Early Returns

March 5th, 2018

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Roughly 80 percent of teens in evangelical church youth groups will abandon the faith after two years in college. Might seem like a dark trend, but John Seel sees hope.

John is a friend of mine who’s written a wonderful book: The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of The Church. Copernicus was the astronomer who upended Ptolemy’s earth-centered model of the universe. The sun is at the center. Copernicus discovered a fuller picture of the universe.

Seel says millennials seek a fuller picture of the faith. They’re the New Copernicans. Many are part of what looks like a rather dark trend. Today roughly 80 percent of teens in evangelical church youth groups abandon the faith after two years in college.[1]

But The New Copernicans is not a dark book. It’s full of hope. Seel looks back at the brief history of the evangelical tradition in order to look forward to a brighter future.

The sons of Issachar did this. They understood the times, so they knew what Israel should do (II Chr. 12:32). Watch the new film The Darkest Hour and recall Churchill’s words. “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

I’m a history buff. I appreciated John’s recap of the evangelical tradition. Evangelicals commanded the cultural heights in the late 1700s. We began to trend downward as evangelist Charles Finney narrowed evangelicals’ focus to revival. The evangelical tradition became populist, an anti-intellectual faith that believes in the power of regular people to change the world and control the government. This remains the deepest impulse of American evangelicalism according to historian Nathan Hatch.[2]

Seel writes that populism led to a period of resentment in the 1920s as evangelicals lost their standing.[3] Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche were the new masters of the universe. Urbanization and Eastern European immigration (mostly Catholic) diluted Protestant evangelical hegemony. So did the 1925 Scopes Trial, where Mencken portrayed creationists, mostly evangelicals, as backward bumpkins.

Evangelicals resented this. Some sought sanctuary by building parallel subcultures (1930-1970). Christian became a widely used adjective—Christian books, schools, music, and so on. Numerical growth (conversions, attendance, and church planting) became the main measure of kingdom growth. By the 1970s, some had doubts about this. They sought to get back in the game via politics. The Moral Majority arose as well as special single-interest groups (such as abortion). Worthy causes, but often polarizing.

Now evangelicals—once seemingly immune to the decline experienced by their Catholic and mainline Protestant neighbors—are losing numbers and losing them quickly.[4] Fifty-nine percent of millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point.[5]

Couple this with the rise of religious “nones.” The fastest growing percentage of the US population checks “none of the above” when surveying religious options—Protestant, Catholic, atheist, you name it. Social scientists report that 76 percent of those described as religious nones or “religiously unaffiliated” have a church background. Close to 40 percent of millennials fit this profile.[6]

These are not necessarily dark trends. The early reviews of John’s book are very positive. Marc Havener, a filmmaker, writes, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer. The New Copernicans makes 2018 a long awaited answer to five years of doubt and questions about the church in which I was raised.” Another reviewer, a millennial, calls it the best book on millennials and the church.

In an election, early returns can be predictive. The early returns on The New Copernicans might predict that, while a high percentage of young people are abandoning the faith, many might return after seeing a fuller picture. John Seel presents such a picture. I benefited from reading it. You might too. If you want to glimpse what evangelicalism could look like in the future, read The New Copernicans.


[1] Drew Dyck, “The Leavers; Young Doubters Exit the Church,” Christianity Today, November 19, 2010. Httper://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/November/27.40.html.

[2] Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1898), 9.

[3] John David Seel, Jr., The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church (Thomas Nelson, 2018), 193-4.

[4] Robert P. Jones, “The End of White Christian America.”

[5] “Americans Divided on Importance of Church,” Barna Research Group, March 24, 2014.

[6] “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2012, pewforum/org/2012/10/09nones-on-the-rise

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