The hemorrhage of Christians from their religion continues apace. And that hemorrhage affects evangelicalism as much as any other flavor of the religion. However, you’d never know that truth from the way their leaders talk. Today, we look at one of those leaders, Ed Stetzer, who wrote a recent post seeking to reassure his tribe, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He wants them to stop panicking about their kids’ disengagement from Christianity. But this attempt backfires in the end, just like everything else the SBC is doing to halt its decline.
(Note: I’m dealing with a lot of information sources from the SBC today. To keep things straight, I repeated links sometimes in this post. It’s done on purpose.)
K-RTD: Where the Hits Keep On Coming.
Now, I haven’t seen a whole lot of decent surveys about religion in the last couple of months, but here’s a smattering of recent ones:
- A neat new survey discovers that roughly a quarter of Americans might lack god-beliefs.
- Interesting peer-reviewed paper about how increasing politicization is leading to greater churn in Christianity.
- Survey revealing that white evangelicals saw a significant drop in how many people identified with their label between 2006-2016. In particular, only 8% of surveyed young adults identified as white evangelicals (compared to 26% of senior citizens).
- Another survey indicating growing numbers of people looking for spirituality outside of Christianity’s organized arms.
- Barely half of all Americans believe in “God as described in the Bible.”
- Of course, white evangelicals’ support of their idol, Donald Trump, remains higher than ever.
- In most of the world, Pew finds a serious age gap in religiosity.
- An interesting new survey seeks to throw some nuance onto how Christians get categorized.
- About 20% of all Americans find meaning in life in “spirituality and faith,” when the questions are left open-ended. That number jumps to 36% if respondents are offered “your religious faith” as an option in a close-ended question.
Ouch ouch ouch!
And those ain’t even all of the reputable reports I’ve seen. They’re just the most recent and potent of the lot.
We’ll be talking later about why evangelicals are taking that decline as hard as they are. Indeed, this decline challenges their most-cherished feelings of dominance and entitlement.
But reality doesn’t care what someone believes or doesn’t believe, or what frightens or thrills anyone, or what challenges or soothes people.
It happens anyway, just like the tides.
A Sea Change Rolling In.
Americans (like myself) find ourselves teetering on the cusp of a massive change in our society. Of course, I refer here to our growing secularization.
And that secularization affects us generationally. The younger the Americans, the more secular we are. And with each succeeding generation, we get more secular. Most young people simply consider religion irrelevant to their lives, which makes it very difficult for evangelists to successfully recruit them.
In fact, I could find not one single reputable survey house that concludes anything but what I’ve been saying for years:
First, Christian numbers have been declining for years, and that decline will only continue in the years to come. Not one survey house or study even thinks we’ve hit the bottom of that decline, much less that Christian leaders can turn that ship away from the iceberg looming ahead of them in the mist.
Second, with each successive generation, that decline only accelerates. Without exception. Right now, we’re at Gen Z–people born around the year 2000 and coming into adulthood now. We still need some solid, reputable info about this generation, but Barna Group, as biased as it is, found last year that their level of religious identification has tanked.
And third, Christian leaders really have no idea how to address that decline, especially its generational nature. Every single strategy that I’ve seen Christian leaders deploy to recapture their sagging youth market has fizzled out without any appreciable positive results–where it hasn’t backfired to one extent or another, of course.
But Wait! Ed Stetzer’s Here to Save the Day!
Ed Stetzer is as invested in this decline as any evangelical culture-warrior ever could be. I truly suspect that he lost his LifeWay gig because he wasn’t playing ball with the old white dudes at the top of his denomination. (LifeWay, of course, functions as the SBC’s propaganda arm.) Now, in his comfy chair at Wheaton College, he concentrates on evangelism–and the evangelism of younger folks in particular–in his preferred manner.
Here, he wants to tell his tribe that things aren’t quite as bad as they might seem.
In an opinion piece last month, Stetzer informs us that everything those surveys–and popular culture–tells evangelicals is wrong.
He begins with a shocking statistic:
For many years, people have based their thoughts on this subject on the findings of one particularly famous study that suggested that 86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school never to return again.
Now, we’re going to talk later next week about that 86% figure, because it sent me on a wild-goose chase that still tickles me pink. To summarize for now, it’s just made-up. That “particularly famous study” never happened, and at least at some point, Ed Stetzer knew that. Also, we’ll ignore that literally nobody uses that 86% figure. It exists only in Christian minds–as a strawman for them to burn.
The hilarious thing here is that the statistic Stetzer triumphantly offers up in its place ain’t a whole lot better for Team Jesus.
Disengagement: A Super-Quick Primer.
Ed Stetzer refers here to disengagement. That’s a fancy word for withdrawing from religious devotions. Someone who disengages from Christianity no longer prays, attends church, attempts to recruit anybody, reads the Bible, or tithes. Disengaged people might consider themselves Christian still, but they just don’t do anything specifically Christian anymore.
Deconversion, which Stetzer didn’t cover, involves fully disaffiliating from the religion. That person usually adopts a label like ex-Christian and very specifically rejects the religion’s claims. Not everybody who disengages fully deconverts, while not everybody who deconverts can disengage fully.
Often disengagement precedes a deconversion, but not always.
Also, from the point of view of Christian leaders, deconversion isn’t usually fixable. Disengagement, by contrast, often is–or could be, if they could get themselves and their flocks to be a little less detestable.
Saving the Day.
Stetzer offers, to burn down that “86%” strawman statistic, some study he did with LifeWay years ago that found that only 70% of the students they surveyed dropped out of church during college. See? SEE? It wasn’t 86% after all! This is SO much better!
Weirdly enough, he wrote that post to encourage parents who had just learned that their college-attending progeny have stopped attending church and have seemingly withdrawn from Christianity. He wants to tell them that it might be cause for concern, sure, but it’s not the end of the world. See, he soothes them, “Many come back.” He bases this assurance in part on a 2013 book, Families and Faith, that claims that evangelicals totally have an awesome “retention rate.”
Of course, what Ed Stetzer defines as “retention” and what that book’s author defines that way appear to be two different things. Forget it, he’s rollin’. No, Ed Stetzer simply wants SBC parents to have good hope that their kids will eventually become mini-mes again, as indeed, traditional fundagelical folklore has claimed for decades. But as those more reputable surveys reveal, even when young adults identify as Christian nowadays, even evangelical, they often redefine and challenge a lot of the tenets of the faith their parents hold–not to mention its beloved routines and practices.
And and and you guys, you guys, Stetzer also disses that earlier study because it involved teens who’d attended church for as little as one year to qualify as “involved!” So maybe it doesn’t really cover teens who are super-duper-mega-involved in church and super-psyched for Jesus!
(To which one gently points out that Ed Stetzer says he ran that stupid study. He tells us it was one of his “first projects” at LifeWay right in the post itself. If he’d wanted it to cover only people who, as teens, had some different level of involvement in church, he could easily have–oh, never mind.)
Why We Can’t Trust Ed Stetzer’s Studies.
The study Ed Stetzer references and ran was conducted in 2007. Yes, 2007. He wrote about it in 2014 and then linked that 2014 post in his December 2018 opinion post. However, he only hints in the 2018 post that the study is that old.
Here is a slideshow about that 2007 study from LifeWay. It involved about 1000 people between the ages of 18-30 who answered questions on a web survey. We aren’t told who created or administered the web survey; they do share in the slideshow what some of the questions were but not what the options were for answers.
Nor has Stetzer revealed who interpreted these results. I hope it wasn’t him. As his resume reveals, he has never received any kind of education or training in statistics. He’s got a BS in Natural Sciences from what appears to be some kind of teeny tiny private college run by religious nutjobs. Here are their requirements for the kind of degree Ed Stetzer holds. Impressed? Me, not so much. All the rest of his education centers around SBC talking points.
Dude’s a made man with the SBC. Nothing more. And he’s spent most of his professional career telling his masters exactly what they ache most to hear. Made-up statistics, poorly-designed and -run surveys, and very carefully-defined parameters help him do that.
… Or the New Hotness LifeWay Study.
Very recently, LifeWay released a new update to that 2007 study. Ed Stetzer left in 2017, so he likely had little to do with this one. Still, it’s just as iffy as his.
In the new hotness 2019 update, LifeWay discovered that 66% of surveyed young adults said they’d dropped out of church for at least a year during college, as opposed to 70% in the 2007 one.
In the 2007 survey, Stetzer tells us in his December 2018 post, LifeWay discovered that about 2/3 of those who left church eventually resumed attendance. The 2019 update found that 45% of the disengaged young adults eventually resumed church attendance at that same level, while another third attended church more sporadically. Further, 22% never resumed attendance at all. 10% became Catholic, while another 7% identified as atheist or agnostic. (These numbers vary interestingly from the 2007 slideshow’s writeup on #28.)
The guy who ran the 2019 study, Ben Trueblood, also runs LifeWay’s student ministry department. He very obviously does not share Ed Stetzer’s optimism about the next generation. He said of the new study, “when someone drops out in these years there is a 69 percent chance they will stay gone.”
Many come back!
Oh, do they now? Really?
(Of course, when that update got written up for Baptist Press, the writer left out that 69% sound bite.)
The Problems With These Surveys.
These sorts of gaps–and many others besides–are part of why I don’t trust LifeWay’s research.
We should be very, very careful about any of the data coming from places like LifeWay, Barna, Ligonier, and those other Christian groups. They function as for-profit propaganda mills. They sell their research (and suggestions drawn from that research) to worried Christian parents and ministers.
Whether their news is bad or good or indifferent, these groups all feed into the tribe’s current strategies, demands, and plans.
For example, remember that thing Stetzer said about how LifeWay chose the young adults who participated in both the 2007 study and the 2019 update? In both, the organization looked for under-30 adults who had attended a Protestant church twice a month or more for at least one year during their high school years.
That’s it. That’s how LifeWay defined “involved.”
They didn’t define any kind of control group, either. Thus, they have no idea what happened to teens with other levels of involvement.
And Then There’s Coercion to Consider.
Further, the surveys don’t appear to have asked if this church attendance was coerced or freely chosen. Many adults now relate stories of being forced to attend church as teens. Therefore, it seems to me quite irresponsible that LifeWay doesn’t care about that. In fact, LifeWay just assumes that any level of teen OR adult attendance is voluntary. It’s all filed under “Hooray Team Jesus!”
Then we’ve got design problems to consider. The first survey ran as a web affair, but we don’t know much about it. As for the second, participants came from “a demographically balanced online panel.” We know nothing about its source or how it was balanced. Nor do we know how the survey people asked their questions.
The level of transparency we expect out of places like PRRI simply doesn’t exist with Christian surveys.
Christians have had some very bad news in recent years about their religion and the state of young people’s growing indifference toward it. But their leaders respond to that news, “Keep doing what we’ve always told you to do! Just do more of it and harder! Stay the course! Jesus as hard as you can!”
Instead of real facts, they want problems they can fix using techniques they already teach. They want solutions that tie into their existing worldviews and frameworks. And they want failures they can solidly blame on the flocks themselves.
Indeed, the LifeWay writeup of the 2019 study itself didn’t include specific suggestions for fixing the SBC’s hemorrhage of young adults. But the Baptist Press writeup sure went there. All of it looked like the same old ineffective SSDD fluff they’ve been advising for decades.
Maybe that’s why Ed Stetzer specifically tells parents that their kids might leave the religion no matter what they do. As far as he and his pals are concerned, that’s exactly true. It literally doesn’t matter what he and his pals suggest parents do to keep their kids indoctrinated. Everything they’ve ever suggested has failed!
Their Lying Eyes.
So when young people continue to leave SBC churches, and they continue not to return, and churches continue to age, the situation will certainly provide quite a contradiction to the SBC’s talking points.
Who will the flocks believe then? Ed Stetzer and his pals, or their own lying eyes?
Oh, really, who am I kidding? Not myself, surely.
For years, I’ve seen these authoritarian flocks, leaders, and parents ignore reality in favor of their indoctrinations. That won’t change even as the next generation almost entirely abandons them. Something much bigger and more important is at stake for these folks than their tribe’s survival in future generations. They’re so terrified of being wrong that they’ll ride an error-riddled fail-train all the way to the bottom before they ever dare to question their beliefs.
Thankfully, the coming generation seems much more willing to question it than they’ve ever been.
NEXT UP: A very special Lord Snow Presides on Monday! Then, on Tuesday, we look at a weird fake-news thing Ed Stetzer accidentally introduced to his tribe’s canon. See you soon! <3
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