Mixed messages from this article in today’s New York Times.
From early in the article:
Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.
At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.
Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.
While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.
“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”
It would be good news indeed if teenagers were abandoning the church, but I’m afraid I must align myself with the skeptics on this one.
Later in the article we find some reasons to doubt the four percent figure:
Contradicting the sense of isolation expressed by some evangelical teenagers, Ms. Sandler said, “I met plenty of kids who told me over and over that if you’re not Christian in your high school, you’re not cool — kids with Mohawks, with indie rock bands who feel peer pressure to be Christian.”
The reality is, when it comes to organizing youth, evangelical Christians are the envy of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews, said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who specializes in the study of American evangelicals and surveyed teens for his book “Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers” (Oxford, 2005).
Mr. Smith said he was skeptical about the 4 percent statistic. He said the figure was from a footnote in a book and was inconsistent with research he had conducted and reviewed, which has found that evangelical teenagers are more likely to remain involved with their faith than are mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews and teenagers of almost every other religion.
I think a lot depends on the part of the country you lived in. I went to high school in Princeton, New Jersey. A student identifying himself as an evangelical Christian would certainly have been an oddity there. On the other hand, in Kansas I suspect that atheists and intellectuals have a far more difficult time of it in high school than Christians do.
The morbid fear among evangelicals of losing the youth is something I encountered on several occasions when I lived in Kansas. One day I was listening to a call-in show on the local Chrstian radio station. It was a show for people seeking advice on parenting issues. Early in the show a person called to talk about how their son had been killed in a car accident. Later on another person phoned in. She was obviously distraught and obviously sincere. She said, and this is almost an exact quote, “Like your previous caller my family has recently suffered a terrible tragedy. My son wasn’t killed in a car accident but to me it feels just as permanent. My son called home from college and told me he had become an atheist.”
Another time I attended a conference in Wichita for home-schoolers. I went primarily because all of the featured speakers were from Answers in Genesis. The rather extraordinary curricular materials I saw, especially on scientific topics, were a good argument all by themselves for abolishing home-schooling. Anyway, I attended a small breakout session meant to provide tips for starting a home-school. It was led by a father who obviously had little experience with public speaking. All throughout the talk he stressed how important it was that children be protected from the pernicious influence of “the culture.” So in the Q and A I asked him if he ever worried that perhaps they were sheltering their children too much. They are going to come in to contact to with bad influences eventually, and if they do it while they are young their parents might be in a better position to help them respond appropriately. His answer couldn’t have been more blunt. “No,” he said. “I don’t worry about that.”
I can’t resist closing with one further anecdote from the Wichita conference, since it is the only time I ever managed to stump a young-Earther after a talk. One of the featured speakers was gushing about how ridiculous secular geology (!!) was. In particular, he was talking about the principle of superposition , which says, essentially, that rock layers form a time sequence, with oldest layers on the bottom and more recent ones on top, unless other geologic processes occur to alter that state of affairs. This principle is the basis for the relative dating of fossils, among other things. The speaker was going off on how this principle was totally false, and that therefore all of those supposedly evolutionary fossil sequences atheist scientists boast about are nonsense.
So after the talk I pointed out to him that the principle of superposition was an essential part of flood geology, no less than for normal geology. Young-Earthers interpret the sequence of fossils as indicative of the differing abilities of animals to escape from the rising waters of the Noachian flood. For example, humans appear last in the fossil record because they could keep their heads above water the longest. That’s absurd, of course, but of relevance here is the fact that they interpret the fossils as forming a sequence in time. So if the principle of superposition if as ridiculous as the speaker said, then a significant part of flood geology is out the window.
As I said, it was the only time I’ve ever seen a young-Earther at a loss for words.