Note: This is the second of the three-part series Exodus from Orthodoxy. Click here for Part I. Click here to receive a free PDF copy of the complete report.
If you’ve ever listened to Pop Culture Coffee Hour, you know that Christian and I have learned a lot from the work of philosophers like Charles Taylor and James K.A. Smith.
Specifically, we’ve found their explanation of the nature of our “secular age” to be incredibly enlightening, and it’s had a lot of influence on our ministry work.
(If you’d like a crash course on what they’ve written, check out this video.)
The analysis of thinkers like Taylor and Smith, and our own conversations with thousands of people across the Church, have led us to focus on three big challenges that young people face today.
These are three challenges that complicate life and, when left unchecked, can lead people further away from the Church.
Doubt has become a staple of the modern religious experience. Trapped as we are in what Taylor calls the “cross-pressure” between faith and doubt, all of us experience doubt in some form. People who try to identify as believers are tempted by unbelief, but it works the other way as well:
People who try to identify as non-believers are tempted by belief.
I’ve spoken before about my struggles with doubt, and I’ve yet to meet a Christian who hasn’t had their own version of this story. What’s more, I’d be lying if I said that my doubts live firmly in the past; rather, doubt is perennially present.
And not just for me or for other believers, but even for those who don’t believe: the difference is that they doubt their unbelief.
Consider Apple co-founder Steve Jobs who, despite not believing in God or the afterlife, was especially tempted by belief in the divine in the final months of his life. Or consider the opening line of Julian Barnes’ novel Nothing to Be Frightened Of: “I don't believe in God, but I miss Him.”
To quote James K.A. Smith, “The doubter’s doubt is belief.”
We all live in the cross-pressure between faith and doubt.
Of course, as a ministry worker who’s trying to help young people know Christ, I’m primarily concerned about the doubt that leads people away from belief.
These kinds of doubts have deep roots in contemporary culture. For a variety of reasons (which we briefly summarize here), we live in a world where people rely on the power of science and technology, rather than God, to make the world whole.
We are firmly grounded in a world that makes sense in purely physical and non-spiritual terms.
In our contemporary age, for example, it is no longer God who heals the sick; it is medicine. The sun is no longer a god that gives life to the world; it is a ball of gas burning millions of miles away.
Because, in short, the world has become flat and purely material; merely immanent, with no room for spiritual realities or God’s Providence. The presence of the divine is no longer assumed to be a basic fact about the cosmos, but is an idea relegated to temples and cathedrals where the devout can pay homage to spirits in the privacy of their own minds.
We’ve reached a point where God, in a sense, is no longer loose in the world. He is just an idea that has been flattened along with everything else.
With this flattening of the world, creation has become unhinged from the Creator; the cosmos which He made and ordered is no longer based in supernatural realities, but rather it has become a merely natural universe which makes perfect sense without God.
So why does this matter for the Church?
Because I can’t help but wonder if our ministry work makes perfect sense without God, too.
And I can’t help but wonder whether our ministry work is unintentionally feeding the doubt that leads people away from Christ because we, too, have bought into the myth of a flattened universe where God is, at best, a good idea.
Rather than seeing the Church as the real yet mystical presence of Christ’s own Body on earth, I can’t help but wonder whether our ministry is “institutionalizing” young people, teaching them that the Church is a mere human organization that leads programs and activities that make perfect sense without God.
To the extent that God fits in with our model of ministry, I can’t help but wonder if we see Him more as an idea we need to agree with rather than a person we need to encounter.
I wonder if we have flattened what the Church actually is.
I can’t help but wonder whether young people find it so easy to fall away from the Church because we’ve made the lived experience of Christianity flat and empty, a collection of activities and programs that don’t ever lead to an encounter with the living God, a God who would surprise us with His presence and shatter the possibility of the empty, purely physical universe that we all (including those of us who lead ministry) take for granted.
Doubt, riding on the coattails of immanence, has become a staple of the modern religious experience, something that we in the Church unintentionally fuel. We have cut ourselves off from Christ’s Body and therefore from one another as members of His Body, and all this makes for a very cold, isolated, and lonely existence.
But this isolation isn’t just in our heads, the intellectual byproduct of an amorphous (and uncertain) religious landscape. It’s a very real thing that affects our sense of self and community.
The health insurer Cigna recently conducted a study of 200,000 adults which revealed that loneliness is far more than a problem; it’s an epidemic.
Here’s some of what they found:
• 46% of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.
• 43% of Americans say they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
• 20% report that they rarely or never feel close to people.
• Only 18% say they feel like they have people in their lives they can talk to.
• 53% of Americans report having meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis (things like having an extended conversation with a friend, spending quality time with family, etc.).
Perhaps most surprising for our purposes, the study found that Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) are the loneliest generation of all.
Because so much of what we call “ministry” centers on programs and activities, and people defend this ministry model by arguing that it at least brings people together in the Church.
But I can’t help but wonder whether it isn’t a real coming together; that this isn’t real Christian fellowship, where two or more are gathered in the Lord’s name.
I can’t help but wonder whether our ministry programs and events are doing a far better job of helping people pass the time than make the most of the time: offering diversions and entertainment rather than facilitating honest and vulnerable encounters with God first (and with one another second).
I can’t help but wonder whether this is why so many coffee hours are so full of small talk and so empty of genuine communion, which is why so many young adults report feeling so alone in even the most crowded social hall.
Loneliness has become a chronic modern problem, something that is exacerbated by the way we do ministry. And the more young people feel adrift and on their own, the more they feel uncertain about what their lives are actually for.
In my experience, one of the biggest challenge that young people face is a deep uncertainty about their lives.
I don’t mean this in the big-picture sense of doubt or cosmic questions about whether or not God is real.
I mean something far more down-to-earth.
Very real questions like “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my lifetime for?” bubble to the surface when all divine presence is pushed aside or dismissed altogether. When we forget the God in whose image we are created, we forget ourselves, resulting in deep existential uncertainty.
This uncertainty can manifest in relatively small ways, where a young person doesn’t quite know how (or why) to fast or pray. And it can manifest in larger ways, where a young person doesn’t know what to look for in a potential spouse or what kind of career (much less a vocation) to pursue.
Because many ministry activities are great at enticing young people to show up, and people defend this model by arguing that our primary goal should be to keep kids “in Church,” even if that means prioritizing cultural and athletic activities over “spiritual” pursuits.
But I can’t help but wonder whether our ministry efforts are designed for young people to remain passive recipients of “ministry” rather than become active participants in the life of the Church. As we’ve already noted above, these activities make people more a part of a “group” than members of Christ’s very Body.
I can’t help but wonder whether this is why Christianity is becoming more an abstract thing we believe and less a concrete way of life.
Perhaps this is why it’s easier to identify as Christians because of our religious upbringing, rather than actually be Christians through engaging an ancient set of practices that bring us into deeper and truer communion with the living God.
I can’t help but wonder whether the less we emphasize lived and embodied practices, the more young people’s lives and hearts are open to the formative practices that lead them further away from Christ and His Church.
What exactly are these practices?
We’ll explore them in Part III (available in the full PDF report).
• We can't minister to people in our "secular age" unless we first understand the major challenge people face today
• In our “secular age," the key challenges that people face (especially young people) are those of doubt, loneliness, and uncertainty
• Our ministry work may actually be feeding the doubts the lead people away from Christ and his Church
• Our ministry work may actually be feeding the loneliness that leads people away from each other in the Church
• Our ministry work may actually be feeding the uncertainty that leaves people unprepeares to live as Christians in the world
Note: This is the second of the three-part series Exodus from Orthodoxy. Click here to receive a free PDF copy of the complete report.
Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry.