Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Youth Yearn For

I’ve already talked partly about why I personally left the church in a guest article on Spritzophrenia, but this time, I want to expand the issue to other closet apostates of one form or another. Many congregations have been losing members, many of them probably around my age or younger. College activities are usually accepted by many members of churches as an explanation for why the youth are busy for at least 4 years of their life apart from church. My own church was like that, though I think I just didn’t have the heart to say outright that I didn’t believe anything about their religion anymore. But after a time, the problem becomes more evident: the youth aren’t busy with other things that keep them away from religion; they just don’t see any reason to associate with a church. Perhaps they still have religious beliefs in some sense, but they merely have disaffiliated themselves from their original community where they learned about religion and our search for meaning. Many youth may very well be questioning the authority of the church in general, not just the value of the community. I myself pretty quickly was discouraged by research and investigation to believe that anything in the Bible in terms of supernatural claims was to be taken seriously at all, especially thanks to Deism. I think I believed a lot of these stories were real as myths; that is, stories that have importance to a group. But I’m not sure if I really ever believed that someone could part the waters or that there were only two people in the world at one point. Sunday school teachers aren’t even entirely the problem, since many of them have other jobs and aren’t equipped with the skills to really teach kids about Christianity in any sense. It’s preachers that seem to not realize what the newer generations actually want in terms of communicating Jesus and God. According to a ten year study by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, only the churches that changed their practices to be more modern and creative managed to retain more congregants over time. My own church, among many in the South probably, are reluctant or resistant to changing their long established ways of using revivals and bare bones methods of communicating concepts and beliefs that seemed normal 50 years ago, but have quickly become archaic in their relevance to the newer generations. If people want to keep church or religion or the supernatural even moderately meaningful to people, they have to stop focusing on what people believe and concentrate on the pursuit of truth in general, which can be done without recourse to a conviction about someone resurrecting from the dead or whether the world was created or came about naturally.

There are any number of factors that can drive young adults from the church, not the most obvious of which is the political and ideological entanglements so many churches get involved with. My own church wasn’t really political as far as I could tell. The other issues vary depending on the person’s beliefs. If you’re more skeptical of the metaphysics and such from the religion’s teachings, then the practice of teaching the Bible as more inspirational than realistic in most circumstances by itself pushes away many kids. Not to mention the other end of the spectrum of strict literalism and young earth creationism that makes those same types of people distrust the church all the more. For those who have some tendency towards spirituality and supernatural experiences, many times the tendency to not instill consistent experiences in the person, through emphasis on contemplating God, can detract from their desire to improve their relationship with the divine. Admittedly this could also happen with very by the book Christianity, when the person being taught sees God in more abstract ways. The political and ideological involvements can also make kids who genuinely see some value in Christianity start to search elsewhere for the message they’ve heard in other contexts, like Young Life or Cru. In this way, those churches who modernize or focus more on the gospel as a call to ministry and worship instead of internal church politics and maintenance of the status quo get more attendance and members, while those that stay rooted in the past without any sense of innovation or change are left to slowly rot away while their remaining membership gets closer to dementia or death.

With many churches, it appears the focus isn’t about the message of Jesus so much as maintaining a business, which is what any such institution tends to be first and foremost, with the ideals a close tie for people’s attention. Either you attempt to maintain donations and thus maintain the influence you have or you focus on trying to teach certain ideals in order to guilt trip so many people into tithing out of obligation instead of generosity of some amount of disposable income they have amassed. Many young people, myself included, want either spiritual fulfillment without the need to feel like they have to conform to a narrow idea of what being religious entails or fulfillment that doesn’t make appeals to psychologically desperate ideas of comfort from a higher power. Both types want fulfillment, but they can find neither in a church that either teaches almost Pharisaic adherence to fundamentalist tenets or teaches ideals and ethics one can find far from the hallowed halls of the sanctuary. That common existential factor is ignored or forgotten by so many adults or seniors who were raised in a different age where Christianity was still very much the dominant tradition and infused in the culture to an extent that people eventually felt the need to change what had stood sufficient for over two centuries to many Christians. When a child thinks that Buddhism or Islam, amongst the various other traditions and worldviews that offer satisfaction in one way or another, could have some kernel of truth in it, many parents would either dismiss it or casually accept it only in part. Dismissal sets a precedent for the adolescent that the tradition they are raised in is xenophobic in nature and acceptance makes for future dissonance when understanding that Christianity makes exclusive claims about salvation. People are said to be saved only through Jesus and more specifically, only through a Trinitarian Jesus. With this in mind, the teen becomes incredulous to the notion that Christianity is actually able to be lived consistently if their own parents don’t demonstrate some sense of conformity to their own convictions they supposedly hold in such high regard. The alienation a skeptical teen feels can make them lash out in resentment that so many of their alleged peers believe things for which they have no proof and only adhere to for social convenience or because they think they couldn’t find such joy in anything else. And so it is through these kinds of practices in many antiquated but barely surviving churches that congregants are pushed away as they go off to college or even before that with inquiring adolescent minds unwilling to accept something merely because it has some dogma attached to it.

What’s more important is that we all seek out answers, even if we don’t agree on what they are. We shouldn’t focus on correct teachings over correct practice, but ideally balance them or focus on behavior instead of nitpicking what everyone believes or doesn’t. Any number of Christian adults strong in their faith can associate and even discuss beliefs with those who disagree with them in many ways. But it shouldn’t just be the common ground they find, but the search for truth and wisdom that unites even very disparate groups, such as evangelicals and atheists. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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