Last week I posted some thoughts about a recent survey by George Barna, which offers insight into the reasons people between 18 and 30 are leaving the faith. I addressed the first three reasons in that post, which could be summarized as: 1) churches are overprotective 2) the experience of God and spirituality offered in churches seems shallow and 3) churches come across as antagonistic towards science.
This post looks at the final three complaints, along with some closing thoughts at the end.
#4 – Young People’s church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. There are several forces contributing to the sexual divide between the church and most young people. Simplistic answers are perhaps at the top of the list. Abstinence is upheld as the gold standard with reasons that are often shallow or wrong. Churches who simply say “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” while they quote some verses about sexual purity are doing more harm than good. For starters, they’re elevating ‘proof texting’ as a legitimate means of build ethics. By the same method, we’ve justified colonialism, genocide, slavery, violence, and much more. We’d better give young people more to work with than that. The good news is that there is more than that – way more. Here’s a favorite book of mine for starters, whose thesis is that sexuality isn’t a private matter, because it affects the whole community (as any church who has dealt with the break-ups of live in lovers who had every intention of marrying well knows). The same book reinforces the point that fear of pregnancy, and “you’ll feel guilty” are terrible reasons to invite abstinence. Give terrible reasons – lose credibility. It happens every time.
Second, the church needs to lighten up a bit, not on its ethical standards, but on its treatment of people with questions and struggles. I say this because this is the way it is in the Bible. Judah slept with his daughter in law, thinking she was a prostitute. David slept with his neighbor’s wife, and killed the husband to cover up her pregnancy. Abraham gave his wife away, allowing her to sleep with a king. Jacob made a mess of things and ended up with four wives. And these were the good guys! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we wink at failure and let it go. I’m suggesting that we realize sexuality has always been a giant struggle, even before the internet was invented. Let’s address it the way we address everything: with grace, and truth. When people fail and struggle, they should be able to walk the journey with other believers. But the church’s elevation of sexual sin has the affect of elevating shaming, rather than inviting dialogue and confession. In short, we look more like the Pharisees in John 8, than we look like Jesus because we stone people for falling short in the realm of sexuality. You can confess credit card debt, or bitterness, or laziness, or greed in your small group. But your struggles with sexuality remain under the covers, for fear of rejection. It’s time to change that.
#5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. The earth is small these days, and as a result, everyone knows that there are courageous Muslims, and evil Muslims. There are abusive Catholic priests and good ones. There are arrogant pastors, and servants of Christ. In a pluralistic world, young people aren’t content to believe that those who say “Lord Lord” to Jesus will enter the kingdom of heaven. They’re right to be skeptical, because Jesus was skeptical too. The gospel isn’t some sort of mantra you’re supposed to recite so that God will accept you. They get that. But they’re also wondering about what it actually does mean to believe.
#6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. This is because we’ve come to view the Bible as a textbook or legal brief, rather than a collection of stories, recorded through the ages so that humanity might understand the character of God and trajectory of history. Because these stories are written in cultural contexts, there are stories of polygamy, genocide, slavery, the mistreatment of women, and more. The church has done a good job of ignoring all these elephants in the room, but with all the elephants in the room, there’s no space for people with questions. In addition, let’s remember Abarham’s doubts, David’s struggles with God’s goodness and fairness, not to mention the dozens of others who were people of faith, yet had the courage to question.
I’ve found that the questions are, far from threatening or distracting, hugely valuable. We face them, hold them, let them ripen, sometimes for years, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to live faithfully. Of course, this kind of liberty is best enjoyed on a foundation of certitude regarding Christ. That certitude is offered us, both through the testimony of history, and the Bible’s own declaration that Jesus is the fullest revelation of the character of God. Armed with that security, we’re free to ask tough questions, and as those questions ripen over the years, the answers we find have a clarifying affect, enabling us to see the beauty of the gospel and God’s reign with greater clarity than had we ignored them.
This is why we need to create space for questions. When we do, I know from experience, that such space will be filled with young people, because the reality is that young people are eager to live meaningful lives, and our present pattens of hollow consumerism, where even sexuality has been reduced to a commodity, simply aren’t cutting it.