This post has been making the rounds all over the place lately. It’s called “59% of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out — And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why.” As well-meaning as its author is, however, he’s made one critical error in addressing the topic that is guaranteed to result only in more pain for the people that Christians have already hurt–showing that he’s just as lost as those he’s addressing, and flailing just as hard as his peers are to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it.
Another Day, Another Wild Speculation.
The post was written for a blog called FaithIt, which is a sort of Buzzfeed clickbait site for fundagelicals. They’re very proud of their allegiance to the usual culture wars that Christians adore; if you heard about that anti-abortion screed from “the woman who totally OMG survived an abortion so therefore the procedure should be criminalized,” that was them. (I notice they studiously avoid talking about LGBTQ matters on their site and prominently feature anti-gay fundagelicals like Kirk Cameron’s sister, while also featuring cool hip progressive Christians like John Pavlovitz, so go figure. They run whatever gets ’em clicks.)
A lot of Mr. Eaton’s post is unobjectionable, really, considering the site publishing it. He wishes very hard that he could love church like Ned Flanders of The Simpsons does, and that he could tell non-believers all about the “magical Utopian community of believers waiting for them just down the street.”
But he can’t, because he knows that’d be dishonest.
Sam Eaton just doesn’t feel that way about church (by which he means the general assembly of believers). He actually feels the dead opposite. He knows that churches wreak quite a lot of damage and are a source of much great misery, and he knows also that millennials have noticed those facts. He cites a Barna survey regarding how dismal (and accurate, I might add) a view young people have of church as an institution. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know a lot of the stuff he’s trying to tell his tribe–and it’s nice to see a Christian not denying those facts.
He’s quite shocked-sounding as he relays one stat I hadn’t heard yet: that “only 4% of the Millennial Generation are Bible-Based Believers,” meaning, he says, that “96% of Millennials likely don’t live out the teachings of the Bible, value the morals of Christianity and probably won’t be found in a church.”
I’m not sure where he gets that statistic–it doesn’t come from that Barna survey at all that I could see–but I definitely don’t know what he means by “teachings of the Bible” or “morals of Christianity.” He doesn’t explain those terms, either, which is problematic given that they can both mean so many different things to different Christians.
I suppose ultimately what his word choice means is that he’s aiming his post to the type of Christians who understand the Christianese he’s using. If you have to ask what he means, you’re obviously not the Christians he’s talking to.
Yet Another List of Things, Things, Things.
Among other things on his expansive list of suggestions, he advises that church leaders should stop blaming young people for what’s wrong with churches today, be more transparent about how they’re spending church funds, and put more of an emphasis on service to their communities.
(Midway through, incidentally, he accidentally reveals what probably prompted his post: his mother telling him that she had years ago stopped attending church because it felt “exclusive and ‘cliquey,’ like high school, and [she’d] never been good at that game.” He doesn’t condemn her for her feelings, either, nor disagree with them.)
As you read his exhaustive list, you’ll start to form an opinion of the kind of Christian church body general that Mr. Eaton wants to create. It’s a very grand vision: a committed, connected, electrified group that lavishes attention on their communities, supports and encourages each other emotionally, and includes all age groups on their councils and boards.
It’s a vision that bears no resemblance at all to reality, of course.
Because his vision involves giving power to the have-nots, revealing exactly how Christians’ money is being used, and being responsive to the needs of those in the ranks, it’s a vision that is all but guaranteed not to happen. And because he’s not focusing on the main problems in the broken system of Christianity, even if Mr. Eaton got some of what he asks, it wouldn’t do much good (and let’s face it, would probably be given to his age-cohort in a way that nullified whatever good it could have done).
In case you’re curious, my list of suggestions to Christian leaders was outlined a few years ago and still stands. You’ll find none of those suggestions here, of course. All the stuff Mr. Eaton is asking for isn’t addressing any of the actual abuse that Christian church leader and members alike commit against both their own group and those way outside the church doors.
We’re both whistling for the moon here, however.
Without a willingness at the top of the pyramid of power to make big changes that will directly impact the bottom line of those in power, real change cannot happen in Christianity. And there is no sign whatsoever that such a willingness will be happening anytime soon. Christian leaders certainly recognize their growing losses of young people, but they’re still in the belligerent denial phase of grief and accusing those young people of not being TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in the first place. They’re not yet ready to consider serious changes to their organizations.
“Jesus” sure as hell ain’t stepping in here, need I remind anybody?
Jesus as a Dysfunctional Ex-Boyfriend.
One of Mr. Eaton’s suggestions bothered me quite a bit, however. In #10, wherein he addresses public perception of Christian churches as being full of unpleasant, unhelpful, selfish, greedy hypocrites, he declares the following:
We desperately need to be calling the schools and the city, knocking on doors, asking everyone around us how we can make their world better.
And that suggestion bothered me almost as much as the presumption that the people who’ve left Christianity “are trying to tell [the remaining Christians] why” (as Mr. Eaton phrases it in the title of the post). Ironically, both of those missteps bother me for the exact same reason and reflect the exact same dysfunctional misunderstanding of what’s happening in Christianity these days.
What he means is that Christians should be proactively contacting groups in their geographical areas that actually are helping people to find out what they, Christians, can do to help them since they’re so clueless about what those groups actually need. He thinks that Christians should “connect with neighbors within the community” and “make [their] presence known and felt at city events.”
Just like his assertion at the beginning of the post, this one is guaranteed to backfire, and definitely is incapable of accomplishing the good he envisions.
There’s That Jesus Aura Again.
Sam Eaton sounds uncomfortably like that boyfriend who thinks that his ex-girlfriends have some kind of moral obligation and desire to tell him exactly what went wrong and to help him fix whatever made the relationship go south. In reality, the ex-girlfriend has moved on already. She’s already in her next relationship or enjoying the freedom of single life–and if she’s wondering anything at all, it’s why she stayed with a Stage 5 Clinger for as long as she did. The absolute last thing she wants to do is to sit down for an extensive navel-gazing session with her ex.
The very few people who actually would be interested in talking to Christians about why they left Christianity are probably already doing it; the rest are apathetic in the extreme. When one Catholic church invited 500 ex-members to a “listening session,” less than 10% showed up–and most of those weren’t actually ex-members. When ex-Christians talk about why we left, it’s usually in contexts like forums and comment boards where we’re safe from “Christian love.”
But some people can’t see a relationship end–even the most casual of relationships!–without punishing the other person with demands. In effect, the dumped person is setting him- or herself up on this lofty pedestal and unilaterally declaring that the relationship can’t end unless the other person jumps through a bunch of hoops. One of those hoops is “explaining why things went south to the dumped person’s complete satisfaction.” Another is “taking responsibility for fixing all the dumped person’s flaws, ostensibly so the next relationship runs better.”
It’s shocking how many times I’ve heard this exact story play out in ex-Christians’ ex-timonies (those are like testimonies, only done by ex-Christians; I didn’t invent the term, but I adore it). You might hear this tactic called the Courtier’s Reply. It basically means that someone with no rights whatsoever to make demands of you is trying to make very extensive demands of you. “You can’t leave this religion until you’ve made a complete and thorough study of all these books that I think will totally change your mind.” Or “You can’t leave until you’ve told me exactly what’s wrong with Christianity and how you’d totally fix everything if you could–and done enough to fix it.” (Spoiler: you’ll never do enough, learn enough, or know enough for the Courtier, if you come out of it all still an ex-Christian.)
Sam Eaton isn’t making that explicit of a demand, but he’s still got this idea that his religion’s ex-girlfriends are all dying to make their complaints known–and that the best thing his tribemates can do is go bang on people’s doors to ask them what they need church members to do for them, to get involved in politics even more than they already are, and to pester people more than they already do.
How could that idea ever go wrong?
What We Really Want, They Don’t Want to Give.
The truth is that what non-Christians want most from Christians is that they get the hell out of our way, stop trying to control us, quit trying to pretend they’re so much better than anybody else, and get their grabby little hands off other people’s rights and lives. We want them to practice their weird little dysfunctional rituals well away from us, to stop getting in the way of human progress, to oppress their own tribe and leave ours alone, and to let us live our lives the way we want to live them without their nattering disapproval and control-lust.
Ultimately, we want to be safe around them.
If they could do all that, we’d finally think of them as good neighbors. We wouldn’t convert either way, but at least we wouldn’t think of them as preening, mewling bigots who despise everything that a decent human being should love and love everything that a decent human being despises.
But that seems like an impossible demand nowadays.
In terms of community service, I’m sure a lot of places would welcome Christians as volunteers and contributors–if they could only keep their religious grandstanding out of it. But they often can’t. They’re salespeople, 24/7 marketers for the ultimate MLM scam, and they can’t ever just go volunteer somewhere like anybody else would. It’s always ultimately about conversions and control, about tribal dominance and sheer grandstanding, and those–not the acts of charity they’d be performing–are always the stats they’re playing toward. The connections they’d forge with neighbors is almost always done purely to proselytize;* their charity work is done with an eye toward gathering new converts at vulnerable points in their lives; their presence at city events is usually a function of showing their deep disapproval of something that doesn’t actually impact them–or trying to sneak religious grandstanding into public schools or onto public land. (What I’m talking about here is the difference between giving alms and doing charity.)
I’m not counting, either, Christians who get into charity purely because it allows them to abuse others and enrich themselves at other people’s expense. These out-and-out criminals infest the religion, a by-product of the broken system itself and a reflection of its failure to work in reality. Even Christians who would be absolutely aghast at the idea of robbing poor people or molesting children in homeless shelters can get into charity work with the wrong goals in mind.
So without a serious renovation in their entire dysfunctional system, I wouldn’t even make suggestions about Christians horning themselves into charities, government groups, neighbors’ homes, or community service. I’d be worried about how poorly Christians would go at those projects, how badly they’d hurt the vulnerable people they’re supposed to be helping–and of course how much worse they’d make the religion look!
It’s not that I think Sam Eaton’s not genuine in making these suggestions. I have no reason to think that he isn’t. He seems nice, to be honest, and I suspect he would agree with a lot of the stuff we talk about here. I just don’t think Christians are, as a group, really wanting to serve their communities–or they’d already be doing it. Nor do I think that any of the people lacking power (as he does) will be able to change Christian leaders’ minds about the necessity and value of community service. They’ll pick and choose the stuff that they already want to do, like becoming even more political or pestering people even more than they do now, and ignore the stuff they don’t–or warp it to fit their ideological preferences.
And I really tremble to imagine why Mr. Eaton thought it’d be a great idea to tell an institution he just got done criticizing as mean, insensitive, abusive, intrusive, untrustworthy, and controlling to go out and ask vulnerable groups like charities what they need in terms of help, and to make more of a fuss in government functions.
It seems to me that the last place we want most Christian church members is anywhere near people who need real help.
The Sad Reality of Ned Flanders.
In conclusion, Sam Eaton might remember that Ned Flanders’ display of Christianity is an act–one that he performs compulsively because he’s actually a very frightened person, deep down inside. Ned lives in a fantasy-land of his own making, one that blows up in his face when he is confronted with those very real tragedies for which his religious posturing has no genuine solution or remedy. In the rant below, he even confesses exactly this truth: that he does the stuff he does “to be on the safe side.” But it’s not that safe a side, as he discovers to his detriment.
Nobody sensible would ever want to be like Ned Flanders. Only a Christian could see that facade Ned offers the world and think it’s something to idealize and strive to achieve in real life.
And thanks, but no thanks; I think that Sam Eaton’s tribe needs to fix their own house before they start looking to fix other people’s houses.
Of course, Sam Eaton has a view of Christian in-groups and out-groups that is radically different than the one you or I might have of Christianity. We’re going to talk soon about the in-groups we see ourselves in–and how sometimes we’re a little off in how we perceive those groups and our positions within them.
See you next time: Same Cas-time, same Cas-channel.
* BTW, if you’re keeping track, that neighbor who invited Mr. Captain and me to church still hasn’t said a single word to us at all. Once we refused the invitation, we dropped out of his sight.