Saturday, December 29, 2007

Generation Exodus: Why are Young People Leaving the Church?

At 17, I stopped attending church. I’d had doubts about Christianity for a few years, but I didn’t feel safe asking questions at my church. I figured I’d face condemnation for my “lack of faith.” In my 20s, whenever I found the rare Christian who’d converse with me, he or she seemed ill-prepared to offer a basic definition of Christian faith, much less a defense of it. Worse, some Christians dismissed my questions with a condescending, “I’ll pray for you.” For nearly a decade, I remained disconnected from the church.

So I wasn’t surprised when a recent study by LifeWay Research—an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention—found 70 percent of respondents had stopped attending church by age 23. Of those “dropouts” (as the survey called them), 58 percent noted at least one church- or pastor-related reason for leaving. The most frequently cited reasons were "church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical" and "I didn’t feel connected to the people in my church." Additionally, 52 percent said "religious, ethical, or political beliefs" contributed to their departure.

Two of my friends who’ve left the church offer some of their thoughts:

“The church says, ‘Don't ask questions—read your Bible for the answers. Don't think—pray.’ Many people buy into this teaching, even though it insults our intelligence. The church creates prejudices, forcing us to judge people because they don't believe in Jesus Christ or because they consider the possibility of truth beyond Jesus and Christianity. God forbid anybody ever entertain those thoughts.” —female, 21

“Christians seem to want to remake the world in their image. I don't understand how they selectively pick and choose from the Bible. The Bible includes commands not obeyed in today’s society. Christians dismiss the instruction to not touch pig skin, yet proclaim gays are contradicting God's plan, going to hell, and destroying society by wanting to marry. I don’t understand why one instruction is advice to be ignored out of common sense and the other is God’s written law on the subject.” —male, 34

A large part of my friends’ pain and anger is the result of silence within the church. Too often, we don’t discuss social issues with each other. We don’t share our doubts or personal struggles. We don’t even talk about our understanding of Christianity—perhaps we’re afraid others will judge us for our limited knowledge.

Above all, we don’t acknowledge problems that plague the church. In examining the generational exit from the church, I asked several friends to share their concerns and irritations. They were eager and excited to respond. While I don’t agree with every idea offered here, I think communicating and listening to each other is vital to our health as a church body. May we read their comments with thought and with respect for their willingness to share.

“The American Christian church seems focused on a few issues—such as abortion and homosexuality/same-sex marriage—that, while important, shouldn’t be all-consuming. The church and its people should focus more on poverty and compassion. We’re so busy trying to make converts by saying how bad the world is. The world has always been bad! The early church led people to Christ by caring for them, both materially and spiritually. We need to follow their example today.” —female, 40

“A major problem with today’s Christian church is we perpetuate the myth we’ve attained perfection and have somehow transcended the struggles everyone else around us faces. We even fool ourselves into believing this myth. The apostle Paul exhibits brutal honesty when he says in Romans 7:21, ‘I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong’” (NLT). —male, 30

“At church, I'm least myself—not most myself, or my best self. ‘Morality’ always seems tied to individual repression (don't smoke, don't drink), rather than to group responsibility (help the homeless, eradicate poverty). I believe Christians should be interested more in the military support of Israel than in whether or not I want a cigarette.” —female, 34

“The church has done a horrible public relations job. Being a Christian means pursuing a life of contemplation, refusing to accept injustice as a societal norm, and believing a loving higher power—and not our own human deeds—guides a believer’s fate. At some point, someone’s behavior must have created the perception that Christians are nothing more than superstitious and judgmental. That person certainly wasn’t Jesus.” —male, 34

“The most annoying aspect of today's Christian church is the prevalence of intolerant, closed-minded, and dogmatic views. Unfortunately, the people who hold such views tend to be the most vocal Christians, drowning out more moderate voices. These vocal Christians take extreme positions, such as denouncing Halloween as devil worship or celebrating the war in Iraq as God's punishment for our country's tolerance of homosexuality. They proclaim anyone who doesn’t agree with their views is going to hell. In doing so, they show no tolerance for other religions and points of view. Ironically, they’re quite similar in their intolerance and hypocrisy to some of the very people they loathe: Islamic fundamentalists.” —female, 34

“Christians, as a whole, are judgmental. We've forgotten God told us our place isn’t to judge. Not only do we judge non-believers, but we judge each other for the most irrelevant matters. Rather than judge, we need to love unconditionally. Rather than look down on people, we need to care for them as Jesus would. He forgave us, so what makes us better than someone else?” —female, 28

“It bothers me some Christians believe God cares about every thing they do. A friend told me she liked Joel Osteen, so I decided to watch his show. I quickly had to turn it off. In essence, Osteen said: ‘Welcome God into every aspect of your life. Pray before you go into a store. If you buy the wrong items, it’s because you didn’t ask God to be with you during your shopping trip.’ Sorry, no. I do welcome God into my life and want him to help me make life decisions. Buying tan versus brown towels at Target, however, doesn’t count as a ‘life decision.’ ” —female, 34

“What's wrong with the church today? In the words of G.K. Chesterton, ‘I am.’ I am because I'm the only one I can change, and sometimes I refuse to give myself to God. I get in the way of the gospel with my bad example and my failure to be a light in the world.” —male, 23

“I’m frustrated that many Christians seem brainwashed: When they sign up for Christ-following, they often subscribe to all the traditional political and moral viewpoints of the Christian church without checking if those perspectives are truly biblical. I hope Christians will search the Word and listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance, rather than follow without using their minds.” —female, 27

Back to my story: About seven years ago, I met Penny, a 50something secretary and an exuberant Christian. I’d been miserably disconnected from the church for almost 10 years, so Penny was like an oasis in the desert for me. She was transparent and humble. She was honest about the shortcomings of the church, and quick to identify her own role in these. She never portrayed herself as someone who was perfect or superior, but rather as someone who daily relied on God. Most important, she was always willing to talk about her beliefs and my questions. She was the personification of 1 Peter 3:15, ready to give an answer with gentleness and respect.

Penny was everything I wanted to be: a real person with real faith. God began changing me through my conversations with her. I reconnected with the church, and, thankfully, I discovered many more Christians just like Penny.

Admitting our doubts, questions, and frustrations about the church can be difficult, even painful. Yet I believe such discussion is necessary: We can’t become more Christlike unless we first identify how we’re not like Christ. Let’s get this conversation started.

To ponder:
1) What concerns or frustrates you most about today’s Christian church?

2) What encourages you most?

3) How can we—as individuals and as a church—promote honest, meaningful conversation?

Friday, December 28, 2007

All Roads Lead from Google (to H-n-T)

Have you checked out the 2007 Google zeitgeist? It's a report on the most popular Google searches for the year.

Makes me happy to know folks are still interested in God: On Google's "Who is ... " list (people typed in the words "who is" followed by a name or other word), God took the top spot. Jesus ranked No. 4. Satan was No. 10.

I've put together my own little list of Google searches that led to H-n-T. My methodology for compiling the list was pretty simplistic: What were some popular searches I remember seeing on my Site Meter data?

Some of the top Google searches that led to H-n-T:

Miraculous healings

The Secret versus The Bible

Secular songs for worship

Bible verses on physical fitness

Prosperity according to the Bible

Other interesting Google searches that led to H-n-T:

Why do some people have a harder life than others?

Can you worship God in the wrong way?

Christians are arrogant.

Can a good Christian watch TV?

Is God in control of our lives?

To ponder:
1) Consider the first group of popular searches. Why do you think people were motivated to search for these topics? (For example, maybe people searched for "secular songs for worship" because they thought those songs might attract visitors to their church, or perhaps they wanted to worship God in a new way, or ... )

2) Consider the second group of searches. How would you respond to the questions? How would you respond to the statement, "Christians are arrogant"?

Golden Opportunity: One Christian Perspective on 'The Golden Compass'

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Golden Opportunity
The Golden Compass provides a new way to think and talk candidly about the church.

To ponder:
A character in The Golden Compass describes the Magisterium’s function this way: "They keep things working by telling people what to do … Some people know what's best for them, and some people don't. Besides, they don't tell people what to do in a mean, petty way; they do it in a kindly way." Yet in the movie, the actions of the Magisterium are anything but kindly.

1) Do Christians sometimes push their views in ways that are wrongly motivated? What are some wrong motivations? What are some good motivations?

2) If you've seen or read The Golden Compass, how do the characteristics of the Magisterium compare to today's Christian church? What can Christians learn from Philip Pullman's criticism?

3) Have any mainstream movies, books, or music sparked a conversation on spiritual matters?

Monday, December 17, 2007

REWIND: What's in a Name?

My friend Mark sent me an Associated Press story about a young woman named "Mary Christmas." For real.

Name origins and meanings have long intrigued me. It perhaps began in fifth grade, when my teacher created an "All About Me" bulletin board. Each week, a different student would post photos of themselves and lists of their interests. The display also included the student's name origin, which the teacher looked up and posted for us. My classmates' names meant all kinds of wonderful things like "angel," "king," "conqueror," "beautiful one." Of course, I expected my name would be good, too. Imagine my surprise during the first day of "All About Holly" week, when I read my name meant "prickly, poisonous shrub." Guess who got teased all week long? ("Hey, Prickly!" "Stay away from Holly, she's poisonous!")

Still, I'd much rather live down a name than have to live up to one. Case in point: my friend Jessie. Most people don't know her real name is Jesus, and if I were her, I wouldn't tell, either. How on earth do you live up to "our Lord and Savior"? I suppose you can throw people off by using the Spanish pronunciation, Hay-SOOSE (though whenever I hear that name, I always want to say, "God bless you," and hand them a hanky. Culturally insensitive am I.). Then there was the guy at my college named Christian. Ironically, he's an atheist. Naturally, he went by "Chris."

Perhaps my brother, Michael Paul, has the best name combo of all. Michael means "one who resembles God." Whew, what a name to live up to! But the name Paul, which in Latin means "small or little," lightens that burden. My own personal translation of my brother's name: "one who resembles God ... a little."

At times, I'd rather label myself as a "Michael Paul" than as a "Christian." The word Christian, of course, simply means "follower of Christ." Unfortunately, I've heard plenty of other definitions: holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty, too-good-for-this-world-of-sinners. Plenty of Christians try hard to live those things down, but I can understand why those labels persist. It seems we Christians sometimes want to define ourselves as perfect, flawless, even sinless. We're often guilty of dividing the world between Christians and non-Christians, then proclaiming that "non-Christian" means "worthless, rejected, bad." Sometimes Christians forget that they, too, have a sinful nature. Sometimes Christians forget that they make mistakes, that they hurt others. That, even though we've accepted God's gift of forgiveness, we Christians still sin.

We also need to remember that those who aren't Christians are Michael Pauls, just like us. God made them. God loves them as deeply as you and me. They resemble God, and he wants them to know they're his kids, too.

The Christmas family from that AP story says their name keeps them in check. They are constantly reminded they're representatives of the holiday. And that reminds me I'm a representative, too--of Jesus Christ. When I meet someone who defines "Christian" as "holier-than-thou," I've got to remember two things. First, something happened to create those feelings of hurt and rejection. And second, I have an opportunity to extend love and kindness. My actions might give them a reason to reconsider their definition.

To ponder:
When is the word "Christian" a blessing to you? When is it a burden?

2) Think about your recent interactions. How might others be defining "Christian" based on how you represented Christ?

3) For fun, look up your name origin. You can use a search engine by typing your name along with "name meaning," or try

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Holly-Day Story: 'Angels, Revisited'

This year, I'm thinking about how the term "holiday season" has become so apropos for our society. Meaning: We can hardly call it Christmas anymore because there's very little of Christ in it.

I'm praying that God will change my focus. The following true story, which I wrote last year, has made me pause and think many times. Maybe God can use it to move me--and others--one more time.

Angels, Revisited

I blew it. Again.

I was in a hurry, pushing a cart full of groceries through the parking lot as fast as I could. A list of errands was running through my mind. Still had to stop at another store, pack for my weekend trip, and make sure my husband had enough clean socks and underwear to last through the days I'd be gone. With my mind focused on the tasks ahead, I was hardly aware of the man standing in front of my car. I heard his voice before I saw his face.

"Excuse me, ma'am. Could you help me with something to eat?"

He stood at some distance from me, probably well aware I might freak out if he came closer. And though he was safely at least a dozen feet away, and both my shopping cart and car were barriers between us, I'd still felt a rush of fear. His face was oily, and his faded black pants and t-shirt were rumpled and dirty.

"Sorry." I tersely dismissed him with that one word, then immediate returned to the task of loading the groceries into my car. I anxiously hoped he'd disappear.

And as soon as I said it, I regretted it. As he walked away, I felt a heaviness in my chest. I knew in my heart I needed to stop what I was doing, run after the man, and tell him I would get him some food. For goodness sake, I had a whole cart full of groceries right there, including some I'd bought to take to my church! Go find that man right now! my heart demanded.

But when I looked down at my groceries, I thought, I can't just leave these here and run after some stranger. I'll put them in my trunk first, then go find the man.

This is the point where I knew I'd blown it. I knew the man would be gone. I knew I'd look for him, and that I wouldn't find him. I knew he would disappear from that little parking lot, as if he'd mysteriously been zapped off the face of the earth.

I knew all of this would happen because it's all happened to me before.

Three years before, I'd been driving by a different grocery store in Illinois. It was cold and drizzling, and I just wanted to get home because I knew it would start pouring at any moment. My husband and I had just bought a new car, and I was terribly nervous about driving it on a dry street, let alone a slick, wet one. I didn't want to be driving when the serious rain began. When it rains in Illinois, water falls from the sky in sheets, not droplets. Heaven help the person caught walking on the street during a storm--it's like having buckets of water forcefully thrown at you from every direction.

Heaven wanted to help an elderly woman that day. I saw her walking out of the grocery store and couldn't take my eyes off her. In one hand, she carried a few bags full of groceries, in the other, she attempted to keep her little umbrella upright as the wind tossed it backward. She could barely walk; she dragged one foot a bit as she inched down the sidewalk with tiny, strained steps. The signal on the street turned red, and I watched as she slowly moved in my direction.

Offer her a ride. Help her. The words in my head were as clear as if they'd been said by someone sitting in my passenger seat. The feeling I had was more than just a nagging conscience; I knew God was directly instructing me to help this woman. All I had to do was pull over to the curb.

The light turned green. I can't stop for her, my head rationalized. There's no parking lane on the street. The cars behind me will honk. She'll think I'm a lunatic and will be scared--what if I give her a heart attack? I came up with a dozen excuses as my foot moved from the brake to the accelerator. I watched her in my rear-view mirror as I drove past. There was still time to stop for her.

I turned at the corner. I've got to get home before the rain starts pouring down.

And then it hit me: I hadn't stopped. Nearly every part of my body had urged me to stop. My foot had been resting on the brake. My left hand had been ready to flip on the turn signal. My arms had been ready to turn the wheel. My heart was thudding so strong and deep I could hear it in my ears. Yet I hadn't stopped.

I pulled over and turned my head to look over my shoulder. I couldn't see the old woman anymore. The rain began to pour down.

I hadn't stopped. I'd said "no" to God. I began to bawl and howl like an injured animal.

And I knew I had to find the old woman. I had to make things right. I had to get her out of the pouring rain. I had to do what I should have done in the first place.

I sped around the corner. I figured I'd find her right away. At her snail's pace, she couldn't have gotten more than 100 feet from where I'd turned. I drove past the intersection where I'd seen her. Not there. I drove another block. I drove down the side streets, then through the parking lots of nearby businesses. Even as I searched, I knew I wouldn't find her. I knew God had offered me an opportunity, or rather, a test. And I'd failed it.

I bawled all the way home, trying to comfort myself with the thought someone else had picked her up, or that she'd found refuge at a bus stop or under a store awning. Those thoughts didn't soothe me. I prayed, "God, I missed what you put right in front of my face. But I'm going to be aware now. I'm going to listen when you ask me to do something. I won't blow it again."

For the next several weeks, my actions played over in my mind like a CD stuck on repeat. I begged God, "Please give me someone to help! Please give me something to do for you. Please let me make up for my inaction." I thought about Jesus' illustration of the
three servants who were given different amounts of money to invest for their master. And I thought, "I'm the foolish servant who buried the master's money and didn't even earn basic interest from the bank." In the weeks that followed, I looked everywhere for an opportunity to help another person. I held every door open, told everyone who sneezed, "Bless you," extended kind greetings to every passerby. Every day, as I drove by the intersection where I'd seen the elderly woman, I looked for her. Nothing gave me peace.

But as the days passed, the memory gradually faded. I got caught up in work and my never-ending to-do list. I'd almost forgotten about the old woman when I read an article, "The Test," in Today's Christian magazine. In it, a man shared his memory of an elderly homeless man who'd visited his church. The homeless man had come in during a Sunday service and asked the congregation to help him get some food. No one offered to help him. So he walked back out empty-handed. As soon as he'd gone out the door, a few church members ran after him to offer their assistance. But he was gone. He'd seemingly vanished. Afterward, the senior pastor got up and told his congregation:

"Something terrible happened here today. We missed an opportunity to prove ourselves, and I fear we may never receive it again ... I believe we received a visit from an angel today. My mother taught me, when I was just a boy, that God sends his angels down to look after us and to guide us … but he also sends them to test us, to see what kind of people we really are. I think we were tested today. And I think we failed."

I bawled three years ago when I read that story, and I ache as a read it again today. Because I know I've been tested many times now. Many times I've "passed"--I did what I knew God was asking me to do. I'm thankful God softened my heart and opened my eyes during those moments. When I help someone, I almost always feel wonderful afterward. I feel connected to God and to humanity. I feel more like a person, and less like a machine that's programmed to never deviate from its routine.

Last week, I was a robot, following my usual pattern of ignoring people, rushing to complete chores, and strictly sticking to schedule. With a fat wallet, a full belly, and a cart full of groceries, I turned my back on a hungry person who simply asked for something to eat.

Today, I feel that old familiar pain of heartbreak. I hurt, knowing I left an old woman to walk in the cold rain, and a homeless man to wander on, with his stomach still empty. I hurt, knowing my lack of compassion perhaps made those two people feel a little less loved and cared for by God. I hurt, and I welcome the feeling. I hope it lingers for a long while because it reminds me of who I am--a child of God, with billions of brothers and sisters who are hoping some "stranger" will offer them the tiniest bit of kindness. They pray God will send them someone who can give them enough hope to get through one more day.

Today, I'm a little bit more human.

To ponder:
Do you believe God tests us? How has he tested you?

2) What are some typical excuses people use to avoid helping someone in need?

3) Most of us have had some bad experiences when we've helped others: Maybe you've given money to a con artist, or perhaps someone you've helped has returned your kindness with a lack of thanks or even cold words. Perhaps that bad experience makes you to hesitate to serve others now. Read the true story, "You Ain't No Better Than Me." Then think about the person who conned or insulted you. How did their actions differ from the way you expected them to react? How do expectations sometimes hurt us, especially in regard to the lessons God's trying to teach us?

4) Think about the typical human motives for helping others. Compare this to Jesus' motives for dying for the world. What might have happened if Jesus had made his decision whether to die based on typical human motives, and if he had used typical human excuses?

5) Make a list of 10 ways you can help others. Here are a few to get your creative juices flowing: bringing canned goods to a food drive, helping an elderly person put groceries in their car, saving pennies for the local school, babysitting a child for a couple hours to give a parent some free time, having lunch with someone who is lonely.