Back when I was doing tech support at a large call center for a rather inexpensive and poorly-made line of desktop PCs, I always welcomed the quick calls. One of the quickest calls there was involved a confused-sounding person calling in to ask why his or her screen was saying “Hard Drive detects imminent failure.” There was only one thing we could do in that situation: replace the hard drive. There wasn’t any other fix for it that we had; this was a hardware issue through and through. The PC’s hard drive would have to be replaced. Some stuff is pretty mystifying in computer-land, like SCSI voodoo, the bane of my existence back when I administered a large computer lab of Macs in college, but some stuff–like imminent hard drive failure–is painfully simple and straightforward.
In the world of flesh and bone, things work similarly. Some stuff is really complicated, but other stuff is simple.
A large hard drive inevitably throws errors as it ages. Most of these are fairly small; users won’t notice them at first. But sometimes those errors are big or numerous. Or the drive starts taking a bit longer than usual to access its information. Whatever the case, the firmware in the computer that is set up to sense these problems does so, at which point it tells its user that things are starting to look bad so the user can back up the drive’s data and replace it without losing anything.
In the same way, I’m seeing the same little trickles of different problems in different parts of Christianity building up to threaten its long-held dominance in society. I really think that the Pew Forum 2014 Religious Landscape Study was Christianity’s version of “imminent hard drive failure.” Christians are reacting to it exactly like users tended to react to that error message. They don’t understand what it means, why the screen is saying that, or what to do about it.
Last time, I was talking about how I saw youth pastors as one sign of Christianity’s coming fall into irrelevance. I don’t blame them in and of themselves. It seems clear to me that most youth pastors mean very well and passionately want to do the right thing by the kids in their care. I’d never say they were actively trying to cause harm as a group. There are just so many of them that inevitably we’re going to hear about problem children in their midst–that’s one reason why this blog doesn’t bother talking about them much; we’d be here all day long. The problem isn’t youth pastors; the problem is the church culture that makes churches think youth pastors are necessary and yet misunderstand the whole situation and botch it like they do.
Church leaders fully understand that young people like and respond to different things than older people do, but these leaders don’t seem to understand why. Nothing has changed there in 25 years. When I was Pentecostal in the 1980s and 1990s, young people were expected to mold themselves to what the older members and ministers wanted to do. Church was their little fiefdom. We definitely suffered from a bias toward nostalgia–especially in youth ministry and music. They were terrified of doing anything new or different. “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” was that church’s favorite hymn and it got sung frequently, with gusto.
The up-and-coming generation of Christians clashed hard with the older one that controlled everything about our denomination. “Because
we Jesus said so” wasn’t flying as well with us as it had with them years ago.
I came to realize that those church leaders had fetishized a particular way of “doing church,” which was why they couldn’t change it even if it alienated younger people and scared off potential members. If their god was unchanging, then surely–they reasoned–his church should be as well. Of course it did change, albeit glacially at times. But they thought it didn’t, and thought that holding to those old ways was the only way to express correct devotion and godliness. When they realized that younger people maybe didn’t want to “do church” the same way, their solution was always to find some way to reconcile those younger people to the older ways of doing things. Even today it seems clear that they think if they can just spin-doctor the message the right way, or find the perfect way to phrase some outdated and regressive sentiment, that young people will cock their heads, squint, go “Oh! I hadn’t thought of that!” and rush back to church. And that’s not what is happening.
Church leaders seem even more out of touch when they blindly speculate about why young people are leaving their ranks. There’s no end to that speculation, either; it all has the look of people grabbing wildly for straws. The results range from comical to insulting; I’ve heard it all and so have those young people.
They left because they crave unapproved sex (wrong). They’re theologically illiterate (wrong). They’re just mad at someone in the church who hurt them (maybe right, but not the real reason). They weren’t indoctrinated hard enough (generally wrong). Their parents weren’t sincere enough (wrong). It’s all public schools’ fault for teaching proper science in science classes (wrong). Our culture treats atheism as cooooooooooool with a capital KEWL (wrong) and Christianity as ickie (wrong) and young people only care about following trends (wrong). Their youth pastors didn’t teach them the correct things (wr–
wait a second there, Hoss).
That rolls us into the second point I want to make here: youth pastors are largely the product of the culture in which they function–and a reflection of it. And that culture has its head up its own butt. When the blind lead the blind, ain’t nobody getting to the mall.
At this point, youth ministry is so ubiquitous that a church that eschews it is more or less dooming itself. Some impassioned Christians suggest that churches do exactly that, and I can’t say I disagree much. Young people’s engagement with Christianity has been dropping like a rock since I left it in the mid-1990s–and yet churches keep throwing money and resources at youth ministry like some day it’s going to magically start working to produce young Christians who actually stay in church after they mature into adults.
Some of these youth programs are in churches that greatly value the theological underpinnings of their doctrines; their ministers are educated and spend a great deal of time studying theology so they can provide as much nuanced, thoughtful information as they can. Their main difference from the adults’ devotion is in how old the people in the seats are. I’ve known some of these types of youth ministers; a couple of them studied so much that they ended up deconverting themselves. (As the saying goes, religion, like sausage-making, is best not examined too closely.) And somehow these well-indoctrinated kids end up leaving.
I’ve known and seen a lot of other youth pastors who strategy is to stoke up kids’ enthusiasm and fervor to fever pitches so those kids will maybe remain fervent into their adult lives. The idea is to convince young people that church is cool, hip, and relevant–which is thought to draw others into the fold as well. These youth pastors end up looking like rock stars surrounded at all times by hordes of adoring young fans. Since theology is boring and hard, their sermons and Sunday school lessons look more like concerts or self-help seminars and may even feature fog machines, arena lighting, and backup bands. The group attends exciting events and fun outings; the highlight of their year is often a “missions trip” to some exotic vacation locale. Kids enjoy the entertainment, but they, too, leave as soon as they can.And I’ve seen other youth ministries whose function appeared largely to provide free babysitting and “activities” while kids’ parents attended church. And kids leave those churches too.
It would be fascinating to find out which of these approaches produces the best results for churches. They all look like major failures to me.
Frequently pastors don’t really know what’s happening in the youth group and barely understand young people at all, so they retreat instead by hiring unqualified people who seem like they connect well to kids and then let them run largely wild. In my denomination, the “real” pastor picked his youth ministers from interested volunteers; he barely even seemed to know he had a youth program at all. At least I had met him; in the Southern Baptist church I briefly attended, I was there like six months and still don’t think I ever met the main pastor and to this day couldn’t tell you what he looked like. But both pastors faced the same dilemma, and saw the same results in their respective youth programs.
Young people are fleeing their churches as soon as they can. Not many church leaders would deny that! But since they’re not correctly diagnosing why this is happening, they’re not really going to know how to address the exodus. And since the religion as a whole is a reality-free zone that distrusts data and facts and spin-doctors any statistic that is unfavorable, their strategies and guesses barely even reach the level of stabs in the dark.
It’s not that criticisms of youth-ministry culture don’t abound even from Christians. Here’s a brilliant analysis, though even its author doesn’t quite understand what’s going on:
Christianity is objectively, factually untrue. It is filled with people who are using their fading religious dominance to try to grab inappropriate amounts of control over other people’s lives and it’s a faith system that is drilling down hard, in the main, on regressive and oppressive policies that actively hurt both its own adherents and bystanders.
Young people are figuring those things out at record speed. That is why they are leaving.
And Christian leaders can’t even face one of those truths, let alone all three of them.
If even one or two of those problems didn’t exist, then Christian leaders might have a fighting chance in their current strategies; I myself put up with Christian overreach as a Christian because I thought the religion’s claims were factually true. It wasn’t until I realized those claims weren’t true that I could escape the overreach and poor treatment. Others might know the religion is untrue but are in groups that are loving enough to put up with belonging to a religion whose claims aren’t true, or think highly of their religion’s basic ideas and life philosophy, so they put up with their clown-car peers and their religion’s overreach. Indeed, I think that’s how the religion muddled along as long as it did–there was some wiggle room around all of these three problems. But that wiggle room is gone.
Pastors can claim that children are their future and super-important all they like, but what I think is more important to most of them is staying within their comfort zone of dominance and certainty. If they really cared that passionately about retaining young people, they’d be pulling out the stops to do it. But they’re not. (And it’s a good thing for human progress!)
There’s no real resolution for those problems that includes a continuation of entrenched Christian privilege.
Christians sure aren’t going to be able to demonstrate that the religion’s claims are true in a credible manner. They also aren’t willing to reconsider their control-lust or their regressive and oppressive policies. As far as they’re concerned, the problem isn’t the message. The message is always perfect. Instead, the problem is those with the problem with the message, and their job is to find a better way to state their case.
Instead, in an age when young people know more than they ever have compared to people their age in previous generations, their spiritual educations are being handled by largely total amateurs operating off incorrect assumptions and totally untested hypotheses. When those young people try to discuss or address the religion’s issues, they get told that they’re just wrong and need to get back in line or they’ll be in rebellion. The more extreme the church, the more likely a young person will get told that. They’re told that they can’t be TRUE CHRISTIANS™ unless they hold a raft of social and political opinions and obey those in authority over them. They might even face physical abuse, humiliation, or abandonment if they dissent too much from their parents and elders.
And that paragraph constitutes most of the efforts being made to rescue the religion.
That is why I’ve always been optimistic about humanity’s chances with regard to Christianity. I could always see that these three problems aren’t even being recognized by fundagelical Christians, whose louder voices are drowning out the more compassionate, loving attempts to re-create and adapt the religion–and who are increasingly polarizing Christians to the point where outsiders are beginning to be actively repelled by all of them.
In a way, we can be thankful that these churches are mishandling their young folks this badly, but in another, this laxness and ignorance can produce truly heartbreaking results. Regarding Tony Waller, the pedophile youth pastor we talked about last time, we don’t know what his church’s hiring procedures are, nor do we know if there’d ever been any warning signs at all about him. But I can tell you that quite a few of these churches are lax about how they handle their kids, which leads to huge legal risks for these churches as well as unacceptable risks to children. And, too, I know how heartbreaking it is to be a young person who comes face to face with the realization that every single thing she’d ever learned about her god was objectively untrue. I wouldn’t wish that devastated anguish on anybody.
So I hope this floundering process finishes up soon, for the sakes of all those kids.
Remember how I opened this post? Well, I don’t think I had a single one of those calls about “imminent hard drive failure” that didn’t involve the caller arguing with me–until I figured out why. They were simply nervous that their techie was rushing through the call–and, one must concede, it wasn’t a totally irrational fear for them to have about call centers. As obvious as this failure message was, as completely straightforward as it was, as inarguable as it was, people couldn’t accept that it was really that simple of a problem and that simple of a solution. The solution was going to involve a huge hassle one way or the other, after all–the same way Christianity’s solution would.
So I developed a little song-and-dance of questions that sounded terribly important to ask the caller before finally telling them the bad news, which shortened the calls considerably. Once they were confident that I’d really heard and understood the problem, they were willing to hear me out and trust what I was telling them.
I had to figure out that some folks just have this inborn need to make the simple stuff over-complicated and the complicated stuff over-simplified. I really think that need is where most of our drama comes from. And that may well be why Christians–especially the hardline right-wingers–can’t accept the writing on the wall in front of them.
The problem is, they don’t have a techie they can trust to tell them what their error message means.