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.

************************************

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!

****

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

Advertisements

OEC: Our Beloved, Overly Political Church

In continuing with the Our Emptying Church series, I am exploring the six most common negative perceptions of the church (in order, they are: antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, old-fashioned, out of touch with reality). You can check out this earlier post that refers to The Barna Group’s research. Stay tuned next week because I’ll be diving into what has become known as the super sin of homosexuality. But in honor of the upcoming election day, I am weighing in on the 4th most common perception of the church: it’s too political.

The common perception is that Christians are overwhelmingly associated with the political right wing and that because of issues such as abortion, Christians have no other choice but to vote on the conservative side of the fence. This absolutism has been my personal experience with the church.

I have frequently heard men preaching that voting for a Republican is voting for Christan morals and that we, as Christians, have no other choice. I’m sure you have heard something similar, if not from a pulpit, then from a bible study or conversation. In fact, I’d be surprised if in the last month, you hadn’t been told who you must vote for because of your faith. Even the Billy Graham Association, via Franklin Graham, recently not-to-subtly endorsed Mitt Romney. The organization’s tax exempt status preempted a full out endorsement of Romney.

Recently, a middle TN pastor made the local news for his outright indignation of President Obama. In his church newsletter, he wrote: “I am doing everything I can to see the Obama socialistic, anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Israel program is defeated.” Clearly, he has an agenda as he leads his congregation.

This generation of Millennials is becoming increasingly skeptical of the church’s use of political power to promote and protect its agenda. Millennials tend to shy away from such absolutism and often grow to resent being told who they must vote for simply because their church says they must. Let me be clear, you cannot legislate morality. You can legislate equality. And there is a big difference between the two.

I’m not writing to push a political agenda on this blog; my goal is not to ostracize and contribute to the diabolically opposing sides of the hot topics I write about. My goal is to encourage the opening of our minds and hearts to talking with each other instead of over each other.

We’ve got to stop making sweeping generalizations about our brothers and sisters who choose to vote for whichever party we oppose. We’ve got to realize how arrogant it is to live in such absolutism. Because you see, in our pursuit of political absolutism, we lose. In our politically-laced sermons and vehement opinions, we lose. We lose sight of Jesus. We lose sight of loving our neighbors when we can’t even sit at the same table with them.

The church sometimes tends to engage in militaristic terminology speaking about winning this and that battle, which is, in all fairness, contextually derived from the book of Ephesians; however, it’s extrapolated into an “us-them” mentality of winning a cultural war. “We must stand up for what we believe in or they will win.” And it is this cultural war that leaves wounds on any of us who seem to be on the outside.

I think it’s important to remember that Christians first seek to love God and love their neighbors and no political platform can legislate this. It’s important to remember that no one leader can change this country as change often comes from a dedicated grass roots effort. And lastly, it’s important to remember that one can love God and vote for Barack Obama on Tuesday, just as much as one can love God and vote for Mitt Romney on Tuesday (or any other candidate).

Because political affiliation does not automatically translate into biblical fidelity. Loving people does. And until we realize that, we lose, we inflict wounds, and can say goodbye to many Millennials.

How have the church and politics intersected for you?


This post is the seventh 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, Interview with a Millennial #1, Interview with a Millennial #2, OEC Interview #3: You’re Losing Us, OEC Interview #4: One Last Chance

You’re Losing Us: OEC Interview #3

Last week, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a study which revealed that a third of Millennials (18-29) say they have no religious affiliation. For all ages, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated grew from 15% to 20% over the last five years. Those hit hardest by this loss were evangelical Protestants. Kevin Ezell, the president of the North American Mission Board, a missional branch of the theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, responded to the research saying:

Southern Baptists shouldn’t need any more evidence to convince us that we must increase our efforts to penetrate lostness in North America… I believe that only a church planting movement will reverse this trend.

As I was reading President Ezell’s response, I threw the newspaper across the room. I couldn’t help but think, you are missing it. Don’t you see? Another mega church is not the answer. We do not need yet another building campaign. We do not need to be on the roll of yet another Sunday School class. Don’t you get it?! You’re losing us. Millennials need dialogue. We need help with the messiness of life. We need intentional community. We need Jesus.

Stepping off the soapbox, I’d like continue this post by sharing with you another interview with a Millennial. My prayer is that we will benefit from hearing other stories and that we’ll begin realizing that we really aren’t all that different. This interview comes from a 22 year old student. He is as generous as he is kind, and also incredibly intelligent; I am sure that I am a much better woman for knowing him.

–Did you grow up regularly attending a church?


Yes. I was a regular attendant of the Methodist Church up until my late teen years.

–Are you currently actively attending a church?

No I’m not. And, as of this time, I’m not looking for one.

–What is your motivation for attending/ not attending?

In all honesty, a lot of my motivations for not attending are internally created. I’ve never had a bad experience within my own church that would cause me to leave it. I suppose my biggest reason for leaving is that I began to feel wrong there, like I didn’t truly belong. For the first time I began to realize just how much hatred and cruelty there was in the world, especially from those of the Christian faith. These Christians seemed to take special care to direct their negativity towards the people I identified with: those who don’t see the world in black and white, those whose sexuality doesn’t adhere to what is considered the social norm, those who believe that all faiths should be respected, etc. I suppose I let all that negativity influence me and, while I did not face such hatred directly, I stopped attending church because I felt there was no place for me there anymore.

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

As I stated earlier, I truly didn’t experience any problems from my church community when I did attend. Everyone always treated me cordially and I never had an issue. However, I should note that, although I attended church regularly growing up, I never felt I got anything substantial out of it. People around me would discuss how they could feel everyone’s prayers bolstering their strength during times of struggle and how God would fill them with a sense of peace. I had never felt any of that. I had prayed my whole life through good times and bad but had never felt like anyone was listening. For some reason, I had been deemed unworthy of these great transcendental experiences. I figured it was because I didn’t match what God or the church wanted. That hurt for a little while. However, I still pray regularly. Hope is notoriously difficult to kill.


–What is the purpose of the church?

That’s a loaded question. I’m sure each individual church would tell you something different due to their varying values and such. In my opinion, I always thought that the church was meant to be a place of belonging and acceptance, a place where you could go when no one else would have you. I’m sure some are that way, but they seem to be few and far between.

–Feel pressure to attend church?

Not at all. I feel absolutely no attraction to church in any way.

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

Wow! That’s kind of like asking how do I perceive humanity. There are kind, loving people and there are cruel, hateful people. I think it’s the same with Christianity and every other religion as well. They are as varied as the human race because they are all part of it.

–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, it doesn’t surprise me. The world is changing and I feel like the church doesn’t want or know how to keep up. I’m sure there are many like me who left for reasons similar to mine as well as countless others who left for their own reasons. In addition, I’m sure there are many who never had a religion and feel no reason to acquire one now. Some churches’ attitudes probably don’t help draw in the crowds either.

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

You never know. It may continue to decrease or something may change and the church’s growth skyrockets. I guess time will tell.

–Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your experience?

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m an atheist, though I see nothing wrong with that. I do have beliefs in place and I do believe in basic and, what I feel to be, Christian concepts such as love, respect, and acceptance. It is my own fault for letting the negativity of a few infiltrate my heart the way it has but I’m trying to let it go. Who knows, maybe someone upstairs is helping me. There will always be those who attempt to break all of us down but hopefully we can overcome it with the strength we draw from those we love. I really want people to know that no matter how alone you feel, and trust me I’ve been there, you’re not. There is always someone somewhere who gets it and who understands you and if you’re lucky you may get to call them a friend one day. Hold on to that. It got me through a lot.


As always, I welcome graceful dialogue only in the comment section. Can you identify with this man’s story?

This post is the fifth in a succession of the series Our Emptying Church. The purpose of this series is to explore why millions of Millennials are leaving or will leave the church. Check out these recent posts: Our Emptying Church, When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian, Interview with a Millennial #1, Interview with a Millennial #2

Our Emptying Church: When Christianity Sometimes Looks UnChristian

In case you missed it, last week, I introduced a new series called: Our Emptying Church.

Beginning this month, I’ll be exploring why millions of 18-29 year olds are leaving the church. I’ll be discussing generational differences and hot topics in Christianity; I’ll also be posting interviews with Millennials. I hope to create a healthy dialogue in this space so that we can better understand each other. And I’d be humbled if you’d come on this journey with me.

In the last post, I mentioned that I would discuss what has now been deemed the “Millennial” generation (born 1980-2000). Coupled with the late comers of Generation X (born 1965-1979), this generation of twenty somethings has something to tell the world. And I think it’s time we listen.

So what about this generation of young adults makes them so distinctive? Where older generations felt a duty to attend church functions, they do not. Where past generations were motivated by guilt, loyalty, and tradition, Millennials are motivated by social justice issues and making a difference in the world. Where older generations sought to keep silent about personal struggles, Millennials need community and seem to embrace the messiness and hard topics of life. Where older generations had more concrete views of morality, twenty somethings seem to see the world in shades of grey.

Twenty somethings are the targets of social media and marketing galore. Highly educated, they tend to be skeptical of pitches. Living up to their fullest potential, in a non-normalized life is critical to this generation. Now, more than ever, they are willing to face doubt and faith with real, honest dialogue and not canned answers.

David Kinnaman is a popular Christian researcher and author who has, within the last decade, studied this generation of Millennials. In 2007, he published “UnChristian,” which explained his research of Millennials and how they view the church. This research helps explain why so many twenty-somethings have left or will leave the church. But for many of us, such research only confirms what we’ve experienced personally.

Kinnaman states:

The nation’s population is increasingly resistant to Christianity, especially to the theologically conservative expressions of that faith. And the aversion and hostility are, for the first time, crystallizing in the attitudes of millions of young Americans. A huge chunk of a new generation has concluded they want nothing to do with [Christians].

Kinnaman suggests that Christians have become famous for what they oppose and not what they love, for what they exclude rather than include. After a national survey of Millennials, Kinnaman’s research group found that the three most common perceptions of Christianity are:

1) Antihomosexual (91% of surveyed young adults)
2) Judgmental (87%)
3) Hypocritical (85%)

Closely followed by:

4) Too involved in politics (75%)
5) Old-fashioned (78%)
6) Out touch with reality (72%)

The favorable perceptions about Christianity included that it: teaches same basic ideas as other religions (82%), has good values and principles (76%), and is friendly (71%).

Kinnaman offers this thought:

When [non-Christians] see Christians not acting like Jesus, they quickly conclude that the group deserves an unChristian label. Like a corrupted computer file or a bad photocopy, Christianity, they say, is no longer in pure form, and so they reject it.

I will spend the greater part of Our Emptying Church delving into those six common perceptions of Christianity because I believe, deep inside me, that reconciliation is possible.

Do you agree with this research? Have you encountered these perceptions about Christianity? What perceptions (good or bad) would you add that I did not list?

**If you are having trouble posting a comment, the easiest way is to click “Name/URL” next to the “Comment As” drop down menu. You can enter your name only, no URL is necessary, unless you’d like to link your blog/website. Thanks!

Our Emptying Church

Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church and I want to know why. Two prominent Christian researchers, David Kinnaman and George Barna offer some suggestions in Kinnamen’s recent book, You Lost Me.

Over the course of this past year, I have been on a meaningful and difficult faith journey. Diving into scripture and prayer, I have listened to influential male and female voices speaking on various faith topics, I have studied the characteristics of this generation of twenty somethings, and dialoged with many about it. I’m a deep thinker, a type A, a non-idler… my faith, if nothing else in life, must be my own.

Why are so many Millennials leaving the church?

Any good researcher knows that remaining objective is the first key to unbiased research. I confess that my deep-rooted faith may bias me to some degree. Despite that, I want to use a new blog series to delve into discussion about why our churches are losing the next generation that would have sustained them. I’ll be posting weekly in a new blog series called: Our Emptying Church

You should keep up with this series if any of the following apply to you:

1) You are a church leader, campus minister, or lay minister who is interested in the future of the church.

2) You are a twenty-something who has left the church or is thinking about leaving it for any multitude of reasons.

3) You have been hurt by the church and you aren’t sure that you want anything to do with this Jesus fellow.

4) You love the church and want to see it persist and thrive in the coming century.

5) You work with twenty-somethings and wonder why it’s so hard to get any commitment out of us.

6) You are a parent of a twenty-something and you don’t understand their frustration or apathy toward the organized church.

I’ll be discussing characteristics of my generation of twenty-somethings and I’ll be offering some insight about how to walk alongside us. I’ll be examining some hot topics that have probably come up in your conversations lately. I’ll also be bringing up David Kinnaman’s research.

I am making a commitment to be honest and vulnerable in this series. You may be offended, you may be encouraged, you may be frustrated, and you may be enlightened.
But my distinct hope is that you’ll stick with me, dialogue, and emerge with a greater understanding of something you didn’t understand before. I ask you to keep an open mind and to consider other’s opinions with patience, wisdom, and kindness. I pray that I will learn as much from you as you learn for me. Deep in my bones, I am excited about the future of the church.

Hear me very clearly, the future of the church will take ALL of us trying to understand each other.

I invite you on this journey with me. May we have traveling mercies along the way.

 

For what it’s worth….


I just finished a great book called: The Next Christians… I would highly recommend it if you have some spare time (believe me, I know how hard “spare time” is to come by these days)… nevertheless, I think the book is a time worthy endeavor.

Gabe Lyons, the author, describes the next generations of Christians…. who are restorative rather than destructive, creators instead of critics, called instead of employed, and grounded not distracted. “These next Christians are offering a new way forward–a way to act, live, and bring others along with them into a new reality of how things ought to be.”

He explores the social realm of Christianity and many sects that it encompasses. Some Christians choose to be separatists… completely separating themselves from the social norms of society… some choose to completely immerse themselves in culture, blending in with no contrast. Some choose to be quite outspoken about their beliefs and defend them vehemently; some force their beliefs on others. And what’s more… there is a church for each of these kinds of Christians… in fact, there are many churches that support these views and lend haven to these beliefs. Lyons asserts though that the new generation will not endure these types of religious practices and beliefs. The new generation of twenty somethings is looking for a deeper, more relevant, more intimate, more sacrificial faith. Something that requires a passion…. a deep belief system that inspires people to live differently… to live the teachings of Christ.

Let me quote Lyons because I can say it no better than he:
“A GOD-centered life is a counter-intuitive existence that flips the values of the world upside down. It’s an inverted way of living that reverses the importance of what the world tells us to value most. The Western inclination is to chase after wealth, comfort, power, happiness, success, and the ever-sought-after American dream. But Jesus is describing an alternative way of living and engaging that files in the face of these values.” ———-How do we know that? Well… check out this verse: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt.” (Luke 6)

Does that make any sense…. pray for your enemies? What? No… of course we shouldn’t pray for those who mistreat us! Of course we shouldn’t look out for anyone but ourselves and those closest to us! Do you see how radical this verse is? Can you pray for Muslims? Can you see that they are a part of humanity too? Can you give them your coat? Christ is counter-cultural; his teachings are inverted. And counter-intuitive. Yes. But life-changing. Life-giving.

Lyons writes: “If this Gospel–the Gospel of Jesus Christ– is going to engage Western culture in a new way; it starts with us… when Christians put their priority on the first thing, the second things begin to take care of themselves. Jesus himself couldn’t have been any clearer: ‘But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’ ”

How does one do this? By engaging your culture and community… via serving and loving. “Possibly for you, it’s putting a dent in the never-ending cycle of poverty that destroys so many lives, neighborhoods, and nations. Or creatively addressing the malnutrition, poor health, and disease that’s wrecking so many families. Or tutoring, mentoring, and fostering fatherless children…. God’s intention and method of restoration is to use you to bring his redeeming love to the world.”

Find what you love doing… and do it with love… restore what’s broken wherever you are. This doesn’t require a call to formal ministry. I know people who are doing this…and it’s beautiful. They are the next Christians… ones who come alongside of friends who need help and help them without judgment. Ones who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Ones who realize the need to take care of our earth. Ones that hurt for those suffering injustices here and abroad. Ones who fix dinner for those who can’t. Ones who teach English to those struggling to learn. Ones who are open minded and welcome others opinions with grace. Ones who lend a kind word or an hour of their time. Ones who are getting involved in leadership wherever they are so that they can promote a positive change. Ones who don’t hate because of religion, sexual orientation, or skin color. Ones who breathe life into others.

I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I am trying. At any rate, thanks for reading thus far. Much love to you this independence day.