Nevertheless, young people do not feel disenchanted, lost or alienated in a meaningless world. “Instead, the data indicated that they found meaning and significance in the reality of everyday life, which the popular arts helped them to understand and imbibe.” Their creed could be defined as: “This world, and all life in it, is meaningful as it is”, translated as: “There is no need to posit ultimate significance elsewhere beyond the immediate experience of everyday life.” The goal in life of young people was happiness achieved primarily through the family…The researchers were also shocked to discover little sense of sin or fear of death. Nor did they find any Freudian guilt as a result of private sensual desires. The young people were, however, afraid of growing old. – Article in the London Times.
“I am a deeply religious nonbeliever…. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.” -Albert Einstein
Romans 3:11 — No one understands; no one seeks for God.
• • •
A few months ago, I noticed a mosque had appeared in suburbs of a community I drive through several times a year. It was the first visible reminder I’d seen that I was no longer living in a Bible belt culture in which the Christian faith, in some form, was dominant.
I’ve lived most of my life submerged in the world of churches, Christians, Biblical language, and the Christian worldview. As I’ve moved into the second half of life, I’ve become aware that I need to separate myself from the Christian culture that has dominated my life, and to look closely for where my own assumptions are deeply embedded with the concepts, presuppositions and categories of the spiritual/intellectual/social/religious environment that surrounds me.
As part of my journey to deconstruct this evangelicalism I’ve lived in, I have consciously attempted to appreciate the thinking and experience of those who do not share my Christian faith. This process has been difficult, because the “house” of my personal experience is completely furnished with the furniture of a Christian society, church language, Biblical presuppositions and the basic beliefs of the Christian community.
One of the incidents that began this journey was a simple observation by a student. “Steve” had been at our Christian school for several years, and had never made any outward steps of faith. He wasn’t very verbal about matters of faith, but it wasn’t hard to tell he had thoughts he chose to keep to himself. One day, in a class discussion about a recent chapel message, Steve spoke his mind. I can’t quote him, but it was something very much like this:
“Why do Christians always say that you can’t be happy unless you are a Christian? It’s insulting to a person who isn’t a Christian to be told that they will never be happy without Christ. I’m not a Christian, and I am happy most of the time. I am happy with my friends and they things I enjoy doing. I don’t want or need Christianity to be happy.”
To quote the hanky-waving lady in the local African-American church….”Well……” So should we argue this point? “Steve, you just don’t know what happiness is. Trust me. You have no idea how happy I am compared to you.”
This post begins with a quote from a London Times story that was interesting to read. Seems the Church of England is trying to find ways to tap into the spiritual interests of England’s church-abandoning younger generations. After extensive research, the conclusions were not at all the expected.
- There was little interest in God at all.
- There was little interest in heaven, spiritual matters, or even life after death.
- What was meaningful to the young people interviewed was life, family, love, work, relationships and the enjoyment of this world. They were comfortably, happily attuned to this world. Spiritual tattoos aside, they had little thought of much beyond what their senses or experiences presented to them.
In other words, Augustine’s famous “God-shaped void” didn’t make its expected appearance in anything near the numbers expected. Those with interest in some aspect of non-Christian, alternative spiritualities were often simply engaging in the enjoyment and exploration of culture, social groups, symbolism, trends and/or their own this-worldly curiosity and preferences.
Several months ago, I told many of my friends that when I turned off the “Christian stream of consciousness” in my head and just listened to the young people I work with, it was quite obvious that most of them had no interest in God at all. I mean no interest in God at all apart from practical, pragmatic results in very “this worldly” matters. Of course, the problem is that I’m simply not taking this into account in much that I do. “Now turn in your Bibles to Obadiah, and let’s pick up where we left off last week in our series on “Major Moments In The Minor Prophets.”
I do hear about God. I get those Bible questions and the questions that go along with a Christian school full of kids made to go to church and forced to adopt the values of their families. Occasionally someone will ask me about an unbelieving relative who has passed away, but I have never seen anyone truly disturbed about their own relationship with God or worried about what God thought of them. Exactly like the young people in the Times article, there is almost no interest in spiritual things. The great majority of interest in “God” or “the Bible” or “religion” comes down to wanting to know how this might make life here and now more interesting, satisfying or pragmatically effective.
I don’t meet people concerned about sin, and my crowd hears about sin all the time. When I have question and answer sessions, I hear church kid questions and a bit of curiousity about this and that. I’ve begun to realize that when a Christian begins talking about a Biblical story or text, the vast majority of the people I know see these texts having absolutely no relevance to their lives at all. These are things Christians talk about. A Christian giving the meaning of a Bible passage is like a student of the red-winged woodpecker explaining its habitat and habits. If he/she weren’t making you think about it, you would never think about it.
We talk about hymns or choruses like God cares a lot about this. People who aren’t part of church culture know that God isn’t caught up with hymns or choruses. We talk about this church or that new teacher, and these things are very important to us. They fill up Christian television, radio and web sites. Our friends outside of the Christian aqaruium look at us swimming around and think we are funny, odd fish. So concerned with what we think is real, but which they consider meaningless or just a story to try and make you act like someone wants you to act.
The people I know are consumers, not seekers. They consume entertainment, movies, personal events, possessions, experiences and relationships. The idea that God has a claim on them is comprehensible, but virtually meaningless. What they want and what they need is in this world, and is not on the other side of a prayer. (I wonder if “Seeker Sensitive Churches” might consider “Consumer Friendly” as a better name.)
Of course, such people look at those of us who are Christians as very different from them. We tell them our story. We explain the Biblical message of salvation. We describe life with Christ. We talk about “knowing God” and “worshipping Jesus,” and they hear us. They may admire us. They may sometimes feel we have said something very valuable. (A recent sermon series on marriage created a lot of interest by our students because it talked about some things they care about.) But if we talk about “your need to accept Christ,” we might as well talk about “your need to wear elk horns and walk in circles.” They give us our meaningful rituals, but they don’t want to be told they need the ritual as well.
I recently commented on the BHT regarding an evangelism method used at the “Thunder Over Louisville” event during Derby Week. The “Joe Photo” ministry takes free pictures of people at public events, then gives them the option of hearing a Gospel presentation when they download the photo. I do not object to the desire to share the Gospel. What I object to is the sales technique of capturing interest with a less than fully disclosed agenda. Christians in America have become well known for approaching people with any number of “baits,” that are designed to create the space for a presentation about Christianity.
Perhaps it’s just my personality, but I resent indirect sales approaches. If the phone rings and someone says they want to give me a CD, but I learn that the free CD is actually going to be a prelude to a 3 minute presentation on life insurance, I’m irritated…and insulted. If I truly believed that someone, for example, needed to send their children to our school, I would provide straightforward information, and I wouldn’t approach them in a way that baited, then switched, or attempted to buy openness with gifts or promises.
Why can’t we just talk like human beings talk to one another?
It’s as if we don’t believe non-Christians can be talked to on their own terms. We have to pull them into our presentation; into our “script.” They have to become the subject of our questions. They must be the dummies and we must be the ventriloquists. Evangelism training, preaching and apologetics must create some kind of a “subject” willing to allow, hear and answer the right questions. “Canned” presentations seem to be primarily about the Christians need to dominate a conversation. These all betray our fears that we may not be able to control what is presented or the conversations that might follow.
Atheist debater Brian Flemming puts the following “Statement of Beliefs” on his website (HT to my personal psychiatrist):
STATEMENT OF BELIEF
I believe it is possible that Jesus did not exist.
I believe there is no evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ that dates to the time of his alleged life.
I believe there are no written eyewitness accounts of the existence of Jesus Christ.
I believe the names of the Gospels were added well after their composition, and there is no good reason to believe that these names correspond to the original writers.
I believe there is no good reason to believe that any of the Gospels were written by disciples of Jesus Christ, or that any eyewitnesses to Jesus were involved in their composition.
I believe the Bible is not infallible. I believe it is common for religious cults to make things up.
I believe it is common for religions to influence each other, and for young religions to be derived from older religions.
I believe that any claim can be part of Christian tradition and also be false.
I believe that no figures such as “God” or “The Holy Spirit” or “Satan” performed any supernatural actions that had any significant effect upon the formation of early Christianity.
When I read this, I find myself wondering what the typical Christian school would do with a student who articulated these beliefs clearly and with support? What do we do with people who have thought it all through, know the score and say “Fraud?”
Let me suggest what would happen at many schools or churches: This would make many Christians angry. It would intimidate. It would frighten. Parents would call. Emails would say “Do you know…” Many Christians would not want another “evangelist” presenting another “gospel” with the potential to convince. This student might be labelled “disruptive” and “too controversial.” It wouldn’t surprise me to find some- not all- of the Christians dealing with such a student lobbying for his removal from the environment.
I say this not to be hurtful toward Christians (some of whom would never respond like this), but to simply ask if we are aware to the extent that we insist everything outside of our belief systems conform to our own thoughts, presuppositions, concepts and beliefs? Most of us are desperately afraid of any kind of conversation or relationship that puts us in the position of allowing unbelievers complete and total respect. We avoid the kinds of conversations that put us in the position of being “evangelized” or, even worse, simply told our message doesn’t matter at all.
Notice the way that a film like The DaVinci Code makes so many Christians uneasy because of the “errors” that will be promoted. The fact is that DVC has taken the conversation about Jesus away from Christians, and thrown it into the culture, where anyone can say what they want. This, of course, is torture for many Christians. We are not in control. Someone else has the floor, and we must put up with it. We’ve had our say, and the audience is bored.
No wonder so many Christians- especially preachers- shout a lot.
Now, for the irony. Scripture tells us that if there a God-shaped void, we will rarely see or encounter it in obvious ways. What we will see is a race numb and dead. A planet of people refusing to think about God or think about God except in idolatrous- self-serving- terms. A world of people who see no more relevance to the Gospel than to a thousand other things that make absolute no sense or have no claim upon a person at all.
In this sense, I affirm completely those who say that our evangelism be modeled on New Testament principles of the work of the Holy Spirit:
2 Corinthians 4:1-6 — Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. (2) But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (3) And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. (4) In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (5) For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (6) For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
This is what must happen, and if it doesn’t happen, nothing else matters.
At the same time, I am amazed at the hostility many of these same Christian friends have to the notion of having extended, equal and fair conversations with unbelievers. In affirming the necessity of a spiritual operation on the mind and heart of a person, and the importance of making Christ the central focus of saving faith, we are not told to do nothing but preach, and to preach only in the way, voice, content and forms that we are comfortable with. The call to be a witness or a missional communicator is an invitation to incarnation and Christlikeness in motive, method and message.
If we take seriously the unbelief of unbelievers, then we pray, share the Gospel and do so in a way that is completely incarnational. We do not make them into projects. We fully humanize the process of evangelism, and we take unbelief seriously.
At this point, I can’t recommend enough that every person who sees a need to retool evangelism in the postmodern culture study the ministry of Francis Schaefer. Schaefer was a master of what it means to engage a culture and the persons in it with all the respect, love and humanity that the Gospel should bring forth in Christ’s witnesses. One of Schaefer’s worthy interpreters is Jerram Barrs, and his book The Heart of Evangelism is must reading.
The God-shaped void is absolutely there. It is the HUMAN PERSON! But it is not a void…it is someone made in God’s image, a person loved by God; a person for whom Christ did all his mediating work. This person and their beliefs (or lack of beliefs) are not a threat to us. We do not need to manipulate or control them. We can allow them to have their life, their journey and their experiences. We do not need to demand anything of them for us to present/represent Christ to them.
Yes. Today’s young people are bored with God. They are not “seeking” God at all, but are living on the hardened surface of a fallen human experience, seeking to make sense of what is incomprehensible apart from Christ. We cannot “create” interest apart from the work of the Spirit. Our calling to be witnesses is not to approach the world like cattle to be herded, but as persons to be loved in the way God loves this fallen world through Jesus Christ. We live in a generation and time dead to God and alive to entertainment and a consumer mythology that promises and delivers meaning through stimulation and amusement.
Christ has become the servant and savior of such a world. We live in that world, fully human, fallen, redeemed, rescued, living and hoping in the new creation. How do we speak of these things? It’s a question we must keep answering fearlessly.