The times are a changin’.
It is safe to say that in the last two decades; the world has changed tremendously. In everything from pop culture, to the accepted view of morality, to political power structures, things are changing at an accelerated rate. And there isn’t any sign of it slowing down. In the United States, some pockets of society are changing more than others. Some people are deliberately driving social and cultural change (believing they are doing the right thing), while others are adamantly resisting it (believing they are doing the right thing). In this rapid cultural transformation, one thing has become abundantly clear: Tensions are on the rise. The more change we see, the more trouble people have relating to, and communicating with, the increasing number of people who disagree with them. People and their beliefs are often simplistically misrepresented, mocked, and dismissed. In addition, people who grew up with one system of belief will be come in contact with people with many other belief systems, and will ultimately have their own belief system challenged. Many, upon being exposed to and challenged by a multitude of other beliefs, will question their own. Some will grow more confident in their beliefs, while many will become less confident. Many people will even abandon entirely the world view they grew up with.
I speak as a Christian.
Christianity has not been immune to the cultural transformations. A study by the Barna group shows that out of young people who grew up in church, 6 in 10 will leave the church with no intentions of returning [i]. While some are no doubt leaving for a time to “sow their wild oats”, others are leaving because they have lost or are losing confidence in what they have been taught to believe. Many young adults have doubts about what their church teaches, but don’t feel that they are welcome to ask questions. Many feel the church is anti-intellectual or anti-science. Others feel that they are too isolated from the culture at large. Some feel that doctrinal teaching is unclear or irrelevant to life in today’s world. Of course, many perceive the church as being overly judgmental.
I have personally talked to dozens upon dozens of young adults, ranging from people who went to Vacation Bible School as kids, to people who have worked in full time church ministry, who are now disillusioned, doubting and discouraged about the Christian faith. Some hold on to the core of Christian beliefs, and are confused about their particular denomination’s doctrinal preferences. Others have left the faith altogether and now consider themselves something other than Christian (many are atheists and agnostics. Others claim Buddhism.) From my own experience with doubt, and speaking with many fellow doubters and the disillusioned, I have become convinced that many people have a misperception of Christianity. They have been handed not just the core Christian teachings, with well thought out reasons for believing them. They have been handed a package. In the package is a system of secondary doctrinal beliefs, cultural preferences, and political positions. People have come to think that THIS, the package, is Christianity. For many, to doubt or question a secondary doctrine, or political position, or a cultural preference, is to question the whole package. It is to doubt or question Christianity.
Today, this is happening on a wide and unprecedented scale. Because of the radical transformations our civilization is experiencing, cultural, political, and doctrinal preferences are changing. Or at best being deeply questioned. If the heart of the Christian faith is perceived as being married to secondary doctrinal positions, or to some cultural preferences, or to political positions, then when that secondary position or preference is questioned or rejected, so too will Christianity be questioned or rejected. I’m convinced that this is precisely what is happening today. And it’s happening in mass. And it is not necessary.
As Christians, we must understand our faith, why we believe it in the first place, and be able to communicate it to others. But we must also be very careful to not marry lesser, secondary, beliefs to the heart of the Christian gospel itself. There are main things, and there are other things. We must not marry them together and present it to the world as a package. We must remove unnecessary obstacles to the Gospel.
With this in mind, I’d like to suggest the following as a way to move forward:
1. We must recognize that Christianity predates our culture.
We must not nail our cultural traditions to the Christian Gospel. Before there was an America, Apple Pie, Fundamentalism, Billy Sunday, Republicans and Democrats, there was Christianity. Christianity has existed, and exists now, in many different cultures. The specific cultural issues we’re facing today are important, but they aren’t paramount, and should not be confused with the heart of the Christian Faith. Christianity certainly influences culture, but we should not confuse our particular culture with Christianity itself. Because, Christianity is, quite frankly, bigger than our culture.
2. We must not marry secondary political, cultural, and doctrinal beliefs to the Gospel.
Whether we have intended to or not, we have often left people with the impression that they must be like us in order to be Christians. For example, many people have the subconscious belief that in order to be Christians, they must hold very similar political positions to ours. Upon touring the Southern United States, renowned journalist and vocal atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, remarked,
“You could certainly get the impression, from hanging out here, that god was a Republican, with a good chance of being white.” [ii]
Of course, this is simply not the case, but one could see how that impression is left on the mind. People outside of the church and in, must know that they can disagree about secondary things like foreign policy, the doctrine of election, states’ rights, the age of the earth, the interpretation of the book of James, and economics, and still be a good Christian. One can hold to Laissez Faire economics and be a good Christian. Alternatively, one can hold to Keynesian economics and be a good Christian. These are all secondary issues, and people must be made to know this. To be clear, I do not say that we must compromise and give up our political positions and cultural preferences, only that we should be careful about not muddling them with core Christian teaching.
Christians must not compromise core Christian teachings. But there are many beliefs that don’t directly affect these core teachings. While we must form opinions about them, we must also allow for flexibility and disagreement. We must allow people “wiggle room” in secondary beliefs. When people reject my opinion about the latest political controversy, or my interpretation of particular Scripture passage, they must know that it isn’t Christianity that they must reject. It is only a disagreement about a secondary issue.
3. We must recognize that Christianity has a long and robust history of thought.
Christianity has made tremendous contributions to the history of world thought. From beliefs about the nature of God, to human nature, and the nature of the world around us, Christianity has had lengthy and robust conversations which have moved the world forward. Many of the philosophical beliefs developed under Christian influence have been ingrained into the fabric of Western (and world) thought. The world we live in today was built by the past, and Christian thinking made great contributions. But today, this thinking is being challenged and too hastily discarded. Many of the big questions being asked today have already been discussed, but we’ve forgotten the answers. We would do well to look beyond our time in history to the past, and recall what our forebears had to say on these issues. They were certainly not infallible, but knowledge of their discussions can serve to inform and enrich ours, and give us confidence and context when being challenged by other beliefs.
4. We must stand firm on the primary issues, but understand them, why we believe them, and be able to communicate them to those who don’t understand or agree.
In this age, every claim will be googled within minutes. Google results don’t always provide the most intellectual or reliable results, but rest assured, they will be checked. As Christians, we MUST not only know what the foundational Christian doctrines are, but know WHY we believe them. It isn’t enough to teach our children Bible stories. We must teach them what the stories mean, and why we believe the Bible in the first place. We must discuss what we believe about secondary issues, but also what others believe and why. Because they will find out about them.
In a time when tensions are high, and people understand less and less of traditional Christian ideas, we must take the time to understand, explain, and communicate to them. We cannot assume that people know or understand what we are talking about, even if they were raised in church. In many cases, people living in the same country, speaking the same language, are coming from very different places and perspectives.
We cannot compromise the core of the Christian Gospel, but we must find ways of communicating it to a generation that increasingly does not understand it, or see the relevance in it. We must make it clear, and we must not nail additional obstacles to it. We must form opinions about secondary issues, but we must keep them secondary. The Gospel that changed the world is worth it. Because in a world that is changing rapidly, Christianity can still offer Hope and Truth.
[ii] Christopher Hitchens, And Yet, Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. Print. pg 75