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EVANGELICALS AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: WHAT THE DATA SAYS

 CHRIS STACKARUK & KEVIN SINGER

A new study from Neighborly Faith that surveyed 2,000 young people (Gen Z) reveals that young evangelicals are more civically engaged than their peers. 
 
The study asked 18-25 year olds of all religions about their political opinions, levels of civic engagement, and the degree to which their faith leaders shape them. To better resource our work with evangelicals, Neighborly Faith oversampled evangelicals and compared their responses to other Christians as well as young adults of other religions and no religion.
 
NF’s goal for the study was to gauge the extent to which evangelical faith leaders are shaping young adult's civic beliefs and behaviors. The findings were extremely encouraging and helpful for shaping programs hoping to promote civic engagement among young adults.
 
This article summarizes ten of our key findings about young evangelicals’ civic engagement and ways organizations can best work with them.
 
Methodological note: The study distinguishes between young adults who identified as evangelical and those who identified as "born again." Although most of the former identified as the latter, for obvious reasons, not all of the latter identified as the former. All participants who identified as either evangelical or "born again" were qualified to determine whether their religious beliefs broadly aligned with the National Association of Evangelicals.

1. More evangelical young adults say that civic engagement activities are important than their peers of other religions.

Some particular points may be surprising: While 41% of people of other religions (Islam, Judaism, etc.) reported that "interacting with people of other faiths" were important or very important, this figure was 48% for born-again Christians and 49% for evangelicals.

 
The table below collates the results. Across the board, evangelicals and born-again Christians more frequently reported that particular civic engagement activities were important to them.

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2. Receiving encouragement to participate in civic activities was more common among evangelical and born-again Christians compared to peers of other religions

40% of young evangelicals agreed that their religious leaders discuss civic engagement often or extremely often. Only 26% of young adults of other religions reported the same. Across all religious groups, faith leaders are most likely to discuss and encourage community service/volunteer opportunities and donation to religious organizations. On the flip side, they are least likely to discuss and encourage participation in activism or advocacy.

3. Overall, Christians who did not identify as either evangelical or born-again were significantly less likely to feel influenced by their religious leaders when it comes to political issues.

As compared to the average percentage of evangelical (38%) and born-again Christians (30%), only 23% of other Christians reported political influence from faith leaders of all kinds. These leaders include pastors, youth ministers, music leaders, camp leaders, religious influencers, and others.

4. Evangelical and born-again young adults participate in civic engagement activities more frequently than those of other religions.

This may come as a surprise to many. The table below indicates that evangelical and born-again young adults are more engaged in civic activities than their peers.

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5. Although nearly half of evangelical and born-again young adults believe that it is important to engage with people of different religions/faiths, less than a quarter say their religious leaders encourage these interactions.

Faith leaders may be lagging behind the enthusiasm of their young adults when it comes to engaging across faiths. This is a trend that Neighborly Faith has noticed in our work. Young evangelicals are very enthusiastic about this work. Yet, this data may indicate that their faith leaders' influence may not be driving this.

6. 42% of young evangelicals say a "public religious figure" serves as a mentor in their lives, compared to 17% of non-evangelical/born again Christians.

Celebrity pastors and faith influencers may hold sway in the lives of young evangelicals in a way that few of their peers of other faiths do. This number, and its discrepancy with other faith groups (including other Christians), shows that evangelicals are exceptional in this way.

7. Only 11% of young evangelicals say their religious leaders encourage engagement with particular causes and public policies, 8% with local government, and 6% with protesting. These were the lowest in a list of 16 options.

It may be that most evangelical clergy are reticent to support particular political platforms or candidates from the pulpit. This could be for a variety of reasons, and further study would help to understand why these civic activities appear to be the least suggested among faith leaders.

8. Only 11% of young evangelicals say they know their religious leaders' views on climate change, 9% on economic inequality, and 8% on prison reform. These are very low compared to education at 42% and 37% on abortion.

It is no surprise that abortion is a more frequently discussed topic by faith leaders than climate change, given the current political landscape. However, it is notable that leaders' views on climate change, economic inequality, and prison reform are so low on the list.

 

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These last two findings are two key takeaways for NF's programs and strategy shaping the lives of young Evangelicals:

9. Because young evangelicals are more influenced by their faith leaders than peers of other religions, those seeking to influence young evangelicals need to be in alignment with their beliefs and values in order to influence them.

This is a point that NF has advocated for many years. Evangelicals trust their faith leaders more than other leaders. As a result, the most effective way to influence young evangelicals is through their faith leaders and deeply-held beliefs rather than through other kinds of leaders.

10. Evangelicals are the most civically engaged young adults, but a faith-based approach is required to unlock their leadership potential.
 

Many organizations seek to engage young adults in civic life, but few use a faith-based approach that engages the values and beliefs of young evangelicals. NF believes that a faith-based approach is essential to unlocking the leadership potential of young evangelicals.
 
The survey found that evangelical youth are more civically engaged than their peers, and that they follow their faith leaders. This is likely due to the trust that evangelicals have in their faith leaders. Neighborly Faith believes that this presents a unique opportunity to engage young evangelicals in civic life. We believe that faith-based approach is essential to unlocking the leadership potential of young evangelicals.
 

Chris Stackaruk and Kevin Signer are co-directors of Neighborly Faith and oversaw its 2022 study of how faith leaders shape Gen Z civic engagement. Chris holds a PhD from the University of Toronto; Kevin is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute.