Suppose young Christians were given license to question their worldview when they became old enough to evaluate the evidence. These teens wouldn’t be pushed into a Christian life but would be allowed to question their faith and learn about other ways of living. Maybe other sects of Christianity. Maybe Wicca or Buddhism. Maybe atheism.
Older and wiser after a few years of considering new ideas, these Christians would be welcomed as members of the church or, if they’d prefer, allowed to leave.
Rumspringa in the Amish community
We have a Christian precedent for this. Rumspringa (German for “running around”) is a phase that many Amish and Mennonite communities allow their youth to go through. It varies between groups, but it typically begins at age 16 and ends with marriage. It had traditionally been a time to find a spouse, but it now often includes exploring the wider world (as shown in the 2004 reality TV show Amish in the City).
Because Amish are Anabaptists, these teens aren’t yet baptized into the church. Offenses that would be unacceptable among members—dressing “English,” driving something besides horse-drawn vehicles, using alcohol, or even drugs or sex—are often overlooked. Almost 90% of youth eventually choose to become members of the church.
Rumspringa in the Christian community
What would a Christian Rumspringa look like? Church communities would encourage their youth to use their brains and evaluate the truth claims of Christianity. The Bible even supports this.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).
By testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
This could be a position of strength for the church community. They’d make clear that they didn’t need to indoctrinate or strong-arm people into becoming members. Their claims could withstand public scrutiny, and churches that did things the old way—using indoctrination rather than education and labeling uncomfortable questions off limits—would feel the pressure to become more open.
I grant that this wouldn’t be easy on churches. “Because I said so” or “Don’t ask that question!” are easy appeals to authority, but that often backfires when youths become independent and unwilling to accept such weak answers. Fundamentalist congregations’ backwards attitudes toward homosexuality or science are sometimes cited as a reason young people turn away. One Barna study reports:
Three of the reasons that kids vote with their feet is that churches seem unfriendly to science, that churches are overprotective, and that churches are not friendly to young folks who doubt.
Church communities lament that many children go into college as Christians but come out as doubters or atheists—70%, according to one study. But why this is? What does it say that a mind sharpened and expanded by college is less willing to accept your religion? Maybe a faith built on indoctrination and custom rather than reason and evidence isn’t strong and isn’t worth much, and encouraging thought would actually be good for churches.
This reminds me of a chat I had with a Christian girl about 17 years old who was part of a group of sign-carrying Christians haranguing people in public. Long story short, her spiritual leader publicly scolded her for talking with me, hardly the independent attitude a wholesome upbringing should encourage in a young adult.
I’m sure that no conservative Christian church leader would consider encouraging their youth to explore other worldviews and follow the evidence where it led. They fear what honest inquiry would do. And what does that say about the truth of their claims?
Related post: “Imagine a Christianity Without Indoctrination”
— commenter Kodie
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/17/15.)
Image from Ted Van Pelt, CC license