GRAPEVINE, Texas — University of North Carolina history professor and Christian author Molly Worthen told administrators from over 130 Christian colleges Wednesday that many young evangelicals haven't been taught the historical context of what it means to be "evangelical" in an era when the term has been given such a political connotation.
Worthen, whose research focuses on North American religious and intellectual history and is the author of the 2013 book Apostles of Reason, spoke at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities International Forum, a conference held once every four years, at the Gaylord Texan Convention Center.
At a time when the common social understanding of the term "evangelical" has become linked with conservative white evangelicals and their strong support of President Donald Trump, Worthen said every week she is seemingly reading articles about how "unprecedented numbers of young people [are] leaving the church in droves" as "all these talking heads [who are] pronouncing the label evangelicalism" have "corrupted and politicized" the word too much for it to be "useful."
"So often, all of this is tied to the outcome of the last presidential election," Worthen said. "Don't get me wrong, the 2016 election was a moment of historical significance. But I think that our current political situation has effectively shed more light on a longstanding debate and divide among evangelicals and a struggle of Christian educators to prepare students for modern challenges that goes back at least a half century."
According to Worthen, students looking to attend Christian colleges today are much different from the types of students who attended Christian and evangelical higher education institutions in the 1940s and 1950s.
"The thing they seek more than anything and the thing that causes them anxiety is not really a quest for the perfect, watertight, rational case for believing the Bible. Certainly, there are some students who are preoccupied with these traditional questions of apologetics," Worthen contended. "I think the thing they really crave — and it's the same thing most of my students at [North] Carolina crave — is a sense of authenticity, a sense of knowing who they truly are in the world, of being part of a human and humane community that is rooted in place and time and can occasionally persuade them to put down their smartphones and interact as real, living, breathing individuals."
Worthen argues that the best thing Christian colleges can do for these types of students is to "give them a sense of their own history of where they stand in the broad sweep of Christianity."