American Christianity needs a wake-up call and some new books are giving it. For example, find a copy of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ book, UnChristian: What a new Generation Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters (and settle in for an old-fashioned trip to the ecclesial woodshed). It comes from research done among 16-29 year olds by the Barna Group, for which Kinnaman is the president. Each chapter but the last deals with a particular criticism leveled against the church. Here’s a sample: “judgmental” (no surprise), “antihomosexual,” “hypocritical,” and “too political.” Maybe the most damning of the chapters is, “Get Saved!” (yes, the exclamation point is actually in the chapter title). It shows how we have reduced the Christian faith to a momentary and often fleeting decision associated with an evangelistic invitation. It gives young people the feeling that they’re just notches on our spiritual gunbelts; not really friends or even people, just projects.
Possibly the most important factor in this book is the make-up of those who responded to the questions. They are not the “never trieds” who have had no contact with the church. On the contrary, they have been in our youth groups and our worship services. They know us firsthand. They have actually experienced the judgmentalism and hypocrisy that they name. They really gave Christianity a serious trial-run…and we failed them. The trend among young people, according to this book, is to become more suspicious and distant from organized Christianity.
Since I work on a college campus, I spend a lot of time with young people. Even among the committed Christians, there is a level of frustration with organized Christianity that I don’t think I’ve seen since maybe I was a college student. We Boomers thought we were changing the world, but instead we became part of the system. We therefore have some work to do. For starters, we need to humble ourselves and listen – even if (especially if) what we hear from young people is harsh and strident. Second, we must move over and let young people grab the controls. I don’t mean completely. I’m not calling for absolution of responsiblity. Rather, we need to stand beside and work with young people as we share leadership with them. I’m talking about real change and all change is difficult, even when it is desired.
Truthfully, we need not worry about young people leading the church. Many of the great historic movements of the Spirit have come through the leadership of young people. For you United- and other Methodists, Francis Asbury was 26 years old when he came to America as a missionary and was 39 (maybe 40) when he became a bishop! Modern Protestant missions can be attributed to the leadership of young people. Have you ever heard of the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1810? What eventually became the World Council of Churches grew out of several movements that can be traced back to Dwight Moody’s gathering university students at his Mt. Hermon center in 1887.
I work in a so-called mainline denomination. I’m 53 years old and still considered one of the young ones in the ministry. It’s spooky. Half of our clergy will reach retirement age within the next ten years. We can change the way we relate to young people. We must change. They’re going to lead somewhere and we don’t want to miss it.