A LOVE SUPREME

I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Exodus

"If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." --1 Corinthians 13

I receive regular email updates from a Christian organization that is dedicated to Christian apologetics and teaching "the Christian Worldview"....or at least their particular version of it!

A recent post by Brannon Howse, We Must Reclaim the Church Before We Can Even Begin to Reclaim the Culture, extols the virtues of a new book by Ken Ham, Britt Beemer and Todd Hillard entitled, Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. The book takes note of the mass exodus from the traditional, evangelical church. The reaction to the "crisis" of young people leaving churches is not a matter of debate: "The answer to this crisis is Biblical worldview and apologetics training."

As one who has extensively studied Christian apologetics and a "biblical worldview," I would like to say a few words regarding modern fundamentalist Christian apologetic movements. It is a simple truth, but one that obviously still gets missed in some circles: you can't brainwash yourself into genuine faith. At least Brannon Howse is honest with us. He believes that all you have to do to keep people in churches is to give them the right "training." It actually sounds quite creepy, like the next step might be to fly the whole group down to South America and establish a paradise for Christians who have "the biblical Worldview."....my apologies as I digress a bit into sarcasm and satire, but there is an important point to be made. People cannot be "trained" to have genuine faith just by giving them the so-called "true worldview." I can testify from personal experience that it doesn't work. Several years back I found that the more I digested and devoured Christian apologetic books, the more I found a growing spiritual emptiness. In my soul I was sincere in my quest, and in the process I was learning. And I would even say that I was in some sort of process of spiritual growth. But there was something deeper that was telling me that it was time to move on, to expand and explore. Having a true "biblical worldview" wasn't The Answer or The Truth.

Then I found that the whole idea of one biblical worldview is itself a very disrespectful way to approach the Bible. The Bible does not present itself to us as a worldview textbook. It is true, that it is possible chop the Bible up, pull out verses here and there, and assemble a grand systematic approach to the world. But as I engaged the text itself, in its original languages and in some of its original settings, I found that Scripture is a collection of highly diverse texts, with a wide range of genres (some that are even original to the Bible itself), written by many different persons over a long period of time. Gradually I realized how un-systematic the Bible was, and I was able to relax, which opened up the Bible to me in a way that renewed my faith and pushed me forward.

This is not to undermine the process of thinking.

The life of the mind is important, critical even. What we think, the beliefs we hold, our philosophies and perspectives on what's going on in the world--all of these are crucial. We are not other-than our minds. Just like we are not other-than our bodies. And yet we can't bet the farm on one Absolute Truth, one so-called "biblical worldview." That's not the way our minds were meant to work. They were meant to be used to develop discernment for the perspectives of others, to learn to listen well, particularly to the voices of the poor and oppressed. To be truly wise.

I see an irony: "Training" the minds of the young to believe that only one perspective has all of the answers actually produces mind-less-ness. The healthy mind is active in engaging other perspectives, not for the purpose of proving one's own perspective but in order to learn and grow.

Let's bring this discussion back to the mass exodus.

"Training" the minds of the young is not the answer. But more modern, American methods of evangelical church aren't really working either: Churches are modeled to look like coffee houses, big bucks are spent on youth group pastors and youth group programs, nifty upbeat sermons are designed to be "relevant" by tying in a theme with the latest and most popular Hollywood film releases (I remember a sermon series about "being like Neo and getting out of the Matrix of 'the world'"), worship bands with pop worship sounds and smoke on stage, etc. But all of these cool and hip upgrades don't seem to be saving our souls. In addition, I have to agree with my fundamentalist brothers in their criticism of the contemporary church scene: it seems to be a watered down version of faith. High on hype, low on substance.

Even though the contemporary evangelical church manages to stay afloat during this mass exodus, there is still the sense that it isn't doing any real, substantial good--that it isn't producing genuine transformation. It starts to feel like spiritual fast food: do the drive thru and grab a snappy sermon with a side of Jesus music and slurp down a latte while you chat with a few folks in the lobby before you go. The contemporary church scene seems to be a spiritual support group to aid and abet the status quo culture of the white American middle class. In short, to me there is this pervasive feeling of spiritual narcissism. Church begins to exist as a therapeutic aid to our modern American lifestyles: the odd and remarkable blending of our puritanical work ethic with our superficial consumeristic drive to buy more and more cheap, disposable goods.

So, what of the mass exodus?

The post by Brannon Hows summarizes (from the book he is reviewing) the statistically-supported characteristics of this flight from Egypt:

A mass exodus is underway. Most youth of today will not be coming to church tomorrow. Nationwide polls and denominational reports are showing that the next generation is calling it quits on the traditional church. And it's not just happening on the nominal fringe; it's happening at the core of the faith.

Only 11 percent of those who have left the Church did so during the college years. Almost 90 percent of them were lost in middle school and high school. By the time they got to college they were already gone! About 40 percent are leaving the Church during elementary and middle school years!

If you look around in your church today, two-thirds of those who are sitting among us have already left in their hearts; it will only take a couple years before their bodies are absent as well.

The numbers indicate that Sunday school actually didn't do anything to help them develop a Christian worldview...The brutal conclusion is that, on the whole, the Sunday school programs of today are statistical failures.

Part of the concern is that the mere existence of youth ministry and Sunday school allows parents to shrug off their responsibility as the primary teachers, mentors, and pastors to their family.


A few things intrigue me. First, that the young are spiritually checking out at a very early stage. They will go through the motions, but they are only biding their time. Also of interest is that Hows used "heart" language. "If you look around in your church today, two-thirds of those who are sitting among us have already left in their hearts." Right. I agree. It's not a matter of "training" people's minds to think correctly. The problem is a spiritual problem, a lack of depth and meaning in the church itself. Like so many American made products and services in this disposable society, churches appeal to the superficial rather than engaging the deep and stirring something more fundamental than emotion, rationality, or social networking.

My general feeling is that the mass exodus is a good thing. There are those who wish to stay in traditional churches, and I certainly do not wish to disparage these efforts. Truly. I do not mean to suggest that there are not deep evangelicals. There are. But even they are often quite frustrated by what is going on around them. Kudos to those of you who are staying in traditional churches and trying to tap into something deeper. I support you.

However, for many of us, the call is to pack up our travel gear and head out, searching for something deeper and cultivating the calling that we see before us in our own souls.

This is the pilgrim's path.

The bottom line is transformation: are we tapping something genuine and life changing within us, a deeper encounter with self, God, and the world that leads us to make a real difference in the lives of others.

"You equip yourself for transport, then wait to see what happens. Use the things you find around you to assemble a rudimentary shelter. Experiment with ways of distinguishing food from poison. Allow yourself to become a gill-breather. Experience moods that have no names." (p. 73 of John Doyle's The Stations)

“On just about any dimension you can think of, humans tend to clump together. Go farther and farther away from the center and you see fewer and fewer people. It’s hard not to see evidence of some sort of force at work, pulling everybody toward the center. Maybe the force emanates from a particular point in the world, like gravity, pulling people in. Maybe it’s a force that’s embedded within individuals, impelling them to move toward each other....But what about the outliers, the people who resist the pull to the center? Do the outliers lack the normalizing force within themselves? Do they try to huddle with the masses, only to find themselves drifting away? Do they float effortlessly above the pull of gravity? Or do they exert a counterforce that drives them out of orbit? Maybe the outliers are already moving toward what’s destined to become the new center of gravity, and the rest of us will eventually find ourselves being drawn toward them. For good or for ill. (p. 47)

23 comments:

Melody said...

I think the reason that people, usually older people, think apologetics will keep their kids in church is that it kept them in church.

My parents are a prime example - my dad became a Christian when his mother switched from one that wouldn't/couldn't answer his questions and concerns about God to one that put an emphasis on apologetics.

My mom was an atheist until a series of discussions with some friends (including my dad) and some other discussion with her father (also an atheist) convinced her that Christianity made more sense.

So for them, that's the key.

But, you're right...it's a heart thing, not a head thing. And ultimately only God is going to interest people in God. And that's not something that can be conjured up with a good curriculum or a "relevant" worship service.

I think maybe one of the biggest things that actually cuts kids off from God is that adults have these lists of answers about God and what God wants and what the Bible means and so...kids can go through their entire childhoods without ever asking God what God thinks.

And it just becomes about what the adults at church think and not about God at all.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

Thanks for the insightful commentary. Real and deep intellectual engagement is truly an important element of our personal growth.

Question: Do you still work with the young (junior high)?

What are some of your thoughts on the mass exodus? Do you see kids "checking out" at a young age, just biding their time until they get old enough to be on their own and ditch church?

I'm curious as to what you see.

Melody said...

Yeah, I still work with the Jr. Highers and of course this issue is something we (the leaders) discuss from time to time.

There are definitely kids who are already gone in spirit. There are kids who have told me they want nothing to do with youth group, some have dropped out, though none of them have given me specific reason why, they "just don't like it."

Some of them are bored, some are down-right hostile to any discussion of God, especially if it involves love or compassion - which I find a little baffling since those are the aspects of God people in general are most open to.

The big connection I've noticed is that kids who have loving parents who love God are the most likely to be involved in church and care about a relationship with God. The kids who have a bad relationship with their Christian parents are the most likely to not give a flying...whatever.

I've been working with kids since I was in the sixth grade (there weren't any other kids my age at church, so they treated me like an adult) and the same thing is true of almost all of them.

I used to worry so much over the kids at church because our church sucked and I didn't see how anyone could learn to care about God there. Well, they couldn't. But the kids who had parents who embodied the love of God - DO love God now as adults.

There's a bit in Anne of Green Gables where Anne scandalizes Marilla by saying she's never cared for God since someone told her He made her hair red on purpose. But Marilla realizes that Anne can't know anything about the love of God since she's never had it translated to her in human form.

And I only have my experience to back this up, but I think that what parents and the church fail to realize is that there are a lot of kids who have never seen the love of God in their parents. So they walk away.

For all the emphasis my parents put on theology and apologetics the biggest thing I remember about my childhood is that my parents LOVED God and it affected every area of their lives.

I think that's where it's at. And, in youth group I try to love those kids as much as I can, but I have sincere doubts about how much that can make up for disconnected or emotionally negligent parents.

Which I guess means it's a good thing that ultimately God's the one who sorts all this out and draws people to Himself.

amy said...

My sister never saw the love of God in her parents, and she walked away. I understand why, and at this point I support her.

I never saw the love of God in my parents, and I stayed. But I can't really tell you why. I have no reason to stay, other than that I know it is right for me, and I love God, so I do.

I'm not sure what this proves. But there are no absolutes. Even we who have been wounded by God's agents can make conscious choices, and some of us still choose to love God despite the way his people behave.

For what it's worth.

Melody said...

Sure. For every trend or tendency there are people for who it isn't true.

That's just something I've noticed with the kids I know and it isn't true of every one of them either. Plus it's specific to that age range. It doesn't explain people who lose interest in college or later.

john doyle said...

I'm an atheist (with room for doubt), while Anne (my wife) is a believer and active in her church. Our daughter, now 16, has been to church only for special occasions. Her words (I just asked her):

"I don't believe in God. I have a good relationship with my atheist parent and with my Christian parent. I don't think it has that much of an impact one way or another on what I believe."

Melody said...

Yeah, my observations are exclusively about kids who grew up in the church. And of course there are a huge number of variables there still - the parents thing is just something I see all the time.

john doyle said...

Fair enough, Melody, since church kids is the subject of the post. I just thought I'd toss in a member of the unchurched kids. If Anne and I were both atheists, we could contend that since we've had a loving relationship with our daughter she's stayed atheist and hasn't made the exodus into church. But it's a "mixed marriage" so it's harder to make that argument. I wonder if she'd have been a believer if Anne had made her go to church, youth group, etc. when she was younger. Anne wonders this too, of course.

samlcarr said...

Melody, in my teens (gen X?) I could never figure what my parents found so attractive about church. Ours was a more formal setup where the ritual seemed to be of greater importance.
It wasn't till I got into college and joined a different church, one generally considered 'alive', that I felt any sense of belonging; friendships blossomed, there were plenty of fascinating young ladies to date AND there was lots of 'good' teaching.

But eventually, I realized that it was still very different from what the bible seemed to be saying, both about being children of a loving Father and of how we were to relate and what we were supposed to be up to be doing in "the world". Now, the very exclusiveness has become offensive to me.

My son is 17 and a regular church goer, though I don't get the sense that he gets much meaning from it. He goes coz it makes his granny happy. My daughter, now 21, enjoyed her youth fellowship and seems to have a strong personal relationship with God, yet has moved away from the church-youth circle. She says it was just too shallow and social in orientation. But I'm talking about a culture here in a rather modern Indian city, The parallels are interesting...

Tamie said...

Great comments, Melody. I really appreciated what you had to say.


(I liked the blog post too, which I already told him privately....but maybe I'll have more to say in a while, when it's all sunk in.)

Kellsotr said...

I printed out this blog post and used it as the basis for discussion in our sunday night life group at church, along with the original worldview weekend article. It spurred some intense discussion from a lot of parents on what we can do as parents and as a church community. It was a good time.

lori lls said...

Jon, I hope you don't mind that I am posting a link to this entry on the blog of our little home church / small group.

Thanks so much for writing it.

How deeply it resonates with me, your note that groups teaching "the Christian worldview" are indeed teaching their VERSION of it. This must be due, in part, to the great chasms that exist between various christian sects and denominations, and also due to the general empathy among many evangelicals toward church history.

Ivan Kauffman grew up Mennonite, but in his youth was troubled by the legalism he witnessed and the extreme efforts to maintain the group's status quo rather than to remember the dreams that first inspired the movement. He contributed to the book, *School for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism,* and we read some of his chapter tonight (which reminded me of your post):

"We did not know it but we were repeating a pattern that has recurred throughout church history...we had no way of knowing...since we were cut off from the church's past. We were so sure we were right that it would have seemed dangerous to learn from other Christians - either those now living or those who had lived in the past."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Kelly,

Very cool.

I would be interested in what came of the discussion, if you get a chance to keep us posted.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Lori,

I am really down with the New Monastic movement. Tamie and I have even been kicking around the idea of visiting some Neo Monastic communities. There's a few very interesting projects on the west coast. A few groups in Los Angeles are living in intentional community, helping to restore the neighborhood, and building meaningful relationships with the economically disadvantaged local folks.

This kind of thing seems to me like the true embodiment of Christ's body on earth.

The more that Tamie and I work at the local jail, the more we see first-hand how little chance so many of the prisoners had in life: they come from poor, unloving families. No surprise they turn to drugs, alcohol, or crime. So, the real work against evil is not to sit back and judge the world as "sinful," but to engage the poorest and least fortunate.

Dan Lowe said...

Jonathan, I found your blog via some friends in Montana. Interesting post; although, I admit I skimmed it a bit...LOL...quick question:

In regard to worldview, I agree that there does not exist a Christian worldview; however, have you considered the idea(s) of a "biblically informed worldview?"

The worldview discussion can become quite the slippery slope; though, that probably depends on one's perspective on what the Bible is. The slippery slope becomes the place of worldview in relation to Scripture. How do you see the relationship between worldview and Scripture playing itself out in terms of ethics, morals, behavior, etc. in your own culture, which I'm assuming is a Western one, as is my own. How do we determine the relevancy of a Hebrew worldview (which, aside from Luke, is the primary make up of Scripture) and how Scripture came out of that in relation to our own Western worldview, which barely relates to a Hebrew one (Hebrew = wholistic; Western = dualistic)?

Anonymous said...

All these "righteous" true believers pretended that somehow they can "reclaim the culture"!

Which also implies that they alone know what is good for everyone else.

Meanwhile all of the Sacred Texts of the entire Great Tradition of Humankind is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. AND every possible philosophical point of view too.

Meanwhile every child is bombarded 24/7 by the propaganda of the TV virtual world in which they now "live". There are even cable TV channels specifically targeted at TWO YEAR OLDS.

Jesus has become just another consumer product to console the consumer ego, created in the image of TV.

TV now rules to here!

john doyle said...

Kids who grow up in Hindu households and communities tend to stay Hindu. Is this because good Hindu parents show the love of Vishnu to their children? I suppose if you believe that "God is love," then we got to let love rule, regardless of what name we assign to love.

There's some pretty compelling empirical evidence supporting the idea that it takes a village to perpetuate cultural norms. In traditional societies, parents are nearly interchangeable carriers of the traditions. Anonymous has a point: the walls of the villages are crumbling, making every religious tradition increasingly accessible. That doesn't necessarily mean that people will now be freed from superstition and choose truth and love. After all, people choose Britney and caffeine-free Diet Coke.

Oh and Erdman, do you think that my "coming out" as atheist will adversely impact sales of my books in the Christian bookstores? I'd like to point out that the passages you quote from The Stations toward the end of the post don't signal a wholehearted celebration of individual freedom. It's not that easy, not that clear-cut. Plus it's a novel, not an allegory like The Shack -- stories don't always reach an unambiguous conclusion and a take-home message.

Tamie said...

Doyle~I'd think that your coming out as an atheist might prompt certain people to want to buy your Christian-bookstore book all the more.

People who really understand literature understand that the author is separate from the characters he writes, and even separate from the narrator, and that he may or may not agree with any of his characters! Although, I think it's also true that authors can only write from what they understand, so there are certainly similarities between what characters believe and what the author believes!

Anyway, just puttin that out there.

When I was critiquing in The Shack, I felt comfortable saying that the views expressed by many of the characters were the view of the author, because the whole thing just had that feel. It's like a long tract or something.

Tamie said...

Doyle~I'd think that your coming out as an atheist might prompt certain people to want to buy your Christian-bookstore book all the more.

People who really understand literature understand that the author is separate from the characters he writes, and even separate from the narrator, and that he may or may not agree with any of his characters! Although, I think it's also true that authors can only write from what they understand, so there are certainly similarities between what characters believe and what the author believes!

Anyway, just puttin that out there.

When I was critiquing in The Shack, I felt comfortable saying that the views expressed by many of the characters were the view of the author, because the whole thing just had that feel. It's like a long tract or something.

Jonathan Erdman said...

If I were in a Christian book store, I would be more likely to buy a Christian book if it were written by an atheist, but then again, I don't shop in Christian bookstores.

For me, John Doyle, it has been refreshing to hear your atheistic perspective on Christianity. I think if we can assume a stance of humility, then we can learn from all, regardless of their particular tradition, set of beliefs, or worldview.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Dan,

Your question is a good one. I think having a biblically informed worldview is a fair position. But within the Bible, I think it is clear that there are many different views of the world. For example, their is a particular view of the world in the book of Proverbs, which aligns with the wisdom tradition. The book of Ecclesiastes, however, seems to be written from a different view of the world, one that undercuts the stability of the wisdom tradition. That's one example. There are other, more subtle examples.

I think if we stir up the differences in the Scripture, then it will prove a more fertile ground for cultivating personal growth and dialog. By recognizing the beauty in the diversity of the Bible, perhaps we can greater appreciate the differences that mark our humanness.

Those are a few, first thoughts to this issue, Dan. I've been kicking it around a bit, since I saw your comment last night.

Melody said...

Doyle,

It's a completely different culture and religion. One I know next to nothing about, I really couldn't comment on why Hindus stay Hindu.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Doyle,

Your comments remind me of Wittgenstein and language. The language used to describe God in a Hindu culture is different from that used in a white, Protestant setting, which is different from an Islamic community.

It seems to be the language of a community that determines our conception of the sacred......goodness...this may require another post.