Friday, 13 February 2015

Church and the Young

Look out Paul, it's another long one........

I've decided I won't apologize here for my wordiness. There's just so much to say. I could break it down into several posts, but instead I'll break it up into sections, and you can pour another coffee when you see the sub-headers.

So, I was asked what I thought of this:

I had a look at the website and I see it's not a broad Christian site, but a specifically Pentecostal one, but we'll overlook that for now and deal with the article as is. In fact I'm not even really thinking only about the Christian church, but of the concept in general, so please read synagogue, temple, etc, when you see the word church, because much of what I have to say applies to all religions.

I could give you a throwaway answer about why young people are abandoning church, along the lines of  "Good, they can spend the time more usefully" or "Who needs churches anyway?" but that's just too simplistic. I'm not an idiot. I know churches fulfil certain needs. I'll begin by questioning whether maybe those needs could be fulfilled elsewhere. I do remember being a young person, by the way, just in case anyone doubts it, and in answering this question I will be drawing on my feelings about church THEN, as well as looking at it from a mature (and parental) POV.

What does a church do, anyway?

There is the spiritual aspect, and the community aspect. It's a bit confusing really, because much emphasis is placed on the one or the other, but how do they go together?

When I was a child and went to Sunday school we were kept out of the church itself for much of the service. We sat in a different room colouring Bible scene pictures or singing songs. Then we trooped in at the end to join in a prayer and hymn and that was it. Maybe we were too noisy or whatever, but we were excluded from the teaching aspect or whatever the grown-ups were doing.

Looking back this was a glorified daycare, really, it gave the parents a break so they could relax a bit and concentrate on what was being presented. So it was very much in the community area of services provided. There were others - for older kids there was a youth centre, and we had trips, parties, and other special occasions. It was at one of these parties for the kids that I met my future husband for the first time, as a matter of fact.

The church also gave space and support to scouts and guides, and in that way offered quite a bit to young people, and this is often the case. Nobody could possibly object to that, but of course it could just as easily be a school, sports facility, or local community hall that offered this.

What I see as more important is the emphasis on helping others that children are taught, but again, this can be taught at home and in school, and can often become a cultural norm if peers and the media are involved. In the end it's down to personal attitude.

The problem I see in some churches is that they are selective in how they offer help. I don't think that is a good lesson for young people. It's the basis of prejudice.

Sometimes the church itself has to push the message home a bit. You may have seen this:

On the other hand, there's this:

Church as sanctuary has a long tradition, but its patchy at best, and sometimes the help offered is the wrong kind, conditional, or, well........

Ask anyone who was taught by nuns in school and you'll hear tales of bullying the like of which other students have never compared.

Young people learn very much by example, and therefore the community aspect of the church they grow up in has a profound effect. Depending on the kid's intellect and other influences this will shape their future self. So it matters. If the experience they have is of selfless, unprejudiced, unconditional acts of kindness and charity there is a good chance that even if they leave the church, that much will stay with them. If they see bigotry, fake charity, even cruelty, it could create monsters....or it could turn them away. Many people are put off church by actually experiencing its "darkside". How many people have you met that describe themselves as "recovering" from whichever religion or denomination they grew up in. Why is it such a surprise that those whose experience was bad wouldn't want to stick around?

We've all heard how it was just one bad priest, or their parents totally didn't get it, people were doing the best they knew how, etc etc etc. It's all bollocks. Cruelty to children is often disguised as doctrine, and often excused as an error or human failing, but IT'S TOO LATE.

Now this is the extreme end, obviously, but there's also the boredom factor, so let's turn to the spiritual aspect.

I went to a Methodist Sunday school, and a standard (for England at the time) Church of England Primary School. We had a "religious" assembly every morning, and - I don't remember how often - walked two by two down to the church for a proper service. The effect this had on me? Sheer, utter boredom. Oh, some of the songs were good, maybe 4 or 5 of them, but most were dirges, and I tuned out of the monologues. What did I learn in all my religious instruction as a child? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Of course other churches made more effort. The Catholic kids, those who went to Catholic schools anyway (not all did) were given really religious education and could quote things. The older ones, if they were interested, could even EXPLAIN a few things. But in my entire adolescence I never met a single person my age who really had any idea about theology. My ignorance, in fact, was almost complete, and in regards to Christianity (i.e the religion of my own culture) it remained that way until I was in my late thirties and got an internet connection.

I was far more interested in other spiritual matters, and I read absolutely everything esoteric my local library had to offer. Three full shelves. I think I read some of them multiple times. And this was what we discussed as teens. Firstly, we became aware that there were alternatives. Then we learned that there were respectable people who were agnostic or atheist. Some kids simply had no interest in spiritual matters whatsoever, and those of us who did divided it more or less into metaphysical highbrow stuff and more the more available - art, music, and nature. I liked both, being a bit of an intellectual but also Pagan right down to my toes.

No church, no institution, other than the library, offered me anything spiritual at all. On the community side, ah well, I was thrown out of the Girl Guides for being drunk at a meeting, and found a much more interesting extra-curricular in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, where the community service I opted for was at the police station. I was never very good at the more nurturing stuff, but I did my bit.

I wasn't an exception, there were plenty of kids my age who were reading highbrow stuff and also doing good deeds, and there were those who chose one or the other, but I would say most kids were too busy being kids to bother with any of it, quite frankly. In fact the kids who seemed to take it the least seriously were those dragged to church every Sunday by religious parents. So it clearly wasn't doing any good.

I certainly did not see a nice clean cut distinction, whereby the church-going kids were good and the non-church-going kids were bad. It just didn't work like that, and it doesn't work like that in the bigger picture either. What I DID see was that the nicest church-going kids tended to stick with church long after childhood as a convenient place to do their niceness. They could have done it elsewhere.

Were they getting a secondary spiritual advantage too? I really have no idea. We never talked about it.

What WAS talked about, a lot, in those days, was superstition. This is the third aspect offered by churches. The one they won't admit. Kids caught onto the superstition easily, quickly. Not surprisingly either. It's a very primitive thing. I'll come back to that aspect later.

Does a church help parents raising kids in these difficult times? There may be something in that, but mostly on a practical level. If they offer things for kids to do of an evening, to keep them off the street, even if it's only games, or just a safe place to meet one another, that would be a huge help.

And if a parent is having a hard time fighting the wave of negative peer pressure and looking for mentors to stop the kid going off the rails, and the church provides that then all power to them. Parents (especially poor or single parents in the inner cities) really do need some sort of support if they are dealing with issues like gangs, drugs etc.

But it doesn't have to be a church doing that. Many local projects, even local authorities, are tackling these issues without the religious slant, and they may be far more attractive to kids, who are suspicious of "churchy stuff".

Anyway, to sum up this first section, in my own experience - which was in a theocracy - the church offered little, if anything to kids that couldn't be offered elsewhere, and possibly better. Now I'll turn to the highlighted items this article talks of offering in its tour.

  • Emboldened in their faith
What faith? Children generally believe anything you tell them. They believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy if you want them to. It is only later as they develop critical thinking skills that they are able to think about faith at all. Religious instruction done "properly" in children usually amounts to ideological brainwashing, and there are several approaches. The immersion approach is done in locations where the majority are believers. This is the easiest method, because everybody talks about God all the time, in in the same way. It's a cultural norm. It's habit-forming, and comfortable, for the most part. It gets deeply ingrained, but it may not be well understood at a theological level. Is it faith?

Another way children can be raised in a religion is with threats and superstition. The fear of God or of Hell. They will comply, they won't dare do otherwise. But is it faith?

But even those who are raised with love, and kindness, careful age appropriate theology, and a "teach by example" approach to the good stuff don't necessarily have religious faith. They may simply have faith in their family, community, and the benevolence of mankind. All of this can happen without religious belief of any kind. 

I think faith itself is a personal journey, and is not something done as a child. So these young adults the church is targeting are at, or close to the beginning of, that journey, so they are very vulnerable to the wrong sort of input. I only hope this church is doing it well. Judging by the emphasis on this tour...I think not.
  • Equipped with a biblical worldview

I'm not really sure what that means, but it sounds a bit dodgy and a bit exclusive. I get that the church wants its kids to follow their own doctrine, but I don't think this is a good approach at all. Anything that doesn't equip kids with a fully rounded worldview is just more ideological brainwashing, and that's a huge negative for me. I think churches would attract more kids (or keep them) if it skipped that part for now, frankly. But of course they won't because the younger you train them, the better it sticks. Is this an attractive thing for young people? I doubt it. This is probably one of the things putting them off. They may want to rethink it.

  • Engaged in winning their sphere of influence for Christ.
Now we get closer to the truth. The reason the churches want to keep (or acquire) young people is so they can recruit even more. There are two ways of looking at this of course. They think they are sharing something (it's never quite clear what). This is the basis of evangelism - spreading the word. But anyway, they think they are doing The Right Thing. They must - it's The Great Commission. (NEWSFLASH: We've all already heard it!)

I have always opposed proselytizing and it was a major problem at MSN Religion Forums, back in the day, because we had two contradictory rules. One was NO PROSELYTIZING, and that was rigorously enforced. But the other was RESPECT FOR THE BELIEFS OF OTHERS, which is all very well, except that some are required by their beliefs to proselytize  (see Great Commission, above). In ecumenical and interfaith situations this is always an area of compromise, and proselytizing is done in a sneaky way instead. Yes, I said sneaky. A local church (and it's not alone in this) offers an "alternative" to Halloween trick or treating - a party for local kids of all religions and none. When mine were young they heard about it at school and were interested in going...until a friend tipped me off that part of the evening's entertainment was going to be hardcore proselytization. Of children. UGH.

So, more ideological brainwashing. Yeah, that's a real pull guys.

The Tough Questions

  • How can I know the Bible is true?
Well that one's easy, you use circular logic.

That really isn't going to work on intelligent young people, and those it does work on, well..............maybe the superstition has already got to them and they are too scared to argue or question it.

I'll confess, this one would drag ME in, because I'd love to hear how they explain it. But I'm old and well-read and all that. I can't see this one being much of a selling point for the young.

In actual fact I've studied this enough to know that "true" isn't even relevant, but that's a level of study you aren't going to do in soundbytes on a speaker's tour. Good luck with that one.

  • Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering?
Where indeed. I touched on theodicy in a recent blog post and it's one of my favourite areas of discussion. Again, this can't be answered in a single presentation, and it's very naive to think it can, but I'd go just to hear that.

I think this might attract some young people. It's a question they often ask, especially as they become aware of the horrors out there. Depending on the kid, this may be too late though. My grandson has already started asking why we have things like wars, and he's only 7. He's smart, and I'm quite sure if he were in a Christian family he'd have asked what God was doing about it. I think most kids who are allowed to ask such questions would have done so long before they reached the age targeted by this tour, and they may already be long lost if the answer didn't satisfy them. In fact, an unsatisfactory answer to this question is probably responsible for a considerable number of kids "lost" to the church.

There is no satisfactory answer, and in fact this is one of the reasons so many of us will never be part of any organized religion.

  • How do I deal with my doubts?
Doubts? So you don't have faith? Well, maybe this isn't for you then. Do you mean questions? Or do you really mean DOUBTS? You have some serious thinking to do. May I recommend critical thinking? Don't be scared. If you're scared maybe the superstition got to you.

I have been told that it's normal to have doubts. If you need a church to come along at that point and top up the brainwashing, then something's not right there. I think we're back to cultural norms and the fear of being an outsider.

No, doubts are often what leads many a young person away from church. It's the uncomfortable realisation that it may not actually be true, so I see why this particular effort focuses on it. Round 'em back up quick before they stray. Ask ex-believers where the rot set in and they'll often tell you, at University. At that age, and in a place where other ideas are discussed. This is why some of the far right-wing disapprove of higher education (see article), and some have even admitted as much. "They get non-Christian ideas in college". Yes, they do. Away from the immersion, away from parents, and eyes wide open to alternatives.

Yes, you'd better step in there.

Of course a lot depends here on where the kid is on the progressive-literal scale. Literalists/fundamentalists are particularly keen on keeping kids on their end of the scale, they don't want them getting into liberal versions of the religion because that's just a slippery slope to none at all. Well, they think so. It's not true. You stand a better chance of your kid staying a believer if he's introduced to a more liberal version of your beliefs, but fundies don't want to hear that. It's too complicated. That's a discussion for another day.

The Common Objections

  • There is no evidence God exists.
Well of course there isn't. If there was, there'd be no need for belief or faith. Everyone would know it instead, and half of this waffle would be unnecessary. I daresay people would still argue and fight over God's requirements, but it would be a game changer.

As it is, nobody can prove it one way or the other, it's moot but why bother.

  • The Bible is a flawed book.
Very. They all are. They were written a long, long time ago by men doing their best to answer difficult questions. I think they deserve points for effort. The fact that it's flawed is one of the reasons it's obviously not authored by God. Well, one hopes so, or God made a few huge mistakes. And we are told God is omniscient so QED. Either God isn't omniscient or he DIDN'T write the book, you can't have it both ways. And don't bother with "men were inspired...." - it's still full of errors.

(If any apologist really wants to waste their time arguing these errors with me, have at it, but I guarantee I'm better at it than you, I've been doing it for almost 20 years now.)

If you like the book, GREAT! If you benefit from some of its stories, WONDERFUL! No problem. It's nice to include any good stuff from any book in one's influences. No harm there.

But it isn't science, it isn't history, and it certainly isn't ethics. It teaches us a lot about people >2000 years ago, and that's useful. In my house it would go on the same shelf as these:

But I don't actually have a printed copy, I have it on CD, along with every other holy book available. I've read them all.

Is this an argument that the young are interested in? YES. I would say it is. Quite how you deal with that, I don't know, I would say you'd have to go the non-literal route or risk rejection. Unless they'd already been sufficiently brainwashed...but then they wouldn't be questioning it.

Well good luck with this one.

  • Jesus never rose from the dead.
  • Miracles are impossible.

I've lumped these together because it's all just more superstition. Magic. I'm not anti-magic, obviously, but I don't think it's central to religion. It has nothing to do with feeding the poor, or tending the sick, or whatever. It has nothing to do with appreciating the magnificence of creation. It's just mythology and superstition, and these have their place, but I see no use for them in our religious lives, frankly. Again, a discussion for another day. But to confine it to the current topic, I don't think these are going to appeal to the average young person unless they are credulous, and that may not be what you want. Or maybe you do.

  • There is no one way to God.
This is huge. One of the first things kids notice when they go out in the world (non-church schools/work/internet/social lives) is that they meet people who belong to different religions and who are devout. I mean really good examples of their religions. It's a bit of an eye opener, for example, for young fundie Americans who heard all about evil Muslims at home, to meet some in college who are fun, honest, hard-working, kind, charitable, law-abiding, and above all not terrorists. Peaceniks even.

It can mess with their heads a bit.

I grew up with Muslims in my class, as they had no other option for school. One of my friends was from a medium strict Muslim family. They dressed modestly, without head coverings, but no short skirts, and she wasn't allowed out with us, because she could only meet boys with a chaperone. (It was an all-girl school so it was easy there). One day in our final year, she brought a photo in on a Monday morning, of a man she'd been introduced to - and engaged to - over the weekend. He was 8 years older than her, and a 3rd cousin or something.

We were absolutely horrified. We were ready to kidnap her, to save her from this terrible fate. But she was perfectly happy. Excited. Keen. We conceded that he was very handsome, and as he owned his own home already she would be well set up financially, but we couldn't take it in. She was a lovely girl, always smiling, always kind, a good student, but also a lot of fun. And a jolly good Muslim. She'd found God without any difficulty whatsoever.

Of course these days we all know lots of people of different religions, and we take it in our stride.

How can we possibly insist that any one of them has more of a handle on it than any other?

I watched a bit of Muslim magic last Fall. Two Moroccan gentlemen were buying lambs from me and Tom was trying to hold the first one still while we caught another one. Our Jacob sheep are half wild and very feisty but they have horns so you can hang on. The other guy laughed and said to Tom "Watch this". And he started praying over the lamb. It calmed down immediately, almost hypnotized. Sheep whisperer? Anyway, it worked.

But the question really is why would there be only one way to God? Wouldn't that be a rotten trick to play on people who never came in contact with the "right" way? Why would God do that?

It's one of many rotten tricks that turn me off organized religion, literalism, and much of its dogma, but it's also totally illogical.

Maybe some young people would delight in the exclusivity (elitism?) of it. I would hope not. It would mean they'd been taught wrong hitherto.

From the church's POV, obviously, this could be a big plus. "You must come to US. US you hear! Nowhere else! They won't do! Not just us Christians, but THIS denomination. Catholics are all Pagans!" If you need numbers, you need a reason they should choose you, and not the church down the road. And definitely no DIY spirituality. Can't have people staying home and believing in God, that won't buy the bishop's new car.

What should the church be doing instead?

First of all decide what their purpose is. Not just for the young, but for everyone (even the non-believers).

Are they there to teach metaphysics and/or theology, or is that best left for places of education and personal study?

Are they there to offer community support, and if so, does that include everyone or just the faithful or "deserving".

Are they there to proliferate superstition, or is it time they joined the rational age?

Having done that, they could then prioritize. Add a large portion of humility, lack of hypocrisy, and be actually welcoming, and then maybe they at least wouldn't lose so many.


Ask people why they don't go to church. Address that. Adapt. Grow.

If the answer is "We don't need you", then downsize. Sell the megachurch. Give the money to charity. Fire the bishop. Use lay preachers. Accept the inevitable. Evolve.


  1. Let's see...change versus tradition. Hmmm. And we want young people to join in this fun? :P While the originating article may be about young people, I daresay there are a good number of 'older folks' who no longer attend, for many of the same reasons you have cited. Glad you mentioned critical thinking and a bit of common sense. ~ Blessings! :)

  2. Long for a Saturday morning but well worth the read. Good one.

  3. For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible.
    Stuart Chase