Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

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