Young Evangelicals: Expanding Their Mission

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From left: Johner Bildbyra AB / Corbis; Image Source / Corbis

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In general, however, Evangelicals' political and social activism was discouraged on the grounds that it took focus away from the greater cause of preparing individuals for the eternal world. Some Evangelicals were involved in the civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam War, and a faction of Wheaton students even launched the U.S.'s first Evangelicals for McGovern chapter. But many agreed with their fundamentalist cousin the Rev. Jerry Falwell when he criticized Martin Luther King Jr.'s political activism in 1964, arguing that "preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners."

Fifteen years later, Falwell changed his tune when he founded the Moral Majority, and an important debate within Evangelicalism simply ended. "The question was no longer whether you could make a case for political involvement," says Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington. "The issue became which side you were on."

While their grandparents might have considered political and social engagement inappropriate and their parents may have spent their energies on culture-war issues such as abortion and school prayer, the members of the newest generation of Evangelicals are less interested in choosing sides. They focus on nonideological causes like fighting for clean water and poverty relief and fighting against sex trafficking. The issues lend themselves to what the late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer called "co-belligerents," the idea that people who disagree on other issues can work together for a common cause. No one is pro-malaria, so everyone is a potential ally to fight malaria. That may seem simply logical, but just four years ago, when Rick Warren invited then Senator Barack Obama to address his annual AIDS conference, the megachurch pastor was attacked by religious conservatives who sent him a letter warning that Obama's support for abortion rights rendered him an unfit ally on any issue. "You cannot fight evil while justifying another," they wrote.

Many younger Evangelicals have also dispensed with the idea — once considered gospel truth by older generations — that only private institutions like churches and charities should care for the needy. "Young Evangelicals are not constrained by the sacred-secular dichotomy their parents had," says Cromartie. "They see the whole world as their neighborhood." They are the faith-based generation, having grown up with George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives and the assumption that it is right and good for government to partner with religious organizations. "We need all hands on deck," Obama declared in a 2008 campaign speech about faith-based organizations. For young Evangelicals, all hands on deck includes the government.

Like many of their secular peers, young Evangelicals have also been influenced by globalization. Their parents would have heard about third-world poverty once a year via slide shows from visiting missionaries at a Sunday-night church service. Younger Evangelicals' exposure, on the other hand, is more direct and sustained. They download videos about child soldiers in Uganda and hear their favorite Christian musicians talk about building orphanages in Haiti. When students at Wheaton and other Christian schools go on short-term missions during spring break or over the summer, they may expect to spend their time painting churches or handing out Bibles. But once on the ground, they're faced with first-order problems like a lack of clean drinking water or safe housing, and they return with a sense of poverty's scope that cannot be alleviated simply by prayer.

Young Evangelicals are politically involved for that most prosaic of reasons as well: it's popular. Bono talks about his faith at the National Prayer Breakfast and challenges world leaders to forgive the debts of poor countries. Relevant magazine, a publication for young Evangelicals with 100,000 subscribers, urges its readers to "reject apathy" and educate themselves about issues ranging from "unjust war" to "creation care" (the Evangelical phrase for protecting the environment). A young minister named Tyler Wigg-Stevenson launched an Evangelical movement in 2008 to abolish nuclear weapons. And at a revival gathering called Passion 2010 in Atlanta over New Year's weekend, more than 22,000 Evangelical college students donated nearly $700,000 of their own money to support organizations working to dig wells in Africa, help children in poverty and save women from sex trafficking.

"We're Not Like Our Parents"
Does all of this social activism mean young Evangelicals are liberals? Hardly. Theologically, they remain fairly conservative, but mostly they reject political and religious labels. In fact, many would rather you didn't even call them Evangelical (simply Christian is the preferred term). "For a lot of younger Evangelicals, it steals our identity," says Don Miller, whose spiritual memoir Blue like Jazz has sold more than 1 million copies and has developed a cult following among under-30 Evangelicals. "We're not like Pat Robertson. We're not like Republicans. We're not like our parents."

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