Much research, writing, praying, and head-scratching is going on these days as to why so few young adults are in the church. The name used for people born since 1984 is “Millennials” for some, but the name “Mosaics” is probably more accurate. Why? Because in a mosaic, each individual piece is different, retains its own beauty and identity, and contributes to a pattern. We err to lump all young adults into an oblong blob of oozy clay.
There are two considerably differing groups within the mosaic culture. One is the “pre-churched” who have no religious nurture, no childhood Bible stories, no Christian hymnody, no church camps, no “youth fellowships,” no pastors, no Sunday School teachers, no spiritual directors or mentors. Another is the “ex-churched” who had all or much of the above, but are no longer in church. David Kinnamon’s Barna Group researched the “ex-churched” before writing the recent book, You Lost Me. Addie Zierman wrote When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over.” She describes herself in her blog as a “recovering Jesus freak.” Carlyle Cross wrote her autobiography as a “minster’s wife examining her faith” in her book, Fleeing Fundamentalism. However, we err badly if those of us in mainline “liberal” churches point fingers at the refugees from “Jesus freaks” or doctrinal fundamentalism. Our losses are so painfully obvious when we look at 90% of our congregations on Sunday morning and miss the young adults whose grandparents or parents (or both) were and are pillars of that local church. We must ask of ourselves, “Where have all our children gone?”
Addie Zierman listed in one of her books, “five church phrases that are scaring off milennials.” She wrote about it, “I turned thirty this year and I’m raising two small boys. I left the church; I came back. We grew up on easy answers, clichés, and catchphrases, and (we have learned) that things are almost always more complicated than that.” She did some “research” on her social network and found some reasons her generation has dropped out of church.
Our last column addressed one of her generation’s concerns. It was the catch phrase of so many preachers and teachers, “The Bible says….” My response was not only to write an article but to write a book, Reading the Bible Again and Seeing It for the First Time. I have a publisher; if you want to make a pre-publication order, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Most people bog down in reading the Bible—either the ambitious attempt to read it “cover to cover” or even to read a single biblical book. My book gives a preview of the historical setting, the theological premise, the local “cultic” parts that have little meaning for us and the “eternal truths.” Then I give a chapter by chapter summary and close each “book” with “Golden Nuggets” for your memory bank.
Another of Ms. Zierman’s “catchy phrases that scare off” her generation is this: “God is in control.” Her network expresses this absolute sovereignty of God in two concerns: 1) “God has a plan and works in mysterious ways to fulfill it”; and 2) “God will never put on you more than you can handle.” Both of these are deeply rooted in our culture and they are the premises and outcroppings of Calvinism. Both are in conflict with the decisions and consequences with which we frame our lives.
John Calvin, an eminently brilliant lawyer in the 16th century, confesses that he did not start with scripture in his systematic theology. Rather, he started with a “philosophy of religion premise” that God is omnipotent. Obviously that means that God is an absolute sovereign who controls everything everywhere all the time. Rick Warren, wonderful Christian and marvelously effective pastor that he is, enunciated the practical divinity of Calvinism in the second chapter of his best-selling book in many languages: Purpose Driven Life. Thousands of United Methodists read it and many UMC churches taught it as a part of their local church curriculum.
In his second chapter, Warren writes, “Your birth was no mistake or mishap, and no fluke of nature. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did. He was not surprised by your birth. In fact, he expected it; long before you were conceived…, you were conceived in the mind of God.” Dr. Warren insists that your conception is not chance, or luck, or coincidence; you are “alive because God wanted to create you.” He goes on to say that “God described every single detail of your body.” “He custom made your body just the way he wanted it.” That would mean that every missing chromosome, every child born physically or mentally challenged, and every genetically carried disease is the will of God.
The Book of Job is God’s response to a divine-human interaction of “sin and punishment.” When Job lost his wealth, his health, his family, and his friends, those who postured themselves as friends lecture him in the “retribution theology” of that day in Judaism. Namely,in this theological paradigm, when misfortune comes to us, it is God’s punishment for our personal sins. Listen to what the Bible says through Bildad, one of Job’s three friends: “Supreme power and awe belong to God…how much less a human, a worm, a person’s child, a grub.”(25:1,6) The fourth person to theologize with Job is a younger man, named Elihu: “Far be it from God to do evil, for he repays people based on what they do; pay back everyone according to their ways.”(34:11) Elihu continues, “He says to the snow, ‘fall to the earth,’ and to the downpour of rain, ‘be a mighty shower.’” He stamps the hand of every person so all can know his work.”(37;6-7) He keeps on lecturing: “Whether for punishment, for his world or for kindness, God makes it all happen.”(37:13)
Why do we have the book of Job in the Bible? God inspired the writing of this drama with its prologue, not as a history book, but as a theology book! The fact is that Job’s suffering was not the result of his sin; it was not God’s “payback.” Job’s response goes through many chapters, but might be summarized in 31:35-36. “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! Here’s my signature; let the Almighty respond and let my accuser write an indictment. Surely I would bear it on my shoulder and tie it around me like a wreath.” Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him, but I will maintain my innocence to his face.”(13:15) This was contrary to Jewish theology—how dare anyone argue with God!!!
In the book of Deuteronomy, we have the clear enunciation of a “retribution theology.” That is, God blesses righteousness with long life, prosperity, and large families; but God punishes sin with suffering, poverty, no progeny, and a prescribed time to die. We see reinstatements and revivals of this “Deuteronomic theology” in other books of the Bible, in much Christian doctrine, and from many pulpits to this very day. That is why Allie Zierman’s generation is turned off by the “catchy phrase,” “God is in control.”
The point of Job is that the suffering of humankind is a mystery. Easy answers to complex questions can disillusion and disenchant. United Methodists do not embrace the doctrine of Calvinism. We do not believe that everything happens because we are like marionettes and God is pulling the strings. We do not believe that we are pre-programmed robots or “computer chips” that are destined for only one kind of behavior. We do not believe that every marriage is made in heaven or that every child is conceived as an act of God. We do not believe the term “God’s plan” is nearly as appropriate as the term, “God’s relationship.”
Jesus said often, “You have heard it said of old…but I say to you….” Other religions believe in God; both Judaism and Islam are fiercely monotheistic. Both are as convinced as we are that their holy books are inspired. Islam, especially, insists on a rigid predestination; to them God is in control of all human destiny. That is not our portrait of God! Jesus, and only Jesus, teaches us that God is our Father. St. Paul emphasized this to the Romans: “We do not have the spirit of fear but the spirit of adoption.
John Wesley preached that though God is omnipotent and could control everything that happens on the stage of human affairs, God has an attribute that is superior to God’s power—God’s love. And, Mr. Wesley insisted that love, expressed in God’s grace, can be rejected or accepted. Love reflects our relationship—a two way street. Professor Randy Maddox of Duke defines this as “synergism.” That is the nature of a relationship—initiative and response. God does not control whom we marry or God would have had to set up all the circumstances that provided our meeting—a war, a job transfer, the neighbor who moved in next door, the pastor who was assigned to our church with a daughter or son with whom we fell in love, or a blind date “caused” by the whim of a friend, etc. I know two people who met in alcohol/drug rehab. For God to have caused their meeting and marriage, God would have had to cause their addiction! God enables us to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but he did not cause the defeat.
God can and does inspire our decisions, but most of what happens to us is predicated on a decision we make or a decision that someone else makes that changes our life circumstances. We make choices that cause consequences. We must allow a place for free will. Even nature has a “will” of its own—atmospheric conditions create storms. If we see natural disasters or terrorism or “Sandy Hooks” as acts of God, then thousands will cease to say their prayers, go to church, or teach their children that God is our heavenly Father who loves us.
In Genesis 1:27 we read, “And God made humanity in God’s own image….” In John Wesley’s sermon, “the Image of God,” he parses this as “the liberty he originally enjoyed; the perfect freedom implanted in his nature, and interwoven with all its parts….left to himself what he would do; his own choice was to determine him in all things…. His Creator would not, and no creature besides himself could, weigh down either scale. So that, in this sense, he was the sole lord and sovereign judge of his own actions.” Sadly, few Methodists have been taught those words of Mr. Wesley! They are in direct contradiction of Mr. Calvin and Mr. Warren.
We must say to the generation of “mosaics” or “millennials” that God seeks us as what Francis Thompson called “the hound of heaven” who pursues us as a shepherd caring for his sheep. Fanny Crosby had my generation singing, “Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen; tell them of Jesus the mighty to save….rescue the perishing….” God sees relationship, not predetermined plan. We can thwart God’s will and pay the price, but our suffering and pain are not God’s plan; they are the price God pays for giving us our liberty. God does not “capsize our ship”; God throws us a lifeline. We can grab it and be rescued or sink beneath the consequential waves of our decision to refuse God’s help.
If we teach that God is in the punishing business, this generation will not take the guilt trip. If we teach what Jesus taught us and what Mr. Wesley taught us, we will have more of our children to “come home.”