Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson says white evangelicals are tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down. Why would he say that?

Michael Gerson is a leader that evangelicals ought to pay attention to. He’s evangelical. Graduated from a flaghip evangelical college (Wheaton). And he has cultural capital. Gerson is a former senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs and speechwriter for President George W. Bush (2001-2006). He knows what he’s talking about.

So what’s Gerson talking about? In a recent op-ed piece for the Washington Post (“Why evangelicals should panic”), he describes “the largest problem evangelicals face.” Gerson defines it as the massive sell-off of evangelicalism among the young.

It is indeed massive. About 26 percent of Americans 65 and older identify as white evangelical Protestants. But among those ages 18 to 29, the figure is 8 percent.

You read that right. Eight percent. White evangelical Protestantism is disappearing. Yet few white evangelicals seem to take notice. Instead, Gerson writes, they’re “tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around them.” Why does he say this?

For starters, few evangelicals pay attention to trends. Since 2000, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8 percent to 19 percent. The percentage of millennials with no religion has averaged 33 percent in recent surveys. The percentage of no religion GenZ is even higher.

Second, most evangelicals have embraced a fallacy. They assume millennials and GenZ will return to the faith just as Boomers and GenX returned when starting families. Unlikely to happen says David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame. Young people “are starting at a much, much lower point” than Boomers and GenX. Millennials and GenZ don’t know the faith, so what’s there to return to?

Camille Paglia knows this firsthand. She’s a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. A few years ago, Paglia was teaching “Go Down, Moses,” the famous Negro spiritual. Then it suddenly hit her with horror (her words) that none of the students recognized the name “Moses.” None. Zero.

So, what’s the solution? Gerson urges evangelicals “to consult their past.” This includes “late-18th-century and early-19th-century Britain,” a period when the Clapham Sect recognized the faith was in decline. They didn’t waste time tidying up the kitchen. They got out in the wider world, achieving 60+ societal reforms over the course of four decades, including the abolition of the English Slave Trade.

The Clapham Sect reminds us of a second solution. William Wilberforce was one of Clapham’s leaders. In a loving letter to his 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth (dated 1815), he hoped that Elizabeth, at her age, would have “accustomed herself to friendly reproofs.” Wilberforce trusted she had developed a habit of welcoming critique.

Wilberforce based this on Jeremiah 17:8,9. “Our hearts are deceitful above all things.” Wilberforce knew heart is a metaphor for conscience. Our conscience is “prone to flatter ourselves, to form too high an estimate of our own good qualities, and too low an idea of our bad ones.”[1] Translated, the easiest person for you to dupe is you.

This applies to white evangelicals (I’m one of them). In Good To Great, Jim Collins writes that great companies exhibit “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.” I’ve found that few white evangelicals have developed a habit of welcoming critique. They lack the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality. They ignore trends. They forget our history of cultural impact.

The result, as Michael Gerson correctly notes, is we’re tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around us. I don’t mean to offend, but it’s time to stop this nonsense.

[1] “Private Papers of William Wilberforce” published by Burt Franklin (New York), 165-68.

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9 Responses to “Tidying Up the Kitchen While the House Burns Down”

  1. hsl says:

    Wonderful as usual; thanks to both Michaels, Gerson and Metzger.

  2. Roy Aiken says:

    So Michael – the article reflects my feelings as well – the question is “What is an reasonable strategy to bend the curve of this trend” in an opposite direction”.

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Roy: A reasonable strategy has to align with human nature – how people and organizations (and churches) are designed by God to behave.

    Put another way, a reasonable strategy has to be aligned with an accurate assessment of human nature.

    We are facilitating a workshop for a group of innovators in October (Chattanooga) where they will discover this accurate assessment.

    They will then learn how this assessment yields the infrastructure that sustains innovation, one that includes welcoming outside critique.

    You are welcome to participate in this workshop on October 15.

  4. Tim Roberts says:

    Mike,
    Thanks for this opinion. But from my perspective it is large on panic and short on solutions. There is a reason that Gen Y & Z are leaving the evangelical identification and us old white people need to quit freaking out and begin to engage with them. I know from your other blogs you are doing this, but this blog feels more like what I hear from the rest of the white church, panic that “our world” is crumbling. Maybe the evangelical church will be stronger if it looks more like the growing part of our population, which is poorer and more people of color.

  5. Mike Metzger says:

    Tim:

    Not sure why this sounds like panic. Our workshop will be an alternative approach (one that’s proven effective) that I don’t see being pursued by anyone – white, black, Hispanic, male, female, old, young.

    Not freakin’ out.

    Nor are we trying to “engage” Gen Whatever. Won’t happen. The solution is for those in the wider world to find our solutions engaging. They come to us. I’ve seen that happen.

  6. Danny O'Brien says:

    Mike-
    This train has left the station. We can’t put new wine into old wineskins. Evangelicalism is an old wineskin. I haven’t identified myself as an “evangelical” in years, even though (as you know) many of my roots are in that tradition. While only 8% of 18-29 year olds identify as “Evangelical,” I am confident that many more identify as a “Person of Faith.” I’m also confident that “Jesus” polls better than “Evangelical.” We need new words, new wineskins, a new work of the Spirit to engage a new generation that has been abysmally failed by Evangelicalism.

  7. Dave T says:

    Just asking, you said “Our workshop will be an alternative approach (one that’s proven effective) that I don’t see being pursued by anyone – white, black, Hispanic, male, female, old, young.”

    By saying that you have a proven approach that no one is using, you must mean someone has used it somehow somewhere otherwise it wouldn’t be proven. Proven in business circles you’d like to propose it for faith circles?

  8. Mike Metzger says:

    It’s proven effective in workshops that I have faclitated.

    Over 100 of these workshops.

  9. Kyle M says:

    Thank you

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