Our Silence is driving millennials out of the church

David Gushee, a theologian and ethicist who teaches at the McAfee School of Theology, struck a nerve when he suggested that moderate Baptists with roots in the Southern Baptist Convention could benefit from a statement of faith.

Bill Leonard, my esteemed church history professor, asks which of the many Baptist statements of faith we would use.

Others worry that creeds have traditionally been used to patrol the borders of acceptable belief, drawing a line between us and them.

Finally, with all the theological diversity evident within moderate (and immoderate) Baptist life, how could we agree on language that was acceptable to everybody. What’s the old joke: when you have four Baptists you have five opinions.

As Dr. Gushee would surely agree, these are valid concerns, but I’m not sure they address David’s primary argument. Responding to his respondents, Gushee put the matter succinctly,

When our young ministers are asked, “So what about other religions? Do all roads lead just as well to God?” And “How exactly does Jesus dying on a cross 2,000 years ago help me?” And “My Dad is leaving my Mom and it’s tearing our whole family apart; what does God think about that?” Are they equipped to answer these questions? I fear our reticence to be clear and concrete in our theology and ethics is leaving churches, ministers and families speechless before the most important perennial and contemporary questions.

With Millennials (those with birth dates between 1980 and 2000) abandoning our churches at an alarming rate, is it okay if we maintain a discrete silence on the issues that trouble them the most? Maybe we can’t achieve a rough consensus on the big issues; but can we at least get a lively conversation started?

At issue is the character of God. Does God love all of us, all the time, no matter what; or will God favor a select few with the splendors of heaven while consigning unbelievers, and those born into the wrong religious culture, to the fires of hell?

This may strike you as a singularly crude way of stating the issue; but the Millennials streaming out of our churches don’t have a lot of theological tools to work with. All they know is what they hear from the small circle of Christian superstars who control the media microphone. Most of these young people want nothing to do with a God who damns GLBT people for being the way He made them. Nor are they interested in a deity who bars the pearly gates to non-Christians.

Most millennials read the Bible randomly and with few contextual clues. They find themselves with nothing much to do and they see the black book sitting on the coffee table or the motel night stand. Succumbing to mild curiosity, they open the black book and read a few sentences. What do they find?

I just opened my Bible at a venture and here’s what I found:

Do not rejoice, all you Philistines,
that the rod that struck you is broken,
for from the root of the snake will come forth the adder,
and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.
The firstborn of the poor will graze,
and the needy lie down in safety;
but I will make your root die of famine,
and your remnant I will kill.
-Isaiah 14:29-30

Informed Bible students will recognize the familiar voice of the prophet Isaiah and will understand the reference to the Philistines and a rising Assyrian empire. We may also note God’s preferential love for poor and vulnerable people–a common biblical theme.

But the people turning their backs on organized religion are not informed Bible students. They read without context and catch the most dramatic details; the fiery serpent, death by famine, and the slaughter of the remnant. The takeaway: God is mad and determined to do some damage.

Having completed my experiment with random Bible reading, I just flipped on the television and checked out the first religious program I ran across. I learned that the Palestinians should stop asking for their own homeland because they are the descendants of Ismael (the child of a slave woman), while the Jews are the descendants of Isaac (the child of promise). I also learned that God takes a dim view of Obamacare and that humans are constantly besieged by evil spirits. All this in five minutes.

Put all of this together and we see why Millennials are fleeing the church. Ain’t nobody got time for a vengeful God with a knee-jerk preference for status quo politics. And that’s the only God they know.

Viewed against this cultural backdrop, our theological silence is a big problem. For better or worse, most of the current crop of young people didn’t grow up in Sunday school, they aren’t familiar with the great hymns of the faith (from whence we get most of our theology), they haven’t been exposed to hundreds of reassuring sermons about a loving God, and they have no idea how to read the Bible. All they know is what they hear on the radio, see on television, and discern from the half dozen times they have randomly cracked a Bible. If we want these people to believe that God loves them, all the time, no matter what, we must be able to make our case in simple and persuasive terms.

The essential features of Christian theology aren’t all that complicated. First, we must read the Bible “Christianly”. If Jesus is the full and final revelation of God, his vision is decisive. Christ is lord of scripture.

Drawing on Old Testament teaching, Jesus portrays God as infinitely loving, forgiving, merciful, long-suffering and kind. Since God’s like that, we should be like that. Because God loves the enemy, so must we. Because God demolishes us-them distinctions, so must we. Because God takes the side of poor, vulnerable people, so must we. Because God condemns cruelty and oppression, so must we.

Jesus used hell language to dramatize the fate of those who exploit defenseless children, poor people, immigrants, widows and orphans. (Think of the parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke 16, or the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.)

These simple principles define the kingdom of God, the concept at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus lived out the kingdom and it cost him his life. Easter morning is God’s thunderous ‘amen’ to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed.

To follow Jesus is to live the kingdom of God he preached. That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Heaven and hell are this-worldly realities that invade the world as a consequence of the choices we make. When we live the kingdom, heaven takes root. If we look out for number one, the scent of sulfur hangs in the air and the wrath of God is upon us.

Serious theological discussion is controversial. You may disagree with my take on Jesus and the kingdom. Or we may agree about Jesus but disagree about what kingdom living looks like in the real world. Theology is a spirited conversation that never ends. But if we play by kingdom rules, no one gets hurt and the potential for blessing is great.

But if we maintain our polite silence, we will have nothing to offer the folks who are forsaking organized religion. They have very good reasons for going; can we tell them why they should stay?

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • DrCarlHoffman

    I agree the issue is the character of God. Recycling a historic confession of
    faith is not our answer. Our understanding of God has not progressed much since
    The Enlightenment. Fundamentalism is one reaction to the ideas of that age and it
    will not withstand the challenge of secular thinking. The other reaction,
    liberal theology, has few followers as mainline churches are rapidly declining.
    The way we have traditionally described God has contradictory applications and
    many refuse to live with the ambiguity that is described in this article.

    I think we need a bigger and a better theology and doctrine of God where we do
    not describe God in only anthropomorphic terms without the limitations of time
    and space. I am working on this issue in my mind but I want some collaboration.
    I am worried we are losing. Today in America the church is in decline and religion
    is thought of as no more than mere superstition with silly rules. I ask the
    question, can we say being made in God’s image refers to our consciousness? Recently,
    a paper was written on the idea of consciousness being considered as a state of
    matter. (Abstract in link below) Current theologians need to be aware of this
    development and see if the idea gains traction among physicists. Based on my
    assumption that God has consciousness we may have something scientifically
    verifiable. There would be no place for agnostics and atheists because they
    would be the science deniers. I was asked by an agnostic Jewish medical doctor, “Where
    does Jesus Christ fit?” I told her and her atheist philosophy professor husband that
    Jesus is the interface between God and man. She replied, “This is the first
    time Jesus has made sense to me.”


  • RalphCooper

    Thanks for this, Alan. The message of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament, and especially the teachings of Jesus is that we are to be about justice, that is social justice, for those who have not, the poor, the imprisoned, the powerless, etc. When we do we bring the kingdom of God closer, and when we join the oppressors, we push it further away.