In a way, the Christian Post‘s Kevin Shrum is quite right about why young people reject Christianity these days. He accurately summarizes research into the “Nones” by James E. White and George Barna, and we’ll even spot him the point that the church isn’t always to blame for people who leave.
And if you turn around his last seven bullet points (no, really), he really gets at the problem: people feel like the church is a horribly judgmental place more concerned with keeping its own brand of morality afloat than actually helping anyone in need. You’ll notice that Shrum never says a word about service or ministry. It’s all holiness all the time. Unfortunately for churches like Shrum’s, holiness just isn’t very popular in our culture these days. What people want in spirituality is egalitarianism, an emphasis on the ways in which God welcomes, rather than rejects.
It’s okay that Shrum or other conservative pastors might say “Sorry, we can’t offer that in our church.” To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to church with the God you know, not the God you might want or wish to know.
Weirdly, though, the standard conservative religious argument these days is that the churches that demand orthodoxy—another word for holiness—are the ones that do best. That’s even true! Conservative churches do fare better these days than liberal ones, though the sociologists tell me that’s mostly the result of their later adoption of birth control. The cultural trends are the cultural trends, even if they do take longer to catch up with some groups than others.
It makes a certain surface amount of sense, then, that Shrum would argue that churches should stick to the demands of holiness. If orthodox churches are doing best, they should do more orthodoxy! Harder orthodoxy! Double down and make those sinners repent!
Trouble is, Shrum’s already stipulated White and Barna’s argument that this is exactly what the “Nones” don’t want. You can’t move to the “narrow way” without getting more judgmental and exclusionary. Sure, he admits that the church is “all too imperfect,” but in a pluralistic society, the literally holier-than-thou act is just deadly.
That leaves Shrum with two options: acknowledge that the church as he conceives it wants a bigger slice of a shrinking pie (that is, hope that as Christianity declines in the US, more of the people who remain will be orthodox believers like him); or, as he just about comes out and says directly, he can skip Christian introspection and blame the people leaving the church for their own lack of faith and discipleship.
If that’s the “well-articulated, well-understood Gospel” he wants to proclaim, well, good luck to him. Churches like mine will be around to pick up the pieces. We always are, and in an increasingly pluralistic United States, we will be for a long time to come.