If water is coming in through your ceiling, you can put a bucket under the leak, then climb up and patch the roof. Things get more complicated if the leak is in the basement. First, you might not notice it right away. Second, basement leaks are not easily fixed.
Analysts tell us that Christian churches in the Western world are leaking badly – members are leaking out, and odd ideas are getting in. Attendance is falling, older members are dying and younger ones are deserting traditional worship. Conservative churches are facing increasing pressure to adjust their policies on once-deplored practices such as couples living together, abortion and same-sex marriages. Churches try to limit the damage while desperately trying to plug the leaks.
Not surprisingly then, they have not focused on the problems in the basement. But seeping in through seams and bubbling up through cracks, new ideas are beginning to make their presence felt. These ideas might pose a greater challenge to traditional belief than any of the more attention-grabbing problems that currently dominate the agenda. It might be a good idea to see what is happening.
A recent study showed that the younger generation increasingly holds traditional Christianity in contempt.1 Many 16-to 29-year-olds use words such as “hypocritical,” “insensitive” and “judgmental” to describe the church. Don’t be misled by the apparent interest of the younger generation while they are in their teens. As youthful idealism gives way to the realities of adulthood, they become disillusioned. With church leadership firmly in the hands of an older generation, who are more interested in maintaining the status quo, the church seems out of touch. So as many as eight out of ten young adults abandon it. Some even become hostile.
Still, although they might abandon formal, institutionalized religion, these young adults do not necessarily lose their interest in Jesus. They are attracted to his message of concern for others, living unselfishly and treating all people with mercy and respect. In him, they see a message that goes to the heart of their world’s problems. Jesus is relevant. The church is not. So they would rather be identified as a “follower of Christ” rather than a “Christian.” Many also describe themselves as “Generic Christian” rather than identify with a particular denomination.
Losing the plot?
A growing number of writers, preachers and theologians across the whole spectrum of Christianity tell us we have confused the physical accoutrements of the middle-class dream with spiritual success. They are urging the church to reconsider its priorities if its witness is to be credible. Instead of obsessing over questions that most people do not worry about, they are urging churches to show leadership and a united front in confronting poverty, injustice and oppression and a respect for the physical creation. This, they say, is the appropriate way to present the gospel in the 21st century.
Some of these ideas might sound threatening to conventional believers, but wouldn’t we be wise to at least give them some thoughtful consideration? They might be, as the controversial emergent church leader Brian McLaren has suggested, the “words to a tune that you have been hearing for some time.”
A leaky basement is much harder to fix than a leaky roof. You can’t just plug the cracks from the inside. Hydrostatic pressure is relentless. The Holy Spirit is even more relentless, and Jesus said the Spirit would lead us into all truth.
Is the Spirit leading the younger generation to tell us something about our direction and priorities? Have we become more concerned with sin than salvation? It would not be the first time in the 2000-year-old history of Christianity that the church has needed to realign its message with the true intent of the gospel.
1 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (Baker Books, 2007).