Editing the Church

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Today, writing a blog feels weird. 

See, I typically write my blogs a few months in advance. What you read in March I wrote in January or even December. But today, that’s kind of inconceivable.

I have no idea what this world is going to look like in a few months. I’m not even sure about next week. I don’t feel any sense of security or serenity writing about what my outlook on things will be in March as we sit here a few days out of a coup at the nation’s capital. I’m not assuming it’s over. 

Much has been written on the day, and much of it has been stellar. I’m not repeating those analyses.

So today, I’ll move some things around and respond to now, not two months from now.

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My focus, as you know from reading my banner if not my blog, is not on the politics so much is on the church. Not that the former is not important, but the future of the church is the passion that God has given me. What do these unsettling times mean for the church? Most importantly, what does the fallout mean for the next generations of our church? 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be the most devastating event for the American church that we have seen in a very long while. The next generation has seen the church in reaction, and they’re not having it. I don’t blame them at all.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be all that sad to stand at the grave of much that passes for American Christianity. My concern is with the baby that will likely get tossed with the bathwater. The bathwater stinks. It’s filthy. It is in desperate need of change. 

But the baby—the church you don’t see in the cameras—is filled with people who honestly, humbly, falteringly attempt to follow Jesus. They could be the innocent victims of this drive-by disaster. 

Jesus’ church really does have people in it who love him more than they love themselves. They’re just harder to find in the swill and swell of the stinky bathwater.

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God will not suffer. Ultimately, his church will survive. Jesus Christ is King, and that will not change. He does not need us to defend him. He will raise his remnant as he always has. Like Simba, the church that survives will stagger up, blink at the light, and bewilderedly continue in the circle God has started. But it is likely to die, first. 

Four in ten young adults between the ages of 23 and 38 now say they are religiously unaffiliated.

IN a 2017 study, “Political rifts between young Christians and their congregations are growing. A quarter (25%) of recent dropouts said disagreements over their church’s stance on political and social issues contributed to their decision to stop attending, compared to 15 percent

That those rifts have increased with the advent of QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories being welcomed and applauded in the church is clear from a thirty-second perusal of social media. 

The exodus isn’t temporary, as it has been in the past, either. For the first time, young adults are not returning to church when they have families, because they don’t believe they need the church to teach their children how to be good people. That isn’t because they believe God has failed them or isn’t good. It’s because they believe the church is no longer filled with good people.

The people in the church cannot teach their children what they do not know.

While in the past most of those disaffected with church retained their belief in and some relationship with Jesus, that is also changing. 2019 saw the greatest surge in atheism in America. Those who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or”nothing in particular” have risen to over a quarter of the population. The next generation has lost their spiritual community, and with no one to talk with about their questions, doubts, and ideas, their faith has eroded as well. This was inevitable—God created us for community, and we cannot go without it for long without serious effect.

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An Atlantic article explores the sudden sharp decline in American Christianity in the 1990’s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” The last two have complex sociological issues and are fascinating to look at. The first is the important one, for my purposes.

Here are some of the reasons younger generations are leaving the church right now. They are amazingly clear-eyed at the illogic and incongruity they see. These are the things they can’t understand. Church, we have to bring these things they see into the light. face them unflinchingly, and set them right. 

The same people who have told them that men cannot meet with women over lunch because they fear the “appearance of evil” are silent regarding “Jesus Saves” signs next to confederate flags and nooses—unmistakable symbols of white supremacy and lynching. These symbols do not convey the appearance of evil—they are evil. We are to believe Christians can stand next to them and not participate in the stench of their meaning. Yet a male pastor cannot accompany me, a female pastor, to a training meeting because “appearances.” This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who tell them social justice and creation concerns are not the gospel and “just preach the gospel” are very concerned about fighting for their constitutional rights. Also, they don’t appear to know the gospel very well. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who protest that talk of racism is dividing the church will tell them on social media that anyone who votes for a democrat is a baby killer and not a real Christian. We are supposed to assume this is not sowing division but righteousness. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who taught them that “Jesus loves the little children—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” don’t find those children precious when they’re in cages at a southern border. They shrug and consider those precious souls collateral damage in a war against the neighbor we’re supposed to love. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

The same people who counsel them to “think for yourself” succumb to outrageously unlikely claims that fit what they see as a “safe” worldview. The same pastors who tell teens to question what their teachers tell them admonish them never to question the pastors.This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.

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I’ve been an English teacher, a writer, and an editor. I’ve graded hundreds of papers and critiqued dozens of articles. There are two kinds of writing that an editor or a teacher find almost impossible to critique. That which is perfect as it is—and that which is hopelessly bad. 

In the first, we can find nothing bad to say. In the second, we don’t know where to start. We don’t think there’s any way to help the work improve. 

If I critique the church, it’s because I have hope. It’s because I don’t think it’s beyond fixing. I don’t think the people in it, like myself, cannot do better. I believe they, like me, are sinners in need of redemption. I edit with conviction and ferocity because I know we are better than we’ve been. I believe God is working, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, on a masterpiece. 

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2.10
Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

The problem is, sometimes the block of clay God is trying to mold prefers to mold itself into a different sort of creature entirely. One that does not image the Creator. This is when God needs to start over, sometimes smashing that clay down, to re-form it in the way it was meant to be. 

If that’s what happens to the American church, so be it. It needs to be re-formed. I pray that we choose to work with the artist in that reformation. I pray that the next generation wants to come along for that work and join us in it. Let it be a re-creation of integrity, free from incongruity (which others read as hypocrisy). Let it be a church that transparently looks and acts like Jesus. 

We’ll get some things wrong. I have no illusions that we won’t make our own massive errors. We’re all hypocrites, every one of us, preferring to see others more clearly than we see ourselves. That’s why we need one another.

We need to do one another’s critiquing, while we’re not too far gone, and we need to hear the critique of the next generation. As the mom of three of them, I can tell you—they’re pretty smart.

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