I seem to be having some similar conversations recently. Younger people (though nearly everyone’s younger than me!) saying how the church isn’t listening to them, isn’t helping them in their faith. In some cases it’s hurting their faith.
At a time when the church in first world countries like Australia and USA is losing members, especially the younger demographic, you’d think church leaders would be tuning in and looking for answers.
But so far I don’t think many churches are listening.
Here are some of the issues young people have discussed with me recently.
Not answering questions
There are lots of mysteries and difficulties in the christian faith, and modern christian teens and young adults often want answers that stand up. They have access via the internet to all sorts of answers, but they want their church’s answers too.
Often they don’t get them.
Sometimes the pastors won’t address some questions because they think they’re not relevant to the gospel. Or maybe they don’t address them because they don’t have answers. Or maybe not answers that conform to their denomination’s doctrines or the congregation’s expectations. There’s a lot of fear out there about crossing doctrinal boundaries, and upsetting entrenched opinions.
This is particularly the case in question regarding the Bible. Modern archaeology, history and anthropology have shown that we need to approach some parts of the Bible differently than christians have traditionally done. Some stories considered historical by conservative christians have been shown by good evidence to be doubtful historically, though still having revelatory value.
Negotiating new understandings with congregations can be difficult, so it is often easier to say that modern scholars are rebelling against God and their discoveries and theories are not true. Trouble is, the conservative apologetic explanations are often weak and don’t stand up to scrutiny. Smart young adults know this – they have access to the best scholarship and apologetics on the web, and they often know the pastors are not cutting it.
Some frustrated questioners choose to look elsewhere, staying christians but alienated from their church. Others think it’s all or nothing and give up their faith entirely.
A simple remedy
The remedy is simple. Pastors need to be trained in, or learn themselves, genuine scholarship and apologetics. It would probably benefit their own faith to have a stronger objective basis for their beliefs. Bible colleges need to be more honest about historical and archaeological facts.
Pastors also need to understand how core doctrines (such as in the Apostles Creed) can be justified, and be willing to allow alternative opinions on non-core matters. And they need to give serious thought to how they interpret the Bible in the light of up-to-date information.
And denominations and congregations, especially the unofficial gatekeepers who hold real power, must allow greater freedom to explore and modify current understandings.
There are some aspects of church life that are just unhelpful for many.
I have lost count of how many people, especially but not only younger christians, find sermons unhelpful.
For some, all sermons are problematic. They find them patriarchal, patronising, hierarchical, controlling, or similar, or they simply find it difficult to pay attention and later remember or apply anything they heard.
For others, it is the standard sermon by the same minister every week, where they here the same words and phrases, the same stories, the same topics. They learn nothing, aren’t inspired, and often lose focus or even get put to sleep. These people may enjoy online or podcast sermons by their favourite preacher, but not the ones in their own church.
None of this is surprising. 30 minute monologue sermons are a poor way to communciate, and an especially poor way to teach or encourage positive change. But they are precious, almost holy to preachers. Younger preachers seem to love to post pictures of themselves on stage with microphone in hand – it seems that is where they get their significance. Younger or older, most pastors don’t know any other way – or don’t want to know.
So sermons continue to drive people away or put them to sleep.
Much church evangelism relies on inviting friends to church activities with an evangelistic focus. Many younger christians find the whole thing forced, manipulative and embarrassing. Recently a thoughtful young adult I know questioned inviting non-believers to services where there is congregational singing, which can be very off-putting to non-believers.
Perhaps such approaches worked when christianity was the default religion and people just had to be called back to faith. But in a pluralistic society where atheism or non-belief are almost the default, why would anyone who has rejected christian belief want to willingly subject themselves to an evangelistic talk?
Several younger people have suggested we use more community-based approaches and build cooperative relationships before we preach – “first they belong, then they believe”?
Tony Campolo famously said “youth is made for heroism”. Many teens and young adults want to change the world for good, whether the issue be environment and climate change, modern day slavery, poverty, domestic violence, or something else.
Yet a recent US study found that young adults are critical of limited “Opportunities to fight injustice and oppression” via their church. The world is often critical of the church for only being interested in money or making converts. Here is a lost opportunity to follow Jesus in caring for the lost and suffering and show a better face to the world.
In Australia, recognition of first nations peoples can be an issue. Some churches, most schools and many events acknowledge aboriginal culture and stewardship of the land, and are able to name the aboriginal nation of the local area. Churches have, unfortunately, been slow to recognise injustices to first nations peoples, and young adults are quick to see the lack of sensitivity.
It used to be that there were two genders and it was perfectly clear which one each of us was, and who we should relate to sexually and emotionally. At least, that’s how it was thought. But now many people are not clear about their gender and same sex attraction is a fact of life for a percentage of people, including christians. LGBTQI are all identities we have to take seriously.
Whatever we think about same sex marriage, it is clear that the church isn’t always as welcoming as it should be to LGBTQI christians and unbelievers. Some feel afraid to come out of the closet. Some come out and are treated badly. Many suffer from anxiety as a consequence.
Modern teens and young adults have often been taught gender equality in their schools. They have LGBTQI friends and they find it difficult if they are not fully accepted and welcomed.
Fear and control
Many churches still work on a patriarchal and hierarchical model where older (generally white) men control things, including the public teaching. Traditional doctrines (sometimes outdated) are often enforced in controlling ways, e.g. telling questioners they are questioning God (when they are actually questioning the pastor), forcing people to toe doctrinal lines on non-core doctrines before they are allowed to serve or lead, and shutting down awkward questions.
Young questioners can feel traumatised or trivialised by these tactics. In my experience, this can be a major reason for people leaving a church.
“People hearing without listening”?
People are saying these things, making these criticisms, hoping for change. But it seems to be like the old joke:
Q: How many christian churches does it take to change a light bulb?
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto