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Where you live in evangelical conservative land, are you seeing younger people leaving religion as polls seem to indicate in the US?
I live in rural northwest Ohio. While I have lived in Michigan, California, Arizona, and Texas over the years, rural Ohio is my home. I understand country thinking, chafe when city-slickers call us ignorant hillbillies, and generally appreciate the cultural values of country life. That said, as I have moved leftward politically and embraced atheism, I have increasingly found the God-Guns-Republican ethos of rural folks to be stifling and frustrating.
Older locals, with a few exceptions, view me as a curiosity — someone they can’t figure out. I have been told on more than a few occasions, “Bruce, how can you be so smart, yet so dumb?” Those who were congregants of mine or know my Evangelical background are shocked that someone of my education, experience, and faith could ever turn his back on Jesus and start worshiping Satan — “Satan” being a catchall for atheism, liberalism, progressivism, communism, socialism, and other -ism’s their pastors have deemed anti-God.
Over the years, I have been repeatedly eviscerated by local Evangelicals and conservative Catholics in letters to the editors of the Bryan Times and the Defiance Crescent-News. Some of these Jesus-lovers have turned to lies and distortions to “prove” that I am Satan incarnate or a communist infiltrator. One man said that I was lying about my ministerial past, and that he had reported me to the state of Ohio for illegally performing weddings (which he did not actually do).
One day, I received an email from this man’s nephew. He informed me that he considered his uncle a blooming idiot. This 20-something man told me that he didn’t attend church; that he was an atheist. Over the years, I have received numerous emails and social media comments from younger locals. With the exception of one woman — a local pastor’s daughter — these young people voiced their discontent over the right-wing/conservative nature of rural northwest Ohio. Many of them no longer attended church or still went to services on Sundays because they had to.
Based on these anecdotes, I have concluded that local young people are increasingly disaffected from the religious beliefs and politics of their parents and grandparents — especially those who had opportunities to move away,go to college, and experience the world outside of homogeneous rural northwest Ohio.. I see this same disaffection with most of my children. Regrettably, one of my sons has become a gun-toting, Trump-supporting, white supremacist — who is now flying a militia flag and the Christian flag from his front porch. Except for him, my children have liberal/progressive values. Not all of them are atheists, but none of them, except for our white supremacist son, attends Evangelical churches. I suspect all of them will vote for Biden on election day. Even Bethany — our daughter with Down syndrome — if she could vote, she’d vote for Biden. The other day a Trump ad came on TV. Bethany booed and said, FUCK TRUMP! She is certainly a product of her environment.
Generally, local churches are losing younger congregants, especially when they go off to college. Churches are dying on the vine, though local Christians would try to argue that this is untrue. “Look at Xperience Church in Defiance,” they would say. “Xperience is growing by leaps and bounds! See, Jesus is alive and well.” However, as someone who has studied Evangelical church growth since the 1970s, I know that just because a few new Evangelical clubs are growing doesn’t mean the rest of the clubs are okay. In fact, where do churches such as Xperience get most of their new members? Transfer growth — Christians moving from one church to another. (Please see The Fine Art of Church Hopping.) Xperience Church has pillaged other congregations to fuel their explosive growth, Interestingly, some of the churches that have suffered the greatest loss from Xperience stealing members are those who did the very same thing to mainline churches in the 1970s and 1980s. You see, it is immoral capitalism that drives Evangelical church growth. Xperience Church just so happens to be the newest hamburger joint in town. Everyone loves visiting a new restaurant — especially here in rural northwest Ohio where Applebee’s and Chipolte are considered upscale fine dining. (Please see Dear Evangelical, Just Because You Quote the Bible Doesn’t Make Your Comment True, “We Accept Anyone No Matter What,” Local Evangelical Says.)
Looks, then, are deceiving. Yes, some local Evangelical churches are growing. However, the question remains, WHY are these churches growing? Where are there new members coming from? Since virtually everyone in rural northwest Ohio is a Christian, this growth can’t be driven by conversions. What’s driving this growth is people deciding they prefer Wendy’s over McDonald’s. The good news is the fact that many young people have decided they don’t like any of the offerings from local hamburger joints, choosing instead to cook at home, become vegans, or seek out rational, progressive restaurants. When you have had a Five Guys or Red Robin hamburger or eaten at a gastropub in Fort Wayne or Toledo, it’s hard to return to cheap, unsatisfying hamburgers sold on every corner in rural Ohio.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
Here’s one of the dirty little secrets rarely spoken of by Evangelical pastors and leaders: most Evangelicals don’t choose to become Christians. Now, I’m not talking about the internecine war between Calvinists and Arminians over free-will. What I am talking about today is how people become members of Evangelical churches. Being a Christian, of course, is a requirement for membership, but most church members did not choose to become Christians — even if they think they did. Let me explain.
People come into the Evangelical church one of three ways:
They are born into and grow up in the church. They are what are called cradle Evangelicals.
They have a crisis conversion — a born-again experience — and, after baptism, are admitted into membership.
They are already Christians and are members of other churches. They leave these churches and join Evangelical congregations. This is commonly called transfer growth.
Let me deal with these in reverse order.
Despite all their talk about evangelizing the lost and reaching the world with the gospel, most Evangelical churches — particularly megachurches — “grow” through transfer growth — Methodists becoming Baptists, Baptists becoming Charismatics, Nazarene congregants becoming Reformed Baptists, etc. Far too many Evangelicals want to be entertained and “fed,” so they seek out churches that can meet their “felt needs.” Thinking that their present churches are “dead” or lacking in some way, Evangelicals visit other churches hoping to find one that clicks with them; one that offers the preaching, programs, music, and handsome preacher they are looking for.
The past forty years have been hard on small, often rural, churches. As megachurches pop-up everywhere, they steal or entice away disaffected congregants from smaller churches. This is how a new church plant can skyrocket from a dozen people to hundreds in a matter of weeks or months. Megachurches, or mega-size aspiring church planters, deliberately target people who are looking for a church that is “relevant” or has the best damn band in the land. Music, in particular, has become a primary reason people leave their churches and join up with new churches. Oh, Evangelicals won’t say this out loud, choosing instead to give all sorts of “spiritual” reasons for desertion, but when pressed they will admit that they sure do love the music at their new church. Like it or not, the quality of a church’s band is often the biggest factor in whether prospective members will join the club. Small churches, of course, can’t compete with congregations that have large budgets, paid music staff, and worship leaders who look like Ken or Barbie. Brother Bill leading congregants in the hymns of the faith can’t compete with coiffed worship bands who play and sing the latest praise and worship music with professionalism and skill.
Regardless of the fact that most Evangelical church growth comes from transfers from other congregations, membership via crisis conversion is a fairly frequent occurrence. Evangelizers seek out people who are having troubles in their lives: marital problems, family issues, substance abuse, incarceration, criminal behavior, sexual perversion, to name a few, and share with them that the solution to their problems is Jesus Christ. How aggressive churches are in this regard varies from church to church. In the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church (IFB) movement, churches tend to emphasize evangelization. I heard countless evangelists say that churches should find the biggest, baddest, meanest man in town and win him to Jesus. Seeking out the dregs of society was common, as was targeting the poor and disadvantaged. Promising that Jesus was the cure for what ailed them and the church was the family they never had, countless people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, were baptized, and became members of Bible-believing churches.
As a youth growing up in the IFB church movement, I heard countless testimonies from people who were bad people before Jesus saved them. I heard stories of changed lives from people who said they were a mob hit-man, Satanist, occultist, drug trafficker, prostitute, drug addict, alcoholic, porn star, bank robber, Black Panther, to name a few. The badder the person, the greater the conversion, or so the stories went, anyway. Many of these stories were later discredited or proved to be lies, but they sure made a mark on me. “Wow! Look at what Jesus did for these people! If Jesus can save them, he can save anyone!”
Most Evangelical church members are born into and grow up in the church. As is common among all religions, their parents chose for them what their religion would be. My parents were saved, baptized and became members of an IFB megachurch in the early 1960s. While I was baptized as an infant in the Episcopalian church, the church of my youth all the way up to age 50 was Evangelical Christianity. There was never a time I chose to be an Evangelical. My parents believed right-wing, racist, Fundamentalist Christianity was the one true faith, and following the words of the prophet Jeremiah, they determined “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) I suspect most of the ex-Evangelicals who read this blog can say the same; that their religion was chosen for them. Yes, I made a profession of faith as a young child and again as a fifteen-year-old teen, (Please see My Baptist Salvation Experience) but these “choices” were really expected rituals that all church children went through; little more than confirmation in Roman Catholicism or mainline churches.
For years, church leaders have heard the claim that nearly nine out of ten Christians accept Jesus as their savior before the age of 18. If that statistic was accurate in the past, it no longer depicts U.S. society. The current Barna study indicates that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born-again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. One out of eight born-again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. Less than one out of every four born-again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday. Barna noted that these figures are consistent with similar studies it has conducted during the past twenty years.
The survey data show that Catholics who become born again are even more likely than Protestants to do so before reaching high school. Among those currently associated with a Catholic church and who are born again, two out of three (66%) accepted Christ before age 13; one-fifth (21%) did so from 13 to 21; and the remaining 13% made that decision as an adult. In contrast, born-again people aligned with a Protestant church make that choice at an older age: 40% did so as children, 35% during the 13-to-21-age span, and one-quarter (25%) as adults.
The precipitating event for someone to accept Christ as his or her savior varied by the age of the individual making that spiritual commitment.
For instance, among Christians who embraced Christ before their teen years, half were led to Christ by their parents, with another one in five led by some other friend or relative. Comparatively few accepted Jesus in response to a minister’s personal prompting (7%) and only one out of eight cited a special event as the turning point in their journey. Among those who mentioned events, about half identified a church service. Just 1% mentioned media evangelism or other special situations as being responsible for their conversion.
Among people who accepted Christ when they were age 13 through 21, the process was much more diverse. One out of five credited a friend with bringing them to Christ, and a similar proportion said their parents were responsible for their decision. One-fifth also recalled an event as the trigger for their commitment. One-sixth of the people saved as teens (16%) listed a relative other than their parent as the primary influencer. Ministers were cited by one out of every ten Christians who accepted Christ during the 13-to-21-age bracket, while media and special personal situations were listed by only 1%.
For one thing, statistics are on its side. 19 out of 20 Christians receive Christ before the age of 25. After that, the odds against conversion become astronomical.
Early conversion saves not only a soul, but potentially points an entire life toward service to God and man. In 15 years of ministry I’ve met no one who is sorry he came to Christ early in life. I’ve encountered many who are sorry they didn’t.
Children are reached more easily than adults. Jay Kesler, president of Youth for Christ International, has well said, “Any evangelism after high school isn’t evangelism. It’s really salvage.”
Young children are notably tender. Their sincerity is never in doubt. Their heart attitudes contribute to genuine conversion. And Jesus told adults that they must become as children to experience the new birth (Matt. 18:3).
True, children who make an early profession of faith sometimes struggle with assurance and make a second public commitment later. They often say, “I didn’t know what I was doing the first time.” More likely, however, the personal worker attending the child didn’t know what he was doing.
We need not fully understand the Gospel to be saved; we need only believe and receive it. What adult fully comprehends the rationale or the magnitude of redemption?
Some argue that children are unable to stay true to their commitment. Yet the late English preacher Charles Spurgeon noted, “Out of a church of 2,700 members, I have never had to exclude a single one who was received while yet a child. Teachers and superintendents should not merely believe in the possibility of early conversion, but in the ferquency [sic] of it.”
Child evangelism assists in the formation of character. The Bible clearly teaches that man’s only capability for good lies in the imputed righteousness of Christ. We do not expect unconverted adults to act like Christians. The same should be true for children.
Christians seem to be the only ones who believe they should wait to influence children’s minds. Advertisers don’t wait. Child abusers don’t wait. Neither do humanist educators, false religions and cults, or Satan.
The church that reaches its children has a better chance of reaching its adults. Often newly-converted children win their parents and grandparents to the Lord. Those children grow up to be adults who can nurture their own families to faith in Jesus Christ.
Lest we forget, Christianity is always just one generation from extinction. We must reach the coming generation with the Gospel.
As you can see, Evangelical churches and parachurch groups know how important it is to evangelize children. That’s why they have junior church programs, youth programs, vacation Bible school (VBS), and countless other ministries/programs. These programs are used to indoctrinate children before they can make rational, informed decisions about religion, God, and the Bible, sucking youngsters into the Evangelical ghetto before they have a chance to “think.” Evangelizers don’t want children and teenagers to use critical thinking skills to ponder whether the claims of Christianity are true. Instead, they are expected to believe and obey. Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, and their church knows what’s best for them, children are told, so there is no need to “think” about these things. Just follow the prescribed salvation rituals and all will be well. And for most of the people sitting in Evangelical churches, this is exactly how they became members in good standing.
Many former Evangelicals will tell you that studying the Bible and the claims of Christianity as a teen or adult are what eventually led to their loss of faith. Their stories show that Evangelical indoctrination of children is no longer as effective as it was a generation ago. Thanks to the Internet, younger Evangelicals now have access to information about Christianity and the Bible that they have never heard from their parents, pastors, and Christian school teachers. Facts and evidence, along with skeptical, rational thinking are the best cure for those infected with Fundamentalist thinking as youths.
Churches can no longer rely on cradle Evangelicals to prop up ministries for another generation. Too many young congregants are exiting stage left, never to be seen again, save at weddings and funerals. So, Evangelical churches will focus on pilfering people from “dead” or “liberal” congregations or double-down on evangelizing the meanest, baddest people in town. Whether these approaches will pump enough new blood into the Evangelical churches remains to be seen.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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