A political argument states that federal deficits are harmful because it forces others–presumably our children and grandchildren–to pay the bills. It’s a good argument, so perhaps we Christians should think about a different kind of deficit that is mounting: The spiritual deficit that is growing among young people in our nation.
If we are not intentional about how we share the Good News of the Gospel and live our lives for Jesus now, we may leave a vast deficit for future generations to come. We threaten to leave clergy and churches that come after us to foot the bills garnered by the culture wars we evangelicals have waged over the past four decades.
And the deficit is growing every day: Polls show that fewer young people–ages 18 – 29–are attending church. As many as 80% have never darkened the door of a church whatsoever. When non-Christians were asked what words come to mind when they think of Christians, they answered with labels such as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”
In one poll cited by David Kinnaman, author of “UnChristian”, the first word that comes to mind for 91% of non-Christians was “homophobic.”
I can only echo a sentiment by author Rachel Evans who wondered whether Christianity’s zeal in winning culture wars has also caused us to lose an entire generation. The collateral damage of this war has been vast, deep and wide. Future Christians will be left wondering how to get their generation back to the table.
At least one evangelical agrees with this assessment. James Merritt, author of the newly published, “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars,” argues that this age group has already moved out of the organized church, apart from partisan politics, and beyond the cultural divide in order to find spiritualities that are more inclusive and experiential, ways of living a faith that honors civility and a comprehensive, compassionate ethic.
Meanwhile, Christianity is suffering from this shortfall. So the question isn’t whether churches will compromise their convictions and values when it comes to hot-bed issues such as same-sex marriages or abortion; rather, the burning question is whether churches can salvage any Good News while not hindering people from hearing the Gospel in the first place.
Some Christians are not helping. Last week, a North Carolina pastor was arguing in favor of Amendment One when his rant bordered on abusive. He instructed his congregation to “crack that wrist” and “give a good punch” to any child who behaves contrary to expected gender norms. Although he issued an apology and retraction, the damage had been done within hours of delivering the sermon.
Some folks may claim that vitriolic words are biblical because God used harsh language in the Old Testament; but, frankly, that matters little when, more than likely, the only ones left listening are already saved or already agree. An entire generation has tuned out, and those of us who actually want to reach the lost by being inclusive struggle just to get a word in edgewise.
We don’t need people who agree with us to come to our churches; we need people who need to hear the Gospel for the very first time. The challenge before us, therefore, is how to get this generation to tune back in and hear the Good News of a Gospel unhindered by the insensitivity of the few. That is the spiritual deficit I am inheriting from over 30 years of culture wars that, in Merritt’s words, have failed the nation in bringing about a more civil union and a unified church body.
Jesus was right: In trying to gain the world by forcing cultural change, we have forfeited our very souls (Matthew 16:26).
It’s okay to agree to disagree at times without having to exclude one another from denominations, associations, or churches. It’s okay to have relationships in the church that may be tenuous at times. It’s okay to let people think critically about faith and ask questions. It’s okay to welcome others to the table even if they make you uncomfortable.
It’s okay because only by reclaiming compassionate hospitality and committing to listen to others will we begin to chip away at that spiritual deficit growing in our midst. Future generations may just be depending on it.