Current Events Monday: Will They Come (Back) to Church?
“So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to leave also, do you?’” (John 6:67)
Brian Broome, a guest contributor to the Washington Post, seems to summarize effectively the thoughts of today’s “Nones.”
See his article here: Opinion | Why the decline in church attendance won’t end here – The Washington Post
If the above link does not work, try this one: Why the decline in church attendance won’t end here | Later On (wordpress.com)
The terms “Nones” is a newer label for those people (usually Americans) who continue to drop out of organized religions in record numbers. When asked if they identify with a religious group, they answer, “None.” Church growth gurus, pastors, focus groups, seminaries, denominational task forces, and arm-chair church quarterbacks have attempted ad nauseum to reach the Nones. You may notice that most churches aim their marketing strategies these days at younger people.
I’m unsure if our marketing approaches and focus groups are working, to be honest. The pandemic (and now war) seemed to escalate the exodus of younger generations from the church, and they aren’t coming back. I recently attended a Pastor’s Conference, and some of my peers were on the verge of tears discussing how many younger church members have left them in the lurch. The once promising potential of church growth for them has all but vanished. Some of us may now have a glimpse of what Jesus experienced at a turning point in his ministry. After masses of people moved on from him, he turned to his closest friends and said, “You don’t want to leave also, do you?” You can almost hear the Lord’s voice cracking with emotion.
This article will not attempt to rehash the decades of handwringing over how to reach Nones for church involvement. I will however make some observations about some of Broome’s comments as a way of helping us understand more of the current cultural mindset of our neighbors. In fact, I will quote Broome below, and make subsequent comments in response.
Near the beginning of his article, Broome writes, “This is how I feel about the idea of God.” Broome makes a telling observation here about God, based on an illustrative event that happened in his younger years. It shows that many people today seem much more intuitive, or feeling, when it comes to faith and religion. To equate truth with feeling is not an overreach anymore. Some think that if they feel something about God, then that feeling must be truth. The whole basis of Broome’s article therefore is foundationally intuitive.
And thus we’ve now hit upon one of the greatest problems in our current society—the making of truth into a subjective, personal axiom. One of the main reasons for this rejection of God and truth comes down to a basic and relatively simple misunderstanding about the nature of reality. I’ve noticed that many (if not the majority) of Millennials and Gen-Z’ers today with whom I interact face confusion about objective truth due to their assent to the philosophies of people like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel, even though they may not know these philosophers by name. Without getting wordy, Kant and Hegel essentially proposed that reality is that which is ideal. They would teach that our understanding of reality is relative to our experiences and even the words that we use. Broome’s experiences have led him to believe the truth of religion is simply relative to his senses, and thus his quest for the ideal (whatever that is in his mind) can exclude God and the church community. His truth is different from their truth.
Consequently, Broome writes, “I couldn’t work out why a loving God would let so many children suffer. The idea of eternal life seemed to be a way for people to skirt their fear of death or assuage the pain of grief. I noticed that the things people told me God wanted were, more often than not, things that they wanted as well.” An idealist certainly would question God’s allowance of suffering. Why? Because idealism as a philosophy not only relativizes truth but also seeks to escape the ego through a kind of self-transcendence. A world of suffering is not ideal and therefore must be attributed to some sort of cause, and in Broome’s case, evil can be attributed to religion and the concept of God. In this line of thinking, Broome’s concept of God is really no greater or more important that Satan.
In fact, idealists and classical romanticists often tend to blame those beyond themselves as the cause of evil in the world. This is why Broome says, “Like many people, I went on a spiritual quest. But, like some of those, I quit the hunt after a while.” He would quit the hunt because idealism pretentiously asserts that all roads eventually lead to a religion-free stream of consciousness anyway. Why hunt for something when you’re already on the right road? This is also why Broome posits, “I stopped looking for the meaning of life and instead decided to just live it.” He is attempting to escape the chaos and incongruities of life by emancipating himself from a manipulative, suffering-causing higher power. This line of thinking becomes highly dangerous in two ways. First, it totally disregards the corruption of sin within human nature and lifts human beings to a place of immanence where we certainly don’t belong. Second, it opens the door to all sorts of tyrannical fascism. I would imagine that Broome’s “gods” (even though he wouldn’t call them that) are now reason and knowledge, and sin would thus be only a temporary disregard of reason’s fundamentals. This kind of sin could be easily overcome through either more education or a community led program of social reorganization that can “right the wrongs” of the past in which the mythological religious held court. But who is going to run the education and reorganization efforts?
Broome then gets more specific about his observations of church life, warning that, “If you want to be rich, you can find a religion that tells you that’s what God wants you to be. If you’re a misogynist, you find a church that will reaffirm your misogyny. If you don’t like our politics, or some of our political leaders, there’s a pew with your name on it somewhere, maybe closer than you think. If you are a hateful person, there are preachers for that, too.” Broome again assumes that most religions are simply the leftovers of hateful, past ideologies which can be overcome through jettisoning those social and historical events that led up to where we find ourselves today. He also evidently glosses over the fact that misogyny, political acrimony, and hateful people are in more places than in churches. The fact that he writes for the Washington Post proves as much.
In fact, most of the violent protestations we’ve seen in the past two years in America are primarily the attempts of younger people to attribute all forms of sin and suffering to historical and social causes rather than to ourselves. Redemption for them comes when the causes of evil are finally purged, and we can finally live in a harmonious, collective society, run by a few of the most reasonable among us until there are no more needs. Yet, Christianity is clear: We ourselves are the problem. Redemption is found in none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
But back to our question—will they come back. To be honest, some may come back when they realize that they are sinners in need of grace. Perhaps however we should temper our expectations. If masses walked away from Jesus in his own day, then they will walk away from him today, too. If young people don’t come back to your church, we can certainly join the Lord in grieving. But don’t let the amount of people in a church service deter you from remaining faithful to Great Commission. Jesus’ glory does not depend on our meeting an attendance quote. He’s on the lookout for faithful disciples.