(RNS) — Among the important changes occurring on the U.S. spiritual landscape, the shift away from religious affiliation in the last 40 years is the most seismic and most significant — the rise of that demographic known as the “nones,” which has gone from 5% of the population in 1972 to 23% of the population in 2018.
The phenomenon, however, has left white evangelical Christianity’s numbers practically untouched. In fact, the nation’s share of white evangelical Protestants has dropped a mere two percentage points since 2000 and is essentially the same size as it was in the early 1980s.
Evangelicalism is on a collision course, however, with a culture that is rapidly liberalizing on two areas that define evangelical theology: their view of homosexuality and the role of women in the life of the church. A tradition quite literally named for its ability to bring new people to the faith is finding that task harder each passing year, as the doctrines of the tradition move further out of step with the country at large.
In 2008, just one in three white evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 35 believed that same-sex couples should have the right to be married. Beginning in 2012, though, acceptance of gay marriage jumped from 36% to 56% in just six years. There’s reason to believe that two-thirds of young evangelicals now disagree with their church’s position on this issue.
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When it comes to women taking on leadership roles, support for women’s equality among evangelicals under the age of 35 has also exploded. A poll conducted by Denison University political scientist Paul Djupe and me in March 2020 found that just 12.4% of the youngest evangelicals objected to the idea of a woman preaching at the pulpit during a worship service, which is expressly forbidden in any Southern Baptist Church.
One of the dominant understandings of how churches attract new members is referred to as religious economy theory. In this view, churches are equated with businesses. Each provides a product to a potential audience. If the product is palatable, it will see an increase in “sales,” expressed as church attendance. If the church does not meet the needs of consumers, attendance will dwindle, and the church will go out of business.
From this perspective, the evangelical church is selling Blackberries while Apple has just begun shipping iPhones.
If the white evangelical tradition expects to maintain its share of the religious landscape, it has to do two things: keep the young people who were raised in the church while also attracting new converts. But making sales to this demographic is getting harder by the day. Nearly 80% of Americans under the age of 35 support same-sex marriage, and just 8.8% believe that women should not be able to preach.
That leaves the white evangelical church a choice. First, it could stand on doctrine and say that fidelity to orthodox evangelicalism is worth the price of potentially shrinking in size. There is integrity in this path. I’ve had many evangelicals tell me, “God does not care about public opinion polls.” As a social scientist who is also a pastor, I’m sympathetic to the view that God can change hearts. But I see no evidence of divine intervention in the data.
Alternatively, evangelicalism could begin to slowly shift its stance on issues like women pastors and same-sex relations. There is some evidence that, on the issue of homosexuality, there has already been some softening. Work by Paul Djupe found that while 90% of evangelicals believed that their house of worship forbade homosexuality in 2007, that has dropped to 65% in 2020.
One of the largest and most successful church planting networks in the United States is Acts 29, which provides startup funding for pastors who want to plant a new church. As with many grants, the funds come with strings attached — most importantly, requiring that the church plant align with key doctrines of the organization. Acts 29 prohibits homosexuality as well as female pastors.
Imagine a church planter who is painfully aware that their church needs to grow large enough to support itself very quickly, but also knows that those two core doctrines will turn off many in the local community being reached.
For many pastors across the country, these are not theoretical technical discussions, such as whether mobile devices were better with physical keyboards, or esoteric matters of theology. They are very real struggles about vocation and calling and the survival of their organization.
These fights will only intensify in the future. The recent decision by the United Methodist Church to split over same-sex marriage is just the first of many salvos in a period of reckoning for American evangelicalism. And while they continue to fight, the “nones” tick up another percentage every year or two.