Time has an article about the decline
in Christianity's good image in the USA. Seems that in 1996, the Barna Group found that 83% of Americans self-identified as Christian, with less than 20% of the remainder expressing negative opinions about Christianity.
Another group of polls taken over the last 3 years showed that, among non-Christians, 38% "had a 'bad impression' of present-day Christianity," and that 73% of the country now self-identifies as Christian. Significantly, 40% of people aged 16-29 self-identifies as non-Christian.
It's encouraging that of those outside the faith, 90% said that Christianity is too "anti-homosexual," and 75% said that Christianity is "too involved in politics." Good, because it wasn't too long ago that homosexuality was enough of a taboo that even atheists were "against" it, and anything that makes people understand and oppose Christians' distressing involvement in politics and the levers of power is a good thing.
This bit of information is fascinating:
Churchgoers of the same age share several of the non-Christians' complaints about Christianity. For instance, 80% of the Christians polled picked "anti-homosexual" as a negative adjective describing Christianity today. And the view of 85% of non-Christians aged 16-29 that present day Christianity is "hypocritical — saying one thing doing another," was, in fact, shared by 52% of Christians of the same age. Fifty percent found their own faith "too involved in politics." Forty-four percent found it "confusing."
For quite some time now the Church has faced a real challenge in trying to pass the faith to the younger generation. Much of the growth found in Evangelical churches comes from like-minded people leaving mainline denominations; that is to say, the more conservative members of mainline denominations like the Presbyterian Church, USA are leaving to attend churches in the Southern Baptist Convention or the multitude of unaffiliated congregations springing up everywhere.
But even that growth is not as explosive as the conservative denominations would have you believe. The dirty little secret of many conservative groups is that their non-USA growth accounts for most, if not all of the growth the group has. I know for a fact - because I helped compile the statistics - that the Church of the Nazarene
in the USA, Canada and Europe is growing very little, if at all, while the church sees phenomenal growth in places like India and all over Africa. Keeping the younger generation in the church is a huge focus, a big problem. It's part of why the average youth pastor tenure hovers around 9 months to a year; people want tangible results, they want to see new kids coming in the doors and the kids already there making big, public commitments.
This is why youth conventions are getting so showy and so big, not because this new media-saturated generation demands it. Churches want teenagers to feel like they're a part of something cool, but also something extremely significant. They want the teens to have a huge emotional experience in the hopes that it ties them to the church forever - not unlike the way many people approach marriage, both inside and out of the Church, which can explain the divorce rate and the Church's retention problem.
The last youth conference I attended - hopefully the last I'll ever attend - was Nazarene Youth Conference 2003
(link goes to NYC 07 page). It wasn't all bad. Out of conversations I had there I was able to help some of my youth group members get some badly needed professional help, we had fun at Six Flags, and I was able to see some old friends. One of the kids from the first youth group I led was there as a sponsor - with her husband!
- and she'd turned into an impressive woman. It was nice to see.
But the conference as a whole is practically an evil. The schedule is brutal: 13-15 solid hours of worship services, seminars, service projects, games and concerts, and then the kids go back to the excitement of being in a hotel without their parents, in rooms with just other teenagers, and with boys, or girls in the very next room probably not wearing any clothes at all
! And this goes on for about 4 days, until Thursday night.
Thursday night. That's the big one, the service that everyone - except the kids, of course - knows is going to last and last and last. Everything that happens is designed to create an overpowering emotional environment. At NYC 03 they had a guy speak whose daughter was killed in the Columbine massacre. Apparently she had spoken of an early death for years and would regularly engage in erratic behavior: once she was driving on the interstate with a friend. She slammed on the brakes and swerved from the left lane all the way to the right shoulder, all without warning. She jumped out of the still running car and started dancing along the freeway, illuminated by the car's headlights. Her friend was stunned, and when she got back in the car, she looked over and said, "sometimes you just have to dance before the Lord, you know?"
After her death her family looked through her journal and found extensive writing about her expectation of an early death along with her apparent belief that she would become hugely famous and impact people all over the world. Her dad has spent the years since trying to make that come true. So that Thursday night, utterly exhausted, we spent a couple of hours listening to a man talk about and looking at pictures of a murdered teenage girl. We heard example after example of erratic behavior bordering on the destructive, held up to us as an example of extreme piety.
Of course, at the end of the service, there was the "altar call," which was an invitation for the kids to walk to base of the stage and publicly commit to be a Christian patterned after the mold of that dead girl. I felt ill.
I found out the next day that the leader of another district's group - a group of 400 kids - directed the students into a meeting room at their hotel that night, and started in on them again. He told them that they weren't going to go back to their rooms until there was a "breakthrough." It was horrible abuse, but par for the course. That guy is a successful youth pastor, always able to build a youth group into a large group, always able to get his quota of commitments, of kids going off to Christian colleges declaring their intentions to become missionaries or pastors.
All this is done to try and stem the tide of those who leave the Church. So many courses, books, seminars, conferences, degrees, camps, workshops, retreats, so much money and time and effort, when the answer to the problem is so simple, so obvious.
You see, the Barna Group dug down in their polls. They found that "non-Christians' biggest complaints about the faith are not immediately theological: Jesus and the Bible get relatively good marks
The answer is simple and should be easy to implement: stop acting like assholes, and start acting like Jesus. Oh, and try to actually read
the New Testament to find out how Jesus acted instead of relying on James Dobson or whoever to tell you. Show some concern for justice, show some compassion, and try to enjoy life. 'Cause the "damn them all to hell" and "grimace for Jesus" methods just aren't working out.