Crane, Water, Change
Facing the Facts

Here's How Progressive Evangelicals Can Win Back Millennials

By Deborah Jian Lee

Church pewsThis essay appeared originally in HuffPost Religion.

When I was fifteen, I stepped into a warm bath on my church's sanctuary stage. I was a bit of an outsider—the occasionally bullied Chinese-American kid in the white suburb—and I had found a place of belonging at this Chinese immigrant church. I made a joke about how I felt the same way about my new faith as my sixteen-year-old friend felt about her new driver’s license: I had no idea how I ever lived without this. Even my pastor chuckled as he clasped my hands, preparing to dunk me. Then I heard the splash of the warm water, the muffled underwater silence and the burst of cheers as my body broke through the surface. Smiling through currents of water, I saw the congregation beaming back. I had begun my new life in Christ.

From there, my story followed a steady path toward lifelong evangelical devotion. Equipped with the good news, I led youth group Bible studies and then attended college where I became an evangelical activist, leading my campus ministry's weekly gatherings of more than 100 students. Some friends called me the “super Christian,” the kid who was “on fire for Jesus.” Mentors from church and my campus Christian club encouraged me to join their staffs. I longed to be in ministry and these opportunities fit the disciple’s narrative. There I was at the precipice of adulthood, armed with my fiery devotion. But just a few years later, the flame went out.

I’m part of the recent mass exodus of young people from the church that has evangelical leaders wondering to each other, what went wrong? Surveys from 2013 estimate that after leaving high school about eight million twenty-somethings will leave church by the time they turn thirty.

I feel my own experience is emblematic. I grew up nonreligious, but came to faith as a teenager at Chinese church far removed from the culture wars. Then I entered college where I joined a mostly white evangelical campus group and found myself on the front lines. I heard liberalism likened to moral deficiency, homosexuality to dysfunction. Even though my campus ministry group was avowedly egalitarian, many friends endorsed gender hierarchy. Christian women pined for a husband that could “lead” and men spoke non-jokingly about wifely submission.

As a campus ministry leader, I challenged this worldview and faced resistance even from close friends. As I spoke about how my identity as a Chinese-American woman, feminist, and budding LGBT ally shaped my faith, my evangelical authenticity unraveled. My lessons about systemic racism and sexism in the church were called “distractions” from “core” Christian values of piety and converting others. My post-college attempts to find a justice-oriented church backfired as I encountered sermons that blamed feminism for broken families and met pastors who urged congregants to sign marriage amendment petitions. Frustrated by the culture wars, I fell out of love with the church. So, to preserve my faith, I left.

Today, older evangelical leaders are losing younger believers, who are responding in two significant ways. Some, like myself, are leaving organized religion. Others are stepping up to fill the church’s moral void. The latter group is reclaiming evangelicalism as the good news it was originally intended to be—for the least of these, for the outcast, for the orphaned—and are splintering the movement by emerging as a political force with a wholly redefined agenda.

Rescuing JesusThis turnaround intrigued me and brought me back to the evangelical world as a journalist. I found myself once again in the swirl of praise music and prayer, but this time with a notebook and a critical eye. My research turned into a book (Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism) as I unearthed evangelicalism's buried progressive history and found green shoots of its resurgence everywhere among believers today. Generation X and millennials have turned away from partisan politics and have dug deep into Jesus' teachings to reclaim the moral imperative from the Christian Right.

I met Lisa Sharon Harper, who is emblematic of much of change taking place in evangelicalism today. In a culture historically shaped by men, Lisa has broken through as an important figure bringing feminism and racial justice to the forefront of the evangelical agenda. Through advocacy, speaking and writing, Lisa has unpacked theological arguments for women's equality, raised female representation at major Christian conferences and inspired younger believers to make justice for women and other minority groups central to their faith. As the chief church engagement officer for Sojourners, Lisa is also working on bringing conservative white evangelicals into the Black Lives Matter movement. Around Ferguson and elsewhere in the country, Lisa has been meeting with white evangelical leaders arguing that racial justice is as much a gospel imperative as preaching salvation. Many have answered her calling, following her to civil disobedience training, marching alongside youth protesters, facing arrests and getting educated about the systemic injustice that plagues black communities.

Throughout the writing of my book, my mind kept returning to the statistic at the beginning of the piece and my own departure from evangelicalism. I wondered if the recent hemorrhaging of young evangelicals would have happened if leaders like Lisa had defined evangelicalism over the past decades, instead of leaders like James Dobson or Mike Huckabee. I wondered this because, after devoting years of my life to understanding progressive evangelicals as a journalist, I found my own faith reignited by the familiar Christian teachings that brought me to that baptismal tub back in my youth.

Those lessons come straight from the gospels, where Jesus calls his followers to love across boundaries and to live out a radically inclusive faith. By embracing these values and deserting the cultural Christianity defined by the religious right, progressive evangelicals are setting an example for spiritual Christianity, the kind rooted in Scripture's radical social justice teachings. This is indeed good news.


About the Author 

Deborah Jian LeeDeborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist, radio producer, and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming EvangelicalismShe has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, Slate, GOOD, Reuters, WBEZ, WNYC, and others.