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.
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