Last Fame Day, I mentioned that I typically attempt to avoid discussing religion directly here on the blog. It’s a tough topic to deal with individually, and seeing as how I’m only one of three writers on a blog that’s tries to be at least semi-objective, walking the border between tact, directness, and personal views is no easy matter. Nevertheless, with the massive role that religion and religious institutions play in culture, I might as well start learning how to best address this all.
It seems that most people I meet just assume I’m an atheist. I’m not, but for whatever reason, I seem to give off this heathen vibe- in spite of having written and drawn a weekly religious cartoon for the duration of my time in college.
But I’m not here to talk about that- at least, not entirely.When I was in college (a religious college, for the record), I saw a book added to the new arrivals display in the campus library: Generation Ex-Christian, by Drew Dyck. The book discussed the rising trend in people- young people in particular- leaving the church en masse, offering profiles on different groups, their reasons for leaving, and where they typically wound up. Postmodernists, “rebels,” “modern leavers”- even neo-pagans.
I remember just how utterly condescending the book was. Throughout it, Dyck records the variety of complaints of those rejecting the church and faith (though not always the latter), and he actually does a pretty decent job of it. What I never saw once in the book, however, was this:
Dyck is more than happy to bemoan the mass dissatisfaction of youth with the church. The term “defection” is used liberally within the first few pages of the book, and any attempt to offer the masses exiting the church is shot down with the quip “They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but don’t be fooled. These are just excuses, smokescreens designed to hide their real reason for going astray.”
Dyck details complaint after complaint with the church- the lack of compassion, the ritualism, the legalism, the hypocrisy, the emptiness, and not once does he offer a shred of credence to anyone. 75% of everyone raised in the church will leave it, he argues, and none of them have any legitimate issues. Dyck calls young leavers “prodigals.” The reality of the situation is, however, that they’re leaving because they don’t want their inheritance.
CNN’s Rachel Evans discusses the same issue in her blog post “Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church.”
Evans, unlike Dyck (who represents a line of thought far more common to Christianity than perhaps anyone would be willing to admit), actually does have the courtesy to not assume every young person leaving the church is utterly devoid of any rationale. Evans, like Dyck, outlines many of the same issues resulting the mass exodus we’re currently seeing:
Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Evans describes how she offers lectures on how to combat the rising stream of young people leaving the church, addressing substance, rather than style. And I’m grateful for that. But as refreshing as it is to see someone actually taking the grievances of millennials seriously, I think Evans fails to ask the fundamental question.
Is the church worth saving?
Say the rampant rejection of the church is ended- now what?
We get back to getting together once a week for an hour or two to sing off-key while blonde, stoner-looking worship leader named Trent butchers Amazing Grace with his acoustic guitar solo? We get back to mercilessly speculating on utterly unknowable things and decrying anyone who disagrees with us as (at best) “lacking”?
Exactly what purpose is church serving?
Community? You all know damn well you don’t see these people except for Sunday.
For moral guidance? When is the last time the pastor got up there and actually convicted your conscience?
The politics of electing elders? And who is and isn’t a member? And who gets to call what shots? And what to do if the national board or high council or cabal of whatever denomination is in charge dictates this or that?
Exactly what here is worth saving?
And I’m not even touching on the issues of tax exemption, the church owning property, managing small economy’s worth of money- heck, managing entire academic institutions like the one I attended.
What if the hard truth of the matter is that the church does not work? What if the issues that are prompting this exodus are deeper than just the social issues of science, homophobia, and social justice- what if the model itself is fundamentally flawed?
Is it really such a far-fetched idea?
Once upon a time, it would have been inconceivable for the practitioners of the strange, Middle-Eastern religion some mockingly called “Christians” that they would meet together in anything but each others’ homes. Once upon a time, it would have been inconceivable for both serf and lord alike that “church” would mean anything but a towering Gothic cathedral and Latin sermons. Christianity split itself in half before the first millennium of its existence. 500 years later, it happened again.
Now I imagine that even if you view Dyck and his sympathizers as part of the problem, you might share his concern that the masses of youth are going to be leaving Christianity along with the church. Heck, with Evans’ lectures devoted to teaching church leaders how to retain millennials, I imagine even she might share that view. But as her own research shows (and to a certain extent, Dyck’s), many millennials are leaving not because of rejection of morality but to seek it. I can’t but help be reminded of what feels like something of a parallel:
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
That’s the way it seems to be. You could never lift a finger to feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and so long as you show up at church once a week (exactly how often do you need to attend to “attend,” anyways?) no one is going to question your faith. But if you don’t go to church and feed the poor, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, the throng of the righteous will be praying for your salvation.
I’d ask if I’m the only one who sees this as literally Pharisaical, but the statistics Dyck and Evans cite would seem to prove that I’m not.
FINAL NOTES: Yes, this clearly addressing a Western phenomenon- obviously this is by no means universal. Yeah, I’m gonna cover the subject more- I’m not saying to not comment, just don’t burn me at the stake just yet.