In the spirit of disclosure, I know very little about Rachel Held Evans or her work. Most of what I know of her comes from watching her dialogue with John Stonestreet on Facebook. (I am a shameless lurker.) In this article at CNN.com, Ms. Evans addresses a question that concerns a lot of my friends and coworkers in the Christian community. It seems an undisputed fact that many young people raised in Christian homes are struggling to maintain that faith once they leave for college; if not abandoning it altogether.
I've read a good bit of the published work on this and am grateful for the insight as to how these young people are processing the decisions they are making, but I want to address the whole thing in the simplest terms possible in order to set the stage for interacting with Ms. Evans article. Let's focus on the central question at hand, why would someone leave the faith of their parents behind?
The first and easiest answer is that they simply don't believe Christianity is true. I've dialogued with young people around the country over the last two years, and this easily rises to the top of the list of the reasons students give for struggling. Elements of the Christian faith are fantastic if the person in question isn't previously disposed to believe them. As a young unbeliever I understood that dead people stay dead, virgins don't give birth, burning bushes and donkeys and snakes don't talk, and illnesses aren't caused by demonic possession. Back in high school, a single conversation with me profoundly shook up a fellow student who had attended church her whole life with her devout family. Her long held beliefs sounded obviously silly when framed from my perspective. This same thing happened time and again in lectures and conversations at the university level.
Of course neither the critics at university nor I balanced our assessment with the problem areas of naturalism or non-theistic worldviews. The brilliant atheist Graham Oppy once conceded in a Facebook conversation with Matthew Flannagan that we all have our bullets to bite. We rarely see the flaws in the views we are gravitating towards as we become disenchanted with our traditional beliefs . The new view answers our immediate problems and that is that. It takes time and persistence to fully examine the strengths and weaknesses of a given worldview and none of them supply easy answers to every question. Perhaps I no longer have to explain a virgin birth, but I am left with a doozy of a problem of consciousness. And staring down things like Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism or the Moral Argument is no picnic either.
After interacting with the student body of UNC – Chapel Hill about abortion for four hours a young man waited to talk to me. He asked me why I was a Christian. I told him because I believe it is the truth and it makes the most sense of the world that I experience. Virgins don't give birth, though I believe one did. The dead stay dead unless God wills it otherwise. As for talking animals and bushes, God as classically understood has the power and authority to do such things without much effort. What seems fantastic at first is comically simple in light of the capacities of such a God. Christianity also accommodates things like objective moral values, conscious agency, universal human rights, and the pervasiveness of evil in this world.
A second reason to leave the faith is that these people simply don't like church. They like the spiritual nature of Christianity, they just don't like the idea that a church defines what it means to be spiritual. They range from genuine committed Christians that feel out of place in the church culture to what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called in Soul Searching “Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.”
One night after we finished a panel discussion on the Christian worldview there was a small line of young people waiting to talk to me. During the course of the presentation I mentioned that, as someone who grew up outside of the faith, I've never fully been comfortable with certain aspects of the church culture. I both love the church and feel somewhat alien within it. They all told me how much better they felt about their own struggles with church culture after hearing that and asked if we could talk about how I've dealt with it.
I told those young people that I believe that Christianity is the truth. It never occurred to me that my feelings about Sunday morning should in any way take away from my commitment to that truth or drive me away from corporate worship with other believers. When we find ourselves in a particular church with a culture we can't adapt to we should simply find a new church. We shouldn't wander off on our own and let peccadilloes morph into sweeping indictments of whole institutions.
The frequent excuse of hypocrisy grates me a bit. A young man told me how much he loved God but insisted that he would never go to church again. It was just too full of hypocrites and as an institution the church had failed him. I asked a few questions to discern if there might have been some genuine abuse in his background. There had not been, but it is best never to assume. I then responded, “Even if I were to stipulate that what you say about the church is true, what are you doing to help fix that problem by staying away? What are you offering your brothers and sisters other than judgment?” Instead of young people infusing new life into the church and working to make their own distinct cares a part of the culture of the church, they often leave and the church suffers for their loss.
Do you know why we all had to do those irritating group projects in college? Because collaboration is hard work. The theater taught me that lesson better than anything else. As a young college actor, you learn pretty quickly that everyone thinks their ideas are the best. One particular rehearsal, disagreements about character arcs escalated between me and a fellow actor. My frustration grew even greater because the director seemed to take her side more than I liked. He then walked me to the wings and taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. He told me the creative process is hard and that it is even harder when you work on a project as a team. We must be willing to work with others, not in the spirit of compromise, but because by pushing each other we come up with ideas together that we never could have come up with alone. We find ways to do it better. A group magnifies the frustration but it can accomplish things that individuals cannot.
The church as a body has some pretty specific goals. We are to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and hurting world as a means of reconciling them to their Creator and make disciples. This massive collaborative effort is messy because in His infinite grace God allows flawed humanity to participate. As tempting as it is to walk away from group projects because we feel frustrated at a perceived lack on influence we must consider (1) that our ideas might not be the best however passionately we hold them and (2) that the mess of sorting out all the differing tactics may lead us to a better more refined approach we never would have found without working together.
The last of the answers I want to address is that there is a percentage of young people that leave their faith simply because they wish to live a lifestyle outside of the teachings of the church.
Our culture is not even close to aligning with the teachings of Jesus in regards to sexuality, anger, spiritual focus, priorities, and pretty much any standard you can find that Jesus addressed. Our family got rid of cable television for many reasons, but not the least of those was that even when we could minimally control the content of the shows our family watched the commercials were uncontrollable and often far worse in content. How many shows about serial killers are on TV anyway?!
Any serious effort to live a life that honors Christ will somewhat alienate you. I know this firsthand. When I first answered the call of Christ my circle of friends reduced dramatically. At one point reducing to a single friend. When I worked in commercial HVAC sales, I missed out on certain social aspects of our office entirely. My father-in-law shared a story with me from his days as salesman at Monsanto. He found out an important customer of his who was a bit on the wild side came through town without calling him. He asked the customer, “Why didn't you tell me you were in town? I would have taken you out.” His customer responded that he didn't call him because he wanted to have fun on this trip. His idea of fun was strip bars and getting drunk, and he knew my father in law well enough to know that wasn't happening with him.
My father-in-law was the best salesman in his field. He evaluated himself by different standards; professional standards. I lived a wild lifestyle and saw the effects of doing what you want with no restraint in my own life and the lives of the people around me. The decision to opt out of those social circles came easier for us. It is another thing altogether for a younger person who gets a great deal of their identity from their peer groups and is living in a world that has normalized truly despicable things to such an extent that we live amongst (to borrow from Bill Bennett) the death of outrage. It is the way of the world, and Christian morals are often seen as bizarre, prudish, and a thing of a bygone era.
I sat at a table and talked to a young man that had left the faith of his youth. He told me what other people have told me before. That giving up old concepts of right and wrong liberated him. He said, “I have never felt so free as I did when I gave up my belief in God.”
I responded, “I have no doubt that is true. Now let's talk about the price you paid for that freedom.” What followed was a long and respectful conversation about where objective moral values come from and how impossible it is to honestly evaluate our world without them. The most important question for evaluating the world we live in is not, “What belief system will allow me to live as I desire?” The most important question is, “What is true?”
It is important to remember that people change their minds slowly. Loving and prayerful work in the lives of the people we meet can make a difference. We should not believe given the complexity of human personalities that there is any universal response that will fix the problem of young people leaving the church. Nor should we assume that the source of the problem resides entirely on the shoulders of one group. Whether it is selfish self centered young people (there are certainly an abundance of those) or greedy shallow churches with misplaced priorities (also not rare), to declare for all the world that we see this problem so clearly we have THE ANSWER is hubris. There is a lot of hard work to do, but that is always the case. To paraphrase Wesley in The Princess Bride, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
With all of that in mind, in the next post I'll address the list of demands from Ms. Evans directly.