Millennials Need Honesty

willow_performance2Why are Millennials fleeing the church?

For a lot of people that’s a worn out topic, but it’s crucial one that gets haggled over precisely because no one has come up with a satisfying answer.

Drew Dykes (managing editor of the Christian publication Leadership Journal) has a few thoughts on the issue that warrant some reflection. His main thesis is that churches need to foster intergenerational relationships and stop chasing after the latest fads. But it’s within his secondary points that I find more to chew on.

To begin with, I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Dykes’ books, so my response may cover concerns he’s addressed elsewhere. But if we’re going to examine the problem seriously, then we need to make a distinction between people who’ve left the faith and those who’ve simply left the church.

Consciously or not, most of the prescriptions offered by pastors and columnists are concerned with ex-christians. This explains why the majority of analysts from the pastoral persective emphasize suggest a strategy that emphasizes the Gospel and doubling down on traditional theology. The unspoken assumption is the people leaving these churches are leaving congregations that have failed on these fronts.

But for Millennials who’ve left the church but remain faithful, their concerns are explicitly political. The problem isn’t whether the Gospel is preached, it’s the political conclusions the church has derived from it.

Let’s take a person who’s left the church because of its views on homosexuality as an example. Now discussion and listening are fine, but ultimately one side had to budge. To get that person to return, the church needs to either change its views on homosexuality or persuade her to change her beliefs.

Let me emphasize that this isn’t just a theological question. People aren’t just rejecting the church’s Biblical view of homosexuality, they’re also rejecting the political noise that surrounds it, like conversion therapy, negative propaganda about gays (gays make bad parents or are inclined to pedophilia), and campaigns against gays (see Arizona’s recent right to discriminate bill.) They’re rejecting Christians who cheer on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and favor candidates who promise to fight against gay marriage.

I know plenty of conservatives who believe that homosexuality is immoral, but they still won’t darken a church doorway because they think Christians are obsessed with the issue. You can win the theological argument and still fail to bring people back to church. .

And let’s face it: a big part of the problem is that churches equate loss of political leverage with loss of their rights. It’s fair to ask whether they want Millennials back for their value in the church body, or whether it’s just to have fresh blood to fight the culture wars.

The perception outside of the Evangelical bubble is that Christians have more influence now than they did eight years ago: womens’ health clinics are being shuttered, the Tea Party (which, like it or not, is equated with evangelical Christianity) has shut down the government and exercises greater control over the Republican party than ever, and instead of reaching out to minorities, evangelicals have broadcast loud and clear that they resent them.

Now I’m sure many are saying that I’m conflating Republican politics with the church. That’s because people outside the Christian bubble view them as one and the same. Aside from a few voices in the wilderness like Jim Wallis, it is safe to say that the political positions the Republican party stands for are the political goals the church advocates. A Republican political victory is viewed as an evangelical victory, so no one outside of Christians themselves believes that they’ve lost power. What they do believe is that down the road Christians will lose power by virtue of demographic trends. But not yet

While Dykes deserves kudos for recognizing that Millennials are waiting to get married and hold off having kids, the question then becomes whether the church wants those Millennials as is, or whether they intend to get them married and pregnant asap. Can the twenty-something woman who has no intention of having kids feel comfortable in a women’s Bible study, or will the women try to get them to conform to the nuclear family model? If the latter is true, then the church needs to be up front about it, and realize that most Millennials will recognize the insincerity involved (i.e. “I like you who you will become if you listen to me, not who you are now.)

I’m not going to go the usual route and suggest that churches change their theology in order to bring people back into the fold. That’s not going to happen. What I would suggest is that they be more honest with themselves and concede what everyone else sees: they are fixated on homosexuality, and they do consider it a bigger deal than other sins. If they want to make a theological case to justifying it, then do so. But don’t deny the fixation.

And finally, admit that a major reason why they want to bring Millenials back to the church is the desire to undo the social values and family trends Millennials reflect. It’s a strategic goal to change marital patterns, pregnancy rates, and reverse multicultural acceptance. Again, make a theological case if you like, but don’t pretend that you’re interested in Millennials as they are now. Admit that the fear of being a cultural minority is directly tied to the desire to reacquire the social leverage you used to have, and saving Millennial souls holds more value to you in the present than they will in the afterlife.

Gay Marriage Is Here To Stay

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Kevin DeYoung has a post over at The Gospel Coalition entitled 5 Reasons Not To Give Up On The Marriage Debate. The title is self-explanatory, and while much of it is just a restatement of the Right’s talking points against gay marriage, there are some tidbits worth dissecting.

His first point addresses The Baby Wars. While DeYoung doesn’t even come close to advocating for Christians to pump out offspring so they can win the ideological battles with sheer numbers, he does accept the premise that demographics predict our ideological future.

I must confess that back in the 90’s I bought into this thinking, too. I didn’t advocate it of course, but there was a cold logic to the idea that the culture that passed on its traditions to the largest number of offspring would gain influence in future generations, while those that produced fewer or no offspring would fade. Classic examples of this were the Shakers (who believed in lifelong celibacy) and Mormons, who are known for large families  (and of course polygamy). If you couple Mormon birth rates with their evangelical zeal, it looked to me as though America’s future belonged to Mormons.

But recent data has confounded these assumptions. According to Pew Forum, the much-discussed Nones are the largest growing religious category, and people nowadays are much more likely to leave their childhood belief system. (It should be noted that this goes both ways: an atheist who turns fundamentalist falls into this category as much as a fundamentalist turned atheist.)

So clearly the picture is more complex. What matters is that DeYoung’s assumption about birth rates isn’t playing out as expected.

Discover magazine addresses at least part of this conundrum. The Austrian study cited by Razib Khan found that being traditional doesn’t mean that one is deeply religious:

Berghammer found that people following the ‘traditional’ lifestyle were more to have 3+ children than those following the ‘modern’ lifestyle. What’s more, traditionalist individuals were more likely to be religious (all Catholic in this analysis).

But – and this is the crucial bit – among those who followed a traditional life path, there was no relationship between their depth of religious belief, or their Church attendance, and the number of children they had.

Exactly the same was seen for those following a modern life path. Although this was more popular among non-religious women, those religious women who did follow this trajectory had no more children than the non-religious.

There was also no difference between the religious and non religious in the chances of remaining single and childless.

Berghammer concludes from this that the critical factor in determining fertility is the choice of life trajectory. Once this has been decided, then religiosity has no further effect on fertility.

DeYoung’s 2nd point baffles me. He leads off with a deeply arrogant assumption:

When you think about how quickly public opinion has swung in favor of gay marriage, it’s clear that the new conclusion has not been reached because of deep, ethical reflection.

It’s this kind of mentality – the assumption that any serious thought about a moral question can only lead to one conclusion – that has annexed evangelicals from mainstream America, and created epistemic bubbles wherein people convince themselves that election polls are all wrong and Romney isn’t losing Ohio.

Gay marriage isn’t growing in acceptance because of hipness or because it’s fashionable to be in favor of it. It’s growing because marriage is inherently unhip. Marriage is the most conservative social institution. There is no clearer way members of our culture signal their desire to become part of the fabric of the community and live a life in accordance with traditional family structure. Gay marriage is popular because it embraces traditional American values rather than contests them. When it became apparent that the gay “lifestyle” was no different than the straight “lifestyle,” the only people left fighting against gay marriage were bible thumpers weened on AIDS- era urban legends.

A recent Daily Show skit illustrates just how far we’ve come. Daily Show pundit Al Madrigal visited the reddest of red states and staged public gay marriage to gauge the reactions of the people around them. Everywhere they went the gay couple received applause and congratulations. The message of the skit became their inability to find antigay hostility.

One final anecdote on this point. Last year I was in a third grade classroom where the teacher was reading a story to the kids about Georgia O’Keefe. At one point, when the teacher mentioned O’Keefe’s marriage, a student asked whether she married a boy or girl. No one was shocked or surprised by the question (except perhaps the teacher); in these childrens’ minds, marrying someone you love no longer carried the requirement of gender. When wide-eyed little girls assume gay marriage has always been with us, then the issue has long since left the realm of urban hipsters.

Campus Crusaders Pt 3: Everyone Hates The Meat Market

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In Part 1 and Part 2  of my Campus Crusade series, I described my misadventures with the female members of my Bible Study. As you can imagine, when you have a room full of single Christian men and women, sex becomes the topic that dare not speak its name. Everyone is thinking about it, no one wants to admit it, and if you violate the code of silence, the aftershocks can last for months. Given the numerous ways in which I violated that code, I got off easy. But raising the issue helped give me a crash course on the sexual idiosyncrasies of young evangelicals.

To start with, you have to understand that all Singles Bible Studies are designed to fail. In most churches a successful Singles group is one where God calls each man to choose a bride among the women, and one by one the new couples marry off and the Singles Group dissolves.

Almost everyone who joins a Singles Group does so with the hope that they will meet their soul mate, and given that most of them know that college is their best chance at finding The One, the pressure can be intense.  Since I was a little bit older than the rest of the group, I didn’t feel the same pressure. From my viewpoint the women in my Bible Study were already halfway out the door to their lives beyond college.  I was going to be living in town for a long time, while they were moving on to bigger and better things.

A ministry like Campus Crusade complicates this formula further. From the time they are teenagers, it is made explicitly clear to evangelicals that lust was the greatest challenge facing them, so any hint of honesty about their motives for joining a Singles Bible Study had to be squashed. Bible Study was for fellowship and studying the Word, not for hooking up. It didn’t matter if their aspirations were for chaste romances leading to marriage; that’s still taking a meat market approach to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

So the first thing that happens when new people show up at a Singles Study is that everyone checks them out and sizes them up for marriage material. The second thing that happens is that everyone curses themselves for doing that. In spite of the safeguards put in place (like no two people of the opposite sex could ever be in a room alone), hormones still kick in and people still find covert ways to gossip about crushes or take things further. But these secret activities couldn’t be acknowledged within the group for fear of someone stepping in and threatening them with an ultimatum of dropping the romance or leaving the Bible Study.

I’ll share an anecdote that helps illustrate the contrast between my blase attitude about sexual matters and their anxieties. One day the bunch of us were hanging out together in an apartment. I was sitting on a couch reading World magazine, a right-wing publication. At that time every evangelical magazine I read fascinated me. Each issue teemed with self-righteous indignation that always seemed to get the facts wrong. I couldn’t understand how anyone could sustain that level of contempt for their fellow man, but since this was the era before Fox News, encountering these opinions was both a novelty and a way to get an insight into the people around me without asking probing questions.

Suddenly I hear the Baywatch theme on TV. I didn’t think anything of it. I never liked the show, but since I wasn’t watching TV, I didn’t care what was on. Suddenly Dwight and the other men came rushing into the living room in a panic. “Where’s the remote? Where’s the remote?” they asked. Then the women joined the search. All of them were scrambling to find the remote. You’d think the house was on fire. I set the magazine down and just watched them, and for the first time in my life, I paid attention to Baywatch. I wanted to see why it was a five alarm emergency. There weren’t even any cleavage shots while this was going on.

Finally I shifted in my couch and felt something press against my back. I was sitting on the remote. I was tempted to just sit there and wait to see how long the search would go on before someone took a sledgehammer to the TV. But my conscious got the best of me, so I announced that I found the remote and handed it to Dwight. He changed the channel, and disaster was averted.

Now, you’re probably wondering why, after all of this craziness,  I still stuck it out with them. To be honest, the biggest reason was that living near Penn State means cycling through friends. Every four or five years your network of friends moves away, forcing you to rebuild your social life from scratch. After cycling through “secular” friends my first few years in State College, Kaitlyn’s invitation made me wonder if the Christian social scene might be different.

So I started attending the Bible Study with zero friends in town. Jason and I quickly clicked, and it really helped that Jason was ruthlessly blunt about the dysfunction around us. Politically and religiously Jason was definitely “one of them,” but he was unpopular because of his propensity to call people on their bullshit (and his willingness to use the word “bullshit”.) Beyond that, I stuck with it out of a combination of enjoying their fellowship (at least some of it) and my own anthropological curiosity. And one of the puzzles that loomed large in my mind was how the Bible Study could retain its members while these people clearly disliked each other.

Fun With The Campus Crusaders!

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I took eight Christian women out of a group date when I first joined Campus Crusade. Just me and eight college-aged women who loved Jesus and had every intention to get their MRS before they graduated.

The story behind how I ended up on that date goes a long to explaining why I’ve always found myself straddling the line between different subcultures.

I ended up at Campus Crusade in the oddest way possible. My high school science teacher was the man lead me to Christ when I was a teenager. Mike loathed churches for their hypocrisy and rigidity, so I got my spiritual guidance from him and, eventually, from a few Bible Study meetings with other high school teachers.

Now stop and think about how odd that sounds. I was sixteen years old and I was attending Bible Studies with the middle aged men who graded my tests and book reports during the week. And the strangest part is that, at the time, I didn’t think it was strange. I never had that voice in my head that said that this was uncool, or that I wanted to hang out with Christians my age. Mike was my friend, and so were my teachers.

I know that some of you might be reading this thinking that this is going to be a tale of sexual abuse. Nope, not at all. The end result of the Bible Study was that I had a great time, learned a lot about the Bible, and got to know my teachers as complex human beings with personal lives. And since I grew up in a family that never talked about God, let alone church, I had zero experience in Christian subcultures of any kind. I had no inclination to attend church since I only heard bad things about them. Even after I got saved, I didn’t even know how many kids in my high school were practicing Christians, or who they were.

In spite of all of this,  my theological training could best be described as mainstream evangelical. I knew that my teachers were conservative and some were even fundamentalists, but I didn’t get any lectures about purity or creationism. I did hear a lot about what music groups were bad influences and saving myself for marriage. But since I already believed in saving myself for marriage while I was an atheist, that part never became an issue.

I didn’t even walk into a church until I turned 25. I had just come home from a bus trip to New York City. I went there alone because I wanted to experience the city and get some Christmas shopping done. The bus didn’t pull back into town until dawn. I was pumped up  by my trip, and I had insomnia. But it was the good kind of insomnia; the “I don’t wanna sleep because life is too good” kind.  So as I was walking downtown lugging shopping bags, I saw that the Methodist church’s morning service was starting, and since I wanted to avoid sleep, I figured why not kill a few hours and try a church service.

I liked it. Even though I was a believer, I always assumed that churches were horrible places where awful things happened. So a few weeks into attending the Methodist church, a college-aged girl approached me and invited me to Bible Study. She looked like she was having a hard time coming out of her shell long enough to invite me. I didn’t get any sense that she was attracted to me, but she was so shy that I felt obligated to say yes. Besides, it was a new experience!

I didn’t know that her Bible Study wasn’t a Methodist Bible Study. They told me they were with Campus Crusade, but that name meant nothing to me.  I thought Campus Crusade was just a cute nickname they gave themselves, and I had a habit of calling them The Campus Crusaders because  I couldn’t keep the name straight. At that time the couple that normally led the group were on a semester sabbatical, so everyone in the group was college-aged, with three or four students collaborating as co-leaders.

I never met anyone from Campus Crusade outside of our study, so it felt like an isolated group much like my high school teachers’ Bible Study. I remember being shocked when one of leaders of the group shared that they had consulted with their pastor about some leadership issues. To me, that was bad news. In spite of my growing comfort with the Methodist church, I still distrusted the idea of any older people imposing their authority into our little group. So I asked them why they felt the need to consult with outsiders. They looked at me like I was nuts, but strangely enough, they didn’t explain how Campus Crusade works or its relationship to local churches.

So here I am, unschooled in the sexual morals and neuroses that evangelicals live and breathe, and one night the women announce that they’re going to have a Girls’ Movie Night and watch a movie together. On the night of their get-together, I called a florist and had a dozen red roses delivered to them anonymously. It took a little bit of sleuthing for them to figure out I was the mystery man (I wasn’t their first guess.)

They showed up at the next Bible Study meeting and gave me a homemade thank you card signed by all of them, with little hearts pasted on front and hanging loose inside. I was touched by their gift! I wanted to reciprocate their generosity. But since I wasn’t looking to date any of them, I wanted to make sure that any response I gave was all-inclusive. So I invited them out to dinner. “All of us?” they asked. “Yup, and I’m paying,” I said. Two of the women bowed out (probably because they felt uncomfortable, although I didn’t know it at the time), but the others agreed.

So the nine of us went to one of the better restaurants in town. Not too expensive, but an upgrade from the cheap scraps they were used to.  We had a great time, but I was so oblivious to the subtext of their questions that I answered them honestly.  So when one of them asked me whether I was looking to get married anytime soon, I said “Sure, if the right woman comes along.”

It didn’t occur to me that they thought I was using the flowers and the date to screen them to see which one would be my future wife. Even though the rest of the evening went pleasantly, my answer revealed sinister motives, and the worst part in their view was that I phrased my answer in such a way that I didn’t mention God’s wisdom or Jesus’s blessing in my answer. As far as they were concerned, that outed me as a nonbeliever.

So I showed up at the next Bible Study unaware that anything had changed. I had hoped for another enthusiastic reception, but when I didn’t get it, I figured my expectations weren’t realistic. The Study went on as normal, but during the course of the meeting one of the women seemed especially down. When it came time for prayer requests, she revealed that she was dealing with a rough situation regarding her parents, and she was almost in tears.

Prayers didn’t alleviate her mood, so at the end of the prayer session I sat next to her and asked her if she was okay. She said she was, but I followed up with an offer to take her out to lunch if she wanted to discuss it some more. I figured since I was a little older and wiser, I might be able to shed some insight that her college peers couldn’t. Little did I know that I had signaled to the group that I had chosen her as my prospective wife. And if that wasn’t bad enough, as I stood up I lost my balance. My hand reached out for something to steady my gait, which just happened to be her knee. To me, the whole scene was innocuous. I offered to help someone, she said she’d think it over, and then like a clumsy idiot I almost fell flat on my face. A short while later, I smiled and waved goodnight to everyone without knowing that I had made a lot of women very, very angry.

Femdom Marriage

(Warning: the article this post refers to gets pretty graphic in its description of a BDSM marriage. I promise that I will leave the lurid details out.)

Dan Savage (known best for his It Gets Better Project, a series of  anti-bullying videos intended to help LGBT youth) has been writing an ongoing series about sexually unconventional marriages. One of his more recent columns describes a femdom (= female dominant) marriage. The wife completely controls her husband’s behavior from sex to household chores, and the husband doesn’t complain about getting bossed around because he loves the thrill of her controlling his behavior.

It’s a revealing illustration of one of the arguments I’ve long had against courting, which became a huge fad in the 90’s and has pretty much latched onto many conservative churches as the Godly way to go about finding a soulmate. The gist of my argument was that the nature of courting (and chaperoned dating) prevented couples from really getting to know each other.

The counter-argument I’ve always heard was that good Christian couples would never hide anything from each other before they walked down the aisle. If there was anything they couldn’t talk about in front of Mom and Dad or their trusted Christian friends, then they shouldn’t get married in the first place.

Even though the couple in Savage’s article didn’t start out with BDSM, they provide a real-life example of my argument. Sometimes couples have  issues they need to discuss if they’re going to be compatible, and there’s no way in hell they can discuss them in front of their parents or their youth group buddies. Because sometimes people do know what they’re looking for sexually, and it’s not just a question of how many kids you want to have.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for pointing this article out.