Friday, October 18, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Generation Z and Unbelief

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In this article in The Atlantic, Larry Taunton tells the story of Phil, a young atheist whose reasons for his unbelief sound surprisingly unlike those of the New Atheists.

To me they sound uncomfortably close to home.

Phil had been president of his Methodist church youth group, and loved the Bible studies led by Jim, their youth leader. Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or questions. He couldn’t answer every question, but he made the Bible come alive for Phil.

Then, because Jim’s Bible studies were failing to attract sufficient numbers, he was fired and replaced with a woman named Savannah to add more “fun” to youth group. Savannah was attractive, twenty-something and in Phil’s words, “knew nothing about the Bible.” The youth group grew but without Phil, who was on the road to atheism.

If Phil’s story were one in a million, it would be of minimal interest. But Larry Taunton has personally interviewed Generation Z’s atheist students all across the country and says:
“Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.”
Short version: there are lots of Phils out there.

Leaving the Church Behind

Tom: Hmm. I can’t say Mr. Taunton’s experience is unique. I work with an atheist whose resentment against believers and their worldview goes right back to the conservative Christian environment in which he was raised. Immanuel Can, are we doing something wrong in many of our local churches?

Immanuel Can: Yes, we are doing — or failing to do — a number of things. We’re not challenging our young people, we’re not educating them well, we’re not making them put skin in the [spiritual] game, and we’re not expecting much of them. Conscious of this, they give us what we expect. But this anecdote points to one mistake we’re making in particular, the error of valuing Christianity as a kind of social entertainment over Christianity as a vehicle to truth; and that’s a major issue.

Tom: Interestingly, these young atheists imputed the greatest credibility to Christians who take their faith seriously; who actively pursue them. Taunton quotes comedian Penn Gillette as saying, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all.” The students he interviewed consistently showed respect for Christians who knew their Bibles and displayed serious concern for their souls. That all seems to back up what you’re saying.

Taking the Edginess out of the Gospel

And yet for years there has been a tendency within evangelical circles to take the edginess out of the gospel and to soft-pedal the demands of Christ.

IC: I think that appealed to people as a strategy back in the day when we had reason to think that we could ingratiate ourselves to the world by being humanistic and convenient. But we were wrong about that: people have always come to Christianity only when they saw it was necessary to take up a cross. We need to make that clear again.

Tom: It seems to me the strategy has failed pretty comprehensively and needs serious rethinking. IF it has resulted in a net increase in the number of bodies in pews (which I suspect it has not), then that increase has come at a very steep price. It traded short-term visible numeric gain for long-term atrophy and irrelevance.

But I think Christians are often afraid if we break out the less appealing teachings of the New Testament — hell, sacrifice, self-control, submission, the cost of discipleship and so on — that we’re going to drive some people away. And they’re right: they will.

Addition by Subtraction

IC: And so they should. The Lord himself could perhaps have kept the rich young ruler on board if he had been willing to soften his stand, right? But he did not. There are some people who should go away sorrowful. But let us turn to our young people. I think it’s there that the post-church atheists are created. What could we be doing about that?

Tom: Honestly? Almost nobody who is college age these days knows much of anything about the Bible, in or out of church. And there’s no way to gauge whether there is still a hunger for the truth in that age range until somebody starts offering it, week after week after week: serious Bible study in an atmosphere that encourages those involved to go out and live it, and support each other in the effort. Kids who have been coming to youth groups for the music, special events or just to chase eligible members of the opposite sex will naturally go elsewhere, so numbers will probably drop initially. But what you’re left with will be gold. You just need to find solid Bible teachers who care enough to put the effort in.

Then you’ve got to figure out how to integrate those who stay into the church proper, because they won’t be teens and twenty-somethings forever.

A Wedge-Shaped Approach

IC: No, that’s really important. I think we’ve got to begin young — ideally in childhood, but certainly by age 12 — to create a sort of wedge-shaped approach to initiating young people into full spiritual responsibility. By age 12, children should be doing at least 20% of their own spiritual feeding, and serving others in some small capacity. By age 16, young people should be doing most of their own social programming and at least 40% of their mutual spiritual feeding, plus some significant roles in service. By age 20, young people should be leading their own programs entirely, initiating opportunities for their own spiritual learning and actively pursuing service. By age 30, it should be pretty clear which ones are gravitating toward leadership roles.

Absent this sort of future ahead of them, you can understand why they will grow away from the church; they will be increasing in natural capability and independence, but we will be showing them there is no place for their increasing abilities to be actualized in our churches.

Tom: This is why I think it’s so important to integrate young believers with normal church life and meetings. If you can’t make the regular weekly gatherings of the church attractive to serious young people, then you have a major problem. I used to try to do two or three weeks of Sunday School with the teen class, and then out into the meeting for the third or fourth week, hopefully coinciding with a message that was worth hearing, and we would discuss what we’d heard afterwards to see if they were perceptive enough to analyze it for themselves.

Making Young Christians into Mature Christians

IC: Scripture tells us, “Let all things be done for edification.” I think we have to start taking that much more seriously. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve done something, or how usual it is, or even how much it pleases us: if it’s not making young Christians into mature ones, then it needs to come up for review. We need a whole new way of meeting, one that doesn’t simply rest on 19th century habits, but one that actually edifies.

Tom: A couple of my favorite political pundits say the future belongs to those who show up for it. They’re talking about demographics and politics, but it’s true of the church too. No doubt the Lord is capable of getting his work done one way or another, but if we want to be faithful and if we want to be any kind of relevant part of what he is doing, we have to figure out how to equip the coming generation. Or generations. We’ve had a couple of lost ones, if I’m not wrong.

IC: You’re not. I would say that my own generation had a few bright lights, but for the most part squandered their inheritance on loose living — living for status, money, social acceptability, security, cheap fun and bad entertainments. They were largely about nothing of any value. But boy, could they ever play church.

Is that harsh? Maybe. Is it true? That’s a better question. We don’t want another generation like we were, for sure. Fortunately, we can learn and do better for our kids.

Emotional Decision-Making

Tom: Larry Taunton points out that the internet is a huge factor in influencing young people in the direction of atheism. And they are not being “converted” by the websites of Richard Dawkins or Peter Boghosian; primarily they are influenced by YouTube videos only a few minutes long, the origins of which are unclear even to them. I’ve seen the same sort of thing: intense, apparently sincere millennials and Gen Z-ers ranting about how silly belief in God is. Not solid facts, not even good logical arguments but primarily emotion. And whether the speaker has “authority” behind him in terms of education or reputation is no factor at all in the influence of these videos.

In fact Taunton says that in his survey, “The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one” rather than facts-based.

IC: Yes, an emotional rather than a rational one. But what immunities to such appeals have we provided for our children? We would vaccinate them against smallpox, but we do nothing to help them cope with Dawkins or Nietzsche? Today they probably won’t encounter smallpox ...

Tom: This is the problem, isn’t it. What antidote is there for a generation marinated in relativism? The popular notion of “truth” no longer requires credentials or any actual data at all by way of authentication. Masquerading as a pleasing and popular opinion is perfectly sufficient.

Remodeling Church Life

I know the answer is the Lord, of course. He could do rhetoric with the best of them: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” It sounds appalling if you are so spiritually blind as to take it literally. It’s offensive enough to drive away all the dilettantes, and we should never be afraid of that. But it contains eternal truth profound enough to satisfy every spiritually hungry and thirsty heart.

Can we learn to teach and preach like he did? Can we remodel ourselves after him? Because I think he’s the answer.

IC: Absolutely. And we need to remodel our church life. I don’t mean renovate the building interior, far less come up with new and exciting programs. I mean instead that we need to start from the end: are we succeeding in helping people achieve the kinds of challenging, meaningful, holy Christian lives we ought to be? We need to consider what that would look like, then work backwards to define the steps we need to take in order to arrive there, putting every bit of what we have traditionally done aside, so as to keep only such things as a) the scriptures require, plus b) such practical arrangements as are conducive directly to those goals. Then I think we’d see something new.

Barring that, I think there’s little hope for change.


  1. I am not sure that this discussion addresses some of the really significant points. By that I mean that a much broader analysis or view is needed not just focusing on difficulties with particular church and youth group settings. What is omitted is the observation that the type of competition and information and entertainment environment that influences anyone growing up in these times is totally unique. Nothing has ever been like this where the type of (good and also abhorrent) entertainment and distraction is so readily available to draw you away from a more introspective, contemplative and religious way of life and outlook. I cannot imagine that it will not get worse (striving towards the lowest possible common denominator) unless there is some catastrophic type of intervention. An example of this is the current Iran where, as now reported, the bottom has been reached in a brutal and historically oppressive Islamic environment where people (women mostly right now) see no other avenue for positive change except to become underground Christians with the necessary moral principles that oppose that kind of environment. It seems Western society is not there yet but the stage is being set to get us there by those who are deniers of the value and correctness of Christian principles. Right now the fight is still mostly on a personal level but that can change depending on who gets into power. Unfortunately, the corruptness of the entertainment industry, now also the news and information branch, will ever more strongly contribute towards that slippery slope.

    1. It's probably true that temptations and distractions for young people have rarely been so powerful and ubiquitous as they are today. But churches and parents cannot control these, and past the early teens, can rarely even limit them effectively.

      Competing with the world is off the table. The church cannot do "better" social media, more appealing music and so on. Even if we could, that is not the sort of thing Jesus would have done, and it's not how God has worked historically.

      As Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Luke 5:31). The church has little appeal to to happy, entertained, fulfilled teens with bright futures to look forward to.

      However, just as in the first century, there are all kinds of teens and early twenty-somethings who would not describe themselves that way. For the sake of these, our churches need to deliver an uncompromising dose of the truth, with love and conviction.

      That's all we've really got to offer, right?