Posts Tagged ‘disillusionment’

Friends of ours were talking about their daughter. During lunch periods at her public high school, she’s befriended a girl who’s pregnant. Eventually, she invited the girl to youth group at church.

“Will I be judged?” the girl asked.

“Yes, by some,” our friends’ daughter responded. “But there will be a lot of others who won’t. They’ll be glad you’re there.”

That’s the most real, honest answer I’ve ever heard to that kind of a question. No one finds universal acceptance in any social situation – even at church, where we should. Kids who are told to expect total grace from a church youth group will be disappointed, and maybe disillusioned.  I’ve seen it happen too many times.

At the same time, the answer promises this girl that she will indeed find a measure of love, acceptance and yes, grace.

The girl is thinking about it. A lot of us who don’t even know her are praying for her. We’re praying that she’ll see Jesus.

I think maybe she already has.

My kids grew up in a world missions-oriented church. For those with the financial means to go – and that was many in our affluent church – short-term missions trips helped build churches and other facilities around the world – particularly for a sister church in Eastern Europe.

It would be impossible to make a biblical argument argue against foreign missions. Jesus specifically called us to take the gospel to the whole world and make disciples. I think we have to be careful, though, about assuming that sending teens overseas is a sure way to seal their faith.

Sociologist Christian Smith has found that teens who take short-term missions trips are, statistically, no more likely than teens who don’t go to have a strong religious faith after age 18. It’s a proven non-factor (this from a Christianity Today webinar in 2009).

When one of my sons was 16, he went on a two-week missions trip to Scotland. The organization that planned the trip has an impeccable reputation; its leaders love God and care deeply about both the teens they’re traveling with and the people of the cities they visit. The trip represented a significant financial sacrifice for our family, plus months of fundraising from friends and relatives. But foreign missions were a huge part of our church’s culture, and were heavily emphasized in the youth group. We believed this could be a defining time in our son’s life.

“I really wanted to see the world,” my son told me recently. “So for that reason, I’m glad I went. But I felt like I had a quota. There was a certain number of people we were supposed to persuade to make a decision for Christ. While we were there, some people would raise serious questions that I couldn’t answer. And afterwards, a lot of that sank in.”

Five years after that trip, a significant number of people who went on that Scotland trip have either placed their faith on a shelf somewhere or have abandoned Christianity altogether. For my son, for now,  it’s the latter. I don’t place any blame on the organization or its leaders; just as many kids from that trip are solid in their faith today. But I do believe the research: The trip was a nonfactor in predicting what those kids did with their faith as they reached young adulthood.

The real factor, I think, was how real they saw their faith and their churches once they got home.

“High school was terrible,” my son says today of his youth-group experience. “Cliques formed and the leaders seemed OK with that. It was obvious they were separating kids into groups – by their looks, by their attitudes. The problem kids were separated from the others.

“Church is a lot more centered on what you shouldn’t do than about how to cope with life in modern times. Everybody was trying to be something they weren’t. I saw kids who supposedly were the model Christians, from the model families, and they were doing stuff you wouldn’t believe.”

He saw all of that more and more clearly, and he became disillusioned. It’s tough for anyone, let alone a teenager, not to equate a bad experience with church to a bad experience with God. So, when he didn’t like what he saw, he chucked it all.

Knowing what we know today, would we still send our kids on missions trips? I think so. Some offer amazing experiences serving the poor and needy, both in America and abroad. Christ can be far more visible in those situations than here in comfortable, middle-class America. But our expectations would be a lot different.

Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  Honestly, I’ve had a hard time with that verse the past few years. I do know that God is faithful – just not always in a way that’s to my immediate liking.

A church youth group can be the greatest thing in a teen’s spiritual development. For others, that same youth group can send them off the tracks. The same goes for missions trips. We parents wish there were bullet-proof guarantees on our kids’ spiritual lives. I’m here to tell you, there aren’t. At least not that I can see from this vantage point.

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.

“We do not have time to waste our lives living out a Christian spin on the American Dream.”

— David Platt, “Radical”

God has indeed blessed us, as Americans. He certainly has blessed me. But maybe not in the ways we’ve been taught to think.

My friend Nate, a disillusioned but deep-thinking Christian, says the idea that God wants to provide us with material blessings is heresy. Here’s a quick excerpt from an interview I did with him a couple of years ago:

“While most of us reject the lure of the traditional prosperity gospel, the truth is we just find the crass materialism distasteful. But we DO believe that if we do certain things – like ‘accept’ Jesus, tithe, go to church, keep our noses clean) – then God is obligated to place a hedge of protection around us and ensure that we’re happy and satisfied with our lives. I don’t know where that promise is written, but it’s just the ‘magic words’ mentality of the prosperity gospel dressed up in more acceptable terms. Instead of getting health and wealth from Jesus, we get satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment. Where is there any decent teaching on suffering and its role in the Christian’s life? Nowhere. Because North Americans don’t have to suffer; we live in comfort and we’ve twisted the Good News to suit our desire to remain comfortable.”

Uh, yeah ...

I’ll disagree with Nate a little and say there’s some terrific teaching out there on suffering. See Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis, just to pluck from the top of the list. But I do agree that this kind of teaching doesn’t sell millions of books or get the author’s prosperous teeth and hair on the cover.

God’s blessings are not always material; in fact, the best ones are not. Either way, that’s not the ultimate point. As my pastor, Dan, said recently: The larger question is, what am I doing with the blessings God has already given ne? Am I keeping them for myself, or am I giving them away – using them for the benefit of others who need help?

Platt writes in “Radical”: “Why not begin operating under the idea that God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so we could give more?”

What if I gave myself a salary cap? And anything above that, I gave away? What if I sold or gave away a lot of the luxuries surrounding me? What would it look like to take Jesus’ advice in Mark 10 to the rich young man: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I know, I know, Jesus wasn’t necessarily saying all of his followers should give away everything they have, become missionaries and move to some Third World country. The real question is: Am I willing to do something like that? To forsake everything for the cause of the gospel?

It’s interesting: The more stuff I have, the more likely I am to say, “Jesus wasn’t talking to me there.”

But what if he was? Would I be able to hear him? And then, what would my answer be?

In his introduction to “Henri Nouwen: In My Own Words,” editor Robert Durback writes that divisions and separations within Christian communities are more painful than any other.

“In the secular and political realm we expect division and even deviousness. In religious communities that preach love, acceptance, equality, and forgiveness, we expect more. It’s the wounds we suffer from religious people and religious institutions that hurt the most. It is within this arena that our struggle toward spiritual maturity can be put to the severest of tests. Nowhere can “homelessness” be felt more deeply than when we feel estranged from the Christian community.”

Many people – young adults in particular — have understood life as a series of short-term, broken community experiences. When that’s the case, we quickly default to “protect” mode and pull away from a community before we get hurt again. If relationships within a church have been the problem, we can remain gun-shy for a long, long time.

Maybe there’s a fundamental flaw in how we in the evangelical world look at the church’s relation to our faith life. For many of us, they have been inseparable. The way we have experienced and lived our faith has had everything to do with the way we’ve interacted within our church community.

That is natural. But it can’t begin and end there. I’ve watched older Christians become bitter and downright mean because a church has adapted its services to appeal to younger people. Or, people have vowed never to return to a church – any church – after being deeply hurt by someone there. When we’ve bought in too heavily to churchy-ness, the state of our faith depends on our happiness with church. It’s where we go to find acceptance as people, acceptance of our opinions, and encouragement to continue building the Fortress.

We have equated something eternal with something temporary and imperfect. Our expectations were flawed, because our underlying relationship with God has been flawed. Churches will disappoint us. If we’re not careful, we end up either rejecting our faith outright because of a bad church experience or – more often – we reject the church and decide we’ll just go it alone with God. And we forsake community: the entity that God so often uses to draw people to himself.

Guess who wins then?

In 1995, as a free-lance writer, I accepted a free trip to a media event at Walt Disney World (this was before I had learned enough about journalistic ethics to realize this was probably a bad idea). Free airfare, three nights free Disney hotel, free admission to all the parks, even vouchers for free food.

For three days during the parks’ least-busy season, I was treated like a Disney princess. I could ride any ride I wanted, see any show, eat at any restaurant … all on Mickey Mouse’s dime. The catch was, I was by myself. We journalists would attend a morning press conference about new rides and attractions, and then the rest of the day was our own.

There is a definite place in life for solitude. That place is a long way from Disney World. I have never had so little fun at such a fun place. As I watched Indiana Jones blow up an airplane, got dropped from the Tower of Terror and nearly refunded my lunch on a simulator ride called “Body Wars,” I’d never felt more uncomfortably isolated in my entire life. I’d get off the ride and there would be no one to talk with, laugh with … even barf with.

I’d just had exactly the same experience as all of those happy, laughing people getting off the ride at the same time, but all I felt was alone and very self-conscious … and that I shouldn’t walk anywhere near small kids, lest their parents think I was some pervert on holiday.

The experience was just … empty. I couldn’t wait to go home, and to come back later with my family.

In the true 1996 book and 2007 movie, “Into the Wild” — for my money one of the best films of the past decade — Christopher McCandless graduates from college disillusioned with materialistic society. So, he leaves home without telling anyone where he’s going, gives away everything he has, and embarks on a solo quest to find meaning and purpose. That led to random stops around the country, but all with an eventual goal: Alaska. The ultimate wilderness.

Before embarking on the last leg of his journey north, Chris tells his friend Ron Franz: “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God’s place is all around us. It is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.”

Near the end of the film, though, Chris realizes that finding himself, alone, has been no answer. Facing starvation in the wilderness, McCandless writes in the margin of the book, “Doctor Zhivago”: “Happiness only real when shared.”

The prevailing thought in our culture about what someone should do when they’ve been hurt or disappointed by the church is to abandon the church, if not one’s faith altogether. Go it alone for a while. Or, at very least, find a new church.

Timothy Keller, in “The Prodigal God” writes: “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” Churches are often so unpleasant, he writes, because “they are filled with elder brothers (he’s referencing Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son). Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self-righteousness. Besides that, there is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t find the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.”

Christianity is a belief system, a personal faith. But at its core, it’s a one-to-one relationship with Jesus. You can’t begin to understand a relationship like that unless you also experience the closest thing we have to it: imperfect human relationships.

Next time: The flip side. The value of wilderness solitude, for a season.

In his 1993 song, “If I Ever Lose My Faith,” Sting sings about disillusionment with science, the church, politicians, “the people on TV” – all of the institutions that once provided comfort and security. The chorus and bridge go:

If I ever lose my faith in you

There’d be nothing left for me to do.

I could be lost inside their lies without a trace

But every time I close my eyes, I see your face.

Whatever Sting’s motivation for writing that song, the lyrics clearly can be seen as a disillusioned man crying out to God. (I largely missed this song in 1993 because the stereo inside the Fortress of church life was blaring Sandi Patty and Michael W. Smith.) The song has taken on significant meaning for me as I’ve watched so many people close to me, young and old, become bored and disillusioned with the church and then, to varying degrees, with their faith. I watch our comfortable culture become increasingly disillusioned in the institutions it trusted, and I feel that same disillusionment myself – not with God, but with the insular and often-irrelevant way our faith is practiced.

Too many people I care deeply about aren’t buying into it. I can’t blame them, yet it shreds me to see it happening. It makes me angry at the church, angry at our consumer culture and angry at myself for being part of the Fortress mentality for so long.  A holy discontent, if you will.