Engaging #Exvangelical: Three Tips for Church Leaders

By Jacob Bier

In recent years there have been growing fears within evangelical churches concerning the decline of young adult church attendance. Simply put, churches are continuing to see the younger generations walk away from the faith.

A number of social media movements such as #Exvangelical, #ChurchToo, and #EmptyThePews have drawn further attention to this phenomenon. These trends have given way to the proliferation of so-called deconversion stories on blogs and podcasts. In a deconversion story, people air their grievances with their former Christian tradition before detailing their journey into an alternative, and usually more secular, version. Common reasons given by #Exvangelicals for leaving their church include Biblical literalism, matters of social justice, and anti-LGBTQ stances.

Lest anyone think that these deconversion stories are coming from random people on Twitter, many public Christian figures have spoken of their own deconversions, including Jen Hatmaker (teacher and author of many women’s books), Joshua Harris (former pastor and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye), and Jonathan Steingard (lead singer of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson). These stories have made an impact beyond evangelical circles, even reaching the pages of prominent news outlets like The New Yorker and Christianity Today.

Church leaders seeking to minister to young adults cannot afford to ignore these larger trends. Teens and young adults who have been raised in the church will no doubt be influenced by these stories, and some will inevitably be led to their own deconversion. Many young adults within evangelical churches are wrestling with their beliefs as forces both inside and outside the church challenge them on some of the most fundamental issues of morality, epistemology, and sexuality. In the face of such a crisis, many church leaders are at a loss of what to do.

Reach Young Adults

In both my experience as a young adult myself and as a minister to teens, I have found that church leaders can reach their young adults in the following three ways:

1. Listen carefully to young adults’ concerns and engage with them on difficult topics.

Young adults who have doubts about their faith should feel that their pastor is someone who will shepherd them and help them with their questions. One recurring pattern in deconversion stories is that many people feel marginalized or ignored by other Christians for having different opinions. Dismissive and arrogant attitudes toward those who are already struggling with their faith can be fatal.

Instead, church leaders should listen carefully to their members, counseling them and studying the Bible together to find the right answers. In this way, a pastor acts like a shepherd, guiding the people to the green pastures of God’s Word. Church leaders do not need to feel like they always have to have the answer. Young adults will appreciate the honesty and authenticity of a pastor who admits his own limitations while genuinely seeking to help.

Another danger is the tendency to avoid speaking about difficult issues. Outside the church, young adults are being confronted at younger and younger ages with a wide range of difficult topics, ranging from racism to sexuality. Kids all across the United States, even those in Christian homes, are influenced in profound ways by what they see on Netflix, YouTube, and social media. Through nearly unlimited access to the internet, kids are exposed to pornography at earlier and earlier ages. Drag queen story hours, celebrity statements on social issues, and controversial social media trends regularly make their way into the lives of Christian teens through the internet and their peer groups. Yet for some reason, many churches tend to keep things very light and nonconfrontational, afraid to address serious topics with youth. If the church won’t teach them how to think about their worldview, someone else will. If churches continue to allow the culture to shape Christian teens more than the Bible, those churches will have no right to complain when their children walk away from the faith.

I learned this lesson this summer when I saw that some middle schoolers from my youth group were posting on social media about #BlackLivesMatter after the death of George Floyd. This was no longer just about what happened in Minneapolis, but about what was happening in my youth group. After seeing the posts, I took the opportunity to stop my current teaching series and have a discussion with the students about the sin of racism and how to interpret this event in the light of the gospel.

If I had ignored those Instagram posts and assumed that my students were too young to have a serious conversation about the news, I would have missed an opportunity to minister to my students. Instead, our group had a fruitful discussion, and the students appreciated that their questions were taken seriously. By listening carefully and engaging with young adults on difficult topics, church leaders can help young adults understand their world Biblically.

2. Don’t make politics a litmus test for true faith.

There is no question that politics have become increasingly more divisive in our country over the past few years. The rise of social media has contributed greatly to this problem as people engage with the political realm in new ways. It seems difficult to scroll very far on Facebook or Twitter without seeing political content of some kind, and such posts often result in contentious online debates between strangers.

Unfortunately, Christians have not been immune to the conflict. Many Christians are quick to line up on one side of the party line, assuming bad motives of anyone who would see things differently. In some places, political views seem to have even taken precedent over theological principles. Many young adults are tired of the grandstanding and gatekeeping of the culture wars, and some leave the church altogether over different approaches to politics.

Church leaders who want to reach young adults need to recognize that faithful Christians can disagree on political issues. Especially as Baptists, we should be the first to uphold the freedom to vote according to one’s own conscience. The United States is not the kingdom of God, and Christian leaders must be very careful never to confuse the two. No political party has a monopoly on morality or truth. Therefore, Christians who are seeking to be faithful to the whole counsel of God can and must challenge the Republicans, Democrats, and all political parties on different aspects of their respective platforms and representatives. The Word of God is meant to teach, rebuke, and instruct all people, regardless of their status or political affiliation (2 Tim. 3:16).

While there are certainly moral issues at stake in the ballot box (such as abortion, civil rights, and immigration), pastors must not make a person’s politics the test of true faith. Ultimately, the bonds that unite Christians are far greater than allegiance to a political party (Eph. 4:5). As church leaders engage young adults on political issues, those leaders should seek to be fair and balanced, carefully distinguishing between God’s Word and opinions. This means being honest about one’s own assumptions and holding them with an open mind. The goal for pastors and church leaders should be to bring up Christians who are mature in the Lord and able to think through issues Biblically, not to turn their congregants into a monolithic voting bloc (Eph. 4:13).

Even as Christians seek to think Biblically about politics and be responsible with the vote they’ve been given, they need to be constantly reminded that this world is not their home. Like Abraham and the saints of old, Christians are pilgrims and sojourners on the earth, seeking a still better country (Heb. 11:13–16). While there are political dimensions to the moral problems of the culture today, the ultimate cause of them all is spiritual. Salvation is not found in any one political party or leader, but in Jesus Christ, Who is Lord of all. His kingdom is an everlasting one, and before Him all the nations of the world are like a drop in the bucket (Isa. 40:15). His purposes are not tied to the outcome of elections or political campaigns. With this in mind, Christians can fix their eyes on Jesus and the hope they have in Him, no matter what happens in the world.

3. Invite young adults into the Christian tradition.

In the two thousand years since the apostles, Christians have thought long and hard about how to apply the Bible’s teaching to every area of life, including politics and society. While each author wrote within his own historical context, Christians today have much to learn from the Christians of the past. It would be foolish to think that there is nothing to learn from the saints who have gone before.

Surely abolitionists and Christian civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Francis James Grimké have much wisdom to contribute to our culture’s conversations on race today. The sermons of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great concerning the dangers of wealth are guaranteed to challenge American materialism. Besides these, the writings of the church fathers and Reformers can enrich and enliven the faith of 21st century Christians with their meditations upon the character and nature of God. These are just some examples of the rich heritage that belongs to all Christians.

Many young adults are eager to learn and engage with their Christian heritage, as they long to feel connected to something greater than themselves. Even better, many of these important works from Christian history are in the public domain and can be accessed online for free. In every age, God has provided faithful men and women whose writings have been left behind, and church leaders today should take full advantage of their wisdom.

An Awesome Task

In many ways, it’s easy to become discouraged when I see the latest trends on youth decline in church participation. As a minister, I often wrestle with God like Paul, wondering, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Ultimately, all I can do is labor in teaching and with much prayer, knowing that God’s Word will not return void (Isa. 55:11). Church leaders and pastors have an awesome task of teaching and forming the next generation. Regardless of the culture and latest trends, God is in the process of building His church. Confident of this, church leaders can minister to young adults, equipping them to understand their world according to God’s Word.

Reposted with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.


Jacob Bier is youth director at Haddon Heights (New Jersey) Baptist Church. He is pursuing a master of divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. Jake writes regularly on his personal blog, Further Up & Further In.

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There are 16 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I am not sure that we really have our bearings on these issues, but this is at least a tentative approach to consider.  Thank you for spelling out what you believe to be the best approach.

Somehow, however, I have an instinct that we are missing something in all this.  If I knew what it was, I would not think it was missing.  Understood are the obvious things, like prayer and relationships as prerequisites to all ministry; it is nothing like that. Perhaps it might have something to do with God's judgment on our nation and our churches, and Him allowing evil spiritual forces to delude people?  I don't know, but there seems to be something supernatural going on.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

Young adults want to know that what we profess as Christians is real, true, and life transforming. They don't see many transformed lives in our churches. To grow, churches entertain, promote "worshsip experiences," and create more programs. Instead, they should deal with the cause of this lack of godliness by faithfully preaching the Word, practicing church discipline, and calling believers to righteous living.

If we as believers lived what we professed, unbelievers would see a marked difference in our lives compared to theirs.

Ed Vasicek's picture

T Howard wrote:

Young adults want to know that what we profess as Christians is real, true, and life transforming. They don't see many transformed lives in our churches. To grow, churches entertain, promote "worshsip experiences," and create more programs. Instead, they should deal with the cause of this lack of godliness by faithfully preaching the Word, practicing church discipline, and calling believers to righteous living.

If we as believers lived what we professed, unbelievers would see a marked difference in our lives compared to theirs.

This has always been true, but something is changing now from ten or twenty years ago.  There is something we are missing.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
This has always been true, but something is changing now from ten or twenty years ago.  There is something we are missing.

Christians are increasingly missing personal holiness. This is especially true about church leaders. How many cases of pastors involved in abuse / affairs / embezzlement / bullying do we need to demonstrate that this is an increasing epidemic?

Why would I as a young person go to place where the "leaders" are sexually abusing children, having affairs, embezzling money, or bullying people ... especially when this place claims to be Christ followers?

No thanks. We need to take Titus 1:16 seriously.

Bert Perry's picture

Agreed with Tom that personal conduct of leaders is an issue--and as a deacon myself, let me add "deacons" to that list--and it strikes me as well that there is something where young people are turned off by the tendency to go to a hyper-patriotic, somewhat over-political mood.  There is also something that is somewhat unfair--younger people often don't think things like being pro-life are important anymore.

Back to Titus 1:16, it also strikes me that we don't do ourselves any favors when we enshrine our culture as if it were Biblical (e.g. cultural fundamentalism), and we've got a big gap due to old authoritarian models of leadership as well.  For reference, my college aged (and above) daughters are still in the church, but they are very drawn to the EFCA model.  Not a bad place, really.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert wrote:

For reference, my college aged (and above) daughters are still in the church, but they are very drawn to the EFCA model.  Not a bad place, really.

No, Bert, not a bad place.  Our church almost affiliated with them, but some of our members were adamant about staying independent.  You are writing from an independent Baptist assumption, I think, as, I am guessing, is T Howard.  I am not.  I am not and was not part of the Hyles-Anderson or even Bob Jones bunch.

What I am talking about is the broader conservative evangelical world.  The decline of the Sword of the Lord group began earlier.  I agree with T Howard, that personal holiness is a major issue in all the above -- it is no longer in vogue, period.  In an attempt to combat legalism, we have also eliminated the clearly Biblical mandate to be a separate people.  No argument there.

The issue I am talking about is not the migration of fundamentalists to conservative evangelicalism, which, as you mentioned, might not be a bad thing.  I am talking about the movement away from Christianity toward atheism, eastern philosophies, secularism, etc.   The ex-evangelicals.  The numbers are greater than those who were molested, whose leaders failed, and whose parents were hypocritical.  In the current culture, our faith is made to look unreasonable and naive (more so than in the past; Christianity has always had its intellectual enemies, but they are now resonating with the younger crowd in a way and to a degree they never did before).  

 

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
The issue I am talking about is not the migration of fundamentalists to conservative evangelicalism, which, as you mentioned, might not be a bad thing.  I am talking about the movement away from Christianity toward atheism, eastern philosophies, secularism, etc.   The ex-evangelicals.  The numbers are greater than those who were molested, whose leaders failed, and whose parents were hypocritical.  In the current culture, our faith is made to look unreasonable and naive (more so than in the past; Christianity has always had its intellectual enemies, but they are now resonating with the younger crowd in a way and to a degree they never did before).  

Ed, thanks for the clarification. This is helpful.

Briefly, my religious heritage is growing up in independent Bible churches and SBC churches. My first exposure to IFB-land was attending PCC and, after graduating and getting married, being a member of two IFB KJV-Only churches. While I was at the second IFB church, I began my seminary studies at Clarks Summit (BBS). BBS requires its seminary students to complete a pastoral internship. To complete mine, I moved my family to an independent Bible church in the area because I knew the pastor well and trusted his leadership experience and doctrinal acumen. This is the church where I now serve as an elder.

I maintain the biggest reason young adults are dismissing the church today is because the hole in our holiness is getting larger. In their eyes, we have nothing to offer them. No change. No truth. No hope.

Bert Perry's picture

Ed, for reference, my last two churches have been GARBC, but I've also found fellowship at independent Baptist churches and an EFCA church.  But you're basically right about me.  :^)

Agreed that the exodus is very troubling--perhaps the thread about shopping for a church has some hints, where the most troubling thing Roger Olson describes is a general lack of attention to preaching.  Perhaps one reason young people are walking away from the faith is because in a very real way, it hasn't been preached to them?  (yikes!)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Appreciate the comments.  I have no doubt that both Bert and T Howard are on to part of the reason for some of the departure from evangelicalism.  But I think we are all missing something or some things -- perhaps we will understand better in the future.

Bert wrote:

  Perhaps one reason young people are walking away from the faith is because in a very real way, it hasn't been preached to them?  (yikes!)

My wife and I have a long prayer list of young people who grew up in our church, in our homeschool group, or children of people who now attend our church (but not when their kids were at home).  In these instances, they heard and were taught. And there is a lot of them.  Josh Harris, for example, knew his stuff.

T Howard wrote:

I maintain the biggest reason young adults are dismissing the church today is because the hole in our holiness is getting larger.

All I can say is that, in our community, the godliness of the pastors and the people of a church have no influence on attendance. Many of them are mindless.  The sad thing is that people who leave these mindless churches go on a tirade about evangelicalism's lack of reasonableness and intelligence, and young people raised in more reasonable and theologically deep churches go along with the caricature, even though it really was not true in their instance. Sadly, this sort of transfer falsely assigns the mindlessness of snake handlers and snorting stomping persuading pastors to the more Biblically responsible churches who have godly leaders, who seek to persuade by reason rather than manipulate by emotion,  and are not given to fads and extremes.  Guilt by association, I guess.

There is more than the fact that churches are not what they should be.  There is an attitude and spirit out there.  People kept gravitating to Jimmy Swaggert-like churches after the Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker scandals.  It should not have been that way then, people were too forgiving.  Now, there is a strong pull away -- and real problems of which we are rightly ashamed -- seem to be repelling people.  But that is not the issue. The problems are often the pretext.  More and more Americans simply DETEST evangelical viewpoints, and the evil one has convinced them that we are ridiculously narrow to think that Jesus is the only way, or that people who are "born gay" should not be allowed to get married.   It is the moral convictions and the narrowness of truth that infuriates them, but it didn't used to -- not as much and not as intently.

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
More and more Americans simply DETEST evangelical viewpoints, and the evil one has convinced them that we are ridiculously narrow to think that Jesus is the only way, or that people who are "born gay" should not be allowed to get married.   It is the moral convictions and the narrowness of truth that infuriates them, but it didn't used to -- not as much and not as intently.

Ed, no doubt the facade of cultural Christianity in America is being ripped away. That is a good thing. If young people (or any people) are leaving and hating the church because the church is holy and proclaiming the gospel and biblical truth, then that shouldn't be surprising (John 6:66; John 15:18). In fact, I'm reminded of the words of Ignatius in his letter to the Roman church: μεγέθους ἐστὶν ὁ Χριστιανισμός, ὅταν μισῆται ὑπὸ κόσμου.

I still think the greater issue is that most churches in America (and their leaders) are not much different than the world. They have lost their savor and are no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet (Matt. 5:13).

Ed Vasicek's picture

Well said, T Howard.

The questions remain:  Is the number of elect lessening in our country, or are the tares simply surfacing for all to see?  We are certainly approaching a time when bearing the name of Christ will bring significant reproach.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

I can't vouch for the source, but here's something that suggests that the major shift among young people out of high school is to shift from mainline churches to atheism.  Having grown up in a mainline church (Methodist), I can vouch for the fact that (unlike Ed's examples) we didn't hear much Gospel there.

That doesn't really explain our churches pretty much void of college students, though.  Note as well that at least into the 2010s (however far they were actually measuring), the proportion that identifies as Catholic is remarkably stable.  I remember noticing that in college--you'd have someone who was pro-abortion, never went to church, and might even be living with someone, and they still identified as Catholic.  It was pretty remarkable.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
The questions remain:  Is the number of elect lessening in our country, or are the tares simply surfacing for all to see?  We are certainly approaching a time when bearing the name of Christ will bring significant reproach.

What we once thought was wheat (i.e. people living out cultural Christianity) was really tares. There is now little incentive to remain a cultural Christian. The tares are ripening, and it's a shock to most churches just how many tares there were/are in the church.

But, if we understand our Bibles, we shouldn't be shocked.

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that in the end times, the love of many will grow cold.....OK, not good news for those falling away, but Scripture does predict some of this, no?  And certainly that does not let us off the hook for seeing our own errors and omissions and rectifying them, but it is one thing we ought to consider.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

I agree with the above. There was a time in this country where unbelievers were connected to churches for business and social reasons. Now it has become passé to be a believer and the wheat is blowing away. It's not that we should just accept it with a spirit of defeatism, but it shouldn't surprise us either. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

I can't remember who first call this to my attention. Was it Dobson, perhaps?  Someone.  Anyhow, that person pointed out that we have confused compliant children/adults with faith.  Many people have "gone along" with the Gospel -- they don't deny it -- but have never grappled with it in a saving way.   Later, when they abandon the faith, we are perplexed, but, the reality is, they never truly embraced it with their inner being.

On the other hand, we see people who very much seem to embrace the Gospel (like a Josh Harris) and then deny the faith.  We are forced to conclude that they were not really saved, even though they won many to Christ.  But, from a human perspective, that doesn't seem the case. Which goes to prove, "the Lord knows them that are his" (2 Timothy 2:19), implying that we do not .  Not absolutely, anyway.

And then we have strange things, like seeing the editor of Christianity Today converting to Catholicism.  A lot of "de-conversions" out there.  They grieve our souls, but are part of the casualties of the great invisible spiritual war.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

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