Are Millennials Losing Faith?

Are Millennials Losing Faith?

I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.

Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.

Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.

Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.

KEEPING THE FAITH: Surveys show African American millennials, as well as young adults from other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than whites.

Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.

One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a 2010 report, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.

Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.

Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”

As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Abstinence = Epic Fail

Abstinence = Epic Fail

On February 10, 2012, rapper Too $hort posted a video on XXLMag.com, a hip-hop website, where he gave “Fatherly Advice” to middle-school and high-school boys on sexuality. The disgusting, misogynistic, dehumanizing, and graphic nature of his comments do not bear repeating here, but his comments made me wonder about the consequences of reducing sexuality to merely a physical concept in the absence of virtue. Thankfully, the video was removed and Too $hort offered an apology for offending people. The rapper, however, offered no apology for the way in which he advised young men to touch the bodies of young girls.

The whole episode reminded me that I am not convinced that Christians do a good job of telling young people what to do with their bodies other than say “no” to them. As a result, I am beginning to wonder if abstinence programs are even helpful for developing moral maturity. While abstinence rightly places sexual intercourse within its proper context — marriage — it fails to construct a moral theology of the body. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Christians to return to teaching chastity.

Some of the early teachings on chastity date back to church Fathers like Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 A.D.) who made a serious case for bodily self-control (some argue he went too far). The teaching has faded, but some contemporary authors continue to make a case for chastity. For example, Duke Divinity School scholar Lauren Winner sought to reintroduce the ancient subject for a postmodern generation in her 2006 book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity and Bible teacher Paul Tripp offers a challenging perspective on the reality of sex and commitment in his 2010 book, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage.

For the sake of brevity, the Roman Catholic Catechism provides a useful and succinct introduction to chastity that is helpful even if one does not agree with Catholic doctrine (I will adapt the teaching in this article). The Catholic teaching begins with the recognition that we are sexual beings whose “physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life.” That is, the mutual support between the sexes is lived out as we recognized are complimentary need for mutuality.

The vocation of chastity, then, is defined as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.” Chastity as a vocation does not require that one divorce one’s body from one’s passions but that one strive for maturity in the virtue of self-control — a skill needed before and after marriage (Prov. 25:28; 1 Cor. 7:5; Gal. 5:23; Titus 2:6; 1 Pet. 5:8). In fact, “the chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. … Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” What develops and matures young people in their moral reasoning and virtue is the conscious and free choice to use one’s body for the good. Not simply to say “no” to sin but “yes” to holiness (Deut. 7:6). Moreover, we are not to be mastered by any sin but are called to intentionally pursue holiness (1 Cor. 6:12). Abstinence does not teach this virtue.

For Christian young people, the knowledge of one’s union with Christ, a commitment to obedience to God’s commandments, exercise of the moral virtues, fidelity to prayer, and a daily requesting and reliance on the Holy Spirit, and so on, gives one what is needed to inaugurate one into the vocation of chastity. The active work of the Holy Spirit enables us to permeate the passions and appetites with mature moral reasoning that is consistent with what the Bible teaches.

“Self-mastery is a long and exacting work,” says the Catechism. “One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.” Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of freedom. Our union with Christ in the pursuit of chastity enables us, then, to be fully human. Chastity leads those who practice it to become witnesses to their neighbors of God’s fidelity, loving kindness, and the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). The call to chastity is simply a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Chastity is for everyone.

All baptized men and women, single or married, are called to the vocation of chastity. Sexual wholeness is living according to God’s articulated design for human beings and applies to married couples and singles in the same way. Abstinence does not teach this. As a man who can relate to sexual temptation (Heb. 4:15), but who never sinned against His call to a chaste life, Jesus Christ is the perfect example of living out the vocation of chastity.

Growth in chastity includes the reality of failure, repentance, and renewal. This is why the gospel and work of the Holy Spirit is so central to the sustaining of such a vocation and why it is unsustainable in the best possible way outside of one’s union with Christ. Chastity is violated with things like adultery, pornography, rape, sex outside of marriage, sexual abuse, and so on.

In the end, if chastity were a dominant teaching in urban America, it would not only address sex before marriage but would create a culture of sexual virtue that honors God, best fits with how God designed human beings to live, and would serve as a powerful example of what is means to live knowing God’s Word is true. Abstinence education is well intentioned but fails to develop young people into morally mature followers of Christ. True love does not wait. True love loves God and neighbor by saying “yes” to God’s better way (Matt. 22:36-40).

An Incomplete Theology

An Incomplete Theology

One of the realities of being a white Protestant in America is the historic freedom from needing a theological framework to confront structural and institutional forms of injustice due to race. Race continues to be a heavy burden for people of color in America. As such, a theological framework primarily oriented toward issues of personal salvation and morality is sufficient to address the questions of the dominant white culture. However, for blacks and Latinos, who not only have to wrestle with personal questions regarding sin and salvation but also evil from the outside because of their race, they need the Cross to provide hope that God intends to relieve the burdens and liabilities of being a subdominant minority. These burdens range from stereotypes and racial discrimination to issues of identity in light of Anglo-normativity and sociopolitical wellbeing. Blacks and Latinos need a comprehensive theology that deals with the cosmic scope of God redeeming every aspect of the creation affected by the Fall through the work and person of Christ.

Dr. Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and an UrbanFaith contributor, presents a comprehensive theological framework in his chapter in a new book I edited titled Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation. Bacote introduces the themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal (CFRR). CFRR reminds us of the following: God created the world good, it was corrupted by the Fall introducing sin and brokenness into the world, but God has a unique plan to renew the entire creation through the work and person of Jesus Christ. That is, the entire creation formed and shaped by Christ will also be renewed by Christ and reconciled unto Him (Col. 1:15-23).

CFRR not only tells us who we are, it also gives Christians a vision of the implications of the kingdom of God. Christians are not passive bystanders but are called to be leaders in the business reconciliation until Christ returns to bring finality to the renewal process inaugurated at his death and resurrection in ways never before realized in human history (Rom. 8:12-25).

For those seeking to preach the Good News of what was accomplished in the work and Person of Jesus Christ to blacks and Latinos, the application of biblical texts cannot be limited to personal issues of salvation and sanctification. Subdominant minorities who are immersed in a world of white privilege need to hear hope that God also intends to relieve them of the complex burdens of being a minority — burdens that whites do not encounter in their day-to-day lives in America. This is one reason why minority teachers are vitally important in ethnic church contexts. Otherwise, applying the gospel to the realities of white privilege will likely not be addressed regularly. Now, by white privilege I simply mean the privilege, special freedom, or immunity white persons have from some liability or burden to which non-white persons are subject in America.

A team of authors led by Fordham University psychology professor Celia B. Fisher provides an excellent list of issues that blacks and Latinos need to reconcile with the Truth. In an article titled “Applied Developmental Science, Social Justice, and Socio-Political Wellbeing,” Fisher and her team remind us that when evil entered the world it created a context for the following burdens experienced by Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos in America: (1) societal structures, policies, and so on that limit access to minorities, (2) the persistence of high-effort coping with the reality of marginalization that produces high levels of stress, (3) psycho-political wellbeing and validity concerns which address the ways in which minorities apply human dignity to themselves within a context of Anglo-hegemony, (4) communities that accept dysfunctional behaviors as behavioral norms in the shaping of one’s personhood, (5) institutional racism which examines the “institutional structures and processes passed on from generation to generations that organize and promote racial inequity throughout the culture,” (6) proactive measures intended to dismantle racism, and (7) contexts to provide healing for those who have experience major and minor encounters with racist attitudes, beliefs, or actions.

The revivalist impulse by many evangelicals rightly understands that ultimate social change comes when members of society become followers of Christ. However, American history has clearly proven that personal salvation does not stop people from being racists nor from setting up social institutions and policies that deny others access to the means of liberty and human dignity. If evangelism alone were effective for social change, Christians would never have participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, been slave owners, created apartheid in South Africa, or allowed Jim Crow laws to come into existence.

Theologians like Abraham Kuyper remind us that, because of God’s common grace, evangelism is not necessary to persuade people to treat others with dignity and respect — after all, the law of God is written on the heart (Rom. 2:15) even though it merits them no favor with God. Therefore, work at both. We must morally form individuals and dismantle cultural norms of racism that become structural.

I suspect this is one of the major reasons why many whites are unsuccessful at reaching blacks and Latinos. If the gospel is not being applied to issues of the heart and issues that require outside, structural justice, we will miss areas in need of biblical application. Blacks and Latinos in America do not have the privilege of not talking about the issues addressed in the Fisher article, because all minorities experience aspects of those issues in various ways.

If we believe the Bible speaks to the questions of the day, then we have to do a better job of developing the cultural intelligence that applies the Truth to issues of the heart and to the cultural spaces minorities inhabit as subdominant races.

More ‘Elephant Room’ Noise

More ‘Elephant Room’ Noise

ON THE HOT SEAT: Last month, Bishop T.D. Jakes discussed his views on the Trinity with Elephant Room leaders James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll. (Photo: The Elephant Room)

There has been considerable discussion regarding the Elephant Room 2 in light of T.D. Jakes’ invitation and appearance. For those unfamiliar with the controversy, check out UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller’s roundup of reactions to the event. In short, the Elephant Room is a gathering of evangelical megachurch pastors who discuss the theological and ecclesiological “elephants in the room.” The second convening of the event took place on January 25, and the headlining “elephant” was Bishop T.D. Jakes and his beliefs regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.

Much has been written about the strange interrogation Jakes endured and the wisdom of inviting such a polarizing figure in the first place. Here are a few more thoughts:

1. While there is admittedly something intriguing about the concept of the Elephant Room, where prominent church leaders with significantly different approaches to ministry come together and speak frankly with each other, I wonder how much all of this plays into the problems of celebrity evangelicalism.  It is good to get successful leaders together in settings like this, but do these events also run the risk of suggesting that certain forms of success in ministry also equate with the highest levels of biblical and theological expertise? I don’t know the various educational backgrounds of all the participants, so I can’t make any claims about their theological backgrounds, but it is worth asking how we grant authority to the opinions of successful church leaders, particularly given the populism of evangelicalism.

2. I don’t know the circumstances of Jakes’ invitation, but some of the controversy relates to whether his presence at the Elephant Room 2 was a tacit endorsement of his ministry and whether he truly preaches the gospel. I wonder what would have been the kind of circumstance where his invitation would have been okay with everyone and where there could have been not only a conversation about the Trinity but also the other elephant that lingers — Jakes modified, marketable, and therapeutic version of the prosperity gospel. The conversation needs to happen, but how does that occur? What event could have been created to have this conversation without the cloud of controversy?

3. Race and evangelicalism remains massively complex. Some applaud Bryan Lorrits’ comments on his blog and on a video regarding the centrality of white leaders in this movement that tacitly claims to speak for all evangelicals and (for some) the apparent desire of the approval of such leaders in the critique of Jakes.  While there may be truth to Lorrits’ comments, here is why this is difficult. Any African American who comes into evangelicalism and attends seminary will be primarily taught by white professors, and if they embrace what they are teaching and then have some critique of the black church (not that there is one tradition, because there are many), of course it will seem like their critique is one that gets “approved” by white leaders. It is certainly possible that some desire this approval, but it is also true that some bring their critique on the basis of convictions that they fully embrace apart from any affinity for white approval (this is not only about Reformed theology — it can happen with Arminian theology or other traditions as well).

What makes this so complicated is the fact that the ripple effects remain from centuries of racism, and the issues of power, respect, and control all hover around situations like this one, making it difficult to see where this is simply about disagreements about correct doctrine/practice or about participation in contexts that remain largely white (whether it is the Gospel Coalition or any other evangelical institution/group).

Perhaps there is opportunity in this to look more closely at these complexities and then make some real progress on issues of race — we may have taken some steps forward but we have miles to go.

I hope constructive conversation lies ahead.

Raising Hell

Raising Hell

ERASING HELL: Francis Chan is the latest Christian author to take on the topic of man's eternal destiny.

“Hell’s a-Poppin'” is how the headline began on a Publishers Weekly article yesterday about best-selling author and pastor Francis Chan‘s new book, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity and the Things We Make Up. It’s no wonder, given months of public discussion about the topic generated by publication of Rob Bell‘s controversial new release, Love Wins.

David C. Cook is so confident about the potential marketability of Erasing Hell, it has committed to a 250,000 unit initial print run, “a six-figure marketing budget, and a simultaneous audio release from Oasis Audio,” Publishers Weekly reported.

God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins will debut in July, even though its author, Chrisitianity Today senior managing editor Mark Galli already reviewed Love Wins for his magazine. Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) by Brian Jones and Is Hell for Real? Or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? a compilation by Tim Keller, Albert Mohler and others are also scheduled for summer 2011 release, Publishers Weekly reported.

Dr. Brian Bantum, an associate professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University, is reticent about the current public obsession with hell. Bantum shared these thoughts by email this afternoon:

“In many ways the attempts to revisit the question of hell have been refreshing. Refreshing in the sense that Christians are being confronted by the wonder and transcendence of God in such a way that we believers become displaced or our misplacement is revealed. That is, these discussions have surfaced Christians’ not so uncommon tendency to turn God’s grace towards us into judgment upon others.

“But at the same time I worry that the outrage over Rob Bell and others so often seems to be more intense and vehement than reactions to the many injustices that plague our society. I worry that we do not acknowledge how hell is not a distant reality for some, how the existence of some is marked by perpetual exploitation and suffering that points not to their ‘choice’ for or against God, but of the exercise of power, greed and dehumanization. In this way, I am grieved that some become so incensed over articulating the mystery of a life after death while being so unconcerned with the lives God places before us in this world.”

Harvard professor Robert D. Putman and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell reported in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us that Americans’ doctrinal commitments are weakening and that a growing number of Christians don’t believe that God will send their non-Christian friends and relatives to hell.

Given this climate, do you think the focus on hell and the afterlife is a distraction from the suffering that exists in our world? Or is it a necessary response to the doubts raised by Bell, and the culture at large, regarding man’s eternal destiny?