Comments 5

  1. Looking back over a life of ample experience with these issues, I do not think most American Christians are focused on trying to “preserve the church” or “to get people to come to church.” Maybe that would be better. What I think is going on much of the time is really an attempt to preserve a particular person or group’s idea of the church and orthodoxy itself. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it depends greatly on how the problem of continuity and change is handled in multi-generational groups like families and churches. Many committed Christian families — and churches too — get by through the careful avoidance of religion, politics, and even “personal matters” in their group conversations. There will be little cliques of the likeminded, however, and sooner or later the dishonest “polite” detente will be broken. If there is a history in the group of dealing with difference through infighting, defections, and splits no one will expect a different result in the future. That generates fear, anger, and despair — all perfectly good reasons to distance oneself from their source.

    What everyone has in common in these situations is that they are intensely afraid of what they perceive as the possibility or reality of rejection, shame, and maybe public humiliation. However the sides are drawn, people feel alienated and threatened. Anger may lead to words and actions that divide and drive people out. The young may tend to be most easily driven off, but so will anyone be who is less invested, feeling vulnerable and piled onto. Sadly this outcome is cheered by some “preservers of the church,” and the Pew report you cite pleases them because they see in it evidence that they are successfully purging the “nominal” or “fake” Christians in their midst. If we would step back and witness the same behaviors in a different group of people in a different non-Christian context, perhaps one where no one is related, what would we call it?

    If you have “party bosses” and “enforcers” in your family or community, everyone knows who they are. Less visible are the walking wounded who have checked out years ago but still keep showing up. Nobody sees the weariness of the “good” (i.e. compliant) person who does all they are asked and prompted to do, wearing a mask all the way through. Those who have reached a point of crisis with the weight of their mask — do you see them? I have yet to meet a pastor who does not recognize all these scenarios as common. But if we check the right box on some survey of religious affiliation, all’s well…

  2. Jason- Thanks for your writing on this important issue. I’m curious for your thoughts on a recent article in The Banner which challenged my thinking and the commonly held presumption that youth are leaving the church (“The Numbers Game” by Jonathan Hill, In the article, Dr. Hill argues that the percentage of all Americans aged 20-29 who affiliate with an evangelical protestant denomination is approximately 20%–the same as it was in 1970 (Hill, Figure 1). He’s goes on to argue that the majority of ‘losses’ in youth have occurred due to a shift from nominal affiliation with mainline protestant denominations, as indicated on surveys, to, more recently, increasingly checking the box marked ‘no religion’ on these same surveys. Hill wonders if the loss of folks who were, arguably, fairly nominal Christians to begin with is as bad as we might think? I’m curious how you think his arguments line up against what you argue here.

    1. Why is it not bad to lose “nominal Christians?” What threat do they represent in the church?

      Let me tell you what being a “nominal Christian” can be like. It is a label put on you by others who want to dismiss you as a hellbound heretic without even knowing you. It is where you are pushed after being raised in Christian communities and families that verge on being abusive. If you grow up Evangelical but simply find you don’t like religious identity politics, biblical literalism, and conflicts between science and faith you may be labelled a “nominal Christian” by those who do like these things. If you are unwilling to speak for God, play armchair theologian, or take sides in issues that divide believers, you have probably been told in so many words your faith is suspect. Possibly some people become “nominal” Christians because they are told that’s what they are — if not worse.

      1. Thanks Carrie. I would go even further and ask what we mean by “lose”. If we see the Christian community as an outward movement than we stop putting conditions on belief and faith. Rather than worrying about whether someone is “in” or “out”, “nominal” or “committed”, we simply carry on with the work of love and responsibility for our neighbor.

    2. Nathan,
      Yes—I’ve seen the same information. I recently gave a presentation at a conference where someone raised a similar point. My work is much more focused on the formative power of the dominant social imaginary in the West, particularly the way capitalism and technology (what one author refers to as technocapitalism) shape our understanding of faith and human identity. My book Poetic Youth Ministry, from which this blog post is loosely based, engages the work of Charles Taylor and Christian Smith as a way to get at the formative grip this worldview has on, not only young people, but adults as well. Smith’s work demonstrates that even those who are checking the “Christian” box in these survey’s are more often than not holding to religious beliefs that are not necessarily grounded in what many consider “orthodox” or historic Christianity. My work with young people in Christian education—both high school and college—has often left me uneasy. We so easily slip into spiritual talk that alienates young people from their own humanity, leaving them with heightened anxiety about their identity and their relationships. While the issue of young people leaving the church is part of this discussion, I’m more interested in the way people are responding to what they perceive to be a crisis of faith. I believe that this provides a great opportunity for the Christian community to have a conversation about faith, Christian community, and what it means to live as human beings in the context of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

      Thanks for your question!

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