Christianity’s Engagement Problem
Every year, 3,700 Christian churches close their doors forever. The number one cause? Lack of attendance. And as a result of lack of attendance comes lack of funding. It’d be easy to blame modern society and the unwillingness of youth to face their own sins, but the real truth is that young people are perfectly capable of looking at the behavior and attitudes that they see in the Church during every Sunday service and see elements that they don’t necessarily like.
Pastor Josh Cobia is a young pastor who leads Resonate Church on the west side of Los Angeles. This church is primarily attended by young people between the ages of 20 and 30. At 29 years old, Cobia is somebody who people in this age range can relate to, and he has had a chance to interact with young people who have concerns about what they see in the Church. As Cobia indicated to me, young people are perfectly capable of putting two and two together:
“Christianity is too focused on who’s in and who’s out and not enough on JESUS … I think the fundamental problem here is that what young people are hungry for their churches to look more like Jesus. Feeding the poor, loving your neighbor, and helping those who are need. A church with a coffee shop and skate park isn’t necessarily placing those needs first and young people are sharp. They can see that the Jesus they read about in their bibles and the life presented to them through the church just doesn’t add up right.”
Bringing it Back to the Bible
The Bible says that we’re all sinners, and one should not pretend to be any more moral or any less of a sinner simply because one attends church regularly or has a leadership role in their local congregation. Again, it gets back to the problem of how people are treated if they have fallen into a sinful lifestyle, a bad situation, or are simply tempted in a certain way. The Church can best attract young people if it acts more like a sanctuary for sinners who may be ready to repent and join the church and not like a highly exclusive country club that ignores the needs of those who can’t afford to pay the weekly membership fee. That becomes a problem if the Church is too focused on legalism and makes people feel unwelcome. As Cobia put it:
“Some [young people] leave for reasons of justice because of the way they see their LGBTQ brothers and sisters being treated. … If you’re in a church that doesn’t fully embrace who you are, whether that’s because of something you have done, or simply the way you were born, then I would argue that’s not just an issue of bad manners on behalf of the church. That is a straight up justice issue.”
This kind of exclusionary attitude does not serve the Church as a whole and, in fact, can be quite harmful to future attempts at outreach in cases where young people have friends whom they might have invited to church only to find out that their friends aren’t welcome. Their friends might be homosexual, might struggle with hunger or have a dysfunctional family, or might just have a tattoo that regular churchgoers find offensive. Some young people’s parents might even have tried to find help at a charity that is backed by the Church, only to find out that they aren’t welcome because they aren’t Christian. That’s a turnoff for a lot of young people who are capable of looking at the world around them and recognizing that those who don’t follow the Christian faith are people who may need help at some point in their lives, too.
“A huge reason I turned away from Evangelical faith was the emphasis on evangelism rather than service – the view that salvation was more important than “unbelievers” having clean water was highly offensive to me. I think a lot of millennials are very practical people and churches that make a difference in a tangible way are very attractive to us,” said Jade Lenier, an artist, mental health advocate and owner of the podcast The Pep Talk.
Considering the fact that millennials like Ms. Lenier find the Church’s lack of emphasis on service offensive, what can the Church do? Some church leaders argue that the church needs both a more compelling message and a greater willingness to be like what Cobia called “a ragamuffin-radical-rabbi breaking all the rules and pulling apart the legalism.” What people need, Cobia maintains, isn’t “a whole new set of rules.” They need churches who actually follow Christ’s example in a way that turns evangelism into a natural outgrowth of service instead of the whole entire point of having a church in the first place.
This can be difficult, especially when finances are a factor. My last church owned some farmland and its members lamented that the church would be self-sufficient and could have put more effort into charity if it had bought more. The church before that was a small-town church with an aging congregation that wasn’t being replenished with new members. It essentially had to beg for money to pay for a new HVAC system.
However, it does not help to judge potential new members based on their ability to contribute to the church. The last time I saw a homeless man in the church, he sat in the back and disturbed no one. However, there are churches who would escort homeless people out of the church purely because they can’t afford fine Sunday clothes and, at most, can only put two pennies in the offering plate. As Cobia reminds us, this goes against the way that Christ behaved:
“There is a very large church in the town I live in that has security guards out front. It’s always been a really puzzling sight to behold. Who are they trying to keep out? I hate to play the Jesus card again (I love it) but I don’t recall him ever kicking someone out of his gatherings. In fact, even the Pharisees, who were his main critics were welcome.”
The Needs Of Women
Homeless people are definitely not the only ones marginalized by churches that focus too much on legalism and ability to contribute. Women have also felt increasingly disenfranchised by Churches that is intent on promoting a patriarchal hierarchy that ignores what women can contribute if given the opportunity to do so. As Dr. Mimi Haddad of CBE International put it:
“George Barna has shown that church engagement for women has suffered a 20-year decline since 2011. While women have always been the backbone of church life, US evangelicals opposed to women in leadership organized as an educational and advocacy nonprofit in 1987. Their work prompted the largest protestant denomination to remove women leaders from life-long global service while also marginalizing them from leadership in the academy and professional Christian work. Today, evangelical females experience the same rate of abuse as secular females. These are the tragic consequences of promoting a distorted, patriarchal reading of Scripture.”
Women are usually the ones who prepare the after-church soup lunch, who raise money for the church and do the leg work of community outreach, and their needs are too often marginalized purely because they are women. The gospel repeatedly makes it clear that God perceives women as having an important role in the church. On the day of Pentecost, Peter quoted the prophet Joel when explaining what just happened to the baffled crowds:
“Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”
Galatians 3:28 also says this: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Which implies that God does not think women should play an inferior role in the church or even that it should matter whether a Christian is male or female as long as the Christian is filling the role that God created him or her for. And yet, the church often marginalizes both the needs and the role of women, to its own detriment. Young women are perfectly capable of recognizing the unhappy marriages where the woman is expected to remain loyal even when her husband has repeatedly violated the wedding vows he swore before God to “love, cherish, and respect” his wife. Young women are capable of recognizing that women are often dismissed as sluts when they give birth to children that they can’t support, with no responsibility being placed on the men who sired those children and no recourse for women who had no choice about whether they wanted to have children in the first place. And that becomes something that young women do not want to be a part of.
As Sexual Relationships and Faith specialist Kathrine McAleese warns, the church needs to lose its attitude that women are second-class citizens who bear all the responsibility for sexual activity, reproduction, and making a marriage work even when the relationship is not a healthy one for the woman:
“Quit hiding behind patriarchy as ‘God’s plan’. Inequality came with the Fall, not before. … And if the church really wants to get serious about relationships, how about actually thinking through the qualities of a God-honouring relationship, instead of a ‘don’t do it’ version of sex ed pre-marriage and a carte blanche approval of marriages – no matter the dynamics or quality therein. Putting a ring on it is a low bar.”
A marriage certificate is also an extremely low bar for considering what constitutes a marriage. There are hundreds of thousands of homosexual couples in the United States who have a marriage certificate and, thus, are considered legally married from the perspective of U.S. federal and state governments, but how does that tally with what God considers marriage? How does God regard a “marriage” in which the husband repeatedly cheats on his wife, sires children out of wedlock, abuses his wife, and the church still expects the woman to remain loyal to her vows and keep dinner warm for him when he gets home from a one-night stand with a woman half his age? If God wouldn’t look favorably on a marriage in which a man is not keeping his vows, then there is absolutely no reason for the church to do so. And any implication that a woman is expected to remain in an unhealthy non-marriage is going to drive away young women who see that as a sign that the church will completely ignore their needs out of a perception that their situation is entirely their fault when they have a crisis.
Check out what Clayton Jennings has to say about the issue
Children Should Be at the Center — Not Just of the Lessons
In many churches these days, Sunday school is held at the same time as the regular worship service. It’s a way to isolate children so that they don’t disrupt Sunday worship. While it would be easy to yearn for “the good old days” when a church might not have had Sunday school and kids were just expected to behave in church, this is simply one example of the ways that church shunts children off to one side and ignores their needs.
When children are shunted off this way, this has the same effect as making them sit at the kids’ table at a family gathering. Sure, it’s a chance for them to hang out with their peers and not be bored by the adult conversation, but it also teaches them that they aren’t allowed to participate in adult activities. Then they feel awkward when they are finally allowed to join the adults. They don’t know the moves because they’ve had no practice. So it should not be at all surprising that children who have finally been allowed to join the main service often feel like imposters.
A special problem is that children are vulnerable to abuse because they don’t know what their rights are and are usually taught that they should obey adults without question. They may not speak up when they are sexually abused by church leaders because they don’t know that their pastor isn’t supposed to touch them that way or they have already learned that they won’t be believed when they complain about the misbehavior of adults who are in a position of authority in their lives. Then when they get older and realize that their pastor shouldn’t have done that, they no longer feel like their church is a safe haven.
To be fair, pedophilia in the church is not as prevalent as the impression given by the media when it breaks stories about a prominent evangelist or senior church official who committed sexual abuse. However, this does not change the fact that the Catholic Church was badly rocked by the pedophilia scandal of a few years back and this may have been a factor in Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign – a move that was made even more significant by the fact that he is the first pope to have resigned since 1415. While Pope Francis appears to have learned from the mistakes of his predecessor, this does not change the fact that the Catholic Church’s public image was tarnished by its poor handling of the scandal.
The obvious lesson here is that children should be taken seriously when they tell their elders about improper behavior on the part of church leaders. Sinners might be forgiven by God if they repent, but the Church should still not coddle them to the point where it becomes detrimental to victims who are more likely to leave the faith altogether if they feel like they have no recourse when they are targeted by leaders who cannot resist the temptation of being presented with innocent victims.
The real truth here is that the Church is competing for the attention of young people in the 21st century. With the Internet at their fingertips, children have easy access to ideas that often contradict what the Church is telling them. They’ll see that modern Western society demands respect for women, minorities, and the LGBT community. With the Internet as both a tool and a way for children to learn critical thinking by dealing with the mixed messages they will inevitably encounter online, they will inevitably stray if they perceive that the community of nonbelievers is more capable of filling their needs in the here and now than the Church is.
Denise Supplee of Truth United Ministries summed it up this way: “We are in a techie world and for a church to appeal to the younger masses including the millennials, it is important to keep up with the “technology Joneses.” As important as that is, a supportive and truly loving environment is more essential. Providing more than the once a week Sunday service is a necessity in being a true church.”
The challenge is to make the church attractive to young people who live in a world with conflicting messages and who may already be so totally over the concept of authority figures lording it over them purely because they’re bigger, stronger, and capable of unbuckling a belt without compromising the true message of the Gospel. And this point gets hammered home the most by church leaders such as Josh Cobain, who work most closely with the youth and are familiar with their needs.
“Authority is a major hurdle when it comes to change in the church. It’s often abused by the leaders and strikes fear into those who could be making change. We need to do a far better job listening to young people in our churches,” Cobain insists.
When church leaders start listening to their congregations’ young members, they may realize that the fresh perspectives and unique experiences of the youth are exactly what is needed by the Church. Without the youth, the Church will inevitably fade into obscurity at a time when the youth looks around and sees the practical, real world needs that vulnerable and socially marginalized populations have and the media is increasingly capable of using technology to spread news of misbehavior and abuse in the church even faster than was previously possible without 21st century technology.