Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Generation Ex-Christian": Today's Atheists, Agnostics & Spiritual Seekers

There are conflicting studies about whether the Church is declining in America; however, just the question itself begs a study of why people leave the Church in the first place.  Several studies show that these individuals are former Christians.

Drew Dyck, editorial manager of The Christian Post, has published a book that studies this phenomenon.  "Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving The Church and How To Bring Them Back." In it, the journalist analyzes the results of 100 interviews Dyck conducted, breaking these "leavers" down into six categories: postmodern leavers, recoilers, modern leavers, neo-pagans, rebels, and drifters.

The Christian Post article continues (emphasis added):
While much is known about the challenges in reaching a postmodern and modern (think Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) audience with the gospel, little if anything has been said about the other four categories in Dyck’s book.

The recoilers are not easily identifiable as a leaver category because they tend to avoid talking about their painful childhood or teenage experiences with the church that are the primary reasons they left the faith. If pressed to explain why they left the faith, many recoilers will find intellectual reasons to back up their emotional reasons, Dyck writes.

“For a child who suffers some form of ‘sanctified’ abuse, the resulting spiritual damage can haunt that person for a lifetime,” he explains in the book. “Such is the case for many recoilers – they often have experienced some form of abuse in the name of God.”

“They have become disillusioned with faith because the people they sanctified let them down. God is guilty by association.”

The author suggests finding out if a leaver is a recoiler by asking questions about their experience with the faith community, but avoiding to put them on the defensive. If someone is a recoiler, then concentrate on listening to the person’s story and empathizing with his/her pain. It is important to establish a friendship and earn trust with recoilers, Dyck writes, and to help them to reconcile with God before His people.

For neo-pagan leavers, the author spotlights Wicca, which is the fastest growing religion in the United States. Out of all the categories, Dyck reports that neo-pagan leavers have “the strongest emotional reaction to Christian faith.” Although neo-pagans are not as verbally combative as modernist leavers, if they do open up it is usually “a river of molten rage.”

Wiccans have negative feelings toward Christians because they have been repeatedly portrayed by believers as Satan-worshippers and accused of sacrificing animals and rumored to murder babies. Dyck says the first step in having a meaningful relationship with Wiccans is to defuse their negative feelings by showing familiarity with their basic beliefs and asking them what attracted them to Wicca and what problems they have with Christianity.

“Reaching neo-pagans begins with showing an appreciation for nature and a desire to protect it, all while directing them to the God of whom nature is a grand reflection,” writes Dyck.

Also, neo-pagans are attracted to spirituality so it is helpful for Christians to not be shy about talking about their own spiritual experiences.

Drifters, meanwhile, are those Christians whose faith was never that deep to begin with and it is hard to pinpoint when they actually left. These drifters, like their name suggests, just gradually drifted away without notice. They do not argue against Christianity and do not have emotional baggage from the faith. They still identify as Christians, but their life in no way reflects a commitment to Christ.

“They’re the kind who blend in, go with the flow. They were likely swept up in the faith in the first place because it was what everyone else around them was doing. Then they left for the same reason. They found themselves in a new context where Christian faith wasn’t the norm,” Dyck writes.

The author suggests challenging drifters with the hard demands of the gospel and to emphasize that church is not a social club but an “all-or-nothing proposition.” Also, it is good for drifters to form intergenerational bonds within the church instead of only being associated with the youth group.

In the interview with The Christian Post, Dyck said that he thinks the hardest leaver to bring back to Jesus Christ is the spiritual rebel. Spiritual rebels are those that have a hard time accepting the divine authority of God. They do not have an intellectual objection but a heart issue, observes Dyck. The only suggestions he has for reaching spiritual rebels is to pray a lot for them and to form relationships with them.

The other type of rebel is the one that loves to party. This type of rebel does not have an intellectual or emotional problem with the faith, but they are just unwilling to abide to Christian morality.

“A lot of young people are walking away not only from the church, but from their faith,” says Dyck. “And I don’t think that they will come back automatically. I don’t think we can count on that - some automatic return to the faith.”

The author urges older members in the church to build relationships with young people.

“Often what I found is the break from their faith came in the context of relationships, something went wrong with either a youth pastor, a parent, or some other spiritual authority. If they are going to be reconciled, come back to the church, it is going to have to happen in the context of relationships.”

Pope Calls for Christian Names

I am not a Catholic and so rarely lend an eye to proclamations made by the Pope.  (Although, I really should, especially the words of Pope John Paul, a real hero.)  I did today, however, take notice of a news story about Pope Benedict XVI calling upon parents to stop using non-Christian names and turn to those names that reflect the Faith.  This from The Telegraph: (emphasis added):

Pope Urges Parents to Stop Giving Children Non-Christian Names 

The Pope has warned parents against giving children celebrity-inspired names and urged them to turn to the Bible for inspiration instead.

While names such as Sienna and Scarlett have become fashionable in recent years, Pope Benedict XVI called for a return to tradition.

During Mass at the Sistine Chapel, he said: "Every baptised child acquires the character of the son of God, beginning with their Christian name, an unmistakable sign that the Holy Spirit causes man to be born anew in the womb of the Church." He added that a name was an "indelible seal" that set children off on a lifelong "journey of religious faith".

According to the Office for National Statistics, celebrity names such as Ashton – after the actor Ashton Kutcher – and Lily – after the singer Lily Allen – are among the most popular in England and Wales. The names celebrities give their own children can be even more exotic.

Sir Bob Geldof has daughters named Pixie and Peaches, while Victoria and David Beckham called their first son Brooklyn, after the district of New York. Katie Price, the glamour model, named her daughter Princess Tiaamii.

In Italy, the name of a child has particular significance. Children are often named after saints, who are considered a guiding force in their life.

The tradition, however, is increasingly under threat. Francesco Totti, the footballer, recently decided to call his daughter Chanel, while Flavio Briatore, the Formula One boss, named his newborn son Falso Nathan.

Cristina Odone, a former editor of The Catholic Herald who grew up in Italy, said: "There are so many of the church's traditions which we have come to ignore and which are actually meaningful and have a big spiritual significance. To deprive our children of that sense of having a protecting saint is to rob them of something very significant. Many of today's names are not just un-Christian but they are also crass and consumerist."

According to official statistics, the most popular name for newborns in Britain is Mohammed, after the Islamic prophet. A total of 7,549 newborns were given variations of the name last year. It overtook Jack, which topped the list for 14 years.

Monsignor Andrew Faley, the assistant general secretary to the Catholic Bishops' Conference, said: "The name is not just a label but it moves us into a deeper significance of what it means to be human as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

"Naming children after perfumes, bicycles and countries is putting a limit on their potential. They are not merchandise or commodities. 

"When I was a parish priest, if I didn't agree with the name I'd suggest they should give the second name of a saint."

In 2008, Italy's highest court banned a couple from naming their son Venerdi – Friday – saying it was "ridiculous" and would expose him to mockery from his classmates.

Judges from the Cassation Court in Rome ordered that the boy instead be christened Gregorio, after the saint's day on which he was born. The parents, from Genoa, had drawn inspiration from Robinson Crusoe's manservant.
Now, that is scary that a court can step in and order parents to name their child how it sees fit. (Luckily, that's in Italy and not here.)  "Venerdi" is unusual, but not as bizarre as others we've heard in the news.

Confession: Insight from the Radio

God's ways of breaking through into everyday life and permeating my being with insight is always amazing.  It can be either in a formal Bible study, watching a movie scene, a great story on the news, or, as with the other day, listening to the radio.

Here is a nice example of corporal confession (i.e. recited with others, such as during a church service), written by theologian, educator and ambassador Henry Van Dyke:
Most holy and merciful Father; We acknowledge and confess in Thy Presence: Our sinful nature prone to evil and slothful in good; And all our shortcomings and offenses against Thee. Thou alone knowest how often we have sinned: In wandering from Thy ways; In wasting Thy gifts; In forgetting Thy love. But Thou, O Lord, have pity upon us; Who are ashamed and sorry for all wherein we have displeased Thee. Teach us to hate our errors; Cleanse us from our secret faults; And forgive our sins; For the sake of Thy dear Son our Saviour. And O most holy and loving Father; Send Thy purifying grace into our hearts, we beseech Thee; That we may henceforth live in Thy light and walk in Thy ways; According to the commandments of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  [source]

There is a local radio talk show I frequently listen to in the afternoons during my drive home.  It can be at times quite crude  in a middle-school playground, dirty joke way.  Other times, as the host reminisces about his childhood, I get laughing so hard, because I was that goofy and/or remember someone doing similar crazy things.  Occasionally, the host has on local theologians who take listeners' calls and address their questions, concerns, and doubts.

One of the questions was about confession.  I'm sure you can instantly harken back to confirmation class or a study you once did on this Christian tenet.  There are many jokes we've all heard or movie scenes we've seen surrounding the confession booth.  On the other hand, confession is also a hot button with many people, evoking feelings of shame and guilt.  There exist many misunderstandings of confession.

But, the radio conversation brought forth an aspect of confession I had never considered.  Like the caller, I associate confession with asking for forgiveness, but facing then the struggle of not committing the sin again.  We all lament our weakness and how quickly we "fall" again.  But the theologian, a local Catholic priest, offered a response that made a light bulb go off:
"Confession is not so that I will sin less, but that I will love more."
That one statement totally turned confession, or at least how I conceived of it, totally on its head!  'Confession is to help me love more!'   Confession is not some magical incantation I recite individually or corporally in the hopes that I won't commit the sin again.  It is to offer release from the sin ("grace"), but then to give me a greater understanding and compassion for others.  It reminds me of Rick Warren's classic opening line to his book "The Purpose-Driven Life": "It's not about you."

Yes, confession IS for me, offering grace and forgiveness and a fresh hope.  But, then I am to take it with me to others -- to love more.  To love others more and offer them compassion and hope in God's Grace  ... and to not be so judgmental of their "sins."

Another "beam of light" from an everyday source: this time, the radio.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Shoes in Church

The other day, I received the following poem / story from a friend via e-mail. It reminds one of how we often focus on the unimportant and draw conclusions too quickly before knowing the full scoop and scope of another's life.
Shoes in Church

I showered and shaved.............. I adjusted my tie.
I got there and sat.............. In a pew just in time.
Bowing my head in prayer......... As I closed my eyes..
I saw the shoe of the man next to me..... Touching my own. I sighed.
With plenty of room on either side...... I thought, 'Why must our soles touch?'
It bothered me, his shoe touching mine... But it didn't bother him much.

A prayer began: 'Our Father'............ I thought, 'This man with the shoes,  has no pride.
They're dusty, worn, and scratched. Even worse, there are holes on the side!'
'Thank You for blessings,' the prayer went on.
The shoe man said............... A quiet 'Amen.'
I tried to focus on the prayer....... But my thoughts were on his shoes again.
Aren't we supposed to look our best. When walking through that door?
'Well, this certainly isn't it,' I thought, Glancing toward the floor..

Then the prayer was ended........... And the songs of praise began.
The shoe man was certainly loud..... Sounding proud as he sang.
His voice lifted the rafters........ His hands were raised high.
The Lord could surely hear. The shoe man's voice from the sky.
It was time for the offering...... And what I threw in was steep.
I watched as the shoe man reached.... Into his pockets so deep.
I saw what was pulled out............ What the shoe man put in.
Then I heard a soft 'clink' . As when silver hits tin.
The sermon really bored me............ To tears, and that's no lie.
It was the same for the shoe man.... For tears fell from his eyes.

At the end of the service...... As is the custom here.
We must greet new visitors, And show them all good cheer.
But I felt moved somehow.............. And wanted to meet the shoe man.
So after the closing prayer........ I reached over and shook his hand.
He was old and his skin was dark.... And his hair was truly a mess.
But I thanked him for coming........ For being our guest.
He said, 'My names' Charlie........... I'm glad to meet you, my friend.'
There were tears in his eyes....... But he had a large, wide grin.

'Let me explain,' he said......... Wiping tears from his eyes.
'I've been coming here for months.... And you're the first to say 'Hi.''
'I know that my appearance...........'Is not like all the rest.
'But I really do try................'To always look my best.'
'I always clean and polish my shoes..'Before my very long walk.
'But by the time I get here.........'They're dirty and dusty, like chalk.'

My heart filled with pain......... And I swallowed to hide my tears.
As he continued to apologize........... For daring to sit so near
He said, 'When I get here..............'I know I must look a sight.
'But I thought if I could touch you..'Then maybe our souls might unite.'
I was silent for a moment........... Knowing whatever was said
Would pale in comparison... I spoke from my heart, not my head.
'Oh, you've touched me,' I said......'And taught me, in part;
'That the best of any man..............'Is what is found in his heart.'
The rest, I thought,.................... This shoe man will never know.
Like just how thankful I really am... That his dirty old shoe touched my soul 
I recall once a colleague complaining about last Sunday a young, teenaged girl offering special music at mass.  The colleague complained about the girl having worn flip-flops.  I wondered: "But, what was the message of the girl's song?" 

I also recall years back when I was one of my church's youth group leaders.  A mother of one of the teens told us that she rarely attended church, because she felt self-conscious in a congregation of well-heeled individuals while she had a modest wardrobe.

How often have I been repulsed by another's appearance, deeming them unacceptable because of their clothing or uncleanness?   Forgive me, Lord, and help me to love.