Lost in the American Church

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight has started a new book discussion, this time about You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman.

Everyone has their own pet theories about why young people are leaving the church, and they usually happen to line up exactly with their own beliefs about how the church should function. In the not-so-recent past, I would have said people are leaving the church because it’s not judgmental enough. Don’t laugh. I might not have said it in quite those terms (probably something more like presenting a stark choice about the realities of heaven and hell), but that’s what I would have thought.

Kinnaman’s theory is probably a little bit sounder. According to McKnight, Kinnaman finds three overriding traits of modern young people, and as a self-described modern young person, I think these sound right:

  1. Access: Immediate, pervasive ability to access information, which means gatekeepers are increasingly irrelevant.
  2. Alienation: Families are less close-knit while at the same time adulthood is harder to achieve (I would add a large part of this is probably because the economic conditions are worse for young people than for anyone else in the country), which leads to skepticism of traditional institutions.
  3. Authority: “There is a profound skepticism of authority,” including that of Christianity and the church.
Here’s the thing though: None of these things should be dangerous for the church.

If functioning properly, the church has nothing to fear from the free flow of information and ideas. It should be playing a key role in strengthening institutions and helping those young adults who have been left behind by the economy. And I don’t know anyone who was more skeptical of religious authority than Jesus himself.

But clearly the key word in that paragraph is “if.”

Because Christians seem to have boxed themselves in. The church should embrace the information-saturated culture in which we live; instead, it rails against scientific findings about everything from evolution to climate change to the genetics of homosexuality. It should be reaching out to families and the disaffected; instead it focuses on opposing gay marriage and promoting the insidious libertarian fiction that those without work simply need to try harder. It should follow Jesus’ example of breaking down walls and calling out religious pietism; instead it builds them higher and entrenches itself within a pharisaical dogma.

Not all churches or Christians are like that, of course. But many of them are.

For a long time, the church has gotten by with a culture of isolation and victimhood, railing against science, gays, liberals and Rob Bell while ignoring the significant questions of theodicy and soteriology increasingly asked by its own children. That era is rapidly, mercifully ending.

Now we have a choice. Jesus – that unorthodox, radical rabbi who turned over tables, ministered to prostitutes and loved the unwanted – promises freedom from authoritarianism, religious puritanism and narrow-mindedness. We just need to show him off a little.

But as long as we as Christians are more concerned with the politics of morality and shouting down scientific evidence than we are about feeding the hungry, helping the unemployed or reaching out to the homeless, young people will continue to reject the church. As long as we’re more interested in forwarding emails about Rick Perry than having honest conversations about the issues with which our youth are struggling, we provide them no choice but to find their own way in a world that has plenty of alternatives to offer them.

3 thoughts on “Lost in the American Church”

  1. By “the church”, I gather you mean politically conservative American evangelicals? I don’t imagine you’re referring to the global Christian communion. Because outside the developed world, Christianity is on a massive growth spurt, and it’s precisely the most conservative theologies that you argue are failing us in this country that are gaining the most ground elsewhere.

    So, regarding “the church”, I don’t think it’s mere semantics to define who it is, exactly, you’re arguing with. We (current and ex) evangelicals are notorious for assuming our issues are all-encompassing.

    The other theological migration question to raise here is why are young people leaving liberal denominations AND conservative ones?

    The other challenge I would pose here is the question of “how”, which is at least as important as “what” and “why” for any Christian. For example, Jesus promises freedom from authoritarianism. Agreed. How that happens – how a person, a nation, goes from authoritarianism to an alternative and how the state’s coercive power would be applied – lands us back in the very same political and policy thickets that have created so much unpleasantness in the last 50 years of politically assertive evangelicalism.

  2. Good point on the verbiage, Rich. My subject line hopefully dispels some of that, but yes, I’m referring specifically to the American version of the church.

    I’m not as up on my international state-of-the-church as I should be, but my understanding is that the conservative wings are indeed growing, but mostly they are doing so in Africa, where the culture is obviously much different from the culture here. I can only speak to the American church in America, where we have our own crazy perceptions and biases that lead us, Christians and non-Christians alike, to value wealth, information and freedom to a much greater extent than other cultures. That has effects both on the church and on the people deciding whether or not to be a part of it.

    I’d be interested in seeing more data on church migration myself; nevertheless, it’s my impression that even liberal churches do not take much time to address the core questions of theodicy and soteriology today’s young people are asking of them, and those *are* the core questions, I think. The political stuff is definitely more my beef with the churches and the culture I see around me as a progressive Christian living in the South.

    On authoritarianism, I was referring specifically to authoritarianism in the church, as expressed by patriarchalism, self-victimization and general insularity and arrogance.

    Thanks for dropping by! Hope you enjoy the visit!

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