Evangelicals are belatedly grappling with how to minister to the young skeptics they are producing, but they still don’t understand why sticking with the church has become so prohibitive. Anna Scott describes the overwhelming, disheartening effort involved in not only believing in the midst of deep suffering, but in finding a Christian identity in a landscape so fraught with division, hypocrisy, and misunderstanding.
AFTER READING Drew Dyck’s article, “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church,” in Christianity Today, I found myself feeling viscerally and personally offended. While numerous other valid critiques could be made of the piece, I have to concede that my response was sparked by a deeply personal experience: in December, my formerly Christian husband left me; in February, he asked for a divorce. With each month, new and nightmarish revelations followed.
Needless to say, in my particular circumstances I was not blameless, but I tried to do everything in my power to save my marriage; to “win” my husband “back to the Lord,” and try to extricate him from his seemingly immovable depression. I believed—and still do—that marriage is sacred and was committed to stay in mine, no matter what happened, even if that meant I could foresee only a life of misery at home. In other words, I did everything Al Mohler, John Piper, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, or others who decry the culture’s casual view of marriage would have suggested or demanded. Every Christian I knew tried to approach my ex-husband, and I would guess that even my non-Christian friends and family offered up their own versions of prayers. But, in the end, he walked away from his faith and from his vows. And left me scraping myself up off of the floor.
How does this relate to Dyck’s thoughts on “leavers?” I would suggest that it relates fairly directly: where Dyck observes a shallow, uninformed, utilitarian faith, my church background has been in the Presbyterian and Anglican traditions; that is, my maturation and establishment in the faith consisted of both the robustness of Reformed theology and the tradition and history of sacramental worship. I attended a Christian college, spent a year in missions work, over a year working for a Christian social services organization, and nearly 2 years in an evangelical seminary known for its integration of intellectual depth, Christian orthodoxy and engagement in culture. But, no amount of theology, liturgy or depth can really and truly inoculate you against what Dyck refers to, in passing, as “the hard rocks of reality,” which is how he refers to suffering. This might not be true of the first collision, or the second, or even the third, but at some point, as I have done, you begin to question at least two pillars of Christian faith: sovereignty and love.
Though I knew that there is suffering in the world, it never made me look the doctrine of sovereignty in the eye, or made me question the refrain, “He is for your good.” On some level, I felt that if one had “good theology” and was a thoughtful person, then she wouldn’t question her faith because of suffering. I guess I believed that suffering was somehow a silly reason, one not fit for a deep person or an intellectual Christian. I learned in reading Job that we cannot fathom or grasp the mind of God or His workings in the world. I always thought that, if we could understand or “pin down” God, He wasn’t a God big enough to be worth believing in. If the gospel is true, the things that we observe and experience cannot prove it false.
But, what did it mean that, while God is sovereign, and while He works all things for my good, great sin was allowed to occur that would change my life forever. Was God using sin? Could he have done this to me? Is this what he wanted for me? Did He want me to honor my marriage and try my best to save it, only to have it fall apart in the cruelest of ways? I know that we don’t always get what we ask for, and I realize that this view proves Dyck’s point, in that it reflects a “naïve, coldly utilitarian view of God.” But, if God seemed fairly “hands-off” here, the next logical question seems to be what was the role of personal, intercessory prayer, or the belief in a personal God? And, if He was “hands-on,” what did it say about His character?
Every time I think about returning to church, standing and singing hymns about God’s care and love for us—songs that I used to sing, standing next to my husband in our beloved Massachusetts church—every time I want to return to “my only comfort in life and in death, that I am not my own, but belong—in body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful savior Jesus Christ,” à la the Heidelberg Catechism, I am overcome with sadness and anger. He is either sovereign and cruel or removed and abstract. I could read all of the theology in the world; I could worship in the oldest and most rooted of churches and it would not settle this question for me.
Surely, I am not the only person to have “crashed” on these “rocks” of sin and suffering, sovereignty and certainty. And I no longer think that it is a sign of immaturity or ignorance that these rocks give birth to doubt; in fact, I think it is immature and ignorant to deny these very real questions: about rape, about mental illness, about earthquakes, about affairs, about divorce, about children born into extreme poverty. Where does sovereignty end and sin begin? And what does that say about God? Shouldn’t this be relevant to any discussion of disbelief?
But, my own suffering was not the end of doubt for me; rather, it has been a beginning. Now, the things that I used to have the energy and the will to battle or persuade myself of, I can no longer face. Many of these are things that friends—mostly from Christian colleges—who have already left the faith have been testifying to for a long time; things that I have long tried to verbally refute (God didn’t bring about your suffering! He created a world without sin and death!), or prove wrong with my life (evangelicals can work for social justice!). In the same way that I can no longer dismiss suffering as a legitimate impetus for doubt, neither can I dismiss the state and behavior of the Church, issues of identity, and the reality that life in this world is complicated as hell.
So, while the next portion of this reflection will treat a group of less personal issues, they have been of equal consequence for me, and were all but neglected in Dyck’s piece. As he frustratingly and quickly passed over the question of our encounters with suffering, so he gave only cursory attention to some of the areas that I and others have found to be most problematic.
I see three of these issues as primary; the first is the state of the Church itself. Dyck certainly acknowledges the holes in our church programming and in evangelicals’ reflexive responses to questioning and doubt (as David Sessions affirmed here at Patrol). Unfortunately, he neglects the larger issue of the Church’s witness. He fails to see how faith crises and innate longings push evangelical youth, people who were raised in or came to faith in the context of an individual church community that formed their idea of the Christian world, to grapple with ecclesiology and the grim scene with which they are faced. On the one hand, the non-denominational bible churches—whether in houses, storefronts or school gyms—have been riddled with crises of authority, scandals, cults of personality, and other challenges that suggest a need for greater structural accountability. But the more traditional denominations are likewise riddled with conflict and declining attendance. For a young evangelical to wade into the broader ecclesial morass is discouraging, to say the least. More discouraging is the way so many who eventually follow the “young, restless and reformed” crowd or the evangelical-to-Catholic convert crowd become smug and condescending toward those who opt for a different theology or membership.
The stakes become higher when denominational choices and theological forays are attached to questions of identity, another area not touched on at all in the “Leavers” piece. For women who feel called to ministry, this is not an abstract issue, as our home church or our new denomination has likely debated—or will likely debate—our role in the church and in the home. That is, while these are academic questions for male theologians and pastors, and even for many women who do not feel called to positions that would precipitate a run-in with these debates, for many of us it is not only deeply fraught, vocationally, but also deeply painful, personally.
This particular “identity” issue is another area in which the evolving complexities of the world come up against the absolutes of the evangelical church. I don’t mean to suggest that the church should adapt to culture or any such thing that would raise the hackles of purists, but, rather to highlight the reality that many women hold powerful and prestigious positions in the world, and yet are constrained in their churches. Although this is couched in language of “complementarity” and “difference in roles rather than worth,” the fact remains that it is an inherently jarring experience to be encouraged to pursue influence and achievement outside of the Church—and, particularly in many of the urban church plants, to use this influence to make an impact within culture—but not be allowed a vote or have a place at the table in the Church. I suspect that, after the dust settles at many of these primarily urban churches that have had some success in reaching out to young, skeptical, educated evangelicals, many women will begin to ask questions about their role, and will be unsatisfied with the answers. Because I was pursuing an MDiv and, ultimately, ordained ministry, this is something I was constantly evaluating. I would weigh my options thusly: this church is theologically orthodox , but doesn’t ordain women, or even allow women elders; this other church allows women in ministry, but seems to sell out the gospel; still, this other one has a rich history and clear doctrine, but says that only a man can represent Christ in the Eucharist. I can say, from experience, that this is utterly wearying both in terms of an ecclesial journey and in terms of affirmation and validation of one’s identity.
And now, as a divorced person, I have unfortunately been exposed to a new manifestation of Christian identity politics. While my divorce seemed fairly straightforward, biblically speaking, and I had no control over my ex-husband’s decision, I engaged in a little exercise a few months into the process, and researched churches’ and denominations’ positions on divorce and remarriage. As we all know, the Catholic Church does not recognize even the accepted biblical allowances, except via the apparent “loophole” of annulments, but I was surprised to find that Reformed icon John Piper also opposes remarriage. While the Southern Baptists affirm the abandonment, adultery and apostasy allowances, Al Mohler has recently taken to the blogosphere regarding the prevalence of Christian divorce. I have no problem with a high view of marriage—God knows I tried to adhere to it—but I do have a problem with having to try to discern what a given church’s pronouncement will be on my tragically unavoidable status.
The world is complicated, unpredictable, volatile and tragic, but the Church rarely has room for this, except in theological debates that do not touch the laity, who are merely expected to toe the line. For example, a young woman in Dyck’s article was sexually abused, but all we are told is that she was confronted for her “hardness,” which she apparently recognized. I am betting more could have been explored about how the situation was handled, structurally; what kinds of pronouncements were made, officially; and, equally relevant, what kind of teaching and activism goes on (or doesn’t) that might fail to equip young women to face these situations in an informed manner, or emphasize the imperative for female modesty in order to repel male aggression. These things are not, necessarily, about evangelical tropes like “hardness of heart” or even “being hurt by the church”—they are about pronouncements made about identity, about structural limitations and ideological minefields. We cannot be surprised when young people are tired of facing in the Church what they do not have to face in the culture.
As a woman, and now as a divorced woman, I must spend far too much time trying to discern how a given church will view my role, my identity and my “rights.” Admittedly, like many evangelical, egalitarian women, I have always fought the “slippery slope” argument against women in ministry, insisting that it was unrelated to the homosexuality issue. But, despite knowing that this might serve to discredit me, I am increasingly cognizant of the fact that this must be how gays and lesbians feel in the Church. As we have seen, many efforts to “change” one’s sexuality have ended tragically and lifelong celibacy must seem a cruel fate, much like not being permitted to remarry would feel to me. When you see something as an immutable but integral part of your identity, it is heartbreaking to have that rejected in the Church. I always held that personal experience, such as that of homosexuals, did not change biblical truth; I now have a harder time with this. Personal experience is often all that we really know.
I want to end this litany of criticisms by acknowledging a point that I found both offensive and mildly insightful, but for different reasons than Dyck identifies: I do think that moral compromise plays a role in a person’s decision to leave Christianity, but I think that the negative influence is actually exerted on the developing doubter, rather than on the moral transgressor. Having attended youth group religiously (yes, I am going with this idiom despite the pun) and a prominent Christian college, followed by years in communities, churches, faith-based organizations and Christian graduate school, I can easily attest to the willingness—even eagerness—of young evangelicals to compromise biblical standards and call it doubt or rebellion. But, sooner or later, these people will find a nice Christian husband or wife and return to the church of their childhood, because doubt is not their real issue. It is those of us who are trying to build a thoughtful, substantive, deep faith who observe this behavior in young people raised in the church and wonder what has gone wrong. What the hell is going on here? I often asked myself, observing this profound lack of authenticity. Why do these people—and, in all honestly, I became one of them in college—bother retaining the trappings of Christianity at all?
My initial reaction to Dyck’s piece included a list of solutions to the “young doubters” problem, but, upon review, I realized that these are the same things we can—and do—read about anywhere: call for a more culturally engaged church, or more listening and less anti-intellectualism, more civility, and a renewed connection with the historical church and liturgy. These things might help, but they may also serve only as stopgap measures, a kind of reupholstering of the furniture. I worry that, once one begins to truly comprehend the depth of suffering and complexity, and the Church’s repeated inadequacy in responding, there may be no return. I also fear that I will run out of energy and will give up at some point in the search to discern my place in the Church, or that I will get tired of weighing one sacrifice against another (preaching or liturgy? egalitarianism or vibrant urban ministry? Anglican and orthodox or Episcopalian and tolerant?). Surely these issues are not insignificant, and, even if there were easily accessible answers, I do not know when or how I will believe again as I did before. Whatever the solution, it must take us—“doubters,” “leavers,” or whatever your preferred label—on our own terms, rather than attempting to rope us back into the old paradigm with only a new look to offer.
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