Postmoderns Have Nothing To Teach Our Children (and other fables)

Your Favorite Blogger with Courtney, kids, and cousins.

I just got back from a week at a dude ranch in Colorado. It was a celebration of my mom’s 70th birthday, and we gathered 17 Joneses of three generations for a week of horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and eating lots and lots of beef. It was the perfect family vacation (and I’ll post about it more in days to come, including my victory in barrel racing at the culminating rodeo).

I’ve got two brothers, each with a spouse and kids. As in many families, we were raised in the same faith (centrist Protestant), but we’ve gone our separate ways somewhat. Each couple is raising their kids differently, which causes interesting conversations when we get together at times like this.

One of the things that my nieces are particularly interested in is talking about God, especially with a theologian. One of my nieces attended Young Life camp earlier in the summer, so she was particularly keen on talking to me about God and Jesus and faith. She and I chatted a bit, and later she told my mom, “After talking to Uncle Tony, now I’m totally confused.”

Of course, that wasn’t my intention. In fact, what I mainly did in the course of our conversation was to ask questions — to turn her questions back on her. This wasn’t so much some postmodern deconstruction of her questions as it was the most effective form of youth ministry that I know.

One of the things that most frustrates me about church life is how quickly people abdicate their hermeneutical authority to clergypersons, and how quickly and easily clergypersons take up that authority. This abdication and embrace is exacerbated by denominations, bureaucracies, and hierarchies, but it’s also prevalent in “low church” settings, and even in house churches.

The questions of faith are among the most vexing existential questions that human beings ask. And the church has done a great disservice to young people by using monological, didactic teaching methods to impart the faith. 

Adolescents are inherently question-askers. We inhibit their faith development when we conclusively answer their questions, rather than walking with them into deeper questions. In fact, it’s obvious to me that the reason the church has lost virtually the entire generation of millennials is that we gave them high school answers, and when they got to college, those high school answers were no longer sufficient. So they bailed.

Instead, we should have given them the tools to further investigate the existential questions that are inherent to the life of faith.

Because, although you outgrow the answers, you never outgrow the questions.

This post is a part of Patheos’s “Passing on the Faith” series. Go to the series to see posts by Phyllis Tickle, Mark Yaconelli, Ivy Beckwith, and more.

  • Scott Eaton

    Tony said, “One of the things that most frustrates me about church life is how quickly people abdicate their hermeneutical authority to clergypersons, and how quickly and easily clergypersons take up that authority.”

    As a “clergyperson” I say Amen to that!

  • Roger Flyer

    NIce post, Tony! Thanks.

  • The_B_C

    great post!

  • Lausten North

    Best answer to “why are they leaving” I’ve heard in a while.

  • rick allen

    “…it’s obvious to me that the reason the church has lost virtually the entire generation of millennials is that we gave them high school answers, and when they got to college, those high school answers were no longer sufficient. So they bailed.”
    I don’t find it so obvious.
    In the first place, if they’re high schoolers, they need high school answers. It doesn’t much help to give “The City of God” or the works of Karl Rahner to a kid struggling to stay awake throught “The Scarlet Letter.”
    Of course high school answers are not going to be sufficient for college and young adulthood. Nothing will, really. Most young people will drift away and explore, or just focus on having fun, no matter what.
    Of course, when the time comes, they need to be engaged, and questions answered at a progressively more theologically-nuanced level. But to answer questions solely with a barrage of new questions is to create despair that any answer will be reached. Hence the utility of the “high school answers.” It gives them, after the wandering years, something to come back to. What at one time looked pat and facile may, with adult choices and the pressures of job and family and responsibiliy, begin to look like the wisdom of simplicity, reflected through an increasing maturity..
    In my experience, the millenials are precisely those kids who, on the whole, rather than receiving the pat “high school answers,” got two questions back for each question they asked. Good for their critical facilities, not so good for their coming to any sort of conclusion, even provisionally, and rather worthless for answering those common questions like “What should I do about sex or a career?” Seeking is good. But Jesus said, “Seek, and ye shall find,” not “Just keep seeking.”
    For me the great model for any parent is St. Monica, who must have lived a life of anxiety, watching Augustine take up with his concubines and then get mixed up with the Manichees. She was patient, and kept praying for her son, even after he abandoned the faith he was raised in. That’s all we can really do. We can’t think for our kids, or cause them to believe anything. But providing some of those answers, which may actually one day make sense even to an uber-ironic millenial, seems to me a large part of it.

    • NateW

      Great post Tony and great comment on the other side of the coin Rick. As with most aspects of the Christian faith, I think that what is concretely important is Christ Himself with anything that we might say or teach about him playing only a supporting role. In other words, we can concretely teach kids what it means to follow Christ and to love others in/with/through/by Him, but doing so is not so much a matter of what theological doctrine we teach them to believe as it is about modeling the right way to believe any doctrine they could ever learn—that is, with humble and joyful curiosity supported by faith that their security rests not in their knowing but in their being known.

      There is no need to fearfully cling to doctrine and there is no reason to abandon your faith when what you knew yesterday you don’t today because it is not about being right, it s about being… in right relationship with Christ.

      Also, Rick, I just wanted to point out that the Greek verbs for “ask…seek…knock…” are actually in a tense that does suggest continuation of the act, or perhaps the abstract of the act itself. “SEEKING you will find, ASKING it will be given… KNOCKING the do will be opened” as if the finding is somehow bound up within the act of seeking, rather then antecedent to it. Stop seeking and you will stop finding, stop asking and you will cease receiving, stop knocking and you will fin the door closed. I think it’s about having the humility the humility to know that you haven’t found it all out, don’t have all the answers, and dont presume yourself to be on the right side.

  • Barnaby Perkins

    Really great post Tony. I’m an assistant minister in a church which routinely defers to clergy on just about everything. I try not to enter into the paternalist role. What I dislike most about being deferred to, is that it makes it harder for me to ask my own questions. I’ve not outgrown the questions, but I often feel people want me to have done so.

  • Thursday1

    it’s obvious to me that the reason the church has lost virtually the entire generation of millennials is that we gave them high school answers

    You need to read more of your fellow Patheos Progressive blogger James Wellman, who actually studies this stuff, and less Rachel Held Evans, who most of the time merely tells progressive folk what they want to hear.

  • tanyam

    I wonder if we could get deeper into the question of why people abdicate authority. I’m sure it is often the fault of clergy or the fault of our institutions. But I wonder if other things aren’t going on.
    My own experience — I coulda joined a small group in pretty much every church I’ve ever attended. I always knew that. But I gravitated towards sessions where an informed person was speaking, or I read books. I wanted to learn and I took it for granted that some people actually knew more than I did, and knew more than my peers.
    Also, depending on where you are — if you are in a crowd of ambitious young professionals — there is not a whole lot of time for this “questioning.” If you work 60 plus hours a week — going to a bar is something you do to relax. You aren’t spending a lot of time exploring “vexing existential questions,” you’re working your butt off, and trying to have a little fun. I wonder if a lot of people aren’t looking for ways that faith can help them — but unpacking the doctrine of the Trinity, the problem of evil, the meaning of the atonement — all that may go on the list of “someday, maybe.” So maybe what pastors are talking about is not interesting enough to send people off into their own searches. Though we may wish otherwise.

  • bee

    Tracking with the famous Ecclesiastes assertion that there is a time for all things, I would say that there is a time for questioning and a time for answering. Both are essential components to forming faith. It probably takes some wisdom to know when to ask a question and when to give an answer. Tony’s story about his niece coming away more confused worried me. With children not our own we need to be so careful not to tread where angels fear to go. Answering back with a question may not be what’s needed in a situation, and a question can be used as a back door way of leading someone to a conclusion just as much as an answer can.

  • Thin-ice

    I accepted Jesus at 14. I am now 65, and no longer believe. You know why? Because when my sons were in their mid-to-late teens, and had both “accepted Jesus” in the church where we attended, I took them aside and gave them a challenge: “Don’t be a Christian because your parents are Christians. Examine this faith thoroughly, and if it meets the criteria for rationality and evidence-based belief, then make it your own on THAT basis. Never be afraid to ask questions.”
    Well, within a few months both of them had rejected the faith as not meeting those standards. Which made me (with a Th.B. from Multnomah and years as a missionary in Europe) re-examine my faith, my theology, and my Scriptures. They failed miserably. I loved the church and faith family, but I could no longer live believing something that was obviously made-up.
    So, be careful what you ask for!

  • Lars

    That’s the frustrating thing about religious (as opposed to scientific) answers – you rarely get the same answer to the same question, yet most people are convinced their answer is the correct one and, of course, supported by scripture. Our kids do not attend church because I consider it indoctrination (but not without some good points however). If they want to explore religious faith when they are older and more rational, critical thinkers, that will be great and entirely appropriate. The faith of my own childhood (non-denominational evangelical) was unquestioned and unquestionable in our home and church. When it later collapsed, it was devastating. If I can teach my kids to be nice and respectful to others, I figure the big questions and answers will take care of themselves. And I’ll be there providing blowback (with my own questions) whenever necessary. :-)