Of course educated young adults, having grown up in a multicultural and gender-fluid world, are leaving the church: they see it as a hateful and ignorant place, a place of lies and sexual discrimination. I don’t blame them.
What is the single largest religious group in America? The non-religious. Data coming from PPRI (Public Religion Research Institute), a respected non-partisan research organization, tracks the rise of the non-religious from 6% in 1991 to 25% in 2016.
It gets worse. Among younger adults (18-29), 39% describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. For us older folk, it’s just 13%.
Many who claim no affiliation now grew up with some religious identity. They just left. Few who grew up without any religious education or background have come in.
In other words, for religious groups, there is only one door: the exit.
There are no real exceptions to this decline. Catholics went from 31% to 21%; white evangelical Protestants dropped 1-2%, and the white mainline Protestants went down 5%. Non-white Protestants and other religious groups (Mormons, Jews, Muslim, etc.) show stable numbers but no growth.
Although many claim that the current mixing of politics with religion has been the primary reason for the exodus, research indicates two other factors carry more weight. One, this generation just stopped believing in what the church had taught them. Two, they refuse to participate in the generally poor way that most religious groups treat gay and lesbian people.
I have often expressed concern about the way we teach the Bible to children. In many traditions, including mine, we hand our tweens a Bible after minimal instruction about how to correctly read such a complicated book. Then we say, “Have at it.”
Most either never open it again or open it and close it quickly.
As younger children, we have fed them a bundle of sanitized stories:
- cute little animals marching in neat order onto a boat, without mentioning that a vengeful God was preparing to slaughter all other humans and animals;
- walking through parted waters without mentioning that all the Egyptian soldiers drowned;
- marching around Jericho, without mentioning that all the inhabitants were crushed under massive, crumbling stone walls;
- conquering Canaan without mentioning that most of the Canaanite men were slaughtered and their wives turned into unwilling sex slaves for the conquering Israelites;
- the birth of the sweet little baby Jesus without mentioning that this birth led to the later slaughter of all the children under three in Bethlehem.
- and, of course, that God created the entire universe in six 24-hour days without hearing that Genesis One was written as rhythmic poetry, not as scientific treatise.
It was both a wonderful and a terrible thing when the Bible, thanks to early and dogged translators and the invention the printing press, emerged from the hands of the religiously elite to the hands of everyone.
BUT . . . the idea of “Sola Scriptura,” the Bible alone was enough to bring about salvation, is the worst idea ever. It’s just not true.
Traditional Rabbinic Judaism taught that Moses, along with receiving the written law (the first five books of the Bible), also received a large body of oral law, known as the Mishnah. The purpose of the oral tradition was to explain and expound upon the written tradition, early scholars acutely aware that the written tradition itself was inadequate and prone to misunderstanding. The Mishnah was not written down until around the third century of our era.
Martin Luther, author of the idea of “Sola Scriptura,” carried such vehement hatred toward anything Jewish that, even if he knew of the Mishnah, would never have respected it.
And so here we are, with uneducated, isolated individuals reading the Bible in always problematic translations, scarily sure it was written with 21st century Americans in mind, and proclaiming confidently, “This is the Word of the Lord” while essentially wreaking violence on the sacred, hard-to-understand and easily misinterpreted texts.
Now we have a generation of educated young adults growing up multicultural worlds with comfortable gender fluidity. Of course, they are leaving the church. They see it as a nasty and ignorant place, a place of lies and sexual discrimination. I don’t blame them.
But these young adults also hold the future of the world in their hands. What can we pass onto them?
Will we insist on these hateful and exclusive interpretations of the Bible and see the church inevitably crumble as a result? Or, perhaps more hopefully, will we abandon our hubris and do the actual work of being the hands and feet of Jesus, offering hope to the hopeless, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, freedom to the oppressed and the deep connection with each other that all humans need?
It is my sincere hope that we will make the second choice, recognizing that the church cannot ever be married to political power to succeed in its mission.