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Millennial Evangelicals and Sex

January 19, 2013

Identifying and studying the evangelical bloc has been a bane of pollsters and researchers for some time, and so when people say “evangelicals think so-and-so,” a healthy skepticism should ensue. Especially if the people saying it might be trying to mock you.

According to research expert Ron Sellers, there are three helpful ways of “measuring” genuine evangelicals. The first is to ask them if they are evangelicals. The second is by their commitment: how often are they at church? How often do they read the Scripture? And the last method is to look at whether they agree with distinctly evangelical beliefs, like the inerrancy of Scripture or the impetus to share their faith with others.

It was surprising, then, when a big study came out saying that young evangelicals were having premarital sex as frequently as non-evangelicals, the reaction was one of panic, rather than skepticism.

Commissioned by the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy, the study’s findings suggested that eighty percent of young adult (18-29) evangelicals were having premarital sex, compared to 88 percent of their non-evangelical peers.

The study went relatively unnoticed for most people. But in 2011, the word got out. In the October 2011 edition of Relevant Magazine, writer Tyler Charles referenced the study an article titled “(Almost) Everyone’s doing it.” It made a few headlines.

The response among evangelical leaders was noticeable. Some of them made sex a hot topic in 2011-2012. A few highlights include:

  • Dallas megachurch pastor Ed Young and his wife Lisa hosted a 24-hour “bed-in” where he taught about Christian sexuality from a bed on the church rooftop. (January 2012)
  • New York City pastor Tim Keller released a book “The Meaning of Marriage.” (November 2011)
  • Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll released his book “Real Marriage,” and devoted a sermon series to the topic. (January 2012)

real marriageThe response was such that author and pastor Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in a January Washington Post column, “if evangelicals keep their frenetic pace up, 2012 will be the year they self-combust from over-sexual-exposure.”

No evangelicals want be implicated in the sins of abortion; aside from the sin itself, there would be added risks of public humiliation and hypocrisy.

Amidst the attempts to develop a better working theology of sexual ethics, only a few observers decided to take a closer, more skeptical look at the actual survey data.

Pastor Kevin KeYoung warned against a “love affair with bad stats” on his blog, pointing out a few weak points of the survey’s sample size.

Most skeptical of all, however, was World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky, who saw the NAE and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen & Unplanned Pregnancy as “strange bedfellows.”  He pointed out that the National Campaign, and the Guttmacher Institute which conducted the research, both had ties with Planned Parenthood. He also noted that National Campaign CEO Sarah Brown tried to use the information in the study to make evangelical public opinion say something it wasn’t saying: that most evangelicals support a non-abstinence based approach to contraception for unmarried couples.

Olasky’s skepticism was well-placed. A closer look at the study reveals a few issues, which brings us back to Ron Sellers’ three criteria for measuring evangelicals.

First: self-identification

The study was not designed to look at the beliefs of evangelicals. It was national survey with questions where respondents could self-identify according to religion. But the wording of the questions conflated several terms into one, asking “Do you consider yourself to be a born-again Christian, an evangelical, or a fundamentalist?” That’s one question, not three.

Are “evangelical,” “born-again” and “fundamentalist” the same thing? If one were to ask Billy Graham, as one renowned religion reporter once did, he might say that evangelicals are somewhere in between liberal Christians and fundamentalists.

Isn’t it possible to be “born-again” and not identify primarily as evangelical, or evangelical without being fundamentalist? While traditional evangelicalism has roots in fundamentalism, as Dr. Timothy Larson has shown, the movement has spread beyond those roots, and the two groups now hold different theological beliefs.

With this wording, those who consider themselves “evangelical” but not “fundamentalist” are forced to provide a less accurate answer. 476 of the 1800 survey participants answered “Yes” or “No”, while 926 answered “N/A”.

Second: religious practice (church attendance)

25 percent of respondents answered “once a week” but the survey does not specify whether the 447 people who answered that question were the same or different from those who self-identified as “born again, evangelical, or fundamentalist.” It’s possible that they were Catholic or Protestant, but not “born again, Evangelical, or Fundamentalist.”

Third: beliefs

The survey made no attempt to identify perhaps the most important aspect of these evangelicals: their beliefs.

Of course, the final reason why evangelicals might find the survey problematic is that both the National Campaign and the Guttmacher Institute have ties with Planned Parenthood, and both support abortion.

A second chance

Now, however, the NAE appears to be bearing the fruit of repentance: a new study on sex and unplanned pregnancy exclusively for evangelicals.Sexual activity

They have commissioned a new research firm to release a new study “Sex & Unexpected Pregnancy: What Millennial Evangelicals Think and Practice.” This time, the study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, whose president is none other than Ron Sellers, who was considerate enough to find some real young evangelicals for his survey about young evangelicals.

The new study’s results show clearly that “Most Young Evangelical Millennials Have Never Had Sex.” The facts, it seems, show quite definitely that faithful millennial evangelicals believe that premarital sex is wrong, and their lifestyle is mostly consistent with that belief. Yawn.

Among the interesting findings:

*45 percent of respondents (young evangelicals) “strongly disagree” with the statement that abstinence is unrealistic in today’s world.

*Only 2 percent would “definitely consider an abortion” when experiencing an unexpected pregnancy. 91 percent said they would consider raising the child with the other parent.

*The study found a correlation between those who read the bible more frequently, and those who choose to abstain from premarital sex.

So rather than headlines such as “Evangelicals struggle to address premarital sex and abortion” by David Sessions, or “Evangelicals Finally Admit That Not Even God Can Stop Teenage Boning” by Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, the truth is more like “Despite liberals’ attempts to prove otherwise, young evangelicals believe and live according to the tradition’s teaching.”

The data is consistent with what the Public Religion Research Institute showed in October 2012, and what the Baylor Religion Survey found in February 2011 that millennial evangelicals have by and large not abandoned the conservative views — both political and theological — of their parents. Evangelicalism in young America is alive and well.

From → Culture

2 Comments
  1. Interesting article. I found it from one of the comments below a story about this topic on Christianity Today. Here in the UK it’s probably a similar story, but people tend not to probe the personal behaviour of Christians so much.
    On a slightly broader note, I wonder if it’s worth considering the role that celibate people such as monks and nuns have had historically in missions. Partly this is because it would have been easier to move around without children and without too many possessions.

    • jdl permalink

      Thanks for your comment M,
      It’s an interesting consideration, one that probably deserves more attention. There are people called to celibacy, as it seems Paul was — and partly for the very reasons you mention. In fact, he went so far as to say that he wished everyone could be “such as I am” so as to focus on their calling 100%. It’s a great reminder to those of us who are currently single (though not called to singleness) to make the most of our time.

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