A Faith Worth Believing In And A Church Worth Belonging To

empty church

(Credit: José Carlos Babo, Flickr Creative Commons)

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the new Pew Research study that revealed a significant drop in the number of adults in America who identify themselves as Christian.

It’s not exactly shocking information. We’ve known about this ecclesiastical exodus for quite some time now, so I won’t bother going over the latest figures in too much detail. If you want to dissect them yourself, go for it. It is interesting in its own right, but the individual figures weren’t what stuck out to me.

Actually, before we go any further there is one individual figure we need to discuss, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

What really stuck out to me was the insight from experts captured in this CNN article, in particular the words of L. Gregory Jones, a senior strategist for leadership education at Duke University.

Among other things, he pointed out that most millennials are tired of arguing about sexuality. As a millennial, I couldn’t agree more. Don’t get me wrong, I will certainly continue to be an ally in whatever way I can for my LGBT brothers and sisters, but I know many, if not most, of my LGBT friends have countless other things they’d rather be talking about then what goes on in their bedroom.

That’s not to say LGBT rights isn’t an important conversation. It is and there is still plenty of work to be done in the Church regarding the treatment and inclusion of our LGBT brothers and sisters, but amongst millennials – the folks leaving in droves according to this study – there’s not much debating going on about the LGBT community. We love and accept them for who they are (or at least most of us do). Let’s definitely keep talking about how to better treat and include them in the Church, but if your church is still hyper-focused on debating whether or not it’s ok to be gay – or aggressively condemning the LGBT community altogether – it really shouldn’t come as much of surprise to look around on Sunday morning and not see too many folks under 40.

Speaking of folks under 40, as a former youth pastor myself, Jones’ comments about youth ministry also really stuck out to me as well. According to a survey Jones cited in his interview with CNN, “nearly 70% of full-time youth ministers have no theological education.”

That is as frustrating to me as it is not surprising.

In my opinion, this is why Christian schools are more important than ever before. If the faith is to continue to thrive, it needs to be embedded within the curriculum a child receives throughout their education. Are you in the process of looking for a Christian school for your child? You can click here to learn more about The Christian Academy, a Christian school in Pennsylvania.

As someone who loves working with youth and loves it so much I spent years doing both undergraduate and graduate work to prepare myself as best as possible to teach them the faith as best I could, I can’t tell you how infuriating it is that age and being “good with teenagers” (whatever that means) are the single most important criteria churches seem to have for whoever they intend to hire as their youth pastor. Forget education, if you’re good at dodgeball, have the number to Papa John’s on speed dial, and are in your 20s, that’ll probably be enough to get you hired as a youth pastor at most churches these days.

Nevermind that many of the best youth pastors I’ve ever known were in their late 30s or even – gasp – their 40s, as Jones alludes to, given the dearth of youth pastor training, it really should come as absolutely no surprise to most churches to see their youth leave and never return after graduation. It’s not because they’re disappointed their youth pastor didn’t teach them systematic theology. It’s (at least in part) because they weren’t taught much of anything at all. They may have memorized a few Bible verses and learned a few cheesy songs, but the faith was never really passed on to them, at least not a faith worth believing in, the sort of faith that challenges them and equips them to face the increasingly complex challenges of life.

What they got instead was free pizza and door prizes for bringing a friend to Church.

It’s enough to make you think most church love quoting that passage from Proverbs as some kind of bad joke.

Ok, I promise I’ll stop ranting about youth ministry, but it’s hard not to see this Pew study and hear the words of L. Gregory Jones and not think that we’re finally reaping what Kenda Dean warned us about in Almost Christian.

In that wonderful book that you absolutely must read if you care about the future of the Church, Dean talked about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a fancy way of saying that lots of teenagers in her case, but millennials in ours (and I would argue Christians in general) believe that God exists, wants us to be nice to each other and wants each of us to be happy, but doesn’t really need to be that involved in our lives unless a problem arises we need God to solve. While Dean didn’t create the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, she and her research team discovered that this sort of faith often attributed to millennials wasn’t created by us. It was passed on to us by our parents generation, that is the folks hiring our youth pastors.

Now let me be clear. By no means do I think that the poor state of youth ministry is the sole source of blame for the plummeting numbers of self-identified millennial Christians. After all, I have no doubt that there are many “nones” who had great youth pastors and eventually left the Church for a myriad of other reasons.

But, I am convinced that a major reason the number of self-identified millennial Christians are leaving the Church is because they haven’t been presented with a faith worth believe in, a faith that challenges them and equips them to face the increasingly complex challenges of life.

I say that because of one last thing from the Pew study found that really stuck out to me, the one figure that was of particular interest.

While affiliation with the Christian tradition has decreased significantly in the past seven years, atheists and agnostics saw only a slight increase in the number of folks joining their ranks in the same period.

Which means despite the scary numbers, millennials aren’t necessarily abandoning faith altogether, they’re just abandoning the Church. And I can’t help but think that a big reason why is that we have failed to give them a faith worth believing in and a Church worth belong to.

Again, I can’t stress enough that I’m not trying to speak for everyone in my generation, but I think regardless of age, anyone who has faith or seeks faith will only ever embrace faith because they discover something in it worth believing in and, in turn, they’ll only ever join a community of faith because they find something (or somebodies) in it that compel them to become a part of it, contribute to it, and remain within it even – or perhaps especially – during difficult times.

Faith that’s just a list of things to agree to isn’t compelling.

Faith that’s defined by exclusion isn’t inviting.

Faith that doesn’t speak to and equip us for real life is ultimately worthless.

And any community offering this sort of faith is going to struggle to find many people – or at least millennials – interested in accepting their invitation to join.

Sure, there will always be some people we can scare into church with the threat of hell. But for a lot of millennials who by virtue of living in an unprecedentedly interconnect world have grown up exposed to a whole host of theological opinions rather than just the word of their local pastor or Sunday school teacher, for these folks, the call to say magic words (the Sinner’s prayer) in the face of what they see as profound injustice (eternal punishment for finite sins) while threatening anyone who does believe with excommunication if they don’t believe all the right things, well, that sort of faith just isn’t that compelling.

Even if you think it is.

But consider what was so compelling about Jesus. He spoke about real life – even the messy parts, challenged his audiences to live a meaningful, self-sacrificing life, embraced and defended people society rejected, and offered transformation here on earth, not just in eternity.

Also consider the sort of community created by the early Church.

They didn’t bother trying to entertain people. They didn’t waste resources building elaborate infrastructure and programing that would continually have to be rebuilt, redesigned, and refunded in order to remain “relevant.” Heck, they didn’t even tithe 10%.

Instead, they took Jesus seriously when he talked about all of that self-sacrificing and loving others stuff. They shared everything they had with each other, selling their possessions in order to care for one another and answer Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and, well you know the rest.

The early Church thrived not because they were necessarily all phenomenal preachers or because they put on amazing worship services or because they were better at arguing theology with other religious people.

The early Church thrived because they created a community people wanted to be a part of because they were embodying a faith worth believing in.

Personally, I can’t blame folks that have left the Church today when too often the best things we have to offer are sanctified concerts on Sunday and endless debates about dogma the rest of the week.

Obviously (or maybe it’s not that obvious), those aren’t the only reasons millennials are abandoning Christianity. Some people just don’t have faith of any kind and no amount of evangelism or apologetics or even authentic Christian living will ever make them believe. After all, not even Jesus could convince everyone in Galilee to drop their nets and follow him and he was standing right in front of them in the flesh, walking on water and raising folks from the dead.

But if the Pew study is correct, there are plenty of folks out there who still have faith even if that faith isn’t of the Christian variety.

If that’s true, if there are folks out there who are at least open to faith, then maybe there is hope for the Church to turn our numbers around.

But that turn around can only happen when we offer a faith worth believing in and a Church worth belonging to.