One of the most fascinating medical discoveries in recent years came when researchers proved that parents who raise their kids in sterile environments slathered in hand sanitizer and free of dirt actually hurt them in the long run. This is because the human immune system isn’t born ready to perform at the top of its game. It needs training, and minor challenges are essential to that training. Letting kids experience the outside world gives them a better chance at fighting off serious diseases in the future, and teaches their immune systems not to attack their own bodies.
A new study on the social beliefs of Evangelical Millennials echoes this science. Findings from the Public Religion Research Institute suggest that the best way for conservative Evangelical parents to reinforce their values in their kids is to get them out of Evangelical subculture and expose them to unfamiliar people and beliefs. The authors of this study presented their results last month to the American Political Science Association and have since received a lot of press, particularly in Christian publications.
“Young white Evangelicals whose social networks most closely included people like them,” writes Napp Nazworth at The Christian Post, “were the most likely to depart from older Evangelicals on cultural issues, while young Evangelicals with more diverse social networks were more likely to hold views similar to older Evangelicals. In other words, the more embedded Millennial Evangelicals are in the Evangelical subculture and the less interaction they have with non-Evangelicals, the more likely they are to demonstrate attitudes diverging from their elders.”
According to the study, white Millennial evangelicals who didn’t count any non-Christians or non-whites among their closest friends were more likely than those with diverse groups of friends to agree that “‘religion causes more problems in society than it solves,’ that ‘under God’ should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, and to disagree that ‘it is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values.’”
Nazworth suggests that these counterintuitive findings may tell us a lot about what some have called the “Christian bubble.” When students are raised in an environment characterized by isolationism and fear, their natural independence may lead them to rebel, or as the study’s authors put it, “react negatively to the subculture.” Interacting with people whose lives and beliefs differ widely from theirs may give young Evangelicals a fresh perspective on their own upbringing.
But don’t jump to any conclusions, mom and dad. Having a diverse group of social acquaintances may do more than show young Evangelicals how good they’ve got it at home. It may also force them to do something they don’t often do: think critically about their beliefs and defend them. That’s a technique we’ve been using at Summit for years to launch sharp young thinkers into unsuspecting secular universities every fall. It starts with a challenge. We tell students to hit us with their best shots. We want to hear questions, not because questions create doubt, but because they open the door to answers — the kind God’s Word is capable of furnishing. Then we teach them to ask tough questions of other worldviews.
Not only does this training reinforce the values parents and pastors want their kids to inherit, but it better positions Christian young people to correct the mistakes of the previous generation’s bubble. And that’s a good thing. Because after all, everyone has some dirt, and no subculture is immune to criticism.