There has been a surprisingly positive response to the article I published yesterday called “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church.” And as I noted, it was hardly a comprehensive list. There were several others I thought were worth noting if I’d had the room, so I thought I’d continue with the same theme today.
And as I said in yesterday’s article:
- Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases, and;
- In the list below, when I refer to “we,” “I” or “me,” I’m referring to younger adults in general, and not necessarily myself.
We Don’t Want to Be “Talked At” Any More: There’s a very strong case that can be made for the value of sermons. Jesus did it. There are times when someone in a position of expertise has something they need to share with a group, and the best way to do it is didactically. But what if people stop listening?
I asked a friend of mine, who is a minister, if he was planning to attend an upcoming conference. He said no, not because the content was off-base, but because he said he couldn’t tolerate more passive learning environments where he sat back and was a receptacle for more information.
Our daily realities are becoming more interactive. Compare the passivity of reading your daily paper with the engagement a blog offers. We expect to be able to take part in the learning process now, rather than it being so one-sided. More churches are going with a model that reflects this, dispensing entirely with the traditional sermon. I’m not sure this is the answer, but more active engagement in one’s discipleship is a must going forward.
Christians Are Seen As Hypocrites: From the scads of TV evangelists busted for impropriety to Catholic priests sexually abusing children under their care, there’s a face on Christianity in the media that says one thing and does another. Though this is hardly the baseline for all Christians, there’s a phenomenon of human consciousness that tends to seek out examples that reinforce existing stereotypes. Things that don’t align with our prejudice get filtered out. The result: everywhere we look, we see examples that reaffirm what we already thought about Christians.
This may not be fair, but it’s reality. And the only thing that tends to change a social stereotype as embedded as this one is a concerted, collective effort to break the prejudice wide open, not with a competing media campaign or by shouting louder. Rather, it happens one person, one story and one relationship at a time. It’s the same way other stereotypes are dismantled, so why should Christians be any different?
Church Seems to Lack Relevance: We are swimming in the wake of a self-help tidal wave that swept through Western culture over the past thirty years. This, combined with the custom-built media universes we’re able to construct for ourselves now, reinforce the question: How does this affect me in my life today?
But at the heart of the Christian message is a counter-cultural theme, particularly in today’s culture: it’s not all about you. This can be a tough sell. After all, who really wants to hear that it’s not all about them? And there are plenty of pandering prosperity gospel types who will opportunistically affirm that it is all about us after all.
But it’s not.
That said, we still to have to be mindful in church about waxing theological, while neglecting to identify with the humanity of the people around us in our congregations. At the heart of this connection is story. Not just telling them, but also making space for others to share theirs. And when I say “story” I’m not talking about some inspiring anecdote you plucked form a forwarded email; I’m talking about your story.
If you haven’t already, go listen to the recordings that are part of National Public Radio’s Story Corps project. It is the narrative of a culture, longing for meaning, belonging and to feel something. Church can do the same; we just don’t often enough.
Nobody Looks Like Me: A Young adult commented on my first post on this subject, published on the Sojourners website, that they tried really hard in college to find a faith family that felt right. But despite visiting many churches, she said that all she seemed to find were older people, families with children and a handful of youth, but no other young adults like her. After that it didn’t matter how good the music, the sermon or the coffee were. She didn’t feel like she belonged, so she left.
This long-standing chicken-or-egg conundrum has been a challenge for churches for a long time. It’s kind of like trying to get credit when you don’t have an established line of credit. Where do you start?
First of all, you don’t start by hoping they wander in on Sunday mornings and magically feel comfortable, surrounded by people unlike them. Look into concepts like the ministry of “third spaces” meeting off-site, or spontaneously organizing “hang outs” to help people connect. But I can tell you that we don’t have to look any further than ourselves when wondering why young adults feel marginalized.
My wife, Amy, and I published a book about young adult spirituality a few years ago called “MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation” (clearly and outdated title now, but what can you do?). We were frustrated when it was labeled on the back of the book as a “youth” book. Why? Because there was no such thing as a Young Adult section in most bookstores and catalogs.
Still wondering why YAs feel ignored?
From time to time I revisit the question: why are young adults walking away from religion? Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases.
In the list below, when I refer to “we,” “I” or “me,” I’m referring to younger adults in general, and not necessarily myself.
We’ve Been Hurt: I can actually include myself in this one personally. Sometimes the hurtful act is specific, like when my youth leader threw a Bible at me for asking the wrong questions. Sometimes it’s rhetorical, either from the pulpit, in a small group study or over a meal. Sometimes it’s physical, taking the form of sexual abuse or the like. But millions claim a wound they can trace back to church that has never healed. Why? In part, because the church rarely seeks forgiveness.
Adult Life/College and Church Don’t Seem to Mix: There are the obvious things, like scheduling activities on Sunday mornings (hint: young people tend to go out on Saturday nights), but there’s more to it. In college, and before that by our parents, we’re taught to explore the world, broaden our horizons, think critically, question everything and figure out who we are as individuals. Though there’s value in this, it’s hyper-individualistic. But Church is more about community. In many ways, it represents, fairly or not, sameness, conformity and a “check your brain at the door” ethos. This stands in opposition to what the world is telling us is important at this time in life.
Perhaps an emphasis on a year of community service after high school would be a natural bridge to ameliorate some of this narcissism we’re building in to ourselves.
There’s No Natural Bridge to Church: Most teenagers leave home, either for college, to travel, work or whatever after high school. With the bad economy, this number is fewer, but it’s a general trend. But the existing model of church still depends on the assumption that communities are relatively static, and that the church is at the center of that community. Not so anymore. When I went to college, I was contacted by fraternities, campus activity groups and credit card companies, but not one church. The only connection I had with religion was the ridiculous guy who (literally) stood on a box with a bullhorn in the union garden and yelled at us about our sinful ways. I could have used support in how to deal with my own finances for the first time. I could have used a built-in network of friends. I would have loved a care package, an invitation for free pizza at the local restaurant or help with my laundry. What I got was the goof with the bullhorn.
We’re Distracted: I shared a video by Diana Butler Bass in a recent post about a priest who took his Ash Wednesday service out onto the street. When people saw him, they reacted as if they had been shaken out of a deep sleep. “It’s Ash Wednesday!” they said with surprise as they asked for the ashes. “Lent is starting!” It simply wasn’t on their radar. It’s not that we don’t care; we have so many things competing for our limited time and attention that the passive things that don’t offer an immediate “interrupt” get relegated to the “later” pile. And we rarely ever get to the “later” pile, which leads me to the next point…
We’re Skeptical: We’re exposed to more ad impressions in a month today than any other previous generation experienced in a lifetime. I’m sitting in a hotel room writing this, and in this room (which I paid for in part to have privacy), I see more than a dozen marketing messages. If I turn on the TV, they’re there. Pick up my phone, they’re there. Online…you get the point. So whereas generations before us expended energy seeking information out, now it comes at us in such overwhelming volumes that we spend at least the same amount of energy filtering things out. This leads to somewhat of a calcifying of the senses, always assuming that whoever is trying to get your attention wants something, just like everyone else.
We’re Exhausted: I was lumped in as pat of the Generation X group, also known as the Slacker Generation. This implied, of course, that we were lazy and unmotivated. But consider how many of us go to college, compared to generations before us. And consider that the baseline standard for family economics requires a two-income revenue stream to live in any level of the middle class. Debt and credit are givens, and working full-time while also trying to maintain a marriage, raise kids, have friends and – God forbid – have some time left for ourselves leaves us with less than nothing. We’re always running a deficit. So when you ask me to set aside more time and more money for church, you’re trying to tap already empty reserves.
I Don’t Get It: Young adults today are the most un-churched generation in a long time. In many cases, it’s not that we’re walking away from church; we never went in. From what I can tell from the outside, there’s not much relevance to my life in there, and I’m not about to take the risk of walking through the door to find out otherwise.
I’ve tried to offer insight into what might be done about a few of these issues as I went, but I invite you also to sit with the tension of not having the answers. Better yet, seek some young adults out, ask them if they relate to these. And see if they have ideas about what you (maybe not even “church” but you) can do to help relieve some of the challenges.
I think the conversation that follows might pleasantly surprise you.
I wrote a piece a little while back about a guy in Espanola, New Mexico, who found the image of Jesus in his tortilla. While that was interesting, this is AWESOME.
My literary agent, Terrie Wolf, and I were chatting it up on the phone recently with the good folks from Chalice Press, publisher of several of my books. They mentioned they were moving into new corporate headquarters, and made some offhand comment about sending them a toaster as a housewarming gift.
Not to miss an opportunity to show her smartass side, Terrie immediately went online and found a company that sells custom toasters. So now you can enjoy your breakfast while having your Lord and Savior staring back at you, asking sternly, “Didst thou taketh thine vitamins today?”
Anyhow, the Chalice Press folks got the toaster, and promptly sent the picture below as a sign of appreciation for the gift:
And the fact that the toaster is called “Daily Bread” just makes it that much more awesomer-er.
I’m a little bit worried that the solar flair storms either are affecting my personal judgment or the rest of the world. Given the logic of Occam’s Razor, I suppose I’m screwed.
First this week, I wrote a piece about how I agreed largely with the 700 Club’s Pat Robertson about decriminalizing marijuana. And as if that wasn’t enough to send me questioning the orientation of the universe, now I find myself with a growing modicum of respect for fear-monger pastor and end-times prophet, Harold Camping.
Famous for wrongly predicting the end of the world twice – and for bringing scads of followers and their life savings along with him – Camping has become both the butt of late night talk show monologues and the object lesson for the hubris of trying to ascertain the “mind of God.”
Those who choose to get in a knot about such things already have the Mayan calendar to blame for the current frenzy about end times, which is predicted to take place according to this ancient calendar later this year. In response to those who use such predictions to grab attention and scare believers, I wrote a piece recently that places the whole Armageddon thing in perspective for me.
Basically, my son’s school told him to sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite, but also not to be surprised if he awoke to a smoldering void instead of his home planet the next day, given that the French were about to ramp up their supercollider. So of course, he wanted to know if he still had to do his homework.
I love that kid.
So back to Harold Camping. This guy had a radio show counting down to his predicted final days, and he talked folks into paying for ads in newspapers, magazines and billboards to demonstrate their gullibility – er, I mean, to show their faith in his prophecy. Given that we’re all still here (I think we are anyway – is this hell?), we can safely assume he missed the mark.
Maybe three times will be the charm?
Actually, no. He’s come out with remarkable humility not only admitting he was wrong; he also has admonished his own attempts to guess the end of the world as “sinful.”
“”We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God’s hands and he will end time in his time, not ours!” says camping on his website, as reported by Sojourners Magazine. “We humbly recognize that God may not tell his people the date when Christ will return, any more than he tells anyone the date they will die physically.”
Pretty sure the idea that God won’t reveal the end times to humanity is right there in scripture. Pretty sure a guy named Jesus said something about that.
Anyway, I applaud Camping both for fessing up to his mistakes (as I’ve done more than once on this very blog site), and also for admitting he was effectively playing God by trying to mark the day the earth would stand still. So it seems he and his team will have to find another line of work; Camping is fresh out of apocalyptic visions.
But you know, given the fact that in one week I’m writing affirming pieces (kinda anyway) abut both Pat Robertson and Harold Camping, you might want to keep an eye out for raining frogs and horses flying out of the sky. Could be a sign.
Those of us who are involved in church are well-trained to invite people to worship. We find ways to bring up in conversation how great our music is, how compelling the sermons are and how children are involved in our ministry. Part of this is driven by the desire to grow the church, but there’s also the very human tendency to want to share something that is exciting or meaningful to us.
But when we invite people to participate in worship as their first experience as part of the faith community, we have things all out of order.
Sure, some people will come through the doors because of an ad in the paper, the sign outside or word-of-mouth buzz, and we don’t want to turn them away, obviously. But for those who seem curious about what this whole church thing is about, worship as a first step may be overwhelming, alien or even alienating. We may never have another chance to introduce them to anything else we’re about.
Although we’ve generally looked at worship as a point of entry into our faith communities, it actually should be the final destination in a journey of discipleship. This is particularly the case regarding young adults, many of whom have had negative experiences with organized religion, or who have not had any contact with a church in years, if ever.
One thing my wife, Amy, and I noticed when starting a new church eight years ago in Pueblo, Colorado was that the younger adults were the last age group to buy into the community we were building. We came in under the mistaken impression that we would naturally attract people more like us: young, educated middle class families.
The ones who came, and stayed, at first were largely over 65 years old, though. We were shocked. After all, what did we have to offer this age group? When we asked them, most had a long history with church, but they were simply tired of their previous congregation’s direction or style. So they had an inherent trust in the system of organized religion; they just wanted something new.
For young adults, the idea of participating in worship was a major commitment. After all, they either didn’t know any of the songs and rituals, or they represented a host of negative feelings from their past. To start there for them would be a setup for failure.
So we had coffee – a lot of coffee. We invited people over for dinner, or took them out for a beer. We chatted with younger folks through Facebook, added them to email list apprising them of upcoming social and service-oriented events we were planning. Basically, we just made ourselves available to them as friends first, allowing a more three-dimensional relationship to develop first, so that they could come to trust that we weren’t the same breed as the religious folks they had known in the past or from the media.
Over time some approach us with questions about theology and scripture. This inevitably leads to talks about how our faith and social values are put into action. Though we may vary in our passions and personal values, we can almost all agree on two things:
➢ The world is filled with brokenness, and;
➢ We’re called to help heal the brokenness.
The notion of evangelism has gotten a bad rap in the last few decades, hearkening images of the preacher with a bullhorn on the corner or the pearly-white-toothed pastor in a polyester suit, knocking on your door at some ridiculous hour on Saturday to “tell you about Jesus.” If that’s what evangelism means, most people want no part of it.
But everyone has a story to tell, and everyone wants to be heard. Too often, the ulterior motive of getting butts in the pews and bucks in the plate is evident when we invite people to worship. After all, what kind of real relationship with you can they expect in such a setting? But if you invest in people, one at a time, face to face and story to story, a sort of social capital builds between you.
And then, once you actually know each other, you do what any real friends would do – you invite them to share in the things that are meaningful to you in your life. Suddenly asking someone to come to church with you makes a lot more sense.
Back when institutions were inherently trustworthy, and back when churches were the social epicenters of a community, Sunday worship was more or less a given. Now, it may not enter into the discipleship equation for a long time, if ever. But which is more important: building up our church numbers or sharing in a real, vulnerable and personal way what we believe it means to be Jesus for others?
One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, but the latter is far more important, nourishing and life-changing than the former. Skeptical? Just compare the number of times in scripture that Jesus broke bread and shared story in the streets and homes where people lived, versus how many times he invited people to church.
Now, go and do likewise.
And once in a blue moon, Televangelist and 700 Club head Pat Robertson and I agree on something.
When asked about his position on the decriminalization of marijuana, Robertson said the following:
“I just think it’s shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of controlled substance. The whole thing is crazy.”
Umm, can I get an “Amen?”
Where Robertson and I diverge is when he starts placing blame for this stricture. Not surprisingly, he finds a way to blame the liberals in Washington DC for the overreaching controlled substance law. He claims we, as a society, are “turning a bunch of liberals loose writing laws,” and that there’s a “punitive spirit” with the democratic agenda.
He must not be hanging out with the same democrats I do, because most of them agree with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana.
It seems to me that, based on professed political agendas from both sides of the aisle, this one should be a slam dunk. There’s a groundswell among states to take this matter into their own hands, which should appeal to the “states rights” advocates on the rights. And the idea of keeping government from legislating morality should hold sway with most on the left.
So mark it on the calendar, kids. Pat Robertson and I fall on the same side of this issue.
I suppose it’s not surprising that government and politics make this more complicated than it really seems like it needs to be. The whole marriage debate serves as precedent for this tendency to muck up the waters.
The argument rages every election season about gay marriage rights. States seems content to take this on at their own level of government, yet those on the right who claim to advocate for smaller federal reach seem to suffer from legislative amnesia when it comes to this one.
But why not take it a step further and end the debate for good? Why is the government in the business of recognizing marriages anyway? The power to grant civil unions makes sense for government to maintain, but marriage, it seems, is a religious ritual. And there’s a fairly significant consensus among voters to grant civil unions to same-sex couples. So limit governmental reach to civil unions, and afford everyone who has them (same sex partnerships included) the same rights the rest of us enjoy.
Again, this should appeal to small government, states rights advocates on the right, while supporting the more affirming agenda of social equality on the left.
Then if churches choose to recognize marriage for same-sex couples, they can. If not, so be it. And those who feel marginalized by their decision to exclude based on sexual orientation should not feel compelled to support their institutions. And those who do determine that it’s within their calling to ordain same-sex marriages do so as a ceremonial gesture, which is on the same level as all other marriages, absent any government authority.
Is it just me, or are these hot-button issues made more complicated for the sake of political theater, rather than for the betterment of the society the government supposedly serves?
There was a movement back in the 1960s that many of us have only read about, but some vividly remember. Philosophers and theologians explored what was labeled the “Death of God” movement. Interest in the subject has re-emerged particularly as of late because William Hamilton, one of the more prominent voices in the Death of God movement, died at age 87.
The movement inspired TIME Magazine’s now-famous cover (seen here) in 1966, raising the question in the public forum: Is God Dead? The cover has since been listed by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “Ten Covers that Shook the World.”
Hamilton’s faith was shaken during his teenage years when three of his friends were making a homemade pipe bomb. The project went wrong and detonated, killing two of the three boys.
The two killed were Christians. The lone survivor, an atheist.
Hamilton’s crisis of faith centered around a theological concept known as theodicy, which explores the question: why do bad things happen to good people? More specifically, why does misfortune seem to befall the faithful, while those lacking faith enjoy what seems to be a providential hall pass?
History reads that the Death of God movement emerged as a direct result of science beginning to explain much of the machinations of the universe. For example, why believe that God created the world in seven days when we now know that the Big Bang was at the origin of the entire universe?
I agree that something indeed dies when science presents an understanding of our universe that stands in opposition to a literal understanding of Biblical scripture. Something also dies when we ask why a loving, all-powerful, all-present God could let the faithful suffer while others prosper.
But those things need to die. In fact, it is essential for them to die if we are to grow in our faith.
What we witness in those examples is the death of a construct of God; one of our own making. What dies is a set of preconceptions, a mental collage we’ve assembled over time that, if we’re not careful, actually becomes God for us.
There’s a word for this phenomenon in scripture: idolatry.
We find comfort in the image of a loving, present God that is directly involved in the good in our daily lives. But then something inevitably happens that challenges this image. So we have to scramble to reassemble the image with justifications, pithy dismissals like “everything happens for a reason,” or abject, willful ignorance.
Or we welcome the opportunity to join in the deconstruction process, tearing down the false God that we’ve been worshiping, with the hope that, in doing so, we actually will grow in our understanding of the Divine.
It will not look like what we’ve understood God to be before. It can’t. But the Bible itself calls us to this. Although many Christians embrace the idea of dying to our old selves and being reborn in Christ, we hedge at the idea that this is not meant to be a one-time event. Rather, we’re called, every day, to die again to our old constructs of ourselves and of God, to explore the mysteries of the universe and of human existence with fresh eyes and an unencumbered heart.
Theodicy has been with us for thousands of years. Even scripture reminds us that the rains fall on both the “just” and the “wicked.” So why expect anything else? Because we long to make sense of an existence that is mysterious, chaotic, and that in many ways has, does and will continue to defy human logic and confound human faith.
The fear for many is, in blowing up these constructs we’ve built to be our surrogate gods, that there will be nothing left. If so, sit in the nothingness, rather than desperately seeking to fill the void with another facade that will keep us from exploring anew the nature of God. Trust that, in the stillness, in the openness of a heart and mind freed from false idols, the inspired Breath within us all still stirs.
I Am, that I Am, that I Am…
I’m speaking at an area assembly in Pittsburgh, Kansas, next week and the local paper called for a piece they were writing about it. Nice to get these ideas out there, and good to find attentive advocates in the media.
PITTSBURG , KS –
The nation may be on the verge of a spiritual awakening, but it could bring changes that are uncomfortable to some.
Christian Piatt, an author, musician, editor and blogger, will discuss that and other topics during the Southeast District Spring Workshops scheduled March 10 at the First Christian Church.
Anybody wanting to do a little homework in preparation for the event can visit his blog and check out the entry titled “Christopher Hitchens, Diana Butler Bass and the Third Great Awakening.”
“I’m kind of taking what I’ll be doing from that,” Piatt said during a telephone Wednesday from his home in Pueblo, Colo.
Granted, it may seem a little odd that he’s referencing the recently deceased Hitchens, a best-selling author and one of atheism’s most articulate spokesmen. But Hitchens also called for a “renewed Enlightenment,” which he hoped would be free of institutions that he felt had imposed pain, shame and guilt on their followers.
“But that still leaves room for individual voices,” Piatt writes in his blog. “Just not their hulking power structures and their history of oppressive, fear-based rule over people.”
He will be doing two keynote addresses at the Southeast District event, and will also be leading a workshop on “Relating to Younger Generations,” a subject close to his heart which also relates to that spiritual awakening.
“We recently emerged from the modern era, which had a black and white way of looking at the world — you’re either Christian or you’re not, you’re with us or against us,” Piatt said. “George W. Bush presented a modern world view. In our post-modern world, the lines are blurring and there’s more gray in life.”
He noted that young adults tend to regard race and sexual orientation as not really important.
“Fewer and fewer young adults care about the denominational label on the church door, they care about the congregation of people it houses,” Piatt said.
Some others, however, continue to cling to the modern view out of fear of losing these familiar and comforting beliefs. Piatt said these people may choose religious institutions where they are told what to feel and think.
“These also create a feeling of belonging, but it cuts people off from the culture around them,” Piatt said. “Jesus did not stay in the temple studying doctrine, he was out in the streets. He changed them and was changed by them.”
This is the direction he sees for spiritual awakening. As he writes in the blog, “If we are to sustain and continue to share this story of faith we claim as Christians, it will have to be unencumbered by the caveat that we will only tell it from within the protection of our familiar institutional church. We are not a church or a denomination after all; we are the Greater Body of Christ, or so we claim. And while institutions incline themselves toward permanence, the Body is ever-changing. While the buildings crumble, the Temple evolves into something new.”
Piatt and his wife, the Rev. Amy Piatt, co-founded the Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo in 2004 and he serves as a co-pastor. The couple were also youth co-pastors in Colorado and Texas from 1999 to 2003, and he was a music minister at Angel of Hope Christian Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Piatt is creator and editor of the “Banned Questions” book series, including “Banned Questions About the Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press.
Piatt also has a new memoir coming out on April 1 titled “A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date,” dealing with his experiences in fatherhood. He and his wife have two small children, son Mattias and daughter Zoe.
The Southeast District Spring Workshops will also include Brandon Gilvin, Week of Compassion associate director, leading a workshop on courageous compassion and Kirby Gould, vice president of the Christian Church Foundation, leading a workshop on “Developing New Streams of Funding for Your Church.”
Anyone needing additional information may call the First Christian Church at 231-1430.
Here I am, urging people to deconstruct their preconceptions about God, and this guy finds Jesus in a tortilla.
Russ, my father-in-law, lives outside of Espanola, New Mexico. He can tell you from years of living there that the area is jumping with religious mysticism. One of the most famous sites in the state is the church at Chimayo, where people visit to touch the holy dirt and be healed. There are photos of people who claim to have been restored all over the place, along with crutches and canes left behind.
I’m not one to affirm or challenge that what people experience there is real. But I did find it interesting that the priests who serve the church simply bring in new dirt to fill the hole when they get low. Perhaps they bless it; I have no idea. But it’s interesting to me the power we inhere to certain items, acts or places. Is God more or less there than somewhere else? Is there something about the experience that opens us up to the already-present God? Is it an example of the uncharted power of the human mind?
In support of the notion that we see what we choose to see, there’s Jesus in a tortilla.
This time, anyway. He shows up in Wonder bread, tree bark and any number of other baked goods. I once saw a guy who had found a potato chip in the shape of Mary Magdalene.
How any of these folks actually know what Jesus or Mary look like is completely beyond me, but the stories make news.
CLICK HERE for a video news clip about the most recent Jesus-tortilla sighting.