Friday, August 24, 2007

America's Unstable Evangelicals

The picture that I painted in my previous post may not be as rosy as it is in fact. The sober observer of our times might consider a recent Gene Edward Veith column in WORLD magazine. He reports:

...evangelical teens tend to have sex first at a younger age, 16.3, compared to liberal Protestants, who tend to lose their virginity at 16.7. And young evangelicals are far more likely to have had three or more sexual partners (13.7 percent) than non-evangelicals (8.9 percent).
Apparently abstinence pledges, regardless of how well intentioned, merely delay sexual intimacy about 18 months. 88% of teens who take these vows fail to keep them. So says University of Texas at Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus in Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2007).

Before I come to Veith's discussion of these startling figures, let me point out that part of the problem is this yet unredeemed flesh in which we find ourselves...yes, even as Christians. Our redeemed spirits aspire to more than our flesh will allow. Sanctification closes the gap over the course of a Christian life, but never anywhere close to completely. These teenagers are at the beginning of their Christian lives, and are undertaking the struggle in a culture with little to support their new commitment.

On that subject, Veith mentions school environments. I assume that he is referring to public schools, at least for the most part. People throw their baby Christian (if that) children into the moral swamp of the public school system because (a) it's free (though there is a cost, apparently) and (b) they want their little seedlings to be "salt and light." Utter madness. Some kids can handle it, but you should not assume that your kid is one of them.

Another reason is the weirdness of the modern world.
Adolescence—that time when a person is physically an adult but socially a child—is a modern invention. In the past, people married much younger, as soon as they were sexually ready. Today's culture postpones marriage while stretching celibacy to the breaking point.
Veith's analysis of the problem is the most illuminating when he turns his attention to the failings of the churches in which these youths make their commitments.
Churches used to teach and exemplify self-control, the necessity of keeping one's emotions in check, the discipline of self-denial and mortification of the flesh. Today the typical evangelical church, in its example and practice, cultivates "letting go," emotionalism, self-fulfillment, and an odd religious sensuality.
It's easy to reduce "wordliness" to a few neat categories, and then keep Pharisaically clear of it. Don't smoke, don't chew, and don't go with girls that do. Abortion. Fornication (can we still use that word?). Homosexuality. At some point, we learn that the problem is not just out there in those people. It is also in here in me. The sinful nature is something I share with those wordlings and secularists, even if I do have Christ (or, rather, he has me).

Pharisaism, legalism, understanding your Christianity in terms of what you do and do not do, i.e. in moral and cultural terms, can only lead to failure, and either despair or hypocrisy, as we see in these young people. Christianity is Christ, and the gospel of Christ is the grace of God that comes to us through the cross. It's not what you do. It's what he has done for you and your personal faith-relationship with him. ("For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV).

As Veith is wise to remind us, "They need to be brought closer to Christ, so that a growing faith can bear fruit in better conduct." Like every Christian, they need to internalize more deeply the amazing grace of the gospel, and be graciously changed "from glory to glory" (II Corinthians 3:18 NKJV).

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