A few weeks ago, I attended the Donohoe Ecumenical Forum in Phoenix. This is a gathering held every year that is meant to get at some of the more controversial issues in Christianity, that aren’t normally addressed in ecumenical circles. (Normally, we have a great time talking about Mary with the Romans, and freedom and grace with the Lutherans, and never really get into the sticky stuff, for we do so love to place nice.) So a noble goal, from the Donohoe Forum.
This year’s speaker was David Kinnamon, from the Barna Institute, whom I had heard of before! (I thus awarded myself 10 points. I won another 25 on Megan’s Scale of Relevancy when I got there and realized I was one of 3 people there under the age of 55. This will become important.)
The Barna Institute has been engaged in polling young adults (judged here as 18-35 year olds) to determine how they see modern Christianity. The results of this, and Kinnamon’s analysis, are published in his book, entitled (spoiler alert) You Lost Me.
Essentially, it boils down to this– young adults (and from hearing him speak, he largely means evangelical Protestants here) have left the church, not because they have become atheists. They are leaving because they have questions that the churches they encounter either don’t answer, or answer without any satisfying nuance.
Dinosaurs! Gender equality! Same sex marriage! Dealing with divorce! The torrent of consumerism, marketing and advertising! Growing awareness of pluralism! A realistic ethical framework for sexuality when this generation isn’t getting married at age 19!
The old pat answers don’t work any more, and churches aren’t set up to allow the room for questioning or they don’t mirror the same complexity that exists in the rest of the world. So while young adults really (by huge percentages) like the teachings of Jesus, they find the church to be majorly out of step with its founder.
Basically, according to the research, young people do not find the church to be very Christ-like.
What was fascinating, and odd, to me, however, was listening to the conversation around these surveys.
Kinnamon comes out of an evangelical culture, which became evident the more he talked. (As a side note: I am not as AngloCatholic as some people, but I never feel quite so catholic when I am listening to evangelical Protestants speak. I suddenly want to whip out a rosary and ring the Angelus. It’s a problem.)
Anyway, Kinnamon used the analogy of Babylon, where the faithful were being purified by being set in the midst of a chaotic society that was not conducive to Godly faith, but the Jews persevered, and God made them stronger, and used them to convert the Babylonians.** He pointed out that the numbers reflect a deep divide in those who had left the church, especially around social issues like science:(global warming, evolution,) gay rights, and gender equality, and pluralism. Generally, the numbers showed, across the board, that those who left found the church way too closed on evolution, gay rights, and gender equality. Kinnamon gave the example of his friend (a pastor in a mega church) talking to his pre-teen daughter, who disclosed to him that she thought she might be called to the ministry, but if that were the case, then they’d have to switch churches, because women aren’t allowed to teach in theirs. Kinnamon laughed and said, “We have to do a better job of explaining our message so it’s more palatable.”
There is a fundamental difference between messaging, and truth. (Advertising has, yes, muddied the waters on this, but it does not change the fact.)
You can message all you want, but if you don’t allow women to teach men, eventually the word will get out. You can spin all you want, but if you are consistently anti-science, and squash reasoned debate and questioning, eventually the wheels will come off that wagon, too. You can come up with the nicest, sweetest advertising campaign in history, but if you preach against gay marriage than eventually that will come out. (Ha.)
The problem that the church at large is currently encountering is that, for a while now, we’ve allowed ourselves to act unChristlike at times. We got entranced with being powerful and popular, the stamp of approval for what was permitted in good society. It was fun! (I understand there was sherry.) But much of it wasn’t very Jesus-y.
But now, here comes a generation who has access to unfettered information, who has done its research, and has decided that they aren’t buying anything other than the real Thing. They would like to see Jesus, please, and they don’t care what Good People do, or what is Cool. (There is literally a whole lifestyle devoted to ignoring what is Cool.) They want Christ.
So our problem (and it’s been a while since we’ve had this particular one) is to be seen as more Christlike.
And no amount of spin, or better advertising, or messaging, or fancier churches will fix this. We can’t lead with any of that.
If we want to be seen as more JesusLike, then we actually have to act more JesusLike. We actually need to do it. We actually need to care and advocate for the sick and the poor. We actually need to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. We actually need to act like every person and creature on earth is worth God’s saving and redeeming love in equal measure.
We can do this. We have the resources, the inner guidance, the attentiveness to the Spirit. Every so often, and without a lot of run-up, the greater Episcopal Church takes great, jerking steps in this direction, and it tends to throw the unaware pew-sitter into a panic.
But this problem won’t be solved by the larger church structures. It will be tackled only by the smaller groups– parishes, small groups, ministries, start-ups.
How can you, in your local context, become more Christlike?
**I am still on the fence about this analogy. Comparing our situation to being in the Babylonian captivity feels like introducing an element of serious oppression where none currently exists. The Jews didn’t slowly get absorbed into Babylonian society; they were invaded, conquered and pillaged. Jerusalem was sacked. A Lamentations acrostic was written, for God’s sake! None of that has happened to us. We are fine. (See also: Christmas, Fictitious War on)
I like better the analogy of Acts, and reclaiming the idea of being in the mission field again. And here’s my Anglo-Catholic showing, I have an ingrown aversion to adopting this evangelical dualism with regards to culture vs. Christendom. The incarnation abolished this dualism. God won, let’s move on, shall we?
a) This is exactly right, could you please start giving seminars to church leaders on this topic? They will pay you. They pay other people to tell them nonsense, so I’d love for you to go in and be all “young people want you to speak the truth when it is hard and be engaged in your communities.”
b) I actually have this exact same rant about movies, which are of course, also dying. People keep trying to analyze why people have stopped going to big blockbusters, but occasionally come out in really strong force for oddball indie hits, like Beasts of the Southern Wild. Dear media analysts: people want to pay to see GOOD MOVIES that are INTERESTING and TRUTHFUL. Stop making expensive boring movies designed to make everyone happy. If you are making everyone happy, you are telling no one the truth.