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Mainline youth

15 July 2010

The Rev’d Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon posted an article by Mark Chaves on his blog, claiming that “evangelicals care more than mainline Protestants about keeping their young people in the faith.” Chaves presents this as the claim of Dr. James Wellman’s book Evangelical vs. Liberal. I read the book a year and a half ago for a class I was in, and I disagreed with this point then and continue to disagree.

Yes, evangelicals do have more retention of youth than mainline churches. But it is unfair to say that this is because evangelicals care more about keeping them. As someone who grew up as an evangelical and who is now in a mainline denomination, I see a different way of analyzing this trend. Rather than evangelicals caring more, they engage in the business of scaring more (sorry for the pun, it just worked well.)

Mainline denominations are uninterested in telling youth that they are going to burn in Hell if they don’t commit to Christianity and regularly come to church. Evangelicals, on the other hand, do. Mainline denominations are uninterested in guilting their members into attending; evangelicals see no problem with this. It’s a matter of philosophy. Evangelicals are consequentialists when it comes to youth formation–the end justifies the means. Mainline denominations are typically deontologists–if the means are not right, the action is wrong, even if good comes from it.

Why are mainline denominations “worse” at youth retention than evangelicals? Not because they care less about youth. Because they want faith to be sincere, not coerced.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee Thomas permalink
    15 July 2010 16:27

    It won’t surprise you to know that I take your point, and as a former youth leader in the “mainline” world, willingly embrace it. You sure oughta know what you’re talkin’ about, having paid your dues!

    What I would add is that there’s a certain, almost frantic, urgency in some “evangelical” churches (and conservative wings of the mainline groups, with which I’ve had substantial experience) that the primary Gospel imperative is that “not one” be lost to the faith.

    From this point of view, then, wouldn’t instilling fear be not just the goal, but the motivational force? i.e., “I’ve sinned myself if I let my kid fall away, if our church youth don’t pack the place?”

    • Patrick Burrows permalink*
      15 July 2010 16:44


      That’s certainly an important factor as well. I think mainline ambivalence towards the afterlife just in general reduces the pressure. My biggest question is when considering faithful mainliners (not Christmas/Easter types), do they care less about retaining youth? I don’t think “care” or “interested” here are an extremely helpful words because of how loaded they are. I think the “retaining” of anyone in a church-setting is a somewhat bizarre concept to begin with. I would rather have a handful of faithful dedicated people than a hoard of people who feel like they have to be there. And my vision of God is that She thinks the same way.

      As for instilling fear, I don’t think it’s the goal. It most certainly is the means. Hence the consequentialism. I don’t think evangelicals want people to walk around afraid all the time (barring certain notable examples). But they don’t feel uncomfortable using that rhetoric if it’s what works. And, as a deontologist, I think this is illegitimate and unethical.

      It’s all so very complicated. And I think reducing it to a matter of “caring” or not is overly simplified and confuses things even more.

  2. Say what? permalink
    2 August 2010 12:09

    I am used to so called “mainline” [sic] denominations simply ignoring Paul, the entire old testament, the church fathers, etc., but they ignore the words of Jesus as well:

    “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell…”

    Jesus was clearly wrong to use “scary” language.

    “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.”

    Well, the squishy, mainline [sic] Christian-lite types are so ashamed of the Gospel that they won’t mention the good news. How selfish.

    • Patrick Burrows permalink*
      2 August 2010 12:19

      Anonymous poster,

      If your definition of “good news” is that we are saved from the fires of Hell, then I completely follow your argument. I, however, am not convinced that this was at all a concern of any of the various sects of Christianity before Nicaea. For a Jew in the Roman Empire, salvation as Jesus taught (as well as the Jewish prophets like Micah, Amos, and Joel, or as seen throughout the Psalms) seems to ring out as the triumph of justice and love over oppression and hatred. It seems to me that in using scare tactics like evangelicals do is simply another form of oppression, this time of an even more foul variety–spiritual oppression. If you have any doubt about this, read any account of suicide rates amongst gay youth who were raised in evangelical bodies. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus was down with that sort of behavior.

      In peace,

  3. Say what? permalink
    2 August 2010 17:43

    You are doing it again, ignoring the words of Jesus (contained in all the synoptic gospels even). Jesus didn’t say it is better to pluck out your eye so that some warm and fuzzy social justice system will be set up on earth (probably with Obama and Jim Wallis in charge). Jesus is talking about avoiding a trip to “where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Are you condemning the evangelical Jesus for being “scary”?

    And your comment that the pre-Nicean early church wasn’t concerned about Hell…where did that come from? How about:

    “The way of darkness is crooked, and it is full of cursing. It is the way of eternal death with punishment.” (Pseudo-Barnabas, c. 70-130 AD)

    “You should fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the eternal fire. It will afflict those who are committed to it even to the end.” (Letter to Diognetus, c. 125-200)

    “[The martyrs] despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by the suffering of a single hour…. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and will never be quenched.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, c. 135)

    “Sinners will be consumed because they sinned and did not repent.” (Shepherd of Hermas, c. 150)

    “Those who have not known God and do evil are condemned to death. However, those who have known God and have seen his mighty works, but still continue in evil, will be chastised doubly, and will die forever.” (Shepherd of Hermas, c. 150)

    “We believe…that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merits of his deed. … Sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up.” (Justin Martyr, c. 160)

    “Hell [Gehenna] is a place where those who have lived wickedly are to be punished.” (Justin Martyr, c. 160)

    “Some are sent to be punished unceasingly into judgment and condemnation of fire.” (Justin Martyr, c. 160)

    “We who are now easily susceptible to death, will afterwards receive immortality with either enjoyment or with pain.” (Tatian, c. 160)

    “We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we will live another life, better than the present one…or, if they fall with the rest, they will endure a worse life, one in fire. For God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, who are mere by-products. For animals perish and are annihilated. On these grounds, it is not likely that we would wish to do evil.” (Athenagoras, c. 175)

    “To the unbelieving and despisers…there will be anger and wrath, tribulation and anguish. At the end, everlasting fire will possess such men.” (Theophilus, c. 180)

    “Eternal fire is prepared for sinners. The Lord has plainly declared this and the rest of the Scriptures demonstrate it.” (Irenaeus, c. 180)

    “All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery.” (Clement of Alexandria, c. 195; from a post-Nicene manuscript fragment)

    “We [Christians] alone make a real effort to attain a blameless life. We do this under the influence of… the magnitude of the threatened torment. For it is not merely long-enduring; rather, it is everlasting.” (Tertullian, c. 197)

    “Gehenna… is a reservoir of secret fire under the earth for purposes of punishment.” (Tertullian, c. 197)

    “There is neither limit nor termination of these torments. There, the intelligent fire burns the limbs and restores them. It feeds on them and nourishes them. … However, no one except a profane man hesitates to believe that those who do not know God are deservedly tormented.” (Mark Minucius Felix, c. 200)

    (From here.)

    Evangelicals believe that Heaven is really good and Hell is really bad. As such, they feel the need to tell people about this. Mainline [sic] denominations don’t know what they believe other than “Let’s be nice” or “Come be confused with us” and “We ignore the mean Jesus parts.”

    P.S. I really didn’t follow your non-sequiter about evangelicals and homosexual youths. That such youth have a disproportionately high suicide rate is a tragedy. This is seen across a wide range of social “tolerance” in various countries belying your assertion that Evangelicals have anything to do with the problem. It seems to be a baseless attempt to smear evangelicals.

  4. Sue Sims permalink
    3 August 2010 16:34

    The major reason in my experience (and I was evangelical for 28 years before becoming a Catholic) is simply that children from evangelical homes are encouraged to make a personal commitment to Jesus, and then to deepen their relationship with God throughout their lives. I never remember much talk about Hell, but an awful lot about asking Jesus into one’s heart, making a decision, continuing to walk with the Lord, and so on – cliches, sure, but so what?

    • Patrick Burrows permalink*
      3 August 2010 16:55

      American evangelicalism, esp. the variety found in the Southern United States–the home of one of, if not the, largest concentration of evangelicals, is very different from that found elsewhere. “Hellfire and brimstone” is one of the major themes. This leads to things such as “Judgment houses”, which are haunted houses set up for Halloween with the purpose of illustrating a particular vision of Hell in order to literally scare youth into conversion. It is this kind of thing that I’m talking about.

  5. 7 August 2010 00:43

    Hi Patrick,

    I am the Coordinator for Youth Ministries for the judicatory of a mainline diocese: the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. While I have a great conviction that we in the liturgical tradition have more to offer youth than our evangelical friends, the bottom line is that they invest more in youth than we do.

    In Arizona, 20% of Protestant churches have full time youth ministers. We have 5%. The fact is that we are holding back their numbers.

    We tend to hire youth ministers as the last staff position. The 10 largest megachurches in Arizona hired youth ministers as their first full-time staff hire after the church planting senior pastor. The fast growing megachurches employ a strategy that we would do well to learn from: hire someone to care for youth, which are the number one concern of the largest demographic group in our state-adults from 35-54.

    You criticized evangelicals motives for investing in youth. I wish we had as bad of motives. While we continue to spend more money on our trash (literally, in our diocese we spend more money on sextons than youth ministers), our youth are leaving for other churches that are willing to lead our children in their youth groups.

    You say it is unfair to say they care more than we do. I say that while we are failing to invest in our own children, evangelicals are investing in leadership past their own kids to the unchurched…and to ours as well. To loosely quote St. James, “Show me your faith without works and I’ll show you my faith by my works.” I am sad to say, we don’t have much to show on this front.

    Thank you,

    • Patrick Burrows permalink*
      8 August 2010 09:39

      Hi Matt,

      All very good points. And I’d say that in the areas you list, mainline churches do indeed have a considerable way to go to compete (word choice is important) with evangelical churches. I have been lucky enough to be in parishes where paid youth ministers are present. In this matter, I think mainline churches have failed to engage as they could have. To adapt a metaphor, you should dress for the youth you want, not the youth you have.

      That said, my concern is measuring mainline commitment to youth primarily fiscally. Are there other or more important ways to consider? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m sure there must be another axis out there which might tell a different story.


  6. 10 August 2010 20:05

    Strawman: “A weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted.”

    From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

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