Christianity is at the cusp of losing its identity, message, and support among the younger generation. More and more folks refer to themselves as being more “spiritual” than “religious.” What happened? Where did the Christian community go wrong, and how can it appeal to those believers who are hesitant to call themselves a Christian? Here’s a hint: it will take more than simply playing contemporary music at Church…
After spending the past six months as a Field Organizer on the Obama campaign, I was repeatedly told by community members what problems were plaguing our current society. The problems included school system discrepancies, 24 hour news, lack of family/communal structure, and the decline of church involvement among the “20 and 30 – somethings” in the world. Granted, it is a timeless habit for older generations to reminisce on the “better days” when things were harder but people were happier. Even I find myself scoffing at my 8 year old cousin who already has a cell phone and is more computer savvy than I am.
Yet, notwithstanding the inevitability of these nostalgic moments among the older generations, their criticisms raised an interesting point, and one that must be taken seriously within the faith community, namely, what has happened to the Church? Or more broadly, what has happened to Christianity? This blog is not an attempt to necessarily solve these problems, but rather shed light on why the Church has been unable to appeal to the “20 and 30 somethings” despite their tireless efforts to do so (note the number of churches that now offer contemporary music rather than traditional hymns). In short, I hope to elucidate why the insertion of dogmatic certainties, which have become prevalent among the Christian community, have made Christianity (and, thus, the Church) less accessible and appealing to the younger generation in America.
Quick, raise your hand if you know a friend that claims to be “spiritual” rather than “religious.” Keep your hand up if you know a friend that takes pride in the fact that they are an independent or moderate voter unwilling to align themselves with one political party or the other, and in most cases become apathetic to the whole political process? Most of you, right? Okay, one final question, how many of you have heard your friends’ arguments and, for the most part, agree with them on their criticisms regarding Christianity and political parties? I know I certainly do. What makes this rather modern transition to “spiritualism” and “apathy” so intriguing is that it resembles a more controlled (or, perhaps cautious?) revolt from societal thinking. This, in itself, is nothing new – as evidenced best during the Vietnam Era but dates as far back as the Enlightenment. The difference, however, is seen in the end result. Those revolting against societal thinking in the Vietnam Era turned to Atheism and Anarchism. In other words, they saw what society was serving and said “No, thank you” (okay, well maybe not the ‘thank you’). Now, however, Atheism has been replaced with Spiritualism (many would use Agnosticism here, but that term has been so over-used that I feel like spiritualism better defines it) and Anarchism has been replaced with Apathy.
The rise of Spiritualism, as opposed to Atheism, has the potential to be far more detrimental to the future of Christianity because both adhere to many of the same tenets. If someone acknowledges that there is a Higher Being, and that there does appear to be some type of Order in which we are meant to follow, and that we are all bound to treat others the way we would like to be treated, but then refers to him/herself as Spiritual rather than Christian, it is easy to see how Spiritualism could quickly fill the void that is typically filled by Christianity.
By avoiding the stigma that comes when one willingly joins the ranks of “Christians” or “Democrats/Republicans”, these “spiritualites” are seen as being more open-minded; more fluid and accepting in their beliefs. For those not invested in a religion or a political party, it provides the ideal alternative. Yet, for those like me….and you… it provides a huge challenge – how do we get people to see that Christianity resembles many of the same principles and ideals espoused by this new-aged Spiritualism? And how do we do so without losing Christianity’s identity?
I believe it begins with the destruction of dogmatic certainties. In other words, the main difference between this new-aged spiritualism is that it is absent of any bold “Truth” claims that have become a trademark within the Christian tradition – (“Do you know where you’re going after death?” “Feel as if your life is incomplete?” well, come to so-and-so church, read so-and-so pamphlet to find the “Truth” about life’s most plaguing problems)…. Provide these “Truth” claims with a spokesperson, (a.k.a. the Christian Right) and is it any wonder that young intellectuals, especially those not raised in a Church, are fleeing to “spiritualism” rather than Christianity?
If we want to see Christianity appeal to our current society and yet keep its identity intact, then we must admit both its purpose as well as its limitations. For one, Christianity is ambivalent – and is meant to be so. Hence, the reason why it justified the actions of the segregated South the same as it did the actions of Mother Teresa. Without the clarity of hindsight telling us which of these two actions were “more Christian,” we must admit that there was a time when people used the exact same Holy Bible as we see in our pews to justify the lynching of humans because of the color of their skin. Given this humbling awareness, how can we possibly make such claims as to know God’s will? Now, before I go any further, I need to clarify that this does not mean that we should not use religious references when making an argument. Rather, by acknowledging that Christianity is ambivalent, we admit that religious references rely largely on interpretation. This measure brings the attention back to us, forcing us to shift the dialogue to “I believe in so-and-so” rather than “According to the Bible….”
The failure to acknowledge Christianity’s ambivalence will further ostracize the millions of folks that turned to “spiritualism” as a safe refuge away from the polarizing, distorted image of Christianity publicized by the Christian Right and other absolutists for the past 25 years.
Christianity’s purpose is to serve as a guidepost for how we should live our lives and provides us with an understanding that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. It also tells us that Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we can know what it is like to be in the presence of God. Outside of this; outside of the foundation on which Christianity emerged and has existed for the past 2,000 years, there is little else that we can claim with complete certainty. To assume otherwise is to keep Christianity enclosed, hidden from the hearts and minds of millions longing for a sense of belonging; longing to hear how Jesus’ message relates to them as much as it does the Religious Right. The rise of Spiritualism serves as a humbling indicator that the faith community has failed in its attempts to uphold Christianity’s basic foundation. Somewhere down the road we convinced ourselves that we knew God’s will and his stance on the current problems in America. It is time that we return to our roots, that we bring the living Gospel back to the streets, and that we proudly admit both Christianity’s purpose and its limitations. Are you ready?
— Wilson Paine