Slip Sliding Away: The 20th Century Evangelical Church, by fred Antonelli

Slip Sliding Away: The 20th Century Evangelical Church

It hasn’t been the best year, or even the past four years, for those who have called themselves evangelicals. I know, as I confess to being one of them.


Politically, the 2012 elections were a huge disappointment to the once powerful and influential evangelical voice throughout America. All in all, it was bad news for the aging Religious Right who failed to place a conservative candidate in the White House. Additionally, the nation witnessed four states vote in favor of same sex marriage, and the normally conservative state of Florida reject an amendment to restrict abortion.

Oh, my aching evangelical!    

Whether we want to accept it or not, evangelicalism as we’ve known it throughout the 20th century is falling apart at the seams in the face of a younger and more progressive generation of Christians.

Recent studies indicate an increase in the number of people who don’t consider themselves a part of an organized religion. The X and Y generations don’t seem to be rejecting Christ, they just seem to be rejecting the Church.

“Houston, we have problem [here]!”      

As a former pastor and current counseling psychologist, I’m seeing a trend of 30 somethings and younger children of Baby Boomer evangelicals who are disillusioned with church.

In his book, Life After Church, Brian Sanders writes about those who he calls “leavers” of organized religion as believers who are committed to Jesus Christ, but often view church as a “failed experiment.” He goes on to say, “As easily as we have formed churches around cathedrals and buildings with steeples and stained glass, we can form churches around pubs and laundromats, parks and coffee shops.”

As New Testament as this may sound, it’s a radical gear shift from the established institutional evangelical church look of the 20th century.

Something is missing within the traditional evangelical church of the past 40 years that makes this generation of believers not want to stay connected. They seem disinterested, uncommitted and even resistant to the evangelical surroundings that they were raised in. Young people and even young ministers are steadily streaming out of evangelical churches. It’s also becoming more common for young ministers to not use the name of their denomination when advertising their church or new church plant. In talking with some young pastors, they feel that there is often a “stigma” placed on them when bringing their ordaining denomination up in a conversation. They don’t want to bill themselves as Southern Baptist, Wesleyan, Assemblies of God, Charismatic, etc. They are very uncomfortable being labeled “right wing conservative evangelicals.”

Why the distancing? What’s going on that makes the X and Y generations seem like Moses wanting to be free from the bondage of Egyptian rule when it comes to their evangelical rearing?

Here are a few thoughts to consider.

Holy Marriage!    

It appears that young evangelicals are fed up with the culture war. They have little or no interest in rushing in to protest issues such as traditional marriage or take a vocal anti-abortion stance. They may still have some left over conservative views, but their goals seem much broader, encompassing social concerns like poverty, education and the environment.

Ken Wilson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, argues, “The culture war stuff just does not appeal to younger generations.” Many are children of divorce, he says, and they’re tired of conflict. “They’re not interested in a spirituality that helps them become culture warriors. They want to repair the culture.”

There’s no question that young evangelicals have seen too much hypocrisy when it comes to marriage within the church life they were raised in. Between 26 percent and 33 percent of them have been affected by divorce according to The Barna Group. They feel their evangelical parents’ credibility on the issue of marriage has been significantly dumbed down by their participation in divorce.

The traditional family looks different than it did to their parents. To many of them, it looks like two, maybe even three, moms and dads, not to mention the numerous stepbrothers and sisters. To our shame, the conversation on the “until death do you part” aspect of marriage doesn’t seem to be an honest one with them anymore.

Many of the Gen X and Yers feel that their evangelical parents have botched it in the area of marital covenant. Consequently, it’s thrown them into a psychosis that challenges their reality on committed unions. They are less likely to jump into marriage early in life. “It’s the double standard,” said one 28-year-old male when referring to his Christian parents’ divorce when he was 8 years old. He basically felt that they had nothing to say to him when it came to guidelines for a strong, “committed” Christian marriage. As a result, he’s presently walking through anger issues with his father in therapy, while at the same time trying to justify why God would allow him to be mostly raised by a verbally and physically abusive stepfather.

And we wonder why this generation of young Christians pull back when asked to support “traditional family” values. Tens of thousands of these young men and women are asking, “WHAT traditional family values?”

I like Jesus, but I don’t like Moses.    

Without question, this generation of believers sees through a different lens than their evangelical parents did when it comes to church structure, leadership, politics and the OT law versus NT Jesus.

Many people today, especially among emerging generations, just don’t resonate with the organized church as they do with Jesus. These sons and daughters of evangelicals connect much more with the grace, love, compassion and forgiveness of Jesus than they do the Torah (the law).

Though they respect the law, they refuse to live by it from a legalistic and fundamentalist viewpoint as their parents did. As one 32-year-old preacher’s kid put it, “I was raised in the land of NO!”

“No you can’t! No you won’t! No, you’re not allowed to listen to that secular music! No, you can’t think like that! No, you’re not going out with those worldly kids!”

He said that it seemed as if he was raised in a sterile subculture that was “us” against “them”!

“I felt like it was much more Moses and the law then it was Jesus and His love.”

He said it really wasn’t until he read Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel as an adult that he saw what real grace and agape was all about.

What a sad description of a lost opportunity for so many Baby Boomer evangelicals that meant well in raising their children, but missed the mark when it came to law versus grace. Perhaps it’s because of negative and dominating learned behavior stemming from their parents’ own family systems.

Historically, a large segment of late ’60s and early ’70s hippies came to Jesus and created what is known as the Jesus Movement. Birthed out of that movement came the politically powerful Evangelical Religious Right which dominated social politics up until the election of Barack Obama in 2009. To its credit, the evangelical Religious Right had great success in helping a nation wake up to faith in God, morality and political consciousness.

However, it failed to balance its forbidding and dominating voice when it came to showing a grace filled, loving, merciful and forgiving Savior to their children.

So no wonder a generation sprung up wanting to distance themselves from The Law and instead welcome a compassionate new sound from a gentle Messiah saying: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

The difference between the two approaches of sharing Christ’s message were miles apart.

Would We Dare Consider?    

I wonder if evangelical Baby Boomers would dare be open enough to the Holy Spirit to consider a few things?

Did they unintentionally place more emphasis on OT edicts, rules and the letter of the law than grace, forgiveness and unconditional love? Did their children hear more the harsh voice of righteous indignation than they did a loving and compassionate call to a culture in need of repentance? Did they, in their zeal for righteousness, teach their children that they had to “do more” in order to be good rather than “rest more” in order to know they’re accepted and approved by God?

Were there times that abuse of authority and legalism trumped benevolent care and an ear to listen? And did parents tend to punish more by giving their evangelical offspring “no straw to make [their] bricks” when they felt them to be disobedient?

Have the compelling and truly life-changing aspects of evangelical faith become largely absent from today’s evangelical church? Is God brushing off and refurbishing an old message through a new generation of messengers? These questions can be enormously constructive in both being able to reconnect with a religiously wounded son or daughter, as well as learning from what today’s young evangelical voices have to say.

President Ronald Reagan said, “Each generation goes further than the generation preceding it because it stands on the shoulders of that generation.” So perhaps as Joshua stood on Moses’ shoulders and Timothy stood on the Apostle Paul’s, maybe it’s time for the old shoulder switch to happen again? I mean, come on, it’s not as if God’s blinked and made a mistake here!

Maybe Simon and Garfunkel had something in their classic song “Slip Sliding Away”:

“Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

As the English writer, G.K. Chesterton, put it, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” We should rest in knowing that our God has us securely on a trajectory that’s getting us nearer to our destination, though it may appear to some that we’re moving away from it.

One generation’s voice must eventually fall back before the next generation can assume its voice and place. God has done a pretty good job of getting His message of Good News heard throughout the centuries. Could these fresh, youthful voices be new message bearers of the gospel to their generation of skeptics? Don’t be surprised!

Fred Antonelli, Ph.D., LPC is a former senior pastor of 23 years, a crisis marriage & family therapist, author and founding director of Life Counseling Center, Inc. with offices throughout the Eastern Shore of MD and DE. Learn more about Dr. Antonelli at from Fred Antonelli or visit Fred at

This entry was posted in Biblical Worldview, Christianity, Cultural Barometer, Evangelism, Society at Risk, The Church and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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