Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Young People Leave the Church



There wasn't a lot of space in the dorm rooms, but five of us had squeezed in, literally draping ourselves over the chairs and across the bed for our break between classes. Textbooks and binders lay scattered haphazardly across the floor. The next class was Greek, and while we all loved our Prof, Brother James, it was spectacularly boring. However, it was something we all had to do to become pastors, so we sucked it up and did what we were taught. During the week, we sang hymns at the beginning of class, went to the optional Monday night worship services, and attended chapel six times. As was often the case, the conversation in the rooms was more interesting than our classes.


"Did you see Heidi today? Man, she looked hot in that skirt."


"She's dating Phil."


"I like in her in those pants, you know, those tight green ones. She's got a great-"


"She is not as hot as Vanessa."


"I heard Vanessa was sleeping with Phil."


A burst of laughter circled the room.


"Phil? Phil's a loser!"


We chatted for a while, until it was time, and with a collective groan picked up our books and headed to class. Walking through the hallway, I felt a surge of solidarity with my classmates. It was nice to be a young male and talk about guy stuff without someone looking over your shoulder and telling you that this was inappropriate and that was inappropriate. Some of the students at Eastern were like that, but we didn't hang around them much. We called those guys the Righteous Brothers. They used the word "Jesus" like my high school football teammates dropped the f-bomb, and they were always saying "praise the Lord."


"How are you doing today?" "Just fine, praise the Lord."


"I'm sorry, I heard about your mother." "She's in heaven, praise the Lord."


"How's it going with that essay?" "Jesus has given me words, praise the Lord."


It was pretty hard to have a conversation with someone who insisted on talking like that, so I left the Righteous Brothers alone, and found a few guys, like me, who just wanted to be regular pastors. Even then, it was pretty exhausting. Most of us were already working in churches in some capacity, and we'd learned the boundaries. Every word and comment to the congregation was filtered through a system of common acceptance. For example, you could say that you struggled with lust, but you couldn't define what that struggle was exactly. You could make jokes about sex, but they had to be shaded so little kids wouldn't understand them and placed within the context of marriage, at which point everyone acted like sex was the greatest thing on earth. Still, if you did joke about sex, the next comment needed to be something serious about missions or people converting or something you discovered in your devotions. You were expected to live a "holy life", just a bit holier than the congregants. That made sense to me, though. If I couldn't live a certain way, I couldn't exactly ask the people I was shepherding to do it.


Rhetoric was encouraged as well. Statements like, "you are the only Jesus some people will ever see", or, "God hates sin but loves the sinner". These phrases were often met with reverence and awe, but even I didn't understand them. Or how to apply them. (If God loves the sinner, shouldn't we have more sinners in church? And am I still a sinner, or am I a different kind of sinner? If I'm the only Jesus some people will see, does that mean God screwed up if they don't see in me what they needed? Does that mean God loves certain people less by giving them a poor example to hear the gospel from?) Mostly we learned to toe the party line. And if you didn't, you were put in your place pretty quickly. Fortunately, I was fine with the rules. The church had given me this exciting mission, had told me how important I was, and I was willing to go through a brick wall to make sure we got it right. There were still moments though; twinges when I'd notice an "unbeliever" downtown and my conversation would change. No talk of sex or women or beer, only the difference Jesus could make in one's life. That seemed right, on the surface at least, because he'd changed my life, hadn't he? It wasn't those times in the dorm rooms that eventually caught up to me, it was the ones with my congregants, the ones with my youth, where I knew I couldn't give them the truth because it wasn't allowed. Where I felt like I'd suddenly joined a political party. That was the reason I left. Unfortunately, it's the reason why so many leave, especially young people.


***




The auditorium was packed. We knew that today was a special chapel service. The senior pastor of the biggest church in the city would be giving a talk, a popular one he'd given before, on alcohol. As Pentecostal Bible College students, we'd all signed forms upon our acceptance that we would not partake of any alcohol, tobacco or unmarried sex, among other things. We'd read the books and heard the lectures, everything from David Wilkerson's "Sipping Saints" to various treatises on holiness. Today, Reverend Patrick would break it down for us theologically why alcohol was wrong. Something we would be able to teach our congregations and youth groups and those we would witness to outside the church.


The students became quiet as we prayed and Pastor Frank stepped up to the podium.


"Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did he turn it into alcoholic wine?" He asked. Pastor Frank was tall and bearded, an ex-cop who'd made the transition into a mega-church pastor. I'd been to his church a few times, and wasn't a huge fan, but he seemed like a nice enough man. Only now I puzzled over the question. Was there another type of wine other than that with alcohol? Did he mean the non-alcoholic stuff we saw in Loblaws?


"In the book 'Bible Wines,' the author, William Patton, discusses four methods that the ancients used for the preservation of grape juice." Pastor Frank said. He told us it was common for people in the first Century to drink grape juice, and that even without refrigeration, you could prevent the drags from fermenting by storing the juice in extreme heat. Judea was a very hot, tropical like climate, he said, and the people often stored a thick concentrate only to add water to it later, like they did now when you bought the concentrate in the stores. The real miracle of Cana, Pastor Frank told us, was that Jesus surpassed or transcended the normal amount of time and the natural process that it takes to produce and harvest grape juice. That, which normally takes months, took Jesus but a moment.


I nodded my head, trying to absorb this new information. It sounded right. Especially when he moved on to the important reasons why there was no possible way Jesus could have turned the water into alcoholic wine.


"Think about it this way. The argument for drinking alcoholic wine goes like this: 'Since Jesus produced alcoholic wine, it is morally right for a person to drink it.' However, notice that their logic takes them further than most of them want to go. Since Jesus produced alcoholic wine (as they claim), then not only would it be morally right to drink it, it would be morally right to produce it, sell it, distribute it, and make a living from it. But since that would most certainly cause someone to stumble, then it must be morally right to cause someone to stumble. However, the logical consequence of their argument would oppose the Lord's teaching, as we find in Luke 17:1-2. No, the reasoning is a foolish argument that has no foundation in scripture."


I'd long since pulled out my notebook and was scrambling furiously to write it all down. This was such good stuff! I finally could give an answer to people about why we didn't drink, and why they needed to make the same commitment. Pastor Frank went on for about forty minutes. He reminded us that God was holy and perfect, and that if Jesus was God, than he could not have produced something so destructive. He reminded us that the Greek word for "wine," implied both alcoholic wine and non-alcoholic wine. (I made a mental note to pay more attention in Greek class.) And then quoted liberally from the Old Testament about the destructive nature of wine. (Absently, I wondered if the Hebrew word for wine also included non-alcoholic wine. I'd have to ask that question later.)


When he'd finished, he got a long round of applause from the student body. I stood, with everyone else, as we clapped our appreciation for all this new information. I was so excited! Finally, I could answer those people who insisted that Jesus had turned the water into wine. I had an answer for them when they told me that even in the passage it stated that usually the best wine was served first – the guests would be too drunk to notice the difference later. The fools, I thought, anything to justify their sinful lifestyle. Wait until they get a load of this!


***




The heat hit me like a hammer as I stepped outside the hospital. The sun was low on the horizon, but the humidity made it feel like a tropical swamp and I flicked my shirt in an effort to cool as I moved to a bench near the entrance. We'd been at the hospital all day. Bethany had not been feeling well, and after eight hours – most of which was spent waiting – we'd learned that she had a bad case of the flu and a minor infection. Both relieved and tired, I sat on the bench and tried to relax. Nearby, a heavy set woman with pale legs and coarse face was lighting a cigarette. Not far from her was a young woman in a tight skirt talking excitedly on her cell. The hospital was never a fun place to spend a great deal of time. Too much sadness. A bit earlier in the day a group of native women had broken out in tears and sobbing behind us in the waiting room when their pastor had informed them of a death in the family. I sighed and sipped the remains of my coffee. In front of me, a man with a long blonde pony tail and light beard walked by. He was wearing a hospital gown and sandals. Jesus in the hands of modern film makers, I thought.


Of course, we all modernized Jesus. Most guilty of it seemed those of us who insisted that we did nothing of the sort. They insisted that we had the original Jesus, that they had all the answers, that the Bible, specifically the New Testament, was not only both the first and last to that equation, but that their interpretation was also correct. It was a lot to assume, and to my eyes, particularly arrogant. I smiled and sipped my coffee. Religion had a funny way of doing that. Sixteen years earlier I would have told you why it was wrong to drink. A year ago I would have defended my position on alcohol. That there was nothing wrong with drinking wine. I would have mentioned that the arguments against 'alcoholic wine' were silly, that no historical records showed anything other than fermented wine, although they did comment on watering it down. I would have gone out of my way to mention that most of these arguments against Jesus turning water into wine referenced an uneducated preacher who wrote a book nearly a hundred and twenty years ago with no historical basis. The people who railed against drinking wine in the church had a sphere of influence, but by and large they were uneducated men. (I offer this paragraph, by Bruce Lackey, a Tennessee preacher who taught this notion that Jesus turned water into grape juice, as an example. When confronted by the Scripture regarding Paul's instruction to take a bit of wine for the stomach when not feeling well, Lackey responded this way: "We do not know what Timothy's specific infirmities were, nor do we know what kind of healing properties there were in grape juice. Maybe Paul was saying that Timothy should not drink the water, since in many parts of the world it is not pure and would cause a healthy person to have trouble from amoebas, etc. One who already had stomach problems would only multiply them by drinking impure water. Paul might have been recommending that Timothy drink grape juice only. In any case, we can be positive that he was not telling him to put alcohol in a bad stomach!")


I could only shake my head at Lackey's "amoebas in the stomach", a statement which would cause much laughter amongst a gathering of first year university science students. What I knew, having spent over fifteen years working with young people, was this: so long as the church, particularly the evangelicals, condoned intellectual dishonesty, young people interested in the truth were going to walk away. For them, as with many of us, it was better to be absent from truth than involved with a lie. At some point, the church needed to stop supplying wrong answers and start asking the right questions. I knew this because I was guilty of it, and as I sipped my coffee, I asked God to forgive me my arrogance.


***




I won't lie. It was absurd to me this notion that a Jewish Rabbi in the first century would turn water into grape juice, but what I realized was that I was still arguing for a Jewish Rabbi for turning water into wine. In other words, I was arguing for the likely preposterousness over the ridiculous preposterousness. I was, in fact, guilty of the silliest of all charges and the reason why faith in God seemed so ridiculous to many people. I was willing to fight with a fundamentalist about Jesus turning water into wine, and arguing for the specifics of the wine. Why not argue the vintage and year? I took another sip of my coffee and watched the sun as it slowly dipped behind the buildings. If only I was so arduous in my pursuit of God's love. If only I was so willing to make the sacrifice of my time when it really mattered, and worry less about the perfect proportions of my religion.


Young people are less worried about doctrine than they are lifestyle. Not piety, but sincerity. They judge us by our patience and love and self-control. This is what they see and mark, and what often makes them better judges than fully realized adults. It is one reason that I have always loved them and appreciated them


I moved from the bench and headed back inside. Recently I looked online, and amazingly, the water into wine argument persisted. When I was young, I would have snarled and defended my non-alcoholic stance. A few years ago, I would have scoffed and laughed at the idea that Jesus turned water into grape juice. Now, the entire debate saddens me. It saddens me that we waste the time and space on such silliness. Thankfully, there are examples in Scripture that people haven't changed, that even in the time of Jesus people worried about silly things. In Corinth, some Christians thought it okay to sleep with their in-laws. In Jerusalem, they worried about their diet. None of this is new or unusual, and so much as it is a very human thing to make big the pillars of unimportance in our lives, our faith can survive human frailty. That said, I still hold out hope that we can see beyond our humanity. Not always or even consistently, but on those rare occasions, when we realize that the thing we believe does not affect who we are or what we love, that we can find in ourselves the spark of God's nobility and love, and act in the manner for which we were designed, with or without wine.


-Steve