[Note: This post has attracted a surprising amount of interest, which caused me to reread it and discover, to my chagrin, that it was full of typos and grammatical errors. This is a slightly revised and edited version, reposted on 10/18/06.]
Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers is a story in today’s New York Times.
Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.
At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.
Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.
While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.
According to the article, most of the evangelical leaders blame the temptations of the liberal, secular culture.
I suspect, though, that the (supposedly) easy sex and drugs out there are not the main reason evangelical churches aren’t holding on to their teens. Most evangelicals churches I’ve attended, and the ones I watch from time to time on television, focus on what might be called “what God can do for me.” Accept Jesus as your savior, and your emotional problems will be healed, your physical ailments may be cured, and, most importantly, you’ll make more money! God favors “His people.” The ones who have become registered (so to speak) born-again-Christians at a public altar call—those are “God’s people.” Everyone else—well, they’re just not God’s people.
And then there’s the demonizing of gay and lesbian people and other sexual minorities. If there’s one thing being a teacher and a parent has taught me, it’s that teenagers, while lacking the maturity that making mistakes brings, are also much less encumbered by prejudices and stereotypes. Teens being brought up in evangelical churches are meeting more and more openly gay and lesbian friends and teachers and parents of friends, and they see that on the whole we are kind and loving and good people.
These teens see their churches practice a sort of selective fundamentalism: a small handful of out-of-context passages used to condemn gays, while explicit prohibitions against divorce, for example, are rationalized away with a “these things sometimes happen, sadly” shrug. They see the complete and dangerous folly of abstinence-only sex education.
They see, just as those outside the evangelical/fundamentalist culture do, the hypocrisy of self-righteous moral champions who have had divorces, affairs, who are emotionally abusive to their spouses and children, who suffocate their kids with impossible-to-live-up-to rules and regulations, etc. One of the great tragedies in my town is a conservative pastor’s son who has a severe drinking and drug problem widely discussed by his friends, yet evidently ignored by his parents (how would it look if the pastor’s son was acknowledged to have a drinking/drug problem?), and which, judging from his father’s bizarrely angry behavior at soccer games, in all likelihood stems from a home environment if not emotionally abusive at a minimum emotionally oppressive.
Virtually evangelical adult I know, and there are many I know and like and even love in many ways, has a “Christians are better than other people” vibe; one that’s often smug. If your family is “Christ centered,” your kids won’t get into drugs and drinking and sex. And so if they do . . . deny it. I can understand why a conservative pastor would go into denial about his son’s problems; it would seem to undermine everything he’s been preaching about Jesus the cure-all, Jesus the problem-solver, Jesus the ultimate “fixer” for “His people.”
I had a conversation today in which an evangelical acquaintance explained to me that her sister-in-law (whom I know), who has bipolar disorder and anxiety/panic attacks, and is recovering from growing up in an emotionally abusive alcoholic household, simply needs to stop taking her medications, turn her life over to Jesus, and all will be well. It reminded me of my evangelical uncle who once sent a letter to the entire family explaining that my drug-addicted, mentally ill cousin should accept Jesus and he would be healed.
As far as I can tell, what the historical Jesus taught was honesty, love, forgiveness, and justice. I was at one time a “born-again” Christian and in many ways still consider myself one, although my theology has become so progressive and interfaith that I’m not always comfortable calling myself Christian.
But one thing keeps me thinking of myself as a Christian. The message of forgiveness, and the call to be kind to each other. Jesus understood that we are all fucked up. We all “sin.” We all do less than we could. We get angry and jealous and petty and we cheat and steal and do things we are ashamed of. Most of all, and worse of all, we are almost continually and inescapably unloving to others, often to those whom we love and who love us the most. And yet God–whoever or whatever God is–forgives us and loves us anyway, and calls us to forgive and love each other. Anyway.
In my limited experience of other religious traditions, I haven’t found this expressed in the same way; I haven’t found to be the core message. But this simple, profound truth, that we all screw up, and the only answer is forgiveness and unconditional love, rings so true, proves itself over and over in my life, that if there is any tradition I can identify with, it’s the Christian one.
Being a Christian, as I understand it, is not about being or becoming better than other people. It’s about accepting that I can’t be better or superior. And that I don’t have to, or need to, try. I’m flawed. I’m weak. I’m human. To be a Christian, in this sense, is about being able to be honest about my flaws and weaknesses and the bad things I do, and to be able to admit my errors to others, and apologize when necessary, and to do what I can to make up for damage I cause. Because somehow I am loved and forgiven anyway. That experience is so profound, so joy-giving, that it makes me want to extend that love to others. And as my life becomes more about forgiving and loving, I find I’m a more positive presence more often.
There’s a smug-sounding bumper sticker I see occasionally: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven!” And the implied, “and non-Christians are not forgiven, so I, a Christian, are better off than you,” comes through loud and clear.
There are Evangelicals who are not on a God-loves-me-more-than-other-people ego trip. There are Evangelicals who understand that they are as screwed-up and sinful (I word I’m not entirely comfortable with but since it’s part of Christian vocabulary I use it for this discussion) as everyone else. And who get that having had a born-again experience doesn’t give them license to judge everyone else.
But they seem to be in a distinct minority. The overwhelming number of evangelicals seem to take the attitude, “Jesus died so I can tell you how to live.” Jesus died for my sins. I’m forgiven and going to heaven. And guess what? All your problems? Just accept Jesus as your personal savior and poof! your problems will vanish. Bipolar disorder? Gone. Drug addiction? Gone. Not going to accept Jesus? How dare you! Well, we the members of “God’s people” will tell you how to live. And as the “God’s person” with whom you are interacting, I will tell you how to live.
Well, having as much admiration for teenagers as I do, I’m not surprised that so many of them are turned off by evangelicalism as it is so widely practiced today.
One of the great tragedies of our society is that there’s not much of an alternative. The mainline, moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches with which I’m acquainted tend to have services as stultifyingly boring as evangelical services can be emotionally overwrought and manipulative. Mainline Protestants tend to be as hypocritical as anyone else, talking about conservative evangelicals–as people–with disdain.
Which may be what I’m doing here myself. The disdain, the contempt, that can creep into my being—that I’m sorry for. I’m no better, and no worse, than my “I’m-part-of-God’s-people-and-you’re-not” friends and neighbors. Life can be impossible to deal with, and what seems to me to be an evangelical fantasy is an attractive refuge.
But fantasies are fantasies. And teenagers are pretty good at spotting bullshit, no matter how well-intentioned and genuinely convinced the bullshitters are. And so the fact that teens raised in evangelical churches aren’t buying isn’t a surprise to me, and is a source of optimism for the future.