January 14, 2010

They Love Jesus, They Don't Love the Church

From time to time the Adventist Review presents opinion pieces on a wide range of issues. The following article (posted in May, 2008) presents one perspective. -- Editors

2008 1514 page31 caphis appears to be a growing sentiment among many younger Christians in America today. They love Jesus but they want little to do with His Church. It’s not that they don’t like the their local church or even other Christians—it’s that they don’t like how Christianity in America is frequently represented by many professing Evangelicals, which in their minds is often unloving, judgmental, arrogant, and hypocritical.

This assertion finds support in the data revealed in George Barna’s most recent research. For example, “four out of five young churchgoers say that Christianity is antihomosexual; half describe it as judgmental, too involved in politics, hypocritical, and confusing; one-third believe their faith is old-fashioned and out of touch with reality; and one-quarter of young Christians believe it is boring and insensitive to others.” (Kinnamon & Lyons, unChristian, Baker Books, 2007, pp.33-34)

Those outside the Church hold increasingly negative views of Christians as well. Among young people (aged 16-29), roughly 49 percent hold an “extraordinarily negative” view of evangelical Christians and only 3 percent have a “good” impression!   

2008 1514 page31Kinnamon and Lyons summarize the problem well by pointing to the comments of one thirty-five year-old believer who says, ‘Christians have become political, judgmental, intolerant, weak, religious, angry, and without balance. Christianity has become a nice Sunday drive. Where is the living God, the Holy Spirit, and amazing Jesus, the love, the compassion, the holiness? This type of life, how I yearn for that.”

Before you react by simply dismissing this criticism as overly simplistic or somehow lacking in credibility, humbly listen to what the next generation is actually saying. Love of Christ, love of one another and humility should compel us to try and understand why so many young people and Christians, in particular, feel the way they do. In my own frequent interactions with younger serious-minded Christians—many of whom invigorate me by their enthusiasm and zeal for Christ—I often find that they are very turned off and even angered by the watered-down, politicized, shallow, culturalized Christianity that has come to dominate American evangelicalism. According to Kinnamon and Lyons, “The Christian life looks so simplified and constricted that a new generation no longer recognizes it as a sophisticated, livable response to a complex word.”

This younger generation of Christians is simply and rightfully frustrated by the fact that this very real condition serves to inhibit their efforts to share the love of Christ with others. In other words, contemporary American Christianity carries with it a lot of negative baggage. So much so that “they feel raising the ‘Christian flag’ would actually undermine their ability to connect with people and maintain credibility with them.” And so, they feel they must “distance themselves from the current ‘branding’ of Christianity.” (Kinnamon & Lyons)

I can tell you from the perspective of one who spends a great deal of time engaged with those outside the faith; a significant portion of any conversation begins with me making apologies for the many misrepresentations of Christianity, the abuses suffered at the hands of misguided Christians, and correcting their many misconceptions—this—just so I can get to any meaningful dialogue. I can fully appreciate the need to “distance” one’s self from the mainstream “brand” of Christianity in order to earn any credibility with the person to whom I am speaking.

This generation sees what many are only recently coming to realize; the Church is in a pathetic state of decadence and decay. It is, to a large degree, fragmented, watered-down, and retreating from cultural relevancy. Biblical and theological ignorance, cultural apathy, and social indifference are a plague upon the American Church and what passes for Christianity in many circles is often a mere shadow of historic orthodox Christianity or worse something altogether different.  

2008 1514 page31I recently spoke with a young man who is training to be a pastor. He was absolutely heartbroken and angry at the state of the Church. He laments the culturalized Christianity that surrounds him. He described the Christian culture where he lives as one in which “So many people live their lives avoiding hell instead of seeking the kingdom of God.” I think he makes an excellent point: for many American Christians; the purpose of their faith is ultimately bound up in going to heaven when they die. In the meantime the real world, the one into which Christ’s kingdom has come and is coming is ignored and the Christian’s purpose abandoned. We end up living for ourselves instead of for Christ. As I have said before, the gospel is more than just the personal plan of salvation; it is more accurately as the Lord himself said, the “good news” of the kingdom. The former has led to programmed evangelism; the latter fulfills the great commission by means of the two greatest commandments.

What concerns me most is that this reaction among young evangelicals is fraught with peril as are all reactive movements. On the one hand they can, in an effort to accommodate the increasingly antagonistic culture, become so generous in their orthodoxy that they compromise the faith. On the other hand, they can become so angry toward the Church that they fall into an un-biblical ecclesiology that encourages revolution instead of reformation. Both movements are in place right now and their respective “leaders” are gaining converts. In either case, the results will no doubt be destructive.

I believe the Lord is awakening many in this generation. They seek an authentic, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ and they understand His lordship extends to every aspect of life and culture. I can’t tell you how often I encounter this positive spiritual theme and yet it is almost always accompanied by an equal frustration with the present Church.

What is desperately needed is spiritual wisdom that can carefully guide this generation between these two extremes toward real and orthodox reformation. The younger generation can offer insight that can properly contextualize the full gospel in such a way that it is once again relevant and our generation can provide sound guidance that preserves and promotes a love for Christ’s Church and orthodox theology. We must be willing to listen to each other, to learn and work together being of one mind and one spirit. This we must do for the sake of the Church and the next generation.

© 2008 by S. Michael Craven. This article was republished with permission and cannot be reprinted or posted on other websites without the permission of the Center for Christ & Culture.