One spring day about 20 years ago, I went to Menard’s to buy paneling for a basement project. Then and now, I typically go for the cheapest product available if it looks good in the store. So I chose a wood-grain pattern in $6.99 sheets the approximate thickness of a business card. I loaded the 4-by-8-foot sheets onto one of those raised, flat carts, paid and wheeled everything outside.
I’d forgotten that this was a blustery April day. As soon as I reached the crosswalk between the store and the parking lot, a wind gust of about 40 mph whipped the top sheet of paneling off the cart and sent it sailing just over the heads of two elderly women on their way toward the store.
I don’t know if there are any documented cases of decapitation by cheap paneling, but this came horrifyingly close. The soundtrack still plays in my mind:
WOPPA WOPPA WOPPA WOPPA SPLAT.
The paneling landed harmlessly in the parking lot. The ladies didn’t seem like they’d even noticed – they were both wearing those plastic rain bonnets sold at Walgreen’s for 79 cents; consequently they had no peripheral vision.
My basement project proceeded with scratched paneling and no court date.
And then, in a damp basement, within a couple of months the cheap paneling warped and got moldy. I ended up tearing it all out and throwing it away. The paneling that had looked so good under the protective store roof lasted only a couple of seconds when exposed to the outside world. And then, even surviving that shock, it quickly became useless and embarrassing when permanently placed in a hostile environment.
I thought of that brush with infamy the other day after talking with a college student. He grew up in a small town far from suburbia, went to the small church there and lived a sheltered life. When he arrived at a large state university, he quickly realized that a majority of people there saw life very differently than he did. Things weren’t as black and white as he’d been led to believe. Good people did some pretty bad things. People he’d been taught were bad were actually pretty nice. The people having the most fun didn’t seem to hold any faith at all. Exposure to the bigger world made his faith seem irrelevant. The other small-town values he’d grown up with seemed irrelevant, too.
Two issues here. One, his faith wasn’t very deep. He’d been living his parents’ faith, which also wasn’t very deep – more cultural than spiritual. And two, he’d never tested it in the culture he’d eventually live in as an adult. So a big part of it blew away like a piece of cheap paneling in a windstorm. The remaining part was unsuitable for its new environment, so he soon discarded it as useless and irrelevant.
In the current issue of Relevant magazine, Barna Group president David Kinnaman observes:
“The ages of 18 to 29 are the crossroads – the time in life when people – if they are going to do it – are most likely to rethink their spirituality. Though people often become more spiritually minded as they get older, they don’t change very much in terms of spirituality. They tend to stay committed to faith perspectives that have served them for decades.”
Here’s what this looked like in the not-too-distant past: Most Americans, like my student, grew up with some Christian experience – anything from twice-a-year church attendance to devotedly following Christ. During their college and young adult years, many placed their faith on a shelf – or saw it shredded in a cultural hurricane they weren’t ready for. A fair amount eventually would pick up that faith again – often when they had young kids of their own.
Today, a huge proportion of American youth have no church experience – none. Their spiritually disillusioned parents never took them. Faith has absolutely no role in their lives and Christianity is no more than a punchline on a cartoon show. This has happened quickly – within one generation. Too many churches failed to recognize the scale of the problem until it had snowballed. Now it’s a crisis.
In a blog post titled, “This is Why We Plant Churches,” Scott Thomas of Mars Hill Church in Seattle cites Barna research in noting that, in the past 20 years, the number of Americans who don’t attend church has nearly doubled. At last check, only 18 percent of Americans are attending church on any given Sunday – and that’s projected to drop below 15 percent in the next decade. The largest unchurched population? Twenty-somethings.
I realize that church attendance and Christian faith don’t necessarily co-exist for everyone any more. But generally they still do. And that means Christianity has little to no role in the lives of a heavy majority of Americans today – especially those under 30.
So, while spiritual rethinking still likely happens between ages 18 and 29, it now occurs, for many, without any Christian context. The usual end result is wishy washy, inclusive theology (all roads lead to some concept of heaven) that has no basis in anything other than good feelings. That kind of world view, when truly tested, gets whipped into the street like a sheet of cheap paneling. And people are left looking for better answers.
Churches that focus heavily on reaching and discipling young adults – even at the expense of other ministries – are likely to become part of a new reformation that’s already begun. Those that fail to do this may find their doors closed. Very, very soon.