For the first time, membership in a church, synagogue or mosque has fallen below half of Americans. The Gallup organization attributes this mainly to the rise of the “unaffiliated.” Many of these neighbors were reared in our churches, so it bears some pondering as to how and why they not only leave us but resent and often oppose us.
For a long time now, some of the most ardent opponents of conservative evangelicalism in America were raised in our own churches. Media mogul Ted Turner, who has said that “Christianity is for losers,” was raised in a fundamentalist home, church and school. Oprah Winfrey, called “preacher woman” growing up in a conservative Missionary Baptist church, is perhaps the leading representative of a “spiritual but not religious” perspective. Shirley McLain was raised by strict Southern Baptist missionary parents and Hugh Heffner in an equally strict Methodist home. Eighty-six percent of LGBTs were raised in a faith community and more than three-fourths in “theological conservative religious communities,” mostly evangelical. “Queer Eye” cast-member Jonathan Van Ness relates that being molested by an older boy at his church in Quincy, Illinois, set him on a path of sexual and substance addictions. Van Ness quotes Brené Brown: “She says shame is the feeling of, ‘If you know all there was to know about me, you wouldn’t love me anymore,’ which always struck a chord with me.” My heart breaks when I read the subtitle of his new autobiography: Raw Journey to Self-Love. After all, beneath the shame is objective guilt that we cannot expiate. What we need is not self-love, but the love of our Creator and Judge who is also our Redeemer, telling us outside of ourselves the source of our guilt and the verdict of justification that he renders through faith in his Son.
On the list goes. I just assume when I hear someone rail against “fundamentalism” and “evangelicals,” they have some first-hand experiences in mind. These are just the latest in a long history—going all the way back to the early Enlightenment—of evangelicals (many even studying for the ministry at first) becoming leaders of the opposition to orthodox Christianity. Not all of these departures can be attributed to churches or families. Many younger people today are influenced more by social-media trends and peer pressure than they are by church and home. Some undoubtedly leave us simply because they do not embrace Christian beliefs and ethical convictions (I Jn 2:19). But there are two evidence-based reasons why it is a huge problem today.
First, there is the fact that many evangelicals today have a superficial understanding of even basic Christian doctrines and therefore the rationale for discipleship in the church and in their callings in the world. A 2020 study showed the astonishing level of ignorance, confusion and even outright rejection of central beliefs among professing evangelical Christians. A Pew study found that atheists and agnostics were better informed about religions (followed closely by Jews and Mormons) than were Christians, even of their own faith.
From the Greek word for “gospel” (euangelion), the label “evangelical” was used first for Lutheran and Reformed churches. The two most important emphases of the Reformation were justification, being declared righteous before God in Christ alone through faith alone, and Scripture alone, as the arbiter of Christian doctrine and practice. The meaning of “evangelical” changed especially in America, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer described, after his time in the U. S. in 1930, as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” On the five-hundred-year anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, a majority of U. S. Protestants (52%) side with the Roman Catholic view that both good deeds and faith in Christ are required for justification before God. Only 23% even knew that Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes through faith alone and 45% erroneously thought that both Protestants and Catholics teach that doctrine. They are split over sola scriptura: the Reformation’s insistence that while tradition is important, Scripture alone is the arbiter of faith and practice. A slight majority (52%) deny this. Only 44% of U. S. evangelicals affirm both justification through faith alone and Scripture as the norm for faith and practice.
Many evangelicals have gone from the nursery to children’s church to youth group to college ministry without ever really having been nurtured in the life of the congregation. Their main relationships were with peers rather than with mature believers. Many especially among younger generations are being catechized every day with their smart phones, while the church has let them down both in teaching and in incorporation into real person-to-person, embodied, social life together.
The Real Rebellion
Second, while many who abandon evangelical churches do not know enough even to apostatize properly, what they did know was a particular culture, and it is this, more than anything else, that they are rebelling against. Briefly, let me note two issues in our churches that younger people are rebelling against: politics and hypocrisy.
Politics: In line with Gallup and Pew, the authors of The Secular Surge note that thirty years ago the percentage of Americans identifying as having no religious affiliation was 1 in 20. Now it is 1 in 4 and growing and politics plays a large role. The authors said in an interview, “…if you’re not sympathetic to the Republican Party, you don’t want anything to do with religion.” But younger generations are just as wary of religious leaders who dabble in progressive politics. They don’t need to hear more political pronouncements from pastors, but a richer, fuller and more biblically-grounded faith that can inform their pilgrimage in this world.
Hypocrisy: Some younger people have left the church because they rejected God’s law and gospel. But others have left because they have been scolded for sins they struggle with while reading the sordid headlines about Christian leaders who preached one thing and practiced another. A fair number have seen their own pastor exposed and an ensuing cover-up by his protectors. Young people with a tender conscience and greater sympathy for victims of abuse, oppression and violence see hypocrisy where many of us older generations see fidelity. They see how we exclude, dishonor, and even shame women in our circles. They witness a kind of masculinity that is sometimes more cultural than biblical. They have seen evangelical leaders preach moralism while they wink at adulterers and abusers. And even if they do not wrestle personally with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, they know people who do. And they are offended by the way we talk about Them.
The Way Forward
As a minister today, my greatest fear is not of Them, but of Us. I am afraid that tomorrow’s most vocal acolytes of Them may well be people who once belonged to Us—that instead of a community of faith, our churches were incubators of resentment where young people today only actually experienced a superficially Christian subculture. I pray that our churches are the place where the Other is welcomed and can experience a body of repentant and forgiven sinners. Yet my deeper worry is that they may not find among Us that very message that can liberate them—and Us ourselves—from the reign of sin and death.
But there is good news—literally, the gospel of Christ. Jesus did not die for us when we got our act together, but while we were his enemies (Rom 5:10). In fact, long before we chose him, he chose us—before the world was even created (Eph 1:4). And by “us” I mean sinners who have been forgiven, washed and renewed and yet still battle besetting sins, including the fear of Them. This new Us—the body of Christ from every nation and culture, ethnicity and political and socio-economic location—exists only because we have Christ alone as our head.
Imagine what this new Us could mean in American society right now. Local churches that proclaimed this good news and lived in light of it, convinced that it is God’s kindness that leads all of us to repentance (Rom 2:4). While only 9 percent of the general population is open to returning to the faith they’ve abandoned, “76% of LGBT people are open to returning to their religious community and its practices.” And only 8% said that this would require a change in theology or convictions about sexual ethics, if they were simply loved and given real time instead of being shunned or ignored. In other words, “92 percent would be open to return even without that faith community changing their theology.”
Instead of demonizing Them, what if we saw Them as Us, beggar to beggar, and together raised our eyes to the Lord who is our help (Psalm 121)? Then perhaps instead of continuing to populate the growing opposition to Us, we could be havens of repentance and faith. Evangelicals often pray for revival. We do need one, but it may not be the sort of revival that many today have in mind. Christians need to come back to God and his word even on Sunday, that brief sabbath from the noise and clashing swords of the week. That would be a revival. Then we would have something to say from another King and his kingdom that could bring repentance and faith to an angry world.
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido and the Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine.
 Andrew Marin, Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016), 1, 6-7.
 The Week, Ocober 11, 2019, 209.
 Marin, Us Versus Us, 65-74.