The Church at the US/ Mexico Border

The painted desert, the Sonoran, home of lumbering Pipe Cacti, coyote, sidewinders, rattlesnakes, mice, owls, eagles, desert primrose, hawks, roadrunners, sunsets that wrap the day up with a bang and towering mountains of the Santa Catalina range. The fragile Jan- June 2014 163ecosystem of the Sonoran is disrupted by roads. Roads used for transporting tariff-free goods from Mexico to the United States and vice versa, roads which welcome U.S. citizens to pass, roads which carry U.S. Border Patrol to remote parts so they may patrol the border. A visible, visceral wall lines the border as a tangible reminder of who is and is not welcome into the United States.

The Sonoran desert drew me into the conversation of US immigration policy; it called me to witness the human rights violations being committed within it; it called me to walk its trails of hope and hopelessness.

In the desert, I walked along migrant trails which were littered with socks, jeans, underwear of persons frequenting the trails in the hope of crossing the border undetected. I stopped at a shrine on the trail which was created by migrants who passed through and stopped for a rest and prayer to the Holy; there they left small crosses and pictures of St. Jude, the patron Saint of Lost Causes.

The Patron Saint of Lost Causes.

At critical parts of the trail, a humanitarian group called No More Deaths left water in milk jugs with messages written on them. Some said “this water is safe to drink” because they are often told by their trail guides, or coyotes, that the water has been poisoned. Jan- June 2014 135Some messages were those of hope and love. The dichotomy of the unforgiving desert and inhospitable wall was countered by pictures of St. Jude and gallons of water from persons who cared. It seemed to me like many folks in this country, legislators, citizens, officers have forgotten basic human rights. Over 6,000 basic human rights.

To date, over 6,000 bodies have been found in the desert and this count increases daily, especially as the summer temperatures soar well over 100 degrees.

It seemed like we forgot basic human rights when I heard personal accounts of detained migrants treated like dogs as they ate their food off the floor in detention and stories of cells being incredibly cold. It seemed like we forgot basic human rights when I sat through two hours of migrants being charged with criminal offenses for coming over the border and being given about 45 seconds a piece with a judge to accept a plea bargain. Or maybe it was when these men and women came in the courtroom with their hands and feet shackled that we forgot human rights. It seemed like we forgot basic human rights when I stood in Nogales, Mexico where a US Border Patrol officer shot 16 rounds through the wall and killed 16 year old Jose Antonio for throwing rocks at him.

The Reverend John Fife.

Our paths crossed in Tucson, Arizona at Borderlinks, an organization committed to facilitating education for groups desiring to come learn first hand of the activities along the border. Rev. Fife sat down and told the story of the Sanctuary movement; he is a retired pastor and served at Southside Presbyterian in Tucson; in the 1980s, Southside responded to the human rights crisis of the US rejection of Central American refugees coming across the border. The US was complicit in helping create the toxic civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala by training military leaders and providing weaponry. Southside, under Fife, began the US Sanctuary Movement wherein Southside essentially answered Fife’s question of “what does it mean to be church in the particular context that we find ourselves?” Southside, along with

Wall between US & Mexico

Wall between US & Mexico

Quaker support, conducted night-time border crossings of many refugees and then housed them in the sanctuary of the church. On average, Southside would host 50-100 refugees a night. In 1982, Fife and others were indicted by the US Attorney’s Office and decided that they would go to the media to highlight this grave injustice and need.

When Southside went public with this, the response by US churches and synagogues was staggering. Within two years, 237 houses of worship across the United States had declared sanctuary and welcomed refugees coming across the border. Colleges and universities also joined in what became known as The Sanctuary Movement. Somewhere on the order of 13,000-15,000 refugees received Sanctuary during that time until eventually Fife and others sued the US Government and settled out of court; the government agreed to cease all deportations from Guatemala and El Salvador, giving asylum and work permits.

When faced with the question of why he spearheaded this movement, Fife said,

“when the government violates human rights, the church has to make the ethical move from advocacy to resistance. I have never figured out how to duck that move. There is a role for advocacy, but when so many lives are threatened and dying, you have to make that next move from advocacy to nonviolent resistance. Sanctuary became that ethical move.”

Fife went on to say that “the church is right in the middle of the empire and the largest section of the church has blessed the empire, but at the same time, there has always been a segment of the church who has moved to active resistance.” This resistance is something that Southside did not see as a choice, but an obligation because they were paying attention and giving voice to the immediate needs of the Tucson and surrounding communities.

What does it mean to be the church in the context in which we find ourselves?

We are reminded of ancient Hebrew hospitality in the writings of the Torah: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV). We are reminded of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan wherein a Samaritan, who shared the same heritage of the Jewish man but their tribes were enemies, saved a Jewish man. Here this story shows that hospitality was given by the least likely passerby, the enemy. And hospitality was withheld by the most likely passerby, a Jewish Levite and also a priest. We are reminded of the Writings of the Psalms, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalms 139:13-14a, NRSV). Here we see and believe that all persons, regardless of any identifying feature, are made in the Imago Dei.

So I ask, what are the borders that are drawn in our communities, and even in our own congregations? How are we complicit in blessing the empire? How are we challenging the empire? Have we well researched the US’s immigration policy and how difficult it is to achieve a US citizenship unless you marry a US citizen, are independently wealthy, a famous athlete, a scientist, etc.? Are we aware of the current trade policies, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that have significantly contributed to the desperate poverty in Mexico and Central American countries?

What is the role of the Church as a social movement? And is this role a prophetic voice?

If we truly believe that all persons are made in the image of God, then how can we, as a church, allow migration to be criminalized? How can we allow hospitality to be criminalized?

The Reverend Fife ended with saying, “I can’t imagine being the pastor of a suburban church for 35 years and asking myself, ‘what the hell did I do?’”

As a Baptist seeking ordination, I want to be able to answer that question with integrity after a lifetime in ministry. I want to be able to say that I lived my life and served in a church which sang, ate, and breathed radical hospitality.

May it ever be so.

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Festival of Homiletics Part 1

The Festival of Homiletics (Preaching) kicked off with a beautiful start on Monday; I’ve been volunteering at the Festival and so I got to greet most folks as they registered on Monday. I was and am exhausted from a nonstop graduation weekend, but I absolutely enjoyed welcoming clergy and lay folk from multiple traditions. I heard stories, I shook hands, and I smiled. It was the most extroverted thing I’ve done in a while, but very rewarding. I’d like to recap a few things I’ve heard from the inspired and spirit-filled teaching which has been going on nonstop since Monday. Forgive me for being rather succinct, I have little energy for elaboration but wanted to write nonetheless.

I believe in writing about beauty. So here we go.

Worship Monday night was conducted by First Baptist Nashville, a congregation which has graciously hosted the festival. The worship had a distinctly Baptist flair until the first preacher of the Festival, Dr. Walter Brueggemann (Professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and distinguished author) incorporated “shit” into his very theologically sound and meaningful sermon.

Following Bruggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor (Priest in the Episcopalian Diocese of Atlanta, Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, and NY Times best selling author) preached a sermon like I’ve never heard one before; she is a gifted writer and pastor. What a privilege to learn from her. 0514131257Taylor hypothesized that perhaps living in the spiritual dark is not a bad thing, though it is often associated with evil or godlessness. She suggested that perhaps it is time to leave a faith which is maintained in a full solar tradition because God does some of God’s best work in the dark. Day and night do not contradict each other, but rather, they complement each other; so walking in times of darkness and disillusionment are essential to one’s faith, for this is where one learns to walk by faith, when one cannot see the way.

Today (Tuesday) I was in and out of another commitment (a panel I was on discussing Millennials in the church), but I did get to hear a couple of speakers. Lillian Daniel (Senior Minister at First Congregational Church in Glen Elynn, IL) spoke on the idea that sometimes there is a power at work within us that enables us to accomplish infinitely more than we could imagine.

Then I heard Dr. Barbara Lundblad (Lutheran Pastor and Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary), for which I will always be grateful. She is an aging woman with more wisdom than I could ever hope to attain and yet a humility which enables her to drives her points home in a relatable way. She spoke on the four Sundays of Advent (2013), which all come from the book of Isaiah. Specifically, she drove home the point timw after time that to do our preaching is to make hope as tangible as despair, and if we cannot help people see a tangible sign of hope, we will all give into despair.

Well, that’s all folks. I’m signing off. Looking forward to a wonderful continued week of homiletics!

OEC Interview #10: Don’t Tread On Me

Welcome back to the Our Emptying Church blog series! Tonight we hit our 10th Interview with a Millennial!

Because of the personal questions I’ve asked, I’m keeping all the interviewees anonymous. This interview comes from a 24 year old Administrative Assistant who has been a constant friend and support for many years. She is brilliantly intelligent and somehow is able to maintain optimism through almost any situation. I hope you benefit from her story as much as I did!

–Did you grow up regularly attending a church?
Yes I attended church regularly until around the age of 12 when my parents got divorced, and then only periodically the past 12 years.

–Are you currently actively attending a church?   No

–What is your motivation for attending/ not attending?
Honestly, I think because I stopped attending at such a young age, church became an “uncomfortable” place for me. I was very shy as a teen, and avoided social gatherings. Also, I am a very independent person, and I was opposed to anyone telling me how to live my life. I did what I had to do, and nothing more. Church just always reminded me of how imperfect I was, and I wanted to avoid that if I could.

-If you have one, tell me about your church experience (the good, bad, and neutral).
I honestly don’t have many memories of church. I grew up going to a small Presbyterian church, but as a kid, church was boring. I would go to Sunday school and sing in the choir, but I never enjoyed it. It was just something that I felt like I had to do. I’ve had some fun experiences at various churches since then, but I never joined another church after I left the Presbyterian one. The Christian school I attended became my church. Chapel every Wednesday kept me accountable enough in my mind.

–Feel pressure to attend church?
Yes, but it’s internal. I used to feel outside pressure to attend, but not anymore. I don’t usually associate with people who try to pressure me to do anything.

–In 1-3 sentences, how do you perceive Christians? (i.e. loving, generous, anti-gay, fundamentalists, too political, etc.)
I perceive them as people who are, for the most part, trying to be Christ-like and loving. Unfortunately, yes most Christians, in my opinion, have become too political and unwilling to open their minds and hearts to new ideas, and therefore have alienated themselves unintentionally. Consequently, being “Christian”, I think, is slowly developing a negative connotation.

–In October 2012, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that thirty percent of Millennials (age 18-31) identify as having no religious affiliation. Does this surprise you?  No, not at all.

–Fifty years down the road, do you anticipate significant growth in the church or significant decline? Why?
I expect there to be significant decline. I think young people are becoming more tolerant and the church is not budging. If the church doesn’t keep up with the young people, it will decline, no question. And it doesn’t help that our society and government are doing everything they can to remove God from our lives. It’s only a matter of time for the church to lose its impact and significance.

Do you agree that it’s only a matter of time before the church loses its impact and significance? I welcome your comments below.



This post is the sixteenth in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Fake Smiles and Judging Eyes: OEC Interview with Millennial #1, Prioritizing Sin: OEC Interview #2, You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance, Our Beloved, Overly Political Church, Heroes in Disguise: OEC Interview #5, Good Church Folk: OEC Interview #6, OEC Guest Post: Mark and Tammy Edwards, Spirituality v. Religion: OEC Interview #7, When John Speaks: OEC Guestpost #2, Our Emptying Yesteryear Church, OEC Interview #8: A Lost Generation, OEC Interview #9, A Cookie-Cutter Church

OEC Interview #9: A Cookie-Cutter Church

Welcome back to the Our Emptying Church blog series! Tonight I’m happy to share with you another interview with a Millennial. Because of the personal questions I’ve asked, I’m keeping all the interviewees anonymous. This interview comes from a 25 year old Communications Coordinator who has all of my respect for the beauty that she produces in this world. She consistently reminds me that gratitude sustains us in this world of scarcity. I hope you benefit from her perspective as much as I did!

Stain Glass

Did you grow up regularly attending a church?

Yes, my parents have always faithfully attended church. We were there on Sundays and Wednesdays, and I participated in most all of the programming for children and youth.

Are you currently actively attending a church?

Yes, I am. I joined a new church about three years ago during my last year of college, and recently I’ve become more active, taking on some leadership responsibilities.

What is your motivation for attending/ not attending?

Because I grew up with the tradition, attending is very comfortable to me. My motivation throughout the years has changed from pleasing my parents, appeasing God, and doing what’s considered right to seeking a welcoming community of (at least somewhat) like-minded people. Human relationships are my main motivation for attending these days.

If you have one, tell me about your church experience (the good, bad, and neutral).

I’d say my church experience has been a little diverse, at least in some ways. As a child, my experience was more about my family and learning the right way to live. I had a few friends at church, but I didn’t find as much community there as I did in school. Many times I felt like an outsider. I was very devout, quiet, and reserved, and it seemed that other kids and most leaders didn’t quite understand what to do with introversion. I had the best time at church when I was performing in the youth choir. During college, I visited a non-denominational church some with my friends. I enjoyed the services, but I didn’t invest in getting to know anyone. When I realized that, by all counts, the label homosexual applied to me and then started the process of coming out, I wondered how people at the non-denominational church would react, were we to get to know each other better. Instead of risking it, I started visiting a progressive church in the area that a couple of friends had previously invited me to. There I found a fully welcoming and affirming community, and, unlike the congregation of my youth, a true understanding and celebration of introversion, as well as the ability to freely explore questions and doubts.

What is the purpose of the church?

Ideally, to foster community that encourages and equips people to approach the questions of life.

Feel pressure to attend church?

Mostly I don’t feel pressure. When I do, it’s out of obligation because of the aforementioned leadership responsibilities.

In 1-3 sentences, how do you perceive Christians? (i.e. loving, generous, anti-gay, fundamentalists, too political, etc.)

I struggle with this question because on one hand I’m skeptical of generalizations. Christians are a diverse group of humans. But I also understand that the diversity of a group tends to get lost in our minds, especially when the group gets presented or tries to present themselves as homogenous. My perception of Christians is formed by personal encounters with other Christians, remembering my own former views, and messages in media.

I’ve encountered Christians who I perceive as very encouraging and filled with hope for the future.

I’ve also encountered Christians who I perceive as fearful, arrogant, immature, and out of touch with reality.

Sometimes I encounter all of these perceptions in the same person or group of people.

In October 2012, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that thirty percent of Millennials (age 18-31) identify as having no religious affiliation. Does this surprise you?

It doesn’t really surprise me, and I’m not sure of the significance or implications of this information.

Fifty years down the road, do you anticipate significant growth in the church or significant decline? Why?

I haven’t thought much about it one way or the other. (I’m not very good with projections into the future.) I feel I need to be more informed to adequately answer this one.

What is your motivation for attending church? Feel free to comment below.

This post is the fifteenth in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Fake Smiles and Judging Eyes: OEC Interview with Millennial #1, Prioritizing Sin: OEC Interview #2, You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance, Our Beloved, Overly Political Church, Heroes in Disguise: OEC Interview #5, Good Church Folk: OEC Interview #6, OEC Guest Post: Mark and Tammy Edwards, Spirituality v. Religion: OEC Interview #7, When John Speaks: OEC Guestpost #2, Our Emptying Yesteryear Church, OEC Interview #8: A Lost Generation

OEC Interview #8: A Lost Generation

Soon we will be wrapping up the Our Emptying Church blog series and I couldn’t be more grateful for the dialog that has occurred both here and on my facebook page. It’s not too late to join in if you are reading for the first time.

Tonight I’m honored to be sharing with you another interview with a Millennial. Because of the personal questions I’ve asked, I’m keeping all the interviewees anonymous. This interview comes from a 26 year old Assistant Manager who has shown me more grace than I deserve and has profoundly influenced me. When she could have judged, she loved. I am grateful to learn from her the ways of Christ. Her perspective in this interview is quite characteristic of Millennials; I hope you’ll learn from her as much as I have.

March 2013 (Asheville & Monteagle) 169
–Did you grow up regularly attending a church?

As my mom would say, we went to church “every time the doors were open”. We went to every service, and we participated in most events. And I didn’t go because I had to. I went because it made me happy, and I truly enjoyed it.

–Are you currently actively attending a church?

I am not. When I go back home to visit, I go to my home church, but I have not found one I love in the city I live in now. Granted, I haven’t actively been looking. I do miss it though. I don’t go now, because I have a weird work schedule in which I work most Sundays, and when I don’t work, I go out of town. But I know I could make it work if I really tried.


–What is your motivation for attending/ not attending?

I want to find a good church because I love God, and I want to find a place to worship him with others. I want to find a place where I can participate in different groups, and find others who love God too.
But I haven’t tried too hard to find a church. One reason for this (other than my work schedule) is because as I got older, I became a VERY liberal Christian. I believe in the core beliefs I was taught in church, but I stray very far from most Christians when it comes to current events and politics. I feel like they don’t always get those beliefs from the Bible, or the God I follow. They’ve made some things such a big deal that it turns far more people away from Christ than towards him. It is sometimes difficult to go to church when I feel like I can’t talk about those things or I will get yelled at or looked down upon. Or even worse, it is difficult when I know that many people there believe in those things that I feel do more harm than good to the church.


–If you have one, tell me about your church experience (the good, bad, and neutral).

Until college, church was my life. And it was a very good life. I went to church “every time the doors were open” from the first time I left the hospital as a baby til I left my home town for college. I participated in pretty much everything I could. I was in every choir, praise band, leadership team, search committee, Sunday school, bible study – you name it, I was probably in it at some point. I loved it. I don’t know who I would be today without the church because it makes up a lot of who I am. I would be a completely different person without it. The church never treated me badly. But I also grew up in what I called the “Baptist bubble”. All of my friends were Christians. It wasn’t really until I graduated college that I really made any friends that weren’t. When I went to college, I began to really notice what a negative impact the church made on the country with the stances it took at times. I have friends now that hate the church because of how they were treated, and it breaks my heart, because that’s not what Christ taught. We weren’t supposed to act like this, and show this much hatred. So to make a long story less long, I love the church, I love God, but I hate how the church treats people that aren’t regular church-goers.


–What is the purpose of the church?

To love God, and to make his love known. Everything we do should fall into one of those two categories. All we do should be a way to show him how much we love him – through worship, actions, speech, community, etc. Then we should share that love with others. That doesn’t mean to grab a bullhorn and yell hate from it on a street corner. That isn’t sharing God’s message. Through our actions and speech, we should show his love and how much he cares for all of us. There IS more to it than that, and there are rules we should follow, but I feel like that is something we don’t do until that person has joined the church. We don’t force rules on other people.


–Feel pressure to attend church?

I don’t. One wonderful thing my mother did was show me that she attended church because she loved it. I wanted to be there because she wanted to be there. Going to church brought us joy. Yeah, there were days I didn’t want to wake up and she made me go, but she never made me feel like it was a chore. I don’t think you should feel pressured to be there. You should want to be there, or there is no purpose. Are you truly worshiping God if you feel like your arm is being twisted to do so?


–In 1-3 sentences, how do you perceive Christians? (i.e. loving, generous, anti-gay, fundamentalists, too political, etc.)

Christians are really like anybody else in the way that there are incredibly kind people, but there are horribly rude people as well – they can be at both ends of the spectrum. They can be so selfless and giving in times of need. But I think they focus far too much on matters that make them look foolish, hateful, and narrow-minded.


–In October 2012, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that thirty percent of Millennials (age 18-31) identify as having no religious affiliation. Does this surprise you?

It really doesn’t. There are a couple reasons for that. One is that the church doesn’t really have a place for people of that age group. In the church I grew up in, there was always a group or class to belong in until you graduated high school, but the next classes offered were couples classes for the newly married couples. There was nothing for anyone in their early twenties. If you were not a kid, married, or over forty, you didn’t belong anywhere. We feel lost in church at our age.
Another reason is that our generation is very mindful of the world around us. I think there is a strong urge to make it better, whether that be through mission work or through stopping the intense hatred. I think our generation feels the church is doing more harm than good on many fronts. They see the negative and they don’t want to be a part of that.


–Fifty years down the road, do you anticipate significant growth in the church or significant decline? Why?

It’s hard to say. I hope it grows. It has been declining quite a bit in my lifetime. It will be very difficult to grow if an entire generation is turned off of it. But perhaps there could be a birth of a different kind of church. One that is less focused on the rules and church politics, and more on finding the truth the bible has to say. I can only hope for a revival.
–Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your experience?

The church has given me a lot in my life. It has taught me so much, it made me who I am, it gave me my closest friendships, and it introduced me to the Christ I follow. When my mother died, the church was there for me. They were my family and my support when I most needed it. I think the church is important. The problem comes when people use Christ’s name to spread hatred, and use it to further their own agendas. It comes when people blindly believe what they are told instead of reading the bible for themselves and seeing what it says. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God, and to love your neighbor. The problems arise when we stray from those. When the church loves others like it should, it is a wonderful place.

Do you agree that Millennials feel lost at church because of their age? Do you hope for the birth of a new church?

This post is the fourteenth in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Fake Smiles and Judging Eyes: OEC Interview with Millennial #1, Prioritizing Sin: OEC Interview #2, You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance, Our Beloved, Overly Political Church, Heroes in Disguise: OEC Interview #5, Good Church Folk: OEC Interview #6, OEC Guest Post: Mark and Tammy Edwards, Spirituality v. Religion: OEC Interview #7, When John Speaks: OEC Guestpost #2, Our Emptying Yesteryear Church

Our Emptying Yesteryear Church

Welcome back to the Our Emptying Church blog series!
I’d first like to thank the great and very tech-savvy Abbie Culbertson for the new look on the blog!

For the past five months, we have been exploring why Millennials (ages 18-30) have left or will leave the church. We’ve had several blog posts, some significant interviews with Millennials, and enlightening guest posters.

We are specifically addressing the six most common reasons why the number of religious unaffiliated Millennials is on the rise (in order, they are: antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, old-fashioned, out of touch with reality). So far we have covered: too involved in politics and antihomosexual, and now let’s jump into old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

Now before we begin, I would like to freely admit that I may not be the best source on all things pop culture, the latest trends from Vogue, or even who the Beibs is shacked up with. Born in the wrong decade, folk music is the beat that I dance to and I don’t really have a clue as to what iPhones are capable of. BUT, for whatever it’s worth, I am a hippyish Millennial who still dearly loves our emptying, old fashioned, out of touch with reality church.

In his book, UnChristian, Christian researcher, David Kinnamen, writes:

“[Non-Christians] think Christianity is out of tune with the real-world choices, challenges, and lifestyles they face. Only one-fifth of young [non-Christians] believe that an active faith helps people live a better, more fulfilling life. … Christianity is perceived as separated from real spiritual vitality and mystery. It seems like a religion of rules and standards.”

It is sadly ironic that some Millennials see Christianity as lacking spirituality, but I understand this as religion and spirituality are two very different entities. Millennials value their spiritual identities and are willing to find these outside of their upbringing. In an ever expanding technological realm, they have more access than any other generation to various philosophies about life and existence. They are willing to break away from the protective religious institutions that they may have been raised in to explore new alternatives that tend to include people rather than exclude them based upon an identifying feature. Millennials also tend to embrace mystery and shy away from dogma that claims to have all the answers about the complexities of life. Simplistic solutions and answers to life’s complexities are viewed as old fashioned and out of date. Educating the mind with dogma instead of engaging the lives of Millennials will not sustain this generation’s commitment.

According to Kinnamen’s research, 78% of non-Christian affiliated Millennials polled (n=440) perceived Christianity to be old fashioned. Remember these young adults polled probably do not go to a Christian church and so they are basing their perceptions on experiences with Christians, the media, etc. Perhaps they have read some of the Old Testament which was written during a primarily agrarian society as compared to a very technologically heavy modern day society and have trouble reconciling the commands from an older time. Additionally, some sects of Christianity still deny certain church and familial positions to women, which is a taboo protocol in today’s culture.

In addition to seeing the church as yesteryear and old-fashioned, the data suggested that Millennials also don’t believe the church has a deep sense of reality and ability to meet the needs of a young generation (72%, n=440). Such examples would include the heightened emphasis on virginity until wedlock and the assertions that one is less than whole if one falls off the bandwagon. Teaching such a stringent moral code leaves one choice for followers and that is celibacy; however, many do not live in such a black and white environment. The church has left teenagers utterly unprepared to live in a culture where promiscuity is becoming a norm (as the 1950s ended, 30% of young adults approved sex before marriage, whereas now 75% do).

Substance abuse, eating disorders, addictions to pornography, unwanted pregnancy, spousal abuse, struggles with self-worth, these things greet us in the morning and a religious do/don’t list doesn’t help cope.

The church has been responding to the fact that she is losing Millennials. Different sects have responded differently. Pastors like Joel Olsteen have downplayed theology into what has become known as the “prosperity gospel.” Give money, pray, have faith and you’ll be blessed with wealth and prosperity. A far cry from the teachings of Jesus. But I assert the same may be true for some conservative evangelical theology as well. Some mega-churches have poured thousands of tithing funds into creating spectacular light and sound shows which even have smoke machines. Southern Baptists recently voted to change their name to: “Great Commission Baptists,” as a way of separating themselves from the association that they once had with supporting the institution of slavery in the south. I wonder how much a name change will do. Is it enough to attract Millennials who didn’t have a problem with the name, but with the theology or exclusivity?

Smoke machines and a name change mean little to me.

Fancying up a service with frills to prevent boredom does not engage me, instead, I want to know if you accept me, do I belong in this place, what are you doing to fight trafficking, how do you love people, do you know the most recent data on suicides and depression, do you completely ostracize me as a scientist, can you find holiness in coffeehouses and bars, do you welcome my doubts, do you encourage my critical thought, will you let me partake of communion if I am not a member of your church?

You may be thinking, with all this criticism, does the church do anything right? And how can the church love Millennials in an authentic way?

I wonder if we all need a little denominational humility. Especially the absolutists among us. That we would admit and embrace that we can learn from folks that believe a little bit differently than we believe. What if we were partners and not competitors?

Perhaps a move away from the country club mega church is in order too. How much does it cost to maintain the church light bill? How about the water bill? Do the bar-b-ques and potlucks outnumber the soup kitchen meals? Do members know more than 20% of other members in the church? I don’t mean just names, I mean their stories. We know Millennials need authentic community. How can the body have an authentic community of 3,000+ people who have trouble remembering the names of the couple that sits two pews behind them?

I may have offended you with the post. I willingly take that risk. It will take honest dialogue to try to understand this generation of Millennials. Be encouraged by dialogue, for it means we care. It will take the willingness to admit we don’t know everything and that we may be wrong about some of our interpretations of scripture. But in our inability, we keep loving.

Because in all of our uncertainty, this we know, the greatest command of us is loving God our neighbor.

 

Do you perceive the church as old fashioned or out of touch with reality? Do you know Christians who have perpetuated or eliminated this perception?

This post is the twelfth in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Fake Smiles and Judging Eyes: OEC Interview with Millennial #1, Prioritizing Sin: OEC Interview #2, You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance, Our Beloved, Overly Political Church, Heroes in Disguise: OEC Interview #5, Good Church Folk: OEC Interview #6, OEC Guest Post: Mark and Tammy Edwards, Spirituality v. Religion: OEC Interview #7, When John Speaks: OEC Guestpost #2

When John Speaks

During the span of the Our Emptying Church series, I’ve been in several thought provoking conversations with folks both in person and online; I’ve received messages, emails, texts, phone calls from all ages of folks who have been able to identify with something in the series. For this reason, I am continuing the series because it is stimulating such dialog, which I’ve been learning, is essential. I welcome you to comment below in a public forum, or for a more private route, shoot me an email under the “Contact” tab about your thoughts and/ or experiences. You can also catch up with me on Twitter if you are of the tweeting variety! 

Our first guest post was from Mark and Tammy Edwards, a couple who has dedicated much time, love, and energy to loving Millennials. John
Our next guest poster is John Davis. John recently joined the counseling field and is soon-to-be a Licensed Professional Counselor; he has worked in the mental health field as a recreational therapist for several years. John is a man of careful words, words that work for peace and equality. When John speaks, I listen. I’m honored to have his perspective illuminate the Our Emptying Church series. Remember that it is at the juxtaposition of disagreement that we learn from each other.

**Editorial note: In this post, John references the takeover of the “Moral Majority,” which is a specific instance in conservative evangelic church history during the 1980s. Because I believe this is important to understand when talking about modern-day Millennials (18-30 yr olds) and the church, I will soon be welcoming another guest poster who specializes in church history to explain this church cultural change for us.

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One thing I’d like to point out is that Millennials do not hold a patent on disillusionment with the church. This has been a phenomenon that has occurred in waves both in this country and across the rest of the world. The counter-culture movement of my generation showed a strong element of disillusionment with the church (although many of the same movement found new ways to embrace it).

I left the church many years ago. The reasons are complicated, but I’ll do my best to put a few of them into words. For many years in the 80’s I immersed myself in the church. I found in it acceptance and a sense of purpose. If what I heard from time to time from leaders or peers gave my conscience a twinge, it was a small price to pay. The desire to belong and be accepted is one of the strongest motivations humans have. We seek it from our families of origin, our teachers, our mentors, and our churches. If it seems lacking in one area, we seek it out elsewhere. What I could not perceive at the time was that that acceptance offered by the church was conditional, and that fear of stepping outside the bounds of that conditional acceptance frequently created an atmosphere of falseness, of acute awareness of appearance, that could sabotage the kind of spiritual growth that can only flourish with honesty. I won’t say that this was the rule, but it was far from the exception.

Over the years I began to hear thinly veiled messages of intolerance from church leaders. I can remember studying the belief systems of cults in Sunday school (some of which were Church of Christ, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witness). While some sensitivity was used in the presentation of this information, the fact that the word “cult” was used attached a denotation of dark and arcane practices to them. I heard, over and over, messages of horror and judgment in connection with abortion or homosexual relationships. People who were involved in such things were portrayed as the most degenerate of sinners and, at times, subhuman. And I will never forget the time that I heard a respected pastor stand before the congregation on a Sunday night and present a sermon based on Israel’s conquest of Canaan. He claimed that the Canaanites were so debased and sinful that they were irredeemable (similar language with which homosexuals and pro-choice people had been described). And he used these words: “God was calling on his people to perform ‘social surgery.'” I still shudder when I think on those words and their implication. I’m sure many in the Third Reich used similar rationalizations to justify their actions. It would be bad enough to have such ideology limited to the congregations where they were presented, but this has not been the case. Especially since the 80’s and the advent of “The Moral Majority,” churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention have become a vast political juggernaut intent on legislating their narrow view of morality onto the entire culturally and religiously diverse American public. **And you wonder why (David) Kinnaman’s research turned out the way it did?

Time to rush in where angels fear to tread: the infallibility of the Bible. As you know, I don’t subscribe to this line of thought. The God of my understanding would not order his people to commit genocide to provide for a “promised land.” The God of my understanding is not the misogynist that Paul is. There are many other passages that I could cite that depict a very judgmental and intolerant God, and that is not who I worship. Having said that, the Bible expresses in ways I have read nowhere else some of the greatest spiritual truths in the human experience. Also, having read passages from many different older versions of the Bible, I find that the same passages have radically different meanings (most often tailored to the cultural audience of the time). And one studying the history of our modern Bible may find it difficult to maintain its infallibility when they discover the political machinations behind what got included and excluded from the Holy Canon. So I find the Bible not perfect, but nonetheless a powerful book and a repository for some true wisdom and excellent rules for living. Alas, the absolutism of most denominations will not allow for this. Either the Bible is infallible or it is a complete lie. Where else in human experience do we find such absolutes? I subscribe much more to Joseph Campbell’s philosophy. The divine can be found in myriads of stories that we revere and preserve from generation to generation. They do not reflect absolutes, but lessons to teach us about the world, each other, and (most importantly) about ourselves.

Next, let me discuss tradition, dogma, and ritual. Believe it or not, I am a great believer in these things. However, I believe that they can ONLY hold meaning to 1) those who established them or 2) those who have found deep meaning in them and made them their own. I believe that there should be as many different ways to worship as there are people on the earth. I can think of few more heinous spiritual practices than that of indoctrinating a person in dogma. The best kind of learning is experiential. If you can demonstrate the truth of what you believe, or let me experience it for myself, THEN I have learned something. And once a truth is learned, it should be tested to see that it holds up. A belief that has simply been accepted, that has not been taught by experience or tested for its veracity, is a weak belief. As for tradition, these tend to morph from generation to generation and then be touted as absolute spiritual or historic truth. Let us take for example the so-called “War on Christmas.” Ample evidence suggests that Jesus was born in the spring or summer months (even in Israel, shepherds don’t have their flocks in the fields in wintertime), yet many Christians stubbornly insist that the entire last month of the year should be devoted to little else but celebrating Christ’s birth. I love Christmas, but I also realize that the season means many different things to many different people. Their belief or non-belief does not diminish my love of the holiday and what it has (very uniquely) come to mean to me. Another example from the same holiday: the “keep Christ in Christmas” campaign. This was launched in protest of many people’s use of the term “Xmas.” It was ignorantly believed that the “X” was a heathen attempt to remove Christ’s name from the holiday. The “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, translated as “Christ”, and was first used by the early church to accentuate, not eradicate, Christ’s role in Christmas. In this case, church tradition is attacking itself!

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Does this addition of church history change your perspective or further help understand the influx of Millennials leaving the church? I welcome graceful, constructive dialog!

This post is the eleventh in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Fake Smiles and Judging Eyes: OEC Interview with Millennial #1, Prioritizing Sin: OEC Interview #2, You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance, Our Beloved, Overly Political Church, Heroes in Disguise: OEC Interview #5, Good Church Folk: OEC Interview #6, OEC Guest Post: Mark and Tammy Edwards, Spirituality v. Religion: OEC Interview #7