IF YOU WANT YOUNG EVANGELICALS TO BE NEIGHBORLY, DUMP THE JARGON
Gen Z is often hailed for its love for diversity, passion for justice, and disdain for the polarization they see among older generations. President Biden exclaimed at an October 2020 Town Hall, “You're the best educated. You're the most open. You're the least prejudiced generation in American history. The future is yours.”
When it comes to their engagement with diverse belief systems, young evangelicals may even be a step above their peers.
A new study from Neighborly Faith discovered 49% of young evangelical/born-again Christians find interacting with people of different religions/faiths to be very or extremely important, compared to 45% of non-religious young people and 41% of young people of other religions. Even more, there doesn’t appear to be a value-action gap: The same proportion of young evangelicals/born-again Christians (49%) say they interact with people of different religions and faiths often or extremely often, compared to just 36% of non-religious young people and 37% of young people of other religions.
Some organizations, sensing that young evangelicals are more like their progressive peers than their conservative elders, are doubling down on efforts to draw young evangelicals into grant-funded civic efforts to “build bridges,” promote “civility,” seek the “common good” and “common ground,” and bring about a society committed to “pluralism.” Some think these terms are more palatable for people of more conservative religious and political persuasions.
A new study from Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), however, suggests these terms are more likely to lose the interest of young evangelicals than mobilize them. Despite being part of the most diverse generation in America history, young evangelicals are less likely to view these terms positively – and more likely to view these terms negatively – than older generations of evangelicals as well as the general public.
The Civic Language Perceptions Project sought to understand peoples’ perceptions of the language associated with civic engagement and democracy work. The study presented 5,000 participants with 20 terms often used in civic engagement and democracy work. For each term, participants were asked if they viewed it positively, neither positively nor negatively, negatively, or not familiar with the term.
Only 44% of young evangelicals (18-34) view the term “bridge builder” positively, lowest among evangelicals, while 16% view the term negatively, highest among evangelicals. This is despite the fact that young evangelicals are more familiar with this term than older evangelicals. Among non-evangelicals, 65% view the term positively.
Only 16% of young evangelicals (18-34) view the term “pluralism” positively, just above the oldest evangelicals (65+) at 15%. Still, young evangelicals are more likely to view the term negatively (19%) than older evangelicals and the general public (4%).
This trend among young evangelicals extended to terms like “civility” (12% negative, most among evangelicals), “common good” (26% negative, most among evangelicals), and “common ground” (10% negative, most among evangelicals). Only 42% of young evangelicals viewed the term “common ground” positively.
Civic terms fail to capture evangelical imagination
As Co-Director of Neighborly Faith, I’ve visited with thousands of young evangelicals as we visit dozens of campuses across the nation promoting friendships with people of other faiths.
My observation is that terms associated with civic engagement and democracy work simply do not capture their imagination and tap into their passionate and convicted faith. Rather, these terms are viewed as a departure from familiar Biblical concepts like mission, discipleship, and evangelism introduced in sermons, Bible studies, and mission trips.
Some organizations understand this in part, so they hang Biblical fragments loosely together like ornaments on an otherwise civic tree. Scriptures are injected like a sugary flavor to make the civic medicine go down.
This might be effective among the sliver of progressive evangelicals who are predisposed to having positive attitudes toward diversity initiatives, but these evangelicals are unlikely to have presence or influence in evangelical communities where 37% of young evangelicals say their leaders would agree that Islam is a religion of hate (Neighborly Faith). In other words, the presence of young progressive evangelicals at an interfaith event might have no relationship at all with changing the minds of evangelicals who are afraid of Muslims.
Do we need civic terms to motivate young evangelicals to respect and befriend people of other faiths? In my experience, while these terms are designed to be inviting, for many evangelicals, these terms serve more like tripwires warning of a space that feigns an appreciation for diverse beliefs but finds evangelical ideals like mission, discipleship, and evangelism deeply problematic. In many spaces that boast “pluralism,” ground rules for dialogue demand that evangelicals be anything but evangelical.
If young evangelicals are to lead their communities to be curious and cooperative conversation partners in a diverse society, it won’t be primarily for the civic good, but because they are convinced that doing so honors Christ. Loving neighbor – even enemy – is deeply embedded in the life of Christ. At Neighborly Faith, we’re helping young evangelicals see that. Fortunately, some are turning around and bringing this message back to their churches and changing lives.
Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is Co-Director of Neighborly Faith, an organization promoting friendships across faiths at America’s evangelical colleges and universities.
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