Disillusioned Christians: Implications for Educational Ministries in the Church

Recently a person contacted the IRC website of which I am a part. He had some pretty angry things to say about God, Christians, and Christianity. Typically, I would simply ignore that kind of unprovoked rhetoric, but I decided to reply, just to see if there was any possibility for conversation. I told him I would be praying for him and I asked him why he is so angry. He explained to me that he had spent much time in the church and in youth groups, but that he realized his experiences fell short of giving him the answers he desired when he finally actually read the Bible for himself. Those of us who are church leaders would do well to listen to the heart of people who give complaints like his, rather than get hung up by any errors of fact or biblical misunderstanding on their part, not to mention the provocative challenges to our faith. Indeed, I have continued the dialogue with him with additional emails in the hope of removing some of his barriers to understanding the text and the potential of leading him to faith in Christ.

The words in quotations below retain his style of writing and his choice of spelling, including all typos, so that you can gain an accurate sense of his tone and content.

He says, “I then thought, perhaps it would be a good idea to read the bible, instead of just blindly accepting everything my minister said and accepting the verses and psalms read in church.” In other words, he was not necessarily taught how to read the Bible for himself with even the most basic interpretive skills. So when he did read it, he was not prepared for the experience, specially given his apparent angry temperament.

He goes on to say, “What i found disgusted me beyond anything I could ever imagin. Homophobea, canabalism, womens rights injustices, religious intolerance, absurdity, human
sacrifice, animal sacrifice, rape, amputation…. And nobody has been able to answer my questions as to why these exsist in the bible and are usually brought forth by God himself, who is sapposed to be all powerful and all knowing, I can’t find an intelligent religious person to answer any of my questions, all I find everywhere I go is blind conformity. Nobody thinks for themselves, and the
religion we now call christianity and not christianity at all, its a modern day socially acceptable state of believe in which people identify with only becuase if they identified with something else they would be labeled as such.” He is not the first person to point out these issues. In fact, I find myself wondering if he has been influenced by the vocal and evangelistic breed of new atheists who have been making waves with their books in recent years.

Again, I did exchange a few more emails with him; enough to help him realize I was not trying to give token responses, but that I was engaged with the real concerns he is raising. He actually toned down his rhetoric toward me, which I took to be a sign of warming relations.

Having written all of that, imagine this type of scenario being played out in the hearts and minds of Christian young people in our churches all over the USA and in other parts of the developed world. It is happening with alarming frequency. I often to talk to people about these very issues. Why is that? Why are young people experiencing crises of faith after having spent most of their lives in the church, worshipping with their families?

Based on the comments above, here are a few general suggestions to consider. They are in no way directed to any specific church. They are intended to prod all of us just a bit:

1. Eventually, young people are going to begin thinking for themselves. I maintain we should help them learn that process, as developmentally appropriate, in their growing up years, rather than telling them what to think and constantly spoon feeding them information in the form of the standard Bible stories, songs, verses and of course, standards of church conduct. Either way, there will come a time when they are going to evaluate the merits of what they have long been taught in the church with the skills, or the lack thereof, at their disposal. Why would we not engage them increasingly with inductive skills in the biblical text even as they are beginning to learn to read and throughout their elementary years into middle school and high school? Why do we take the so-called easy road of Christian moralisms with little or no biblical context, and then expect them to get it by the time they graduate? Is it any wonder they become disillusioned when faced with the harsh realities of life’s real narratives as they head out on their own?

2. Why are so many Christians afraid to engage someone like this in honest discussion about the issues he raises? I suspect it is because they realize they are ill-equipped to attempt such an endeavor, and so they resort to the standard responses full of church jargon and appeals to piety, rather than doing the hard work of having a real conversation. What frustrates many people like this isn’t that Christians don’t know all the technical answers. It is that so many of them do not even attempt to become conversant with their own Bibles. To be fair, he is just now reading the Bible for himself. But isn’t it reasonable to expect that people who are pastors and teachers, not to mention mature Christians, should be at least modestly equipped to engage the text?

3. I think sometimes we have to look past the provocative rhetoric of people in crises of faith into the hearts of brokenness which spew it out. The words they say might offend, but they really can’t do much to hurt us. However, given the opportunity, the words we say in reply hold the potential to speak into their hearts if we do so with the leading of the Holy Spirit, and with thoughtful biblical authenticity which is bathed in the compassion of Jesus.

4. This issue is not a passing fad. It has been with us for a long while and will continue to grow exponentially as people leave our churches in search for a spirituality or life experiences which seems real to them. Some will be vocal about it, as my interlocuter has been via email. Others will leave quietly. I wonder…. Do we notice their departure? What implications does this have for the way we do community in the church context? Churches that help people connect authentically and which provide consistent opportunities for engaging the biblical text will, in my view, grow biblically grounded and relationally connected disciples. They need not be mutually exclusive concerns. I suggest checking out Barna’s research on this. I don’t agree with some of his conclusions about the church and its future, but I do think he is on to something about the disillusionment of many.

5. I agree with my friends at Group publishing wholeheartedly in saying that Bible learning needs to be R.E.A.L. That is to say, it needs to be Relational. Experiential. Application Oriented. Learner-based. Contrary to the accusations of some competing publisher’s representatives, this does not imply that learners cannot be engaged in-depth with the biblical text. I honestly think that a genuine partnership between the home and the church which provides for cooperative R.E.A.L. learning will instill in children and their families the best possible preparation for lifelong discipleship. There will still be challenges along the way, but the accusations of not even being exposed to reading the Bible should never be one of them.

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