From mid-January to mid-March, I traveled to 22 cities on my Great Awakening book tour. The most compelling evidence I saw that we really are entering a “post-Religious Right America” is the shifting political agenda and theological emphasis of a new generation of twentysomething evangelicals. I met thousands of them on the road as they came out in large numbers for book events.
I travel with one of these young evangelicals, Chris LaTondresse, a missionary kid who grew up in the former Soviet Union and who recently graduated from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. From the conversations he and I have been having with those in attendance at book events, churches, and evangelical college campuses, it’s clear that churchgoers growing up in conservative pews are finally coming of age with regard to peace and justice issues. This emerging generation is the leading edge of a new movement of progressive evangelicals.
In Boston, I spoke at the historic Park Street Church, where the premier evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Finney, preached in 1831. The Billy Graham of his day, Finney called people to faith in Jesus Christ and then to enlist in the anti-slavery campaign. Finney actually pioneered the “altar call” so he could sign up his converts for the anti-slavery campaign. Another famous anti-slavery crusader of the time, the more secular William Lloyd Garrison, delivered his first abolitionist speech in the same church when he was only 23 years old.
On that weekday night at Park Street, I encountered a packed church of hundreds of young evangelicals who want to be a generation of new “abolitionists”—focusing on the most vulnerable people in our world today. They suspect that Jesus would likely care about the 30,000 children around the world who die each day due to unnecessary poverty and preventable disease.
At Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, they couldn’t find enough chairs for all the students who turned up, with many sitting on the floor or standing in the back of the room. The same thing happened at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, the most famous evangelical school in America, and at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, where students packed the gymnasium on a Friday night. Many of these students realize that Christianity has an image problem: It is seen as hypocritical, judgmental, too focused on the afterlife, and too partisan. They desire something radically new and different, yet still solidly rooted in Jesus.
THE YOUNG evangelicals are not alone, but are part of a broader, new, spiritually rooted progressive movement that includes the religious from many traditions, the “spiritual but not religious,” and also secular youth who hunger for a moral dimension to public life.
I met young Catholics who are discovering their own church’s social teaching about the common good; I met seminary students in mainline Protestantism forming “beatitudes societies” to study the core teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and packing our event at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Alongside them are young black pastors who don’t want to just sing the old anthems of the civil rights movement, but seek to make their own history for justice. Next-generation Latino Pentecostals and Catholics see issues such as immigration as key religious and moral questions, and the sons and daughters of Asian-American immigrant Christians are not just focusing on assimilation as their parents did but are reaching out into their communities. All these are making the vital connection between evangelism and social justice
I see parallel movements of young people eager for “Jewish renewal” connected to social justice, and a prophetic new generation of Muslims who are standing up to extremism. You can feel the energy of a movement when you are with this new generation—it is something that most of the media has so far missed.
The quantitative picture painted by Barna pollster David Kinnaman in his recent book unChristian is qualitatively borne out in this group of Generation Y “insiders”—those raised inside the church but frustrated with the status quo. They will shake things up in the years ahead, both politically and theologically.
Politically, their agenda is broader and deeper, no longer beholden to a single partisan ideology. However they choose to vote, this constituency could develop the capacity that elections rarely have by themselves—the ability to really change politics.
Theologically, these young evangelicals are abandoning a worldview that reduces the gospel of Jesus Christ to an afterlife-oriented, “fire-insurance” salvation pitch. These are Matthew 25, Luke 4, and “Sermon on the Mount” Christians. They are looking for churches that offer a personal, dynamic, and vibrant faith that is powerful enough to change their lives, their relationships, their neighborhoods, their nation, and their world. They really believe that the kingdom of God represents God’s best hopes and dreams for this present age, and not only for the life to come.
For these young Christians, the Religious Right has been replaced by Jesus, and that is real progress. They are most interested in how Christians and the church are supposed to change the world—which is the major topic of The Great Awakening’s third chapter, “How to Change the World, and Why: Rules of Engagement.” They also want to focus on the seven chapters that call for commitment on the great issues of our time, because that’s exactly what they are ready to do—make commitments.
The young evangelical worldview is being disciplined by a new global context. They get that context not just from coffee-infused, late-night seminary conversations but also from mission trips that bring them into relationship with single mothers living in the crumbling remains of America’s inner cities, with children living on garbage dumps in Mexico, with teenage girls rescued out of Southeast Asia’s sex industry, and with the boy soldiers of sub-Saharan Africa.
This new generation is responding to The Great Awakening’s message because of what they already see happening in their world, and because of the faith that is welling up within them. They are summoning the confidence to articulate a new vision for Christianity for the 21st century, rooted in the timeless orthodoxy of a first-century rabbi. And once it emerges, it could change everything.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners