Young evangelical Christians are at the center of a sea change in opinion and practice in the church. The rhetorical tropes and divisions of a previous generation (Spiritual vs. religious? Reformed vs. fundamentalist? Liberal vs. conservative?) are beginning to fade in people’s perceptions, and new categories are taking their place.
With 20th-century theological liberalism faltering, along with the cultural “Christian” consensus, abandoning the faith of your parents no longer means social marginalization. Consequently, those who remain in church are more likely to be those who actually maintain a sincere and heart-felt belief in a real experience of God. This does not mean that all will think alike. We can feel new generations of young adult Christians dividing along new lines.
This shift has occasioned a good deal of confusion. Older liberal Christians have assumed that a younger generation of evangelical Christians, who are clearly more liberal politically than their generally Republican parents, will join them on the theologically liberal, desacralizing side of the church. What is actually happening, though, may be more complicated than this. Younger evangelicals who keep the faith are often dissatisfied with elements of their parents’ churches, but they seem to be shifting in a more ’catholic’ direction, toward a more liturgical, roots-oriented Christianity. While their politics may not be those of the Christian Coalition, their religion may actually be more ‘conservative.’
This movement is not unique among evangelicals. David Bonagura writes that within the ascendent ‘conservative’ camp of the Roman Catholic Church there begin to be seen important distinctions between what he calls the “new orthodoxy,” concerned with maintaining and restoring authentic Catholic teaching, “outspoken opponents of abortion [and] same-sex marriage” whose “theological standard is the Catechism of the Catholic Church”; and what he calls the “Benedictines” after Pope Benedict XVI, whose ultimate goal is the restoration of a more reverent, traditional liturgy. These two groups within the rising ‘conservative’ Catholic movement may find themselves opposed in certain ways even as they are in agreement on the major theological and moral doctrines of the church. The newly-chosen Pope Francis seems to belong, as it were, to the “new orthodoxy,” and under his rule it would not be a surprise to hear of discontent among the “Benedictines.”
Significantly, there seems to be a generational dynamic to these divisions. The “new orthodox” tend to be in their “late forties and fifties,” according to Mr. Bonagura, while the “Benedictines” are somewhat younger.
Rising generations of evangelicals exhibit, I think, a similar division. We begin to see, especially among Gen-Xers, what I would term “evangelical” conservatives, who are primarily concerned with maintaining authentic Christian doctrine; while Millennials tend to be “liturgical” conservatives, concerned with a more authentic way of worshiping than what they experienced growing up.
Both of these are, in a sense, “reactionary” movements. Evangelical conservatives react against a lukewarm, rote “traditional” religion they remember from growing up, or else against a sloppy, undemanding, cheap-grace form of baby-boomer evangelicalism. Liturgical conservatives react against a church that has forgotten the importance of form and beauty in worshiping God, that tries to be relevant by eliminating any and all distinctions between itself and the world, whose deracinated warehouse Starbucks aesthetic has rejected altogether the beauty of historical Christianity.
If evangelical Protestantism has a future, it needs to bring the two together. Theological conservatives must learn to appreciate how the beauty of liturgy and tradition does not distract from authentic Christian belief but rather deepens and confirms it. Similarly, aesthetically-sensible liturgical conservatives need to understand how the beauty they rightly love grows from the same root as traditional Christian theology and ethics. We need young Christians who are both liturgically and theologically conservative.
Much of the division, sin, and confusion in Protestant Christianity today stems, I believe, from a fundamental disconnectedness in the evangelical mind between the order and beauty of the soul and religious belief, and the order and beauty of externals. Each of these ought to promote and confirm the other. Instead, suburban evangelicals tend to deny the influence of externals, and are surprised when their children rebel, sleep around, and abandon the faith.
Beauty strengthens faith. No less, then, does true faith preserve beauty. The order and coherence of traditional Christian liturgy and art depends for its strength on the conviction that what it centers on is true; that God is true, that the Bible is his word, and the church manifests his kingdom in the world. Without these convictions beauty has no reference point and liturgy is a series of empty observances done for the sake of doing. The reason liturgy is attractive to sensitive people is that it actually reflects what is true, and speaks to the listening soul of what is closest to the ground of its being. This is why the mainline churches are in decline. To practice a received liturgy and at the same time deny received Christian truth is eventually a self-defeating occupation.
This article was originally published on Juicy Ecumenism, the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.