Beth Seversen rarely saw young adults at the evangelical church in Kansas where she served as an associate pastor until 12 years ago. But one Sunday, after the service, she spotted a young man sitting in the back of the sanctuary. She hurried to greet him, pushing past, as best she could, the many congregants who wished to speak to her, trying to reach him before he could slip out the door—possibly forever. She managed to chat with him that day, and he came for two more Sundays. Then, as she feared, he failed to return.
Seversen, now an associate professor of youth and Christian ministries at North Park University, shared this story in April with a group of white evangelical pastors and church leaders to illustrate the challenges of attracting younger people to church and the challenges of retaining them. The pastors and leaders had come together for the Wheaton Mission & Ministry Conference at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. They were there to brainstorm strategies to reengage late-teens and twenty-somethings who were raised evangelical but had stopped attending church. Seversen summed up their worries when she said: “Many of our millennials have not come back [to church] at the age of 29, 30.”
The 18-to-29-year-olds missing from predominantly white evangelical churches span two generations. Using the Pew Research Center’s breakdown of U.S. generations, this cohort includes younger millennials (a generation born between 1981 and 1996) and older members of Generation Z (born after 1996).
At first glance, research seems to validate the alarm of Wheaton’s conference participants: A 2017 LifeWay study found that 66 percent of Protestants between age 23 and 30 said they stopped attending church regularly between age 18 and 22. However, some of these young people do eventually return. Indeed, during a recorded lecture, Wheaton College Professor David Setran explained that their hiatus from church—the so-called “driver’s license to marriage license” gap—has remained constant for the past 40 years.
These findings may offer little comfort to white evangelicals, given that two-thirds of their younger adults go missing, some for more than a decade. Moreover, the time away of young people has steadily increased. They generally wait to return to church until they wed and start families. In a 2016 paper in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Baylor University sociologist Jeremy E. Uecker reported that people who stop attending church after high school are most likely to return as married parents, childless couples, or single parents. However, young adults get married later in life than they did in previous generations—at an average age of 29.5 years for men and 27 years for women, according to Pew—which partly accounts for the delay in coming back to church.
Collier Neeley, age 28, is a case in point. He grew up in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and then attended the University of Mississippi, where he says he went to church “probably no more than ten times, to be honest.” He added, “I kind of fell away from the church because I didn’t really see the benefit of having that kind of influence in my life at that time. I felt pretty confident going into college that I would be able to maintain my faith without having to constantly be in the church.” But Neeley recently married, and he and his new wife are now shopping for a congregation. He has decided that faith “takes more than praying here and there and talking about it with my friends.”
One of the longest running measures of religion in the United States is the General Social Survey (GSS). Eastern Illinois University political scientist Ryan P. Burge analyzed relevant GSS data in a recent Christianity Today article. He reported that evangelical Protestants make up 22.5 percent of the U.S. population. Between 2016 and 2018, the total number of self-identified evangelicals dropped a mere 1.4 percent, a change that falls within the survey’s margin of error. Based on his research, Burge concluded that the number of evangelicals has been fairly stable “for much of the past decade.”
Thirty-year-old Hannah Garmon’s childhood friends fit this pattern. Originally from rural Alabama, they were mostly homeschooled by parents who belonged to an Independent Baptist Church. After high school, some of Garmon’s friends moved away, she says, and many joined Southern Baptist churches or non-denominational churches in other areas.
Some of the young adults who return to church—as Seversen and other presenters at the Wheaton conference made clear—bring with them worldviews that conflict with those of their elders. On issues other than abortion, younger white evangelicals tend to be more socially and politically progressive than previous generations.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, for instance, 45 percent of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage (compared to 23 percent of previous generations); 51 percent (versus 32 percent) believe society should accept homosexuality; 41 percent (versus 27 percent) favor stronger government involvement in providing services; and 45 percent (versus 36 percent) think aid to the poor does more good than harm. On these issues, the views of Generation Z generally mirror those of millennials.
The Rev. Janet Fuller has been a witness to this intergenerational conflict. She is an Episcopal priest and chaplain to students at Elon University, where she ministers to students from different religious traditions, including white evangelicals. She sees her evangelical students attending churches, and she finds them creating their own spiritual communities on campus. “I wonder what their experience of church is going to be later,” she says, adding, “I worry and I think that my students are worried about this: that the evangelical political movement in this country seems to me unmoored from any theological positioning.” The values that are often modeled, she says, “are on a collision course with the values that they want to identify for themselves.”
The comparatively liberal views of some younger white evangelicals are already creating rifts. According to research by Denison University political scientist Paul A. Djupe, individuals for whom politics is a divisive topic are more likely to leave “political churches” whether they are on the right or the left. Djupe also found that evangelicals who perceive a disconnect between their personal feelings toward Donald Trump and their pastors’ feelings are more likely to walk away.
Collier Neeley still embraces the central tenets of the Calvinist theology he learned growing up in his evangelical Presbyterian church, but he says, “My politics changed and I just don’t necessarily agree with most of what the church says now.” He has become “liberal enough” that few churches in Montgomery, Alabama, where he lives, would be a good match for his political leanings. As for Hannah Garmon, she is willing to accompany her parents to the Southern Baptist Church they now attend on Christmas and Easter, but she said she stopped going regularly after the minister preached “basically that you can’t vote for Obama and be a Christian.”
Neeley would like to join the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. This kind of switch is one option available to younger white evangelicals unhappy with the overtly conservative politics of their congregations: They can join progressive mainline Protestant churches. In fact, some may be taking this route. Between 2016 and 2018, according to Burge, the GSS registered a slight increase (1.8 percent) in those who identify as mainline Protestants for the first time in 20 years.
It is too early, though, to tell whether this uptick is either meaningful or related to switching by evangelicals. Fuller’s observations at Elon caution against any easy conclusions. Her white evangelical students, she finds, show no interest in the local progressive mainline Protestant churches. “The practicing Christians that I know might be more comfortable with the progressive theology and cultural kind of inclusion that they will find in those denominational churches, and yet they are not going to go to those churches,” she says. “They are going to go to evangelical churches. They will go to big, modern praise-music churches and find less openness.”
According to Fuller, when her evangelical students think of mainline Protestant churches, they think “small, old people churches.” For them, “the division that we’re looking at is that you have those old churches where people sit in rows, and they sing from a hymn book. And then you have these great, big churches where it’s all lights and music, and you’re not sitting in rows, and you never sit down. It’s music and a sermon.”
More certain are the changes young people will bring to white evangelical congregations. In 2016, millennials (71 million) were on the verge of overtaking baby boomers (74 million) as the largest generation in the United States. The social and political leanings of younger evangelicals, combined with their sheer numbers, will reshape the churches they join. Many white evangelical churches are part of a dependably conservative voting bloc. With the influx and influence of young members, though, some of this bloc’s primacy in Republican politics may eventually change.
Indeed, Fuller describes the young evangelicals on her campus as critical of old church structures. To her mind, both the right and left wings of the church have “got to be transformed in order to survive.” She says, “Our students are proving that to us. They want something that doesn’t yet exist. So some of us have to get out of the way, or we have to reenvision ourselves from the inside out.”
Myriam Renaud is a scholar of religion who has written for The Atlantic, The Conversation, The Globe Post, Religion Dispatches, Sightings, and other publications.