Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Young's Disillusionment with the Church

Larry Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, has a column in The Atlantic in which he discusses the results of a survey of young college atheists active in Secular Student Alliances and Freethought Societies conducted by his Foundation. Here's how he describes the process:
Using the Fixed Point Foundation website, email, my Twitter, and my Facebook page, we contacted the leaders of these groups and asked if they and their fellow members would participate in our study. To our surprise, we received a flood of enquiries. Students ranging from Stanford University to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, from Northwestern to Portland State volunteered to talk to us. The rules were simple: Tell us your journey to unbelief. It was not our purpose to dispute their stories or to debate the merits of their views. Not then, anyway. We just wanted to listen to what they had to say. And what they had to say startled us.
What they learned was that many of these young atheists had grown up in the church, but they found the message and mission of their churches vague, and/or they felt their churches offered only superficial answers to life’s difficult questions. Many of them expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously, and were put off by ministers who didn't really seem to believe what the church taught.

Most of the students with whom Taunton spoke had their worldview shaped when they were between 14-17 years of age, and often embraced unbelief for emotional reasons, reacting to personal pain and suffering.

He discusses his findings in more detail in the article. Elaborating on the feelings many of his respondents expressed about the message and mission of their churches being vague or offering superficial answers to life’s difficult questions he writes:
These students heard plenty of messages encouraging "social justice," community involvement, and "being good," but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: "The connection between Jesus and a person's life was not clear." This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.

When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: "I really started to get bored with church."
Perhaps part of the problem, at least in much of the church today, is that the people charged with teaching young people about these things either can't or won't teach them or don't actually believe them themselves. Perhaps so many young people have left because the people who lead the church are uneducated, ill-informed, indifferent, or otherwise inadequate to the task to which they've been appointed.

When church leaders either don't really believe what they're teaching or can't communicate in ways that are culturally relevant and compelling, people, especially intelligent, educated people, aren't going to find much in the church to keep them there.