3 ways the Church is failing young people
As brilliant and beautiful as our grace-filled church can be when our congregations are at their very best – whenever the body is healing, building, and actively serving those most in need – there are also several places where Western Christianity has fallen phenomenally short. In many ways, rather than impress upon nonadherents the good things that our religion has to offer, our churches have especially impacted and scarred my generation’s spiritual landscape. Here I’ve compiled a list of three of the ways in which United States church culture often fails its young people:
1. Deifying the Nuclear Family Unit
The idea of the nuclear family as the core, most essential unit of all stable societies was the facile invention of a rapidly booming postwar America, a thoroughly modern idea that our country’s churches latched onto and branded “scriptural” all too quickly. As a result, Christian culture is saturated with “dating devotionals,” Singles fellowships designed for matchmaking, and the steady assurance that “God’s plan for your life” probably means a fast-tracked marriage, mediocre sex, and middle-class suburban comfort.
In a society where so many come from nontraditional families, the Church’s insistence on the centrality of a Father/Mother, 2.5 child, White Picket Fence model strikes out at many with chords of particular pain. So few of us can fit into that mold. Sitting in the pews of far too many churches, I hear only praise of “intact” families, see only their faces lifted up. I’m left staring at faces and families that don’t look like mine, wondering where in the world that leaves me: the multiracial (half-siblinged?) child of a gay parent, the product of a divorced and splintered home. Where have you set a place for us?
I rarely hear sufficient pastoral emphasis on the kind of family that Jesus spoke of when he rejected worldly notions of kinship, insisting instead that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” If the Church wants to be able to speak comfort and truth into the lives of modern families, it must break its addiction to extra-biblical conceptions of what family means in the first place. We need to re-center our perspective on the all-inclusive family of God. We then can begin to reimagine practiced community, not isolated familial fiefdoms, as society’s most crucial building block for forming healthy individuals and relationships. Hey, it takes a village.
2. Asking us to Choose Between our Intellect and the Bible
When I first arrived at the University of Illinois, I took several classes to fulfill my college’s history/culture gen-ed requirements. One of my favorite courses was called Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by this great old beardy-looking European who, looking back, might have been Zeus. I was challenged but intrigued when he asked us to read Ancient Near Eastern creation stories alongside the poem that opens the Bible (in Genesis 1 + 2). Later, I took a religious studies class where under the tutelage of an experienced Bible and Early Church scholar, my classmates and I critically studied the epistolary and gospel texts that informed the lives of the early Christians – writings that eventually came to be known as the New Testament.
When my campus ministry-assigned “spiritual discipler” heard that I was taking these courses, he staged an intervention, ordering me not to take more such classes, lest my high view of the Bible be diminished. When I approached another Bible study leader, an engineer, with questions about evolution and the origins of the earth, he told me that while our planet looked billions upon billions of years in the making, it was really only 6,000 years old – God had made it like this intentionally, to trick unbelievers, to test our faith!
In many circles of North American Christianity, biblical literalism and creationism are so bread and butter to popular articulations of faith that even considering an alternative to these fallacies is inherently heretical. (This is how a guy like me can end up getting called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”) Yet any body that truly believes our Creator intentionally deceives, lies, or declares that humanity’s God-given mental faculties must be rejected is much more Satan-ic than Christ-ian. If the Church wants to recapture the intellectual imagination of its young people – to revitalize a real sense of love and respect for the Bible – our leaders must begin by ending this cognitive dissonance, rejoining our minds and hearts through authentic attempts to synchronize science and scripture.
3. Refusing to Name Abuse
Any case of emotional, spiritual, or sexual abuse that takes place in a faith environment makes an already despicable crime particularly heinous. Scripture itself teaches that not many of us should become leaders, because those who do will be judged much more strictly. Combine this directive with Jesus’ harrowing threat in Mark’s Gospel – “if anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” – and right here you’ve got yourself a damn good reason to make sure your church is a safe place.
While the Roman Catholic church has been visibly rocked by a plethora sexual abuse, in the past year we have also seen stunning revelations of similar evils in Protestant congregations. Two recent examples of this are emerging survivors’ stories of the rampant sexual violence at Bob Jones University and Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). Findings like these are what led renowned sexual abuse investigator (Billy Graham’s grandson) Boz Tchividijian to remark that the current plague of sexual abuse faced by evangelical churches is likely far worse than ongoing abuse in Catholic parishes.
There is no excuse for our collective failure to confront the abusive, patriarchal culture that infects our churches. Yet in a world of celebrity pastors – where individualism, staunch hierarchy, and strict submission are prize virtues – it’s not hard to imagine how sadistic behavior might remain unchecked. We venerate these leaders to a status all but beyond criticism, then gape when pastor after pastor is indicted for spiritually, sexually, emotionally abusive practices.
Among the family of God is perhaps where one should feel most safe; yet for many in our body, the company of Christian spiritual leaders brings not comfort but abject horror. Whenever we as a Church try to wash our hands of responsibility for currents of abuse that persist in our ranks, we are playing the role of Pontius Pilate, working to sever ourselves from whoever the powerful deem crucifiable. But we remain, as one of the great prophets put it, bound up “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Advocating for victims of individual and systemic abuse has to be core to Christian praxis. One would think that a faith tradition begun by sex workers, stone-ers, slaves, and scapegoats would understand that.
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My hope is that this post won’t be received as unwarranted attack against the Church, but as constructive criticism, coming from one of our faith’s fiercest advocates. This tradition continues to be an uplifting and growing and wonderfully inclusive spiritual practice, in so many ways. If the next generation of believers wishes to continue these positive trends, they must speak up and name sin wherever it is crouching – even if it’s right at our doorstep.
What was missing from this list? Anything you would add?