Christianism Leads to Atheism
Want to reach the next generation? You can't ignore the role of politics.

As I get around the country there is one question I hear from pastors more than any other: How do we reach young people? They don't need research from Barna, Lifeway, Pew, and Gallup to tell them young people are leaving the church. They see it every Sunday as the congregation gets a little more gray.

But the evidence is mounting that reaching or retaining the young is going to take a lot more than new music styles or even a systematic rethinking of church leadership and organizational structures. There is the larger cultural matter of politics.

An eye-opening article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam titled "God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both," is a must read for pastors. Using research among young adults, Putnam and Campbell ask why the next generation is increasingly identifying their religious affiliation as "none." They conclude that politics is a significant reason. They write:

"The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined."

Their last point is an important one. Those raised in the evangelical tradition under the age of 30 have no experience of Christianity separated from conservative politics–what some are now calling "Christianism." And the most visible Christian leaders in the media for the last three decades have been political activists fighting for conservative cultural causes. A 50- or 60-year-old pastor may have fond memories of the Jesus Movement, campus ministries, or the innovative spirit of American evangelicalism of the 1960s and 70s. But my generation associates faith with Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right, political crusades, arguments about abortion and homosexuality, and a combative posture toward "liberal" neighbors. (I suggest reading Jonathan Merritt's article in The Christian Science Monitor on the impact of the current GOP primary on young people in the church.)

Even for those raised in apolitical congregations, like me, this has been an inescapable part of our experience as a Christian. My college years made this abundantly clear. I attended a secular state university. When my identity as a Christian was revealed to my peers, I often spent the majority of my time fighting the assumption that I was a homophobic, judgmental, Republican, racially insensitive, misogynist. To be honest, I grew so tired of fighting these stereotypes that I was often tempted to "hide my light under a bushel." I was eager to talk about Christ and his Good News, but getting to that subject required crawling through the sewage of so many political and cultural issues that I sometimes concluded "why bother?"

Displaying 1–10 of 35 comments

Matthew Smith

April 03, 2012  7:56pm

"The younger generations, and our culture as a whole, needs evidence of a third way to be Christian. It will require more than individual voices, but an organized and identifiable community of believers that reject Christianism and stands for Christ's Good News, manifested in good lives, and evident in good works." I feel like that statement summarizes it well. I'm a Pastoral Ministries student at a bible college and I can say that I've seen these very same things growing up in the church. It seemed when I was growing up that being a Republican and being a Christian were synonyms. This has honestly led me to shy away from the title of Republican or Conservative for this reason. I can't help but think of homophobia or close minded rejection when I hear those terms. In the same way the secularized church puts a bad taste in my mouth. I can't help but think its an attempt to cover up the foolishness of the gospel, thereby watering it down and minimizing its real power. What I wish the church had was a fierce unyielding uncompromising commitment to loving God above everything and loving others as ourselves.

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March 30, 2012  2:07pm

I do not think that we should "sugar coat" at all. Politics are a major part of this country and the fact is that politics are pushed on youth everyday. Rather than avoiding the subject altogether, we need to, not only show love, but we also need to show a worldview that is Biblically based. We also need to be direct but understanding of where the youth are coming from as well. Churches need to tell the youth that it does not matter what politcal affiliation they or their parents are. What matters is how they are percieving the Gospel and that what the youth believes lines up with what Jesus teaches in the Bible. That the youth are following God in glorifying way and not in a worldly way.

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March 29, 2012  11:42am

Sheer, and don't forget one more essential ingredient to the success of the search to discern truth from error: that being ruthless personal honesty and integrity, or to use a more old-fashioned and religiously loaded term–purity of heart!

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March 29, 2012  1:44am

"I think it isn't true because we have better access to information in recent years, and I'm able to see all the scientific, historical and even logical reasons why it doesn't make any sense." I think you have misunderstood the nature of science, history is more of a courtroom for our species, and logic in and of itself can lead you to all sorts of erroneous ends unless your starting thought is fully understood. I've worked in the pharma and biotech world as a bench scientist for near....geez...since, I really should do something else. Anyway, I can tell you right now that what you call science I, being in the thick of it, often told my co-workers, "is this real science we're doing, or is it faith based science?" In fact, the biases loaded into our scientific method is so overarching that there are papers discussing whether or not our research into our drugs are even accurate because of the biases front-loaded into the drug studies. And so, seriously, I think you should be a lot more critical with everything...not just Christianity, but everything you think is trustworthy is all. Educate yourself, and if you don't know, ask questions. But the most important thing I can tell you, as Christian, a philosopher, a scientist, and a historian (yeah, history, Ancient and Medieval history here) is that you, not someone else, but you, yes you are going to have to do a whole lot of foot work to find the truth. If there is one thing I learned from G-d it is this...information is malleable and easily biased, and thus requires a disciplined individual to sort through the nonsense to get to the grain of information that leads you on to the next grain. The other thing I have found out is that the truth is a tantalizing little tart who darts in an out like a ninja on meth, and just because one corners it in a citadel doesn't mean that that citadel is going to be something to defend all the time...truth is dynamic, and it takes a whole lot of work to tackle it and understand it. Good hunting, and G-d be with you.

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March 28, 2012  6:30pm

SteveM I left the institutionalized form of church but not Christ or the Bible. I have heard what is said to be science and history and logical and found it loaded with assumptions and theories claiming to be fact that are only theories. There are a zillion scientific theories and a zillion versions of history for any number of issues and many of them contradict each other. There are many more being developed every day under the banner of newer truth and enlightenment. But it's all based on an assumption that there cannot be a God of any kind. This is a religion, an issue of faith. Christianity or no christianity, it all requires belief or faith because nothing can be proven. Squeezing the definition of proof to allow many things to be proven that are not proven changes nothing.

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March 28, 2012  4:22pm

I am a Millennial, and I left the church because I just think Christianity isn't true. I think it isn't true because we have better access to information in recent years, and I'm able to see all the scientific, historical and even logical reasons why it doesn't make any sense. No amount of political piety can fix that.

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Chris Hewko

March 28, 2012  12:21pm

The problem is that we think there is only one problem. Our world exists in interdependent systems - like a fish tank. There is a tenuous balance in the fish tank that keeps the fish alive. Bacteria, nitrite levels, nitrate levels, plants, fish food, oxygen and carbon dioxide...all of these in balance. But when the fish start dying everybody wants to think that it is somebody else's problem. The republicans blame the liberals and vice versa. The a-politicals blame both the other two. But it's a fish tank and we are all peeing in the same water. It is just as much a mistake to limit the message of the Gospel to salvationism as it is to turn to liberation theology. As a Canadian, allow me to say gently that the general American view of what makes a Christian nation - or even an understanding of western culture as "Christendom" is partly to blame. The simple reality is that while you CAN legislate morality, you cannot make people moral. You can make your kids to go church, catechism, or AWANA, you cannot make them love Jesus. Far too often our cart ends up before the horse, for true obedience always comes from love (John 14.15). OF COURSE issues like gay marriage and legalized abortion are important! (and Canada is officially a pagan nation that democratically supports both of these things), but if you don't know the LORD that made the rules, all you have is rules. Our failure as parents is when we do not pass on that love and allow for its contextual application as younger generations mature, and instead only pass on our rules. Of course kids hate organized religion - Jesus did too! (not the organized part - the religious part). Many of us think we have won some kind of victory when a law that is passed somehow reflects our Christian ethics. To some degree, when we have prevented the legislation of evil, we have won a small victory. But this does not change people. It does not make people right with God or one another. The problem is that we have missed the point of letting your light shine (as Skye has alluded). If all it means is identifying yourself as a Christian, no wonder we are in trouble. When the world hears Christian - they think Christendom. They don't think gospel. To finish Skye's thought, Jesus said, "in the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Kids see the implications of the Gospel. They are not stupid. What they want to know is how come the stuff that is important to God isn't important to us?

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Jan Brown

March 28, 2012  9:39am

Debbie, you are right. Your post hits the mark in that the generations need to come together. We did benefit from older adults many who took us to hear your concerts. Living in Southern CA in those days was a great blessing! Today we miss out on this benefit when our target group is solely the emerging adult. It is also difficult for the older generation to bless and mentor the younger when they are isolated out to senior status and senior life groups and senior classes. Many long to obey the exhortation to let the older teach the younger. Right now I have three young adults that I mentor, but I had to seek them out. We meet regularly just to hang out and talk. But the most important thing as Debbie suggest is that we do a lot of listening.

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March 28, 2012  8:46am

Thank you, Debbie, for your insightful comments. You have an amazing track record in the baby boom Christian world and many, many people have been blessed by the musical gifts you and your husband have shared in children's musicals. I teach in public school and each year my 4th graders sing your song, "Christmas Is A Time To Love". There is a phrase in that song, " really doesn't matter; let's keep our eyes above, ..." that really applies here. What I love about the gospel is this; the "Truth" is that I am a hopeless sinner who must pay the penalty of death for my sin because I could never do enough good work to cover it before a righteous God. The "Good News" is that I don't have to; Jesus shed His sinless blood on the cross for my sin; paid a debt I could never pay so that I could live and spend eternity with Him. The knowledge of both of these wonderful things has brought me to repentance and faith. I love Jesus because of what He has done for me. Hallelujah, what a Savior.

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March 28, 2012  8:39am

they aren't coming - we have to GO. go to where young people are - any people are who are disconnected from Christ. and then take the long journey of preparing soil - building trust by loving in selfless ways. the writer is right - we don't get to just offer Christ - the soil of hearts has been packed down by years of Christian stupidity. this kind will only come out by prayer fasting. there are no quick fixes. the Gospel is often rejected without our help, but we don't help with the barriers (politics, traditions, hypocrisy, judgmental-ism ...) that we've erected. But first and foremost is this assumption that we have to get "them" to join "us." That's not our task. Our task is to GO like Jesus went and to be a tangible, visible witness to the Gospel by our lives and love. They aren't coming - we need to plant the Kingdom where they are - which means sowing the Seed in places where we've spent all our emotional, spiritual and physical capitol to get the soil ready.

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