Sunday, January 6, 2013

Exodus 2.0 and Christianity

Are We Becoming an Atheist Nation?
3 Reasons Young People Are Abandoning Christianity

Chances are that if you are in your 20's or 30's, you are not a church member. Polling is now a highly sophisticated industry, and religious organizations are being fed some irrefutable numbers about what is happening among their congregations. In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate across all denominations has increased fivefold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be “disengaged” before they are 30.

In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and now exceeds 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches. Is it any wonder? There are too many churches I have been to that look more like fashion shows than places of worship. Many others insist that the members must “tithe” 10% of their income as specified in the Old Testament. Never mind what Jesus taught us, which was that he was the fulfillment of the old law, the sacred Law of Moses, and that He represents a new covenant between God and mankind. (Yes, we should give to our churches as much as we can, when we can, but I disagree with the teaching that one's donations must be exactly 10%.) I came to the conclusion many years ago that this teaching is a distortion of what the Bible says on this subject, meaning so-called tithing is a thinly veiled excuse for procuring the maximum amount of donations to church coffers. Then there are the Christian TV stations, of which I watch quite a bit, where some of the women have enough makeup on for three people, and where some of the musicians are obviously gay, especially the men. Still others are preaching the “prosperity gospel”, which is a false teaching and a gross distortion of what the Good Book actually says about that topic. Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers.

Once baptized, always a reportable Christian! Simply put, denominations are no longer a reliable source of membership information. The mega-church movement also has flattened, with people leaving as fast as they are recruited. The only real growth among Christians appears to be in the home church movement in which small groups of independent believers gather in a house to worship. While the polling numbers are in, the debate about the reasons is only just beginning. When a pollster asks if a person has left the Christian Faith and a church, the answer is answered “yes” or “no.” However, when the pollster asks “why?,” the answers become mushy and the numbers lose their significance. Why are people leaving churches so fast?

I am not a pollster, but rather an observer of the religious scene looking in from the outside. Speaking as an independent minister who is unaffiliated with any denominations, entirely too many churches today, from the pastor on down, have a credibility problem because of all the things that I mentioned above. My impressions are anecdotal and in no way scientific. I receive personal responses to my columns, and I carry on conversations with a steady flow of people by e-mail. I do believe we Jesus worshipers and the clergy need to look at ourselves for at least some of the reasons for the decline in membership. I offer three observations:

[1] Churches are no longer intellectually challenging, if they ever really were to start with. I can still remember attending Catholic school as a child and being “taught” not to think, since that's too much trouble, and to just obey. Organized religion has always been like this, and critical independent thinkers like myself are shown the door without just cause way too often. More and more of our young people are college-educated and in the future even more must and will accept the challenge of post-high school education. They are thinking people who are expanding the limits of their curiosity and knowledge. Some of them will be the first American generation to explore and eventually colonize outer space. I have often wondered what will happen to organized religion when life is inevitably discovered on other planets and their moons. It is no surprise to me that these young people often conclude that they are not willing to accept the church’s rigid catechism, an educational method that teaches the religious questions and the correct answers. As an educational tool, catechism is outdated and provides no challenge to students eager to question and discuss. Ministers must re-establish themselves among the leaders of the intellectual community.

[2] Churches are no longer leaders in moral and ethical discussions. Young people have grown weary of churches that cannot get past issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Our new crop of church drop-outs is still very interested in alternatives to a selfish, hedonistic society. More and more they are catching on to something I have preaching and teaching for years, namely the unilateral rejection of materialism and the trappings of wealth. Success in life is not defined by how much money and possessions we have accumulated. That type of “success” is only an illusion. Instead, justice, fairness and compassion are high on their agendas, and they are looking for opportunities for public service as their way of worshiping God. Life is all about how we treat other people as well as how devoted we are to serving the less fortunate. Today's generation of young people want to be involved in solving environmental problems, ending poverty and homelessness and their root causes, and in peacemaking. “Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus said, “for they shall be called 'sons of the living God'.” By contrast, pizza parties and rock concerts – techniques that have been used to make churches appear more relevant to the young – are not high on the agenda of young people concerned about society’s deep-seated problems. In other words, too many churches are concerned about the hot-button issues of today, such as same-sex marriage or abortion, when the preachers should be talking about the extreme immorality of war. If the same amount of passion were devoted to protecting and upholding the living as has been said and written about the unborn, the world would be a markedly better place in which to live. As for same-sex marriage, the Bible does teach that homo-or-bisexuality is wrong, but it also warns us repeatedly not to judge other people. I don't hang around gay people, nor do I approve of their “lifestyle” – as they call it – but that does not give me the right to hate gay people, nor is it an excuse to hold them in contempt. “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

[3] Churches are no longer visionary for the reasons I have stated above. They have remained focused on offering rituals and dogma tied to perpetuating theologies that no longer seem relevant to many young people. That's because many of these theologies aren't based on what the Bible says, and can even contradict it, and many people see right through that. Too much religion today is taught from the perspective and viewpoint of the extreme right-wing of American politics, and as before it is a glaring contradiction of the teachings of Christ. If the teachings of Jesus could be compared to modern political ideology, its closest comparison would be to what we call socialism today, a Biblical fact that invariably infuriates the conservative extremists who have invaded America's pulpits. People are figuring out that God is not a republican, and that he never was. For these reasons, churches are no longer significant players in shaping the life of our communities. If priests, ministers and their churches will not lay out what the kingdom of God on earth might actually look like, young people will continue to look elsewhere for other models. In that sense, I am less concerned about the young adults who are leaving the churches than the churches they are leaving behind.

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