Must Evangelical churches change or downplay their position on homosexuality to attract millennials?
Millennials, generally defined as those ages 18 to mid-30s, are the most supportive of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, many polls show. A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll had their support at 69 percent, the highest of any age group.
Even among self-described Evangelicals, the millennials showed the highest level of support at 43 percent (though the poll only included white Evangelicals), compared to 33 percent for generation X, 22 percent for Baby Boomers and 19 percent for those 68 and older. The poll also found that 70 percent of millennials "believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues."
Some Evangelicals have pointed to this and similar studies to argue that Evangelical churches need to end their opposition to same-sex marriage or they will die off.
The church's "obsessions with opposing gay marriage," Evangelical author Rachel Held Evans wrote in March for CNN as she pointed out the PRRI report, is one of the reasons "evangelicalism is losing a generation to the culture wars."
Other media outlets appear eager to report that Evangelicals will end their opposition to same-sex marriage and stop teaching that homosexuality is a sin. "Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage: And the Bible isn't getting in their way," religion reporter Jim Hinch wrote Monday for Politico.
For evidence that Evangelicals are changing their minds on gay marriage, Hinch points to Pew Research polling showing that support for same-sex marriage among white Evangelical Protestants jumped 10 percentage points, from 13 to 23 percent, from 2001 to 2014.
To further illustrate his point, Hinch told the story of Amy Tincher, who attended a Matthew Vines "boot camp." Vines authored a recent book claiming that the Bible does not condemn homosexual behavior that is part of a committed relationship.
(Though Hinch describes Tincher as an Evangelical, at the end of the article he reveals that Tincher attended a United Methodist church, a mainline Protestant denomination, before switching to a United Church of Christ church, which is even more liberal than the UMC.)
In interviews with The Christian Post, two conservative Evangelicals, Dr. Russell Moore and Eric Teetsel, doubted that abandoning the biblical understanding of sexuality will help the church attract more millennials. Mainline Protestant churches have already done that, they point out, but they have not grown as a result.
"History has demonstrated time and time and time again that you don't save Christianity by abandoning Christianity," said Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a May 12 interview.
Moore compared the situation to the "modernist" controversies of the early 20th century. Some Evangelical theologians at the time argued that the Church needed to abandon its teachings on, for instance, miracles, the resurrection and the virgin birth, if it were to remain relevant. This led to some of the mainline/Evangelical denominational splits. After those splits, though, the Evangelical denominations that stayed true to traditional Church teaching grew while the mainline denominations that rejected those doctrines declined.
Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration and a millennial Evangelical, agreed in his June 12 interview: "There are many churches that embrace homosexuality. ... Many have gone down that road years ago and there's no evidence that they're attracting young people."
Moore also pointed to some survey data presented by sociologist Mark Regnerus at a recent ERLC conference. When looking at millennial Evangelicals who actually attend church, not just identify as Evangelical, there is no erosion of support for the biblical teachings on sexuality, Moore said. (Moore recently co-authored an article about that data for National Review.)
Teetsel acknowledged that some Evangelical leaders have spoken about homosexuality in an uncompassionate tone, and that has done great damage. More often, though, he sees Evangelical pastors avoiding the issue altogether, which is also problematic.
"Doing better requires actually doing it," he said. "Silence is really a failure. We need to preach the Gospel in wholeness, and of course the Gospel touches on sexuality."
Both Moore and Teetsel were also quick to say, without prompting from the questioner, that even if it were true that the Church could attract millennials by changing its teaching on homosexuality, it should not do so.
For churches that believe in remaining true to the Gospel, Teetsel explained, "we don't get to pick and choose the elements of our faith that we like or don't like. It's a packaged deal."
"If we have to choose between millennials and Jesus, we choose Jesus," Moore said. "Fidelity to the Gospel means we cannot revise a Christian sexual ethic, regardless of what that would do to the membership of our churches because Jesus gave that to us with his own authority."