In the first two posts in this series (here and here), I tried to suggest that, while they are easier to conceptualize and act upon, technological shortcomings (e.g. worship styles, visitor parking, new ministry programs, etc.) are not the main reason people in the 18-35 year age demographic are leaving Churches of Christ. Said differently, you could have Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman leading worship every week along with the best programs and ministries that money can buy, but if you have a church where the message is generic and the atmosphere inhospitable, you are not going to see massive long-term numerical growth among young people. As Mark Love would say, the era of, “if you build it, they will come,” is over – or at least seems to be something that doesn’t really connect all that well with the younger-than-boomers crowd. Keeping 18-35 year olds in your congregation requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume (side note: What kinds of assumptions about a group of people are required for a church leadership to think that this type of approach would be successful? It seems profoundly disrespectful, treating 18-35’s as extended adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments.). In my opinion, retaining 18-35’s will require serious interaction with fundamental cultural dynamics inside the church.
Or as I said in the last post, it’s not about innovation; it’s about identity. And interacting with identity is hard, and uncomfortable. Examining our identity means we might have to change more than the outside window dressings. Challenging our identity means that there might need to be some actual repentance – some turning – in the lives of our churches. It means wrestling with the idea that maybe we’ve been wrong about some things in the past, and in some cases maybe we need to ask forgiveness. It might even mean, in some extreme cases, that our churches as we know them need to die. Try running for leadership, or staying in leadership – or even interacting with leadership – based on that platform. That kind of change is hard. That kind of change is inconvenient, for everyone involved.
Because we are a bit removed from the first post, I think it’s probably important to issue a couple of reminders. First, since we’re talking about statistics, the most important thing to remember is that, strictly speaking, this blog is an n=1. In other words, I’m speaking from my experience here, rather than trying to tease out a statistically valid sample that would make a pollster happy, much less trying to represent this as everyone’s story. Certainly the reasons people leave are deeply personal, and unique. At the same time, my experience, while anecdotal, isn’t exactly insignificant either. I’ve spent a lot of time working with this age group in a pseudo-ministry capacity, and I’ve talked to dozens of people who’ve walked away over a period of ten to twelve years. I may be summarizing here, but there are real faces behind it, and not just mine.
Second, I want to affirm that many of these issues are not only problems faced by Churches of Christ, though we do have our own unique flavors of them. Some of them resonate with our heritage more than they would in, say, a mainline denomination. In other words, I want to make clear that I am not trying to single us out, and point out “all of the things that are wrong with the Church of Christ.” There’s plenty of dysfunction to go around in American Christianity, and I’m just pointing out the parts within Churches of Christ that I’ve either seen with my own eyes, or spoken to others about in detail.
Finally, and I feel this is particularly important given the scope of this post, my intent is not to be mean-spirited or overly critical. It’s hard to talk about leaving a faith tradition without sounding a bit critical, and maybe even bitter, but my intent is to be honest, and hopefully analytical more than disparaging. I am deeply grateful for my heritage, and as I said in the first post I want badly for it to succeed. I hope this may start discussions which can help with that process. Certainly I am not unsympathetic to many of the challenges churches face, and as I mentioned in the first post in the series, I know as well as anyone that there are no quick fixes to these problems. To borrow an analogy from the first post, “solving” these issues looks a lot more like therapy than it does engineering.
And so, what kind of identity do you find in Churches of Christ? If you’re a long time (or short time) Church of Christ member, I’d encourage you to stop, and take a minute before reading the rest of this post, and try to answer the following three questions, first from your own perspective, and then from the perspective of your congregation (think here about how your minister or elders would answer for your church too, if it’s different from how you would answer for your church):
- Who do I/we believe that God is?
- What do I/we believe that God is up to in the world?
- If God is doing something in the world, what should my/our response be to that?
My guess is that if you are a long time Church of Christ member, you probably didn’t have the easiest time answering those questions with something other than Sunday-school responses (“God is love!”). And there’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with Sunday school responses – so long as the quick answer isn’t a reflection of the level of depth behind it. If you had a hard time trying to answer the three questions for yourself, my guess is you had an even harder time coming up with what your congregation’s answer to these questions would be. And that’s really sort of the point. If we as followers of Christ can’t articulate basic identity forming beliefs for our own lives, and if our congregations don’t have these kinds of questions on their radar either (or in some cases, give really, really, strange answers), then it’s not entirely surprising that some Churches are on the path they are. As they say, if you don’t really care where you’re going, you’re certain to get there eventually.
I could talk a lot here about how our fundamental Christian beliefs (or lack thereof) shape our experience, likely more so than the other way around, but this post is already going to be long. Perhaps in another, if there is interest.
So what is the trajectory of many Churches of Christ that worries me, and many other 18-35’s – enough so that we’re willing to get off the boat? I’d like to spend this post discussing four broad areas that for me are the most concerning:
1. Secularization and sectarianism.
I’m more and more convinced that Christianity isn’t appealing to outsiders
not because we haven’t made it *attractive* enough,
but because we haven’t made it *strange* enough.
If you are even passingly familiar with Churches of Christ, you are probably aware that they have a strongly sectarian history. The common view among progressive members (and some more traditional members) of Churches of Christ is that this sectarian strain was a corruption of the early ideals of the movement’s founders. After all, wasn’t one of the original slogans of the Stone-Campbell movement was that we are “Christians only, but not the only Christians”?
In truth, however, the tension between sectarianism and ecumenism has always been present in the tradition, even from its founding documents (Last Will and Testament, Declaration and Address). Even today, many Churches of Christ on the more sectarian side of the spectrum would have no problem affirming Barton W. Stone’s final Item in Last Will: “Finally we will, that all our sister bodies read their Bibles carefully, that they may see their fate there determined, and prepare for death before it is too late.” (Note: A. Campbell makes similar sectarian statements, but is far more verbose about it, leading to difficulties in finding an appropriate quote that doesn’t take up its own paragraph.)
If we’re honest, the sectarian playbook didn’t work so well even in the 1950’s, and it certainly doesn’t work very well today. A world which increasingly places the 18-35 demographic in contact with different ideas, cultures and beliefs renders a posture of, “We’re the only ones going to heaven,” – or even, “We’re the ones with all the answers,” – as strikingly discordant and unsustainable. That isn’t to say that churches don’t exist today which embrace the sectarian history of our past – they certainly do, and ironically my personal opinion is that, for a variety of reasons, these churches will survive longer than churches who have rejected sectarianism in unhealthy ways. But it is to say that strongly sectarian viewpoints are a major turn off for a significant portion of the 18-35 demographic, and churches which maintain a sectarian stance will have increasing difficulty attracting and retaining members.
Eventually, people in churches began to realize that the sectarian playbook wasn’t working, and some of them tried to implement a variety of technological changes to modernize the way the church did business. They softened stances on some traditional hot button issues. They tried to make church more approachable and less formal. They tried to make it more attractive, more “relevant”.
But in many cases, they weren’t really all that careful with how they went about it. It turns out that there are multiple ways you can address the problem of sectarianism, and many churches responded to the problem not by becoming more ecumenical, but by becoming more secular. In these churches, the good news about Jesus became, in essence, one more version of the good life, or simply another path to the American Dream. Teaching about the story of Christ was slowly and subtly replaced by a mix of pop-psychology and self-help, with Jesus mixed in only so much as was necessary to maintain the credible appearance of “church” instead of “social club”. Lessons became not a challenge to find your place in God’s ongoing story, or a reflection on what God has done and is doing, but “practical” five point plans to help believers “get something out of the Bible,” so they could deal with the day-to-day problems they encountered in life.
As Brian McLaren once noted, the contemporary gospel that most churches teach is “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an even smaller footnote about social/global transformation.” This type of gospel doesn’t need repentance. It doesn’t require any change or turning. Most people can accept and believe this gospel just the way they are. After all, if the good news of Jesus means life after death and an increase in personal happiness and success now, with only the requirement that I generally attend church and hang out with people who are like me, sign me up!
The problem going forward, though, is that this type of gospel rings a bit hollow to many 18-35’s. For many people in this group, this brand of Christianity fails, as the quote at the beginning of this section states, not because it hasn’t been made attractive enough, but because it hasn’t been made strange enough. If there’s no tangible difference in the substance of the content I hear at church and at the Kiwanis club (and I’d encourage you to take a minute and look at their values), then why not attend the one where they have pancakes at their meetings (or is that the Optimist club… so hard to keep them straight)? Said differently, for 18-35’s, a community of Christ cannot be simply self-help and pop-psychology with a sprinkle of Jesus on top – they won’t waste their time with something that is seemingly so self-interested and narcissistic – nor can it be simply another philanthropic social club – there are plenty of those with better hours and fewer moral entanglements.
In his book Good News for Anxious Christians, Phillip Cary suggests – and I think he’s absolutely right about this – that a good model for where this trajectory eventually leads a church is the Unitarian-Universalist denomination. Cary: “Once you think that way about Jesus, you lose what is distinctively Christian about Christianity – though you may not realize it for a while. For generations, in fact, many Unitarians insisted that they had a better, purer form of Christianity than churches that were committed to incomprehensible doctrines like the Trinity. … [Today, t]hese post-Christian congregations have arrived at an important level of clarity and self-knowledge: they know now that they don’t want to be Christians anymore, and thus no longer have an interest in claiming the label ‘Christian.’ This really is an advance, spiritually speaking, because now they are in a position to recognize that the call to Christian faith is a call to change their minds and embrace a set of beliefs they don’t already have.”
Let me be clear that this is not just a Church of Christ problem – it’s a problem in almost every denomination, liberal or evangelical. But in Churches of Christ, it seems especially difficult to find congregations which do not represent one of these two extremes.
2. Brain drain.
In our time, by contrast, the popular view
is that the public nature of our witness
can be secured by wearing t-shirts with Christian slogans,
holding up banners with bible verses at football games,
or affixing witty religious bumper stickers to our cars.
If those around us take offense at our witness, however,
it is not because they have taken seriously the import of our beliefs;
they just find us annoying.
– Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom
Are there highly educated, thoughtful, intelligent people in Churches of Christ? Of course. Do Churches of Christ, in general, foster environments that encourage and cultivate highly educated, thoughtful, and intelligent people? No.
Churches of Christ need to be honest about this. We have always been the back-country cousin of the Restoration movement who prided ourselves on being able to get by without those fancy educations that our rich, city-folk cousins in the Disciples of Christ had. As an (admittedly anecdotal) example, take the following comment from a Church of Christ preacher on a blog post I read a year or so ago: “I’m a suburban boy. Never really paid attention much in high school, and I only experience [sic] college for a year. I really don’t have any interest in appearing intelligent, or knowledgable [sic]. Trust me, you won’t hurt my feelings by catching me on some misquote of a man-made book, or anything else. I only have one interest: bringing the lost to salvation. This means preaching the word of God in its sound, and healthy wholeness. … It didn’t take me long to discover your over-complicated interpretation of God’s word. When a guy has to play mental gymnastics with the text, he is up to something. And it’s never any good.”
I will certainly grant that the ferocity of this particular individual’s anti-intellectualism is not the norm. But it is rare within Churches of Christ – outside of the academy, or churches largely attended by Christian College professors – to find places where actual thoughtful discussion happens. It is uncommon, for instance, to find ministers who read books other than generic, mass-market Christian spirituality or apologetics. Difficult questions and different viewpoints are often dismissed or suppressed. “Intellectual” discussions, when they do happen, are largely oriented around proving various arcane doctrinal points (e.g. “Was the serpent in Genesis 3 literally Satan?”), rather than exploring deeper theological realities. Sermons are often preached with seemingly little care given to whether their treatment of the text is accurate. Classes and lessons are distilled into five-point plans or reduced to soundbytes – if they ever progress past the point of softball questions such as, “What does God expect of us?” Issues which ought to be far more nuanced receive a black and white treatment. And so on.
When is the last time you attended a Church of Christ where the ministers or leadership had read – or even heard of – top flight theologians like Hauerwas, Brueggemann, or Volf? Or for that matter, when is the last time you attended a Church of Christ where the ministers and leadership had read top flight classic American authors like Steinbeck, Hemmingway, and Fitzgerald? Before anyone objects, I’m not saying that every person in a church needs to have a Ph.D. in theology or American Literature, or that our adult classes need to slog their way through Resident Aliens and Prophetic Imagination. But my experience in Churches of Christ is that most congregations do not have people (ministers, leadership, or otherwise) who possess the theological, cultural, and spiritual vocabulary necessary to speak meaningfully about the types of issues their churches are facing. And when congregations lack the words and categories to articulate the cultural and theological challenges they face, they become, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, “unscripted anxious stutterers”.
The problem for these congregations, as it relates to the 18-35 demographic, is that our Christian Colleges and campus ministries are increasingly teaching our children how to speak and think about God in terms that are not simply formulaic, cognitive, or experiential. As students who’ve grown up in Churches of Christ leave college, they are increasingly fluent culturally and theologically, yet after they graduate, they find themselves in congregations largely comprised of unscripted, anxious stutterers. Unable to find a conversation partner, our best and brightest are moving to places where their speech is understood and valued, rather than misheard or ignored.
It would be easy to think that the “solution” to anti-intellectualism would be the sort of hyper-intellectualism that is now making its round in some churches. It is not. The problem is not just that Churches of Christ have been anti-intellectual for much of their history, but that anti-intellectualism has been employed to shut down discussion and enforce conformity. Unfortunately, my observation is that the brand of hyper-intellectualism which is replacing it in some churches has much the same effect. We cannot replace a culture which is functionally mute about critical theological issues with one which excludes all people who haven’t read the right authors. I’ll be completely frank here: I don’t know what this looks like when it is practiced properly. But the extremes are easy to find. My prayer is that we will all find the middle.
Members in our churches should not be punished and ostracized for thinking differently, or as is often the case, thinking at all.
3. Women’s roles.
I have heard the bible
and have learned that Eve caused man to sin.
Well, if woman upset the world,
do give her a chance to set it right side up again.
– Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I a woman?
This is the next big issue on the horizon, and it’s going to be a doozy. And to be fair, it’s not just a Church of Christ issue. But it is a Church of Christ issue, and it is a major contributing factor in losing 18-35’s.
Suppose you had a member of your church who wanted to participate and give back to the community. Suppose this person was a trained therapist with a decade of experience seeing couples in therapy, and was trained to teach one of the most respected and well researched marriage enrichment curricula developed in the past twenty years by the person who developed the material. And further suppose this person was willing to teach the marriage enrichment class, for free, to as many couples in your church who wanted to come.
Why would a church say no to an offer like that?
Because the person in the above example is a woman.
Of course, it would be fine to offer such a class if it were taught by a man, or if the woman was married and her husband co-taught the class with her. It would also be fine if she met with individual couples from the church and taught the material in a non-church setting, or maybe if she taught it as a seminar on a Saturday. But it’s certainly not acceptable for her to teach a class by herself, in a church building, during a Sunday morning class time, where men are present, even if she is clearly the most qualified person in the congregation to do so.
Can you see why this might drive some people in the 18-35 demographic a little crazy?
Here is the bottom line: we have encouraged our daughters to go to school, to excel in their fields, and to use the gifts God has given them. They have become doctors, lawyers, judges, and managers of corporations, psychologists and even professors at Christian universities. To cite an extreme example, my sister attends church with a Federal Circuit judge, who, in her professional life, is charged with rendering decisions about the way laws are interpreted in one of the highest courts of our country (she was even short-listed to be a Supreme Court nominee, at one point). And yet, in most churches, she would be told that the extent of her God-given role within the local congregation begins and ends with baking casseroles, organizing the nursery, and mailing sympathy cards.
I want to drive this point home a little bit more: within our fellowship, we are blessed with a woman who has excelled in her field to the point where she may be called on to make decisions about a variety of issues which the majority of conservative Christians in the country consider of vital importance to the moral fiber and fabric of our nation, and indeed the church’s survival (e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, etc.). Most of these conservative Christians would be proud to learn that one of the judges on the bench was a committed Christian, and would hope that her ruling would incorporate her understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is deeply ironic, then, that while the majority of conservative Christians would be thrilled beyond measure if she quoted scripture from the bench during oral arguments, they would be shocked and offended if she quoted the same scripture on a Sunday morning between 9 AM and noon.
We cannot continue to use narrow, misogynistic, black and white readings of what are, in all cases, nuanced and complicated texts as a means to preserve a boys club within our churches. More precisely, we can, but an increasing number of our 18-35 year old women are going to feel dissonance between the positive way their thoughts, views, and talents are valued in the secular world and the negative way their thoughts, views, and talents are ignored or unused in the church.
I recognize that this is going to be a major issue. I also recognize and affirm that there are Joan Brandwyns in our congregations whose desires and ambitions are to excel as wives and mothers instead of pursuing a career. At the same time, spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.
4. Cultural homogenization, and lack of diversity.
The broader point (maybe) is this:
Churches of Christ, as they are at the moment,
are astoundingly bad at successfully connecting to people
even a little bit away from a certain template.
-Seth Martin, fellow 18-35 ex-CofC’er
In many ways, Churches of Christ are insider clubs. We have our own unwritten liturgy, and our own secret handshakes. But even when people have grown up as insiders and know the right things to say and do, they often find that congregations are simply not equipped to deal with them if they are not a “typical Church of Christ” person.
If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people in your life stage. You are, as they say, on the fast track for eldership.
If, on the other hand, you are in the 18-35 age range and you don’t fit this template, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you back on track. If you happen to be single, for instance, most Church of Christ singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because singles’ main goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or women who want to pursue a career and have children, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.
This is problematic for churches, because social trends over the past 40 years show that a) people are, in general, not getting married until later in life (the median age of first marriage increased from 23.2/20.8 M/F in 1970 to 28.2/26.1 M/F in 2010) b) married couples tend to be waiting longer after they are married to have children (average age of first-time mothers increased from 21.4 in 1970 to 25.4 in 2010) and c) couples, even within churches, are experiencing divorce at higher rates than in the past, and at younger ages (64 percent of divorcing women, and 50.5 percent of divorcing men are under the age of 25). In other words, the main characteristic that the 18-35 age demographic in 2013 shares with the 18-35 age demographic from 1973 is age, but almost everything else has changed. In spite of this, the broad message Churches of Christ continue to send to this demographic is that if you aren’t happily married with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.
Ironically, a survey of members of Churches of Christ isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most Churches of Christ would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy.
Unfortunately, this can quickly become a self-reinforcing narrative. People who “fit” this narrow profile in Churches of Christ find them to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding. But people who, as the quote above says, are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives do not fit the common pattern.
Worse still, this becomes a positive feedback loop. Why should we focus energy and effort on singles when so few of them attend our church? The majority of our young couples have children, and would really benefit from a parenting class, but we don’t have enough classroom space or teachers to dedicate a class to young couples without children. Why don’t we have two classes for parenting (one for parents with young children, one for parents with children in the youth group), and then one class for anyone who doesn’t want to attend a parenting class? And we wonder why people who don’t fit the template feel like they are less important and don’t “belong” in the life of the church.
I understand that there are real and practical constraints on resources within churches. I get that finding classrooms and teachers is hard, and particularly if your church has less than 1,000 members, maintaining a critical mass of people in all of these life stages is a real challenge. I understand that all churches have to make choices about where they are going to focus their effort and attention. My observation, though, is that almost all Churches of Christ focus on the same life-stage demographic of people, and try to “fix” people who aren’t in that life stage to get them back on track.
If church leaderships only “accentuate the positive” and “focus on what’s ‘working’, so we can do more of that”, instead of asking why 95% of participants in classes/ministries/programs fall into the category of “people with children” and “people who would be here even if the building was on fire”, Churches of Christ will continue to become less diverse. Moreover, not only will they not attract people who aren’t in those two categories, they risk losing the 5% who still remain.
In my next post in the series, I’d like to give a couple of perspectives on how the world in general has shifted, and what that may mean for churches going forward.