Recently, Sen. Rick Santorum made some disparaging comments about President Obama’s plan to help more young people get into college. Sen. Santorum believes that these “indoctrination mills” serve to mold young minds into secular atheists, and he went onto claim that “sixty-two percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.” Even though his theory may be wrong and his numbers fuzzy, Sen. Santorum is only pointing out an issue that the Church has been grappling with for some years.
For example, blogs like The Episcopal Cafe frequently post about the fleeing young adult spiritual refugees. These posts are almost always accompanied by much hand-wringing. We must simplify! We must be more accessible! Raze the altar and worship in your house! We must become familiar in our presentation! Off-the-wall suggestions for solutions abound, so I won’t waste my precious reader’s time rehearsing them. Yet, the problem remains: why are twentysomethings leaving the Church in college?
As a twentysomething who never left the Church (although I changed denominations once), I thought I’d offer my opinion on why young adults are leaving. You see, my time in a liberal arts “indoctrination mill” was a time of great deepening. I thought harder, wrote better and performed more week-after-week than I had in my entire life. In particular, my Alma Mater’s Humanities program made me struggle over two years (in twenty-four credit hours) on a simple question, “what does it mean to be human?” and we examined how Plato, Aristotle, Beethoven, scripture, Sartre, Napoleon and Rothko (among many, many others) answered it. For me, college was a time of hard questions and an earnest search for answers.
This is the world that most college students find themselves. Yet, comparatively, the Church world is shallow and proud of it.
This is because the Church is now overly concerned with the Visitor, that mysterious personage who may or may not show up and whose needs trump those who actually do. Although not the progenitor of it, Rick Warren championed the idea of the Visitor in The Purpose Driven Church (Zondervan 1995), where he tailored everything for them, from architecture, music and to sermon, with everything in between. Since it was assumed that the Visitor had little Church experience, everything was streamlined and simplified to speak to them the most. Any deeper exploration was to be kept outside of Sunday morning, as only the basic truths of the Faith are to be presented.
So, so to speak, the Church has been dumbing herself down. Deep questions are not asked from pulpits and the poetry of our songs seldom struggle with heartache or darkness. We are satisfied with pedantic thinking. Our Churches are filled with easy answers and the Good News is easy-to-digest. Some may call this gracious hospitality; I call it shallow and insulting.
Our mainline “liberal” denominations struggle with this, too. While our Evangelical Brethren are perhaps tempted to give easy answers, we’re tempted to to give no answers at all. We’re like someone who shouts in a movie theater, “Follow me!”, but follows it up with “. . . if you, well, you know, don’t mind at all, erm, because all things are, well, you know . . .” As Stanley Hauerwas once infamously remarked about Methodism, we believe that “God is nice; therefore, we must be nice.” Some claim that this was done because we live in a post-Christian world, but I think it is shallow and insulting, nevertheless. We’ve stopped speaking deep unto deep.
Of course, it has not always been this way. The Church was once the trusted home of art, music and intelligent discourse. For centuries She was the home of Palestrina, JS Bach, Dostoevsky, TS Eliot and CS Lewis, among many, many others. The best and brightest minds found refuge, courageous hearts sought out truth and fides quaerens intellectum was the rule of the day. Yet, now, we only give the basic outline, the easy-answers and the no-answers. We think beauty can be cheaply bought and truth can be easily understood.
If it is true that we are living in a post-Christian world, it is only because the Church has ceased speaking as if She had something of meaning to say. Perhaps, the Church has stopped speaking to the intellect and to the soul. Maybe the fault lies with our lack of courage. Maybe the Church is losing Young Adults, not because the world has changed, but — maybe, just maybe — because we stopped saying anything that mattered to it.
It seems all we do anymore is pander. And Young Adults can smell it a mile away.