Reasons why young people leave the church: Experience is shallow continued.

Posted: 05/05/2013 in church, college
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This short blog continues a series on the reasons why young people leave the church.  The emphasis for this series is to not to rehash out problems, but to find a solutions.

In the previous blog, we talked about a shallow experience of Christianity.  We talked about how the responses aren’t helping.  The evangelical church knows boredom is a problem.  They know that many people feel that Christianity is not relevant.  The response, over the last 30 years, has to been to create what Catholic libertarian Ann Bernhardt* calls “Super Fun Rock Band Church” as well as baptize sagely life coaching so that young Christians can have better careers/lives.

Rock bands and life coaching can be found outside the church.  Why do we need to stay in church to get it?

What any Church needs to do to retain young people is two things.  First, offer them something that cannot be found outside of the Christian faith.  Secondly, respond to the objection that the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough.  Coincidentally, these are the same thing.

Those of you from reformed traditions probably already have an idea of what the answer might be.  Chances are, you feel it looks like this:

Reformation Begins with the PulpitOkay, I am sure you weren’t thinking of Elvis, but you get the idea.  The perscription is this: if the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough, than we need more “Biblical preaching” or whatnot.  The sermon is the centerpiece of the service, and the minister is the man delivering the word of God to the congregation.  Let’s sing to the Lord for twenty minutes and then listen to a forty minute “conversation” since calling it a sermon isn’t hip anymore.  Does this work?

Maybe.

Looking at the pulpit is a good start.  But it is only a start.  There are at least two problems why concentrating on a minister and sermon aren’t enough.  The first is this: like it or not, the minister is a position of power and authority.

By power and authority I do not mean that he is specially anointed by God.  I mean that he speaks, persuades, and motivates a crowd (power), and is given his position through whatever process his church recognizes (authority).  It is very easy to find examples of individuals who persuade hundreds, even thousands, to believe that what they teach is divine and Biblical.  Yet their teachings are the result of proof-texting at best and outright lying at worst.  Their influence comes from the power of rhetoric, motivational speaking, and use of psychological forces.  Yet the lay-person in church is not truly equipped to understand the difference between the work of a clever speaker and the work of Holy Spirit through preaching.  I blame public eduction.

The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife.

The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife.

It’s natural to think “not my church” or “not my pastor.”  It is my sincere hope that this is the case.  However, even if a minister is perfectly benign, he still wields a fair amount of rhetorical power of a congregation.  Have you ever heard a pastor talk about how many people are going to a special event?  Or how many people were baptized on an Easter Sunday?  These are both examples of social proof, and it’s a damn powerful psychological (but not spiritual) force.  If the sermon is central, than the pastor is bit elevated above his congregation (often literally).  At best, he is a great lecturer of correct teaching.  Sadly, most the ability and power to decide what is correct teaching resides in himself unless the congregation understands how to interpret the Bible as well as he does.  I can’t be the only one that sees a problem here.

This leads to the second issue: “Biblical preaching” is always top down.  It often aims the lowest common denominator.  In other words, the speaker speaks the truth.  The lay people are silent.  There’s a strong performance/audience dynamic here.  The speaker, especially in large churches, must make his message as accessible as possible.  This will help reach new Christians and non Christians.  But what about the members of church who have heard the most accessible messages?  Are they ready to move on to something deeper?

I may sound like I am a bit distrustful of ministers.  Frankly, that’s because many times I am.  My context is probably not the same as many readers.  In southern California, mega churches are often the only game in town.  So it is entirely possible that cult-of-personality leadership leaves me chagrined.  However, I’ve also been an educator.  This leads to what the solution could be.

Don’t teach the Bible: Teach people to understand the Bible.

Years ago, my friend and recounted his experience as a 19 year student at a now defunct Bible college.**  He recalled how he had never heard of concepts like cultural context, the nuances of Greek language, idioms, and in general plain old principles of hermeutics, until he was at college.  My own journey began when I borrowed a book on Biblical interpretation from my then youth pastor’s library.  Like many others, both us began to scratch our heads and wonder why we didn’t get a sense that these concepts seemed to make their way into the sermons we listened to.

These days, I notice that a lot of preaching some to come in several gradients.  We have ministers who are conscious of the principles of hermeneutics.  They successfully apply them to even the most accessible messages.  This means they use the heavy duty work of Christian intellectuals, but still communicate a message people understand.  Others preach questionable folk interpretations (I’m looking at you John Eldredge!), and show contempt for Christian intellectuals (Beth Moore).  Among the laity, I notice that many people would like to know more about how to understand the Bible.  It seems wrong that they’d all have to go to a Christian college to figure these things out.

The solution for a shallow Christian experience is a wiser laity.  The laity could never be expected to know and learn as much as a “professional” minister.  However, they should understand enough to be able to know a good, thorough, interpretation from a purely rhetorical, pop-psychological, folk-wisdom message.  This type of spiritual growth cannot be achieved with sermons alone, because it questions the aforementioned performer/audience dynamic that sermonizing uses.

Rather, churches -espeically large and diverse ones- ought to find ways to facilitate an interactive and more egalitarian way to train its laity.  There’s a big difference between sitting silently before a spotlighted, jumbotroned, holy-man and joining in a lively discussion among peers.  In many education circles, the role of the teacher is not to be some kind of faucet that passively fills buckets, but rather a kind of facilitator, and coach who helps guide learning and discussion.

We have to stop worrying about accessibility of a message.  You can’t expect maturing Christian to stick around if you keep ignoring their needs.  These needs aren’t going to be the same as new Christians.  Not everything needs to be about evangelism either.  Someone who has been a Christian for a few years is ready to talk about things that aren’t going to be accessible to someone completely unchurched.  This is okay.

We need to have serious discussion about how we understand the Bible rather than repeating what we think the Bible means.  Many Bible studies are too quick to jump from Bible verse to applicability to everyday life.  This is why we get tragically flawed folk interpretations of verses like Jeremiah 29:11.  We have to invite the opinions and viewpoints of Christian intellectuals rather than sidelining them.  All of this would make an experience of Christianity deeper.

While many people may dismiss this blog, I hope that I have at least hit a chord some people.  One blogger once commented that if younger Christians can get through an AP class, then they can handle a bit more.  My hope is that churches will pay attention to people like this.  After all, if younger folks are able to work that hard to get into college, than surely they are willing and able to into the grit of serious hermeneutics.

==============

*This woman seriously is nuts.  Barbie Pink AK-47 nuts.  That’s a special kind of crazy.  Here references to “superfun rockband pastors” can be found on her blog.

**At least it still has a website.  Ahh Bethany, how I miss my misbegotten summer camps in your dorms…

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Comments
  1. chicagoja says:

    Teaching people to understand the Bible is a tricky proposition. It depends on who is doing the teaching and whether or not they themselves know the truth. Jesus said to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. The truth can set you free from only one thing- lies. Jesus was talking about the wolf in sheep’s clothing (religion) which is why he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. While there are is a lot of wisdom in the Bible, the real story has been suppressed by religious dogma. Unfortunately, most people would not even accept the truth even if Jesus himself told them. That’s why they crucified him.

    • Jin roh says:

      It is not so much about “teaching the truth.” That kind of thing can be done with the top-down preaching and a passive laity.

      I am concerned about developing a sense of good judgment in the minds of laity. That does not mean memorizing what the Bible (allegedly) teaches, but actually learning how to figure out what the Bible teaches.

  2. James Shewey says:

    Joel, I think you’ve really hit on something here. I was thinking about the difference between a good lesson and a poor one an I was having difficulty boiling it down into a succinct yet universally applicable template for determining/creating a good or poor lesson. I think you hit the nail on the head with the observation that a good lesson will necessary teach not just the subject of discussion or study, but also the tools necessary to properly unpack it. In other words, the tools should be given to the audience and demonstrated and then allow the audience to discover scripture on their own. But here’s my question/problem: What does that look like. How can we bring laity to be comfortable with a Hebrew Lexicon, to seek the wisdom of commentaries and to have an arsenal of cultural contextual knowledge without boring the crap out of them? I know what this looks like in the context of a class, but how do I take that and make it into a sermon? How do I make it interesting and engaging?

    • Jin roh says:

      James, I know it is hard. I struggle with it myself. It must be harder even for a youth pastor.

      For culture, I think it is worth telling stories from the perspective of the person who is in the culture. That might motiviate.

      For Idioms and languages, demonstrate how easy it is for things to be “lost in translation” between even modern, contemporary language. “I’m full” translated literally from French does not mean “I’ve had enough to eat.” It means “I’m pregnant.” You can also ask kids if they have ever had to learn a phrases, lingo, or read a book that had funny sayings in it. They’ll all answer yes of course. After that, you can apply it to phrases like “the son of man is coming on the clouds” etc.

      Finally, show the consequences of unthinking intepretations. What does “slave” mean in the New Testament. People used to think it meant, take the darkies back to your plantation. Why do we think that NT means something different today? It’s not because we don’t take the NT seriously, but because we know that “slave” had a radically different cultural and economic context than did southern plantation owners.

      I guess most of what I am concentrating is clarity.

      The one time I really seemed to get people’s attention on hermeutics was in another blog post. It’s the “Dropping a Few Eschatology Bombs” post.

  3. Very important post. Very true.

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