtually no time left.
It is impossible to overstate the impact immersive media has had on people’s thinking. This is particularly true when it comes to sexuality, which has received enormous attention in news, entertainment, and social media. A changing view of human sexuality – changing in predictable ways, given the nature of media attention – has certainly played a major role in the flight of young Evangelicals from the faith.
There are additional factors that contribute to the millennial migration. The culture-wide postponement of marriage, which is related to changing views of sexuality, has had an impact. So has the decreasing birthrate. Many millennials fled the Evangelical camp over its support for President Trump, which they considered blatantly hypocritical.
Behind all of these, though, lies the Church’s failure to present a compelling gospel to millennials. The roots of this failure reach back many centuries, at least to the later Scholastic Period, when churchmen became obsessed with how one gets to heaven. The Bible itself does not obsess over the topic. St. Paul’s magisterial letter to the Romans, for example, only mentions heaven twice, and neither time has anything to do with how people get there. Yet that is all some young Evangelicals ever heard about. To their minds, heaven is what the faith is about and they have decided heaven can wait.
The Church must reintroduce people to the gospel of God’s kingdom, as related by Jesus and the apostles. Heaven – yes, wonderfully so, and only through Christ’s cross; but also the revolutionary hope of God’s rightful rule and the Church’s role in preparing for it. Where this hope is truly present, individuals and communities are consistently transformed.
Yet many millennials know almost nothing of it. That must be remedied, now rather than later.
What do you think? Let me know!
Published by Gatehouse Media