Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church
More than in previous generations, 20- and 30- somethings are abandoning the faith. Why?

In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to "youthful rebellion." Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.

What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are "good, nice, and fair." Its central goal is to help believers "be happy and feel good about oneself."

Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it's one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It's in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn't be surprised to see people of any age walk away.
Powerful and much-needed rebuke to us lukewarm Christians today. But what does it really mean to live the true - and truly fulfilling - Christian life, actually?

I was talking to this sister on Sunday, and she was sharing with me how she has felt like leaving church quite a number of times, because of the half-heartedness that she sees in so many people. She is a sister who sincerely loves the Lord, and has a genuine hunger for His Word, and wants to serve God very hard.

I shared with her my own experiences growing up in our church, and one thing I told her was that when I was younger, I had the misconception that true spiritual progress was that you become a CL, a UL, then a SDL, pastor, and eventually church-planter. She nodded vigorously, and said that she had thought likewise too.

Then she wondered aloud: "What does the Christian life really mean?"

Yes. What the hell is the Christian life all about? I choose that perjorative deliberately, because following Christ has such a high challenge and commitment, that as the apostle Paul wrote (in another context, but I think this statement expresses our feelings accurately): "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

And sometimes, it does feel that we are of all people most to be pitied. We find ourselves having been 'sold' into joining an organization that seems to welcome us into an exciting new life... just only to find ourselves marking time till Jesus comes back a second time or we die and go to heaven. Go through hell in order to go to heaven. Wah. Thanks hor. So we end up living a 'bo pian' existence on earth, and we mark time on the four walls of our church - we prisoners of hope.

Is there any answer to this existential question, actually? I have asked brothers and sisters what do they look forward to in life. They couldn't give me an answer, or even if they did, it did feel plastic and hardly full of zeal. One brother said bluntly, "I will follow Christ more, if I can find another Christian in church who really carries the presence of God in his own life."

(Of course, I write in very broad strokes, and I am sure that you can find plenty of brothers and sisters in our own church who really bloom with life. =) I do, I do. But I have met far more disaffected disciples who started out well, but started going cooler and cooler. I write... because I have been through this, and I hope my own little notes, if the Lord is pleased, will help you navigate the straight and narrow path too.)

In attempting to help others - and ourselves - figure out what the Christian life really means, we have taught at least one of these things to our younger ones:

That we should bearing fruit in every good work (serve hard!)
That we should be growing in the knowledge of God (study God's word lots lots)
That we should be receiving strength from Him to endure patiently whatever life throws at us (we keep on encouraging one another to draw strength from God)
That we should be giving joyful thanks to the Father because of how much He has saved us from. (we remind one another consistently to be thankful, to count all our blessings and so on.)

All these are great. All these are essential. And all these are so important. But... I think we are missing out on the root of all these good things:

"We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way..."

John 17:3 also tells us:
[Jesus Christ:] "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

Read it aloud. What is eternal life? THIS. THIS is life abundant and real: that we may know God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.

But what does a real and exciting life looks like? Well, a life that is fully present. Meaning you don't just go and do routine work day in and day out. Marking time and throwing stones into the water. Not 'sian'. Experiencing the fullness of God in your own life! Seeing Him at work everywhere you go! Joining Him where He is, and hearing His voice bright and clear! Being filled with His power and wisdom and love and strength...

To know God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent, and to know His will. You can't do God's will unless you know His will. And ever since Jesus came from heaven to earth, we are so privileged to not only know His will... but also God Himself personally! "The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

That we Christians today are so privileged. Our Jewish brothers and sisters did not have the privilege to see the fullness of God - "No man can see my face and live..." but now, wow... in Christ, all the fullness of God can be seen. As the apostle Paul waxed so powerfully: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation..."

Yes, this is the meaning of the Christian life: to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.

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