11 Reasons Young Men are Leaving Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism is losing its attraction for young men. Yet, young men are also gravitating toward free-thinking conservative movements like The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). There are several points of crisis that push men to identify with certain movements. Here, I identify eleven points of male crisis which serve as reasons why young evangelical men are more attracted to secular conservatism than evangelicalism.  

1. Authority: There is a crisis of credibility among evangelicals. Most evangelicals are anti-body, anti-fun nerds. Why take life advice from 3 doctorates in theology (John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson) when you can take it from a Navy Seal (Jocko Willink), a pot-smoking jiu jitsu blackbelt (Joe Rogan), a fast-talking Harvard lawyer (Ben Shapiro), a Harvard psychology professor (Jordan Peterson), and an MIT mathematician (Eric Weinstein)?

Most evangelical leaders have the same soft competencies—they are good at church. And those competencies, despite their insistence, often fail to translate meaningfully into other domains of life, such as romance, career success, personal fulfillment, and physical maturation. Evangelicals claim to speak prophetically and authoritatively about masculinity, but its leaders often fail to exemplify it in a recognizable way.


Christian-specific competencies often fail to translate meaningfully into other domains of life.

It’s interesting that Mark Driscoll became popular because he was so good at exemplifying masculinity in a way that resonated with young men, and was at the same time demonized by evangelicalism for those same traits which made him so attractive to begin with.

2. Agility: Evangelical leaders proved themselves at preaching, but not at debating. It’s common for evangelical preachers to talk about “bringing the heat” to the pulpit. But preaching is actually very easy. You have to be very lazy about sermon preparation to be bad at preaching, because preaching is essentially a 45-minute contract with a room that one person will talk uninterrupted. But the IDW leaders publicly test themselves in the fire of live YouTube debate.

The common mode of discourse isn’t monologue, but back-and-forth. When was the last time men have seen Piper or Keller face a public challenge and win? This is why men typically respect apologists more than evangelists. They step into the ring with an opponent and risk public defeat. This publicly exemplifies masculinity, and garners greater respect.

3. Community: Crisis of relational credibility. When I hear Matt Chandler yelling at thousands of young men, including myself, about masculinity (calling them “boys who can shave”), I don’t take him seriously, because he doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. He doesn’t make arguments; he makes emotional appeals. More than that, he construes men in the process of growth as failing men rather than growing men (typical of a fixed-mindset approach, which Carol Dweck says is indicative of a mindset that will not learn). I really don’t think Chandler cares about me, so I really don’t care about his moral judgments. More than that, I don’t know if he has any authority, other than his large audience, for saying these things.

4. Male competency: The problem with machismo isn’t that it’s hyper-masculine, but that it’s a meme of a limited collection valuable competencies. Just because you can make fun of something, that doesn’t mean you’ve made a compelling critique. It’s easy to make fun of a knuckle-dragging, anti-intellectual macho man. But it’s easy to forget, in mocking the machismo meme, that physical strength, romantic prowess, and fighting skills are not bad competencies to have. In fact, they are intuitively manly. A man who may not exhibit machismo qualities, but is smart and wise, is not seen as a weakling but as an alpha male, in some sense — e.g. “Ben Shapiro owns…” Evangelicalism in the southern United States tends to prize these machismo qualities, but evangelicalism in the northern United States tends to minimize their importance. In higher circles of evangelical leadership, you will find more often men who look as if they disdain their bodies than those who regularly practice discipline.

5. Psychology: Hyper-masculine men are usually compensating for a deficiency in maturity or intelligence. That’s why it’s easy for leftists or effeminate men to roll their eyes at conservative, pro-masculine men—because they’re often inarticulate and woo-woo about lifting weights and eating meat, yet exhibiting very low emotional and social intelligence. To be better men, those guys need to aim for different, higher-level competencies like intellectual, rhetorical, and emotional skills. Evangelicals who fail to develop these higher-level competencies are usually the same guys who get really stirred up by a “Matt Chandler calls out men” video, but aren’t able to conceive of masculinity as a more complex, sophisticated project than merely mastering one or two basic male skills.

6. Diversity: To be considered masculine, you have to diversify your masculine qualities. No single masculine quality credentials you publicly as a “man.” Deadlifting 600 pounds doesn’t nullify your other incompetence. True masculinity exhibits a multiplicity of diverse competencies, such as intellectual prowess, moral integrity, and physical strength.

7. Hypocrisy: Most evangelicals who hammer on masculinity are effeminate. It’s all pleated khakis and Dad bods. If I’m going to listen to any authority about masculinity, I’m going listen to Jocko over John Piper. I’m going listen to Joe Rogan over Tim Keller. It’s not that Piper and Keller can’t teach us anything. It’s that when you’re talking about winning the hearts of young men—and in particular, leading by example—you need someone who walks the walk.

8. Secrecy: Evangelical culture rewards secrecy more than it rewards honesty. This incentivizes the concealment of sin. Of course, it’s not good to normalize sin so that men lose all moral boundaries. But the fact that men sin should be acknowledged and addressed actively, liturgically, and communally with other men to demonstrate the necessity and usefulness of public confession. The problem is that in most evangelical church contexts, the confession of sin results in discipline, stigma, exile, and the loss of romantic opportunities in that community. Because of this, men will far more often conceal, hide, and continue active indulgence. If evangelicalism will ever attract young men, it must have a culture in which it is safe to confess sin without getting exiled, beat up, booted out, chastised.


in most evangelical church contexts, the confession of sin results in discipline, stigma, and exile.

 9. Sociology: We lack a male initiation ceremony in our culture. There’s no challenge, painful rite, or public charge. That’s why the last people who should be complaining about the extension of male adolescence are baby boomers, since they’re the ones who failed to initiate and teach us.[1] 

10. Belonging: Men want a tribe to which they can belong. If Jesus says “There is no greater love than this: man who lays down his life for his friend,” then it’s natural for men to feel empty who don’t have anything or anyone valuable enough for whom to sacrifice their pleasures daily for the sake of building something bigger. Men need a tribe. A “people.” Guys who accept and challenge them simultaneously. Evangelicalism is attractive to young men in this regard because of its militancy, but it is unattractive insofar as it threatens excommunication for those who fail to assimilate to the cultural norm. Not every man fits within evangelical culture—especially because it tends to be such an effeminate culture.[2]

 11. Identity: Maleness is seen as a bad thing in 2018. Especially white maleness. Since, because of intersectionality, we are inclined to identify people in terms of group membership instead of individual merit, many males are either embarrassed of being men, or they fall into the trap of hyper-masculinity. The demonization of masculinity produces male feminists and alt-right machismo simultaneously.

Themes

We can extrapolate four themes from these points of crisis. These themes represent worthy ideals toward which men ought to strive for the sake of grounding their identity without getting lost in the leftist and conservative memes of masculinity.

First, men should pursue balance. Men are generally inclined toward extremism. The goal of masculinity isn’t to erase what makes you distinctly a man, or to lose your identity in those distinctives, but to recognize how you work and what practices will make you in particular the happiest, healthiest man that you can be. You should strive to become as manly as possible in the context of becoming the best person that you can be.

Second, men should pursue fatherhood—both in the context of being sons, and in the context of raising sons. This doesn’t mean biological procreation, but rather mentorship. Find a sensei as soon as you can, and find a younger man who needs mentoring as soon as you can. Pass down the lessons you learn as you learn them, and learn how to take responsibility for the growth of other men. We need leaders who are able to be better than without being a threat to younger generations. This also means that masculine leaders must bear their vulnerabilities to younger and older men in order to be an example of repentance and growth, as well as to receive instruction and wisdom for the same.


masculine leaders must bear their vulnerabilities to younger and older men in order to be an example of repentance and growth.

We want to know men who inspire us who are willing to invest in us personally, and we likewise ought to strive to become those men who lead in that way. Many so-called fathers within evangelicalism lord their higher position in the social hierarchy over younger men, rather than teaching them the skills required to be fathers for the next generation. It’s much easier to lord over than to educate. As a result, instead of father-son relationships in the church, you have relationships more akin to seniors and freshmen in a fraternity—younger guys have to “put in their time” before they’re welcomed into the inner circle. And, of course, in some churches, it’s exactly the reverse.

Third, men should pursue meaningfulness. That is, they should pursue a purpose to drive, compel, and inspire men to challenge their bodies, minds, and spirits to expend their full strength on making the most of every single day.

Fourth, men ought to pursue God. This doesn’t mean that they ought to submit to the local church. More often than not, especially in our cultural moment, men need something much deeper and better than what the evangelical church regularly offers. Beneath all the noise of culture, politics, and psychology, God calls men to be virtuous, faithful, wise, and strong. Men need an ideal to strive toward that helps them to face their own death, and that helps them to love their families and to love virtue enough to give their lives for it. Ultimately, a man who lives his life without God will die of existential numbness or existential despair. Again, this doesn’t mean that he must join a church. It simply means that he must seek to engage God authentically, objectively, and as a personal encounter outside of his control and desires, which holds him accountable and which helps him.

Conclusion

Men want to be led by men who not only lead them into totem, but into taboo. Men want other men to teach them how to dive into the chaos of life and create order. As Jordan Peterson says: “It’s better to be a restrained monster than a well-behaved coward.” In this regard, man faces the paradox of cultivating his inner strength for the sake of being strong so that he can take responsibility, but in the process awakens and strengthens his inner monster. All masculinity, in this regard, can be reduced to Uncle Ben’s Charge: “With great power comes great responsibility.”


It’s better to be a restrained monster than a well-behaved coward.
— Jordan Peterson

The more competent a man becomes, the more power he has, and the more of a tyrant he can become. It’s tempting to demonize the masculine pursuit of power because it so often turns men into tyrants. But this is why it is so important that, in becoming disillusioned with evangelicalism, as all men who want to become better men inevitably will, men continue to wrestle with and relate to God on their own terms. Men who remain evangelical will be tempted to give up the pursuit of strength for the sake of a smaller domain of responsibility. Likewise, men who pursue strength will be tempted to abdicate their responsibility. This is why men must pursue God, not as members of an institution, but as individuals who affiliate with institutions only insofar as it aids their fulfilling the words of Peterson and Uncle Ben:  

“It’s better to be a restrained monster than a well-behaved coward.”

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

FOOTNOTES

[1] Modern masculinity studies, ironically (and perhaps tellingly), is dominated by feminist critical theory—a poststructuralist “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Ricœur named it. For an objective account of these rites, see Arnold van Gennep, Monika B. Vizedon, and Gabrielle L. Caffee, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

[2] Sadly, most university press publications utilize anti-objectivist methodologies in their study of masculinity, seeking always to reduce masculinity to a dispensable, socially constructed cluster of personal traits. These works are anti-aggression, anti-normativity, and Marxist. While utile work on masculinity should make account for male psychodiversity and resist moralization of the issue (which feminists often fail to do), there ought to be space in the academy for an objective and modern account of masculinity, which it seems does not currently exist. An example of this sort of modern feminist account of masculinity is Aneta Stepien’s Shame, Masculinity and Desire of Belonging: Reading Contemporary Male Writers (New York: Peter Lang, 2017). Stepien writies with an ethical scalpel that seems only to exemplify the postmodern methodology undergirding the work, rather than a heuristic account of any ontology that might exist beneath the masculine desire to belong with other men.


 
 

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