My friend Bruce shared this article from the leftist The Atlantic on Facebook. It’s written by Larry Taunton of Fixed Point Foundation. Larry surveyed some people who had left the church, and I thought it was worth it to look at this case of Phil.
“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”
[…]Phil was in my office as part of a project that began last year. Over the course of my career, I have met many students like Phil. It has been my privilege to address college students all over the world, usually as one defending the Christian worldview. These events typically attract large numbers of atheists. I like that. I find talking to people who disagree with me much more stimulating than those gatherings that feel a bit too much like a political party convention, and the exchanges with these students are mostly thoughtful and respectful.
[…]A smart, likable young man, he sat down nervously as my staff put a plate of food before him. Like others after him, he suspected a trap. Was he being punk’d? Talking to us required courage of all of these students, Phil most of all since he was the first to do so. Once he realized, however, that we truly meant him no harm, he started talking — and for three hours we listened.
Now the president of his campus’s SSA, Phil was once the president of his Methodist church’s youth group. He loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.”
Listening to his story I had to remind myself that Phil was an atheist, not a seminary student recalling those who had inspired him to enter the pastorate. As the narrative developed, however, it became clear where things came apart for Phil. During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
An hour deeper into our conversation I asked, “When did you begin to think of yourself as an atheist?”He thought for a moment. “I would say by the end of my junior year.”
I checked my notes. “Wasn’t that about the time that your church fired Jim?”
He seemed surprised by the connection. “Yeah, I guess it was.”
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a woman who grew up in a Christian home that was very focused on externals. There was a lot of bullying to get her to comply with expected Christian behavior, although the expected Christian behavior was often arbitrary, and had nothing to do with Christianity and more with just appearing “nice”. There was no discussion of the evidence, no talking through objections. No focus on truth at all. She was always very curious about me, and how come I didn’t drink, and how come I was able to stay a virgin through college, grad school, to the present day when many people who were raised in the church fell away from it in college. My answer was simple. I never grew up in a Christian home so I was never bullied into acting like a Christian beyond what I was convinced of myself. There was no rebellion, I just took my time and proved everything out before I had to act any particular way.
I didn’t ever have to go to church. I didn’t go to church until was comfortable going, and I would say that I still am not comfortable in church – ever. If I felt bored in church, I read an apologetics book, and I did this openly. If I didn’t like the words of a song, then I didn’t sing. I liked to read apologetics books from the beginning, and when I talked to church Christians, I just classified the ones who didn’t read apologetics as non-Christians – as fakes. So I never felt like there was anything wrong with me because I didn’t sing, pray, read the Bible or do more church stuff. To me, if you didn’t like apologetics, you were a fake and you were faking behaviors that you had no way of verifying. Apologetics is the baseline activity of church, and only fakers try to skip over it. From the existence of God, we move on to the accuracy of the Bible, and on to theology, and then and only then do we start the outward behaviors of a Christian. If you skip to the behaviors, that is unnatural – like acting a part of a doctor when you have never been to medical school. It’s morally wrong to try to pretend to be something you are not.
Bruce commented this above the post:
When authentic conviction is lacking in your words and actions–or your “zeal” lacks the requisite knowledge to back it up–your teenager knows it.
Right. Young people in the church can tell when old people are more interested in feelings and posing. All they have to do is ask you how much you have done to study whether the things you believe are true. If you have read more devotional literature than you have read apologetics, then you’re a fraud. And that, more than anything, is what causes young people to step away from a two-way relationship with God.
My friend Stephen Bedard tweeted this, recently:
“Frankly, I find it hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics.” – William Lane Craig
I think you have to blame parents and the pastors when young people reject Christianity. They are the ones who focus on outward behaviors, feelings and rituals instead of frank discussions about truth where reason and evidence are center stage.
It also might also be a good idea to have an occasional sermon on morality, where we talk about how the Bible condemns premarital sex, drunkenness and divorce. Maybe quote some studies on the harm of premarital sex and single motherhood. Maybe talk about how the divorce laws and divorce courts encourage women to initiate divorces. Something practical about moral issues, and not just the ones that are politically correct. We should be speaking out against sinful behaviors. Setting up moral boundaries against hedonism and peer pressure is an important way to protect children, for one thing. And I don’t think that religious liberty can survive in a society that affirms sinful behaviors like drunkenness, premarital sex and divorce as normal. Is there a pastor alive who has ever preached against radical feminism, and how radical feminism caused the sexual revolution: premarital promiscuity, unilateral divorce and abortion?
If I had to rely on deciding what Christianity was from looking at people in the church, or from looking to my parents or peers, I would never be where I am today. I can barely tolerate church, especially the singing. Pastors who assume the Bible is true. Pastors who never connect their preaching to historical context, historical evidence, philosophical arguments or scientific evidence. Pastors who try to make me feel things, instead of engaging with non-Christian critics. Pastors who never mention current events or public policy. Christianity ought to be more like engineering or lab work if you want to appeal to young people – testable, repeatable, practical. Think back to math class, and how teachers would insist that students show their work, instead of just writing the answer down. Instead of just saying “the Bible says”, pastors and parents really need to show young people their work – how did they arrive at their worldview? It’s not respectable to be ignorant about these things – there should be no respect in the church for people who put piety above truth.